Orderly Conduct: The Roles of Various Police Organizations

By C. J. Oakes

The informal roots of policing in America began with the Boston Watch in 1635.

The formal roots of police in American criminal justice however began in the early 1800’s as cities in the nation adopted the principles and concepts developed in England by Sir Robert Peel in 1829 (Walker-Katz, 2008).  In modern times, policing has grown such that branches appear at times as disordered as a tree.  However, a close look at the various police organizations reveals that just as with a tree, there is order amid the chaos.

Local Police Organization

Local police departments are the simplest police organizations to examine because the jurisdictions are relatively small and so the needs of the community are simpler. Of course, the organizational complexity between cities will differ because of the size of the police organization, but in general, the structures are similar. To illustrate the general organization of many city police organizations, examine the structure of the Town of Vestal, in New York state. Vestal is not a large city, yet the organizations structure will be similar to that of a larger community.  At the top of the organizational structure is the Chief of Police.  However, in some communities, there is instead a Police Commissioner as well as a Chief, with the Commissioner being a political post which outranks the Chief, which is a hired position (Walker-Katz, 2008).  However, Vestal has a simple structure with a Chief being the person in charge (Town of Vestal, 2013).

Vestal further divides duties between three simple departments.  Patrol, staff, and detectives are the three divisions.  Patrol includes the patrol officers and leadership, the DARE officer, dispatchers, clerks, and a matron.  The staff division is in charge of personnel and hiring.  The detective division has the detectives, a juvenile officer, and school resource officer (Town of Vestal, 2013). Vestal illustrates the simple breakdown of most local police departments because although larger forces may have many additional duties, these can all be segmented according to the three divisions used by Vestal.  However, some larger local police organizations, such as the LAPD, may more closely resemble state organizations because of the larger scope of their operations.

State Police Organization

State police organizations handle far more duties than local.  As the example of the Virginia State Police illustrates, the same basic structure exists as with local, but with a few additional features.  For instance, at the top is the Superintendent, which correlates to the Chief.

Three basic departments include the Bureau of Criminal Investigation which is similar to the detective division in Vestal; the Bureau of Field Operations, which is similar to patrol in Vestal; and the Bureau of Administrative and Support Services, or personnel and hiring (Virginia State Police, 2013). However, these three divisions do not directly answer to the superintendent, but rather the deputy superintendent.  Besides being in charge over the entire organization, the superintendent also has a public relations officer, an officer of performance management, planning and research, and an internal audit department.

These departments are necessary to maintain order and ensure quality outcomes of the mission of the state police.  The deputy superintendent, in addition to being the first line supervisor of the three basic divisions, also oversees an executive protection unit, and the professional standards unit, which is composed of Internal Affairs and staff inspections (Virginia State Police, 2013). These additional departments within the organization are necessary because of the size and scope of the work.

For instance, in the small town of Vestal, if an officer is involved in some sort of issue which will reflect poorly on the department or negatively impact their mission, the Chief can directly handle the matter for he only has oversight of 43 individuals.  In such a small department, problems can he handled and mitigated quickly and more efficiently than in a large-scale organization. In the case of the state of Virginia, the Superintendent has oversight over thousands of personnel scattered over hundreds of square miles.  Thus, a division of duties is necessary along with appropriate divisions to deal with issues as they arise (State of Virginia, 2013; Town of Vestal, 2013).

It stands to reason then, that an organization with oversight over a much larger population, area, and additional personnel would need additional divisions to succeed in their mission.

Federal Police Organization

The single largest police organization in the nation is the Department of Justice.  The head of the Department of Justice is the Attorney General of the United States.  Below this position is the Deputy Attorney General.  It should be noted at this point that whereas the heads over city and state police organizations are usually long-term police professionals, the head over this federal force is not.  The head over the federal police organization is generally a career attorney or judge (DOJ, 2013).

This may seem odd until one considers the role this organization fills. Looking at the organizational chart for the Department of Justice reveals that although some of the departments are very similar in structure to both the local and state levels, many are very different. For instance, there are various field divisions such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Prison System, and the United States Marshals Service to name a few.

There are also administrative and human resources divisions.  Finally, there are also investigative divisions such as the Office of the Inspector General, United States Parole Commission, and the Office of Professional Responsibility.  However, because this particular police organization holds oversight over all federal police operations in the nation, there is a strong need to ensure civil rights are upheld, issues pertaining to relations with foreign entities are handled appropriately, and issues of a fiscal nature are dealt with.  Thus, within the Justice Department can be found the Antitrust Division, Tax Division, and Community Relations Service (DOJ, 2013). Thus it can be seen that the larger the region of oversight and the more personnel required to provide police services, that is, the larger the population served, the larger the organization must be.

Similarities Among Police Organizations

As previously mentioned, most police organizations have the basic structure of field operations, investigative divisions, and administrative sections.  There is a single person in charge, though the larger the organization, the less that person is directly involved with personnel, for the duties are divided among additional heads of departments, which answer to the chief.

Differences Among Police Organizations

Differences only exist as the size of the organization increases.  The size only increases along with the population or the area to be policed.  As police organizations must deal with larger populations, more personnel are required and this creates a need for additional divisions for the job eventually becomes too large for a single person to govern alone.  At the same time, as the jurisdictional area covered by the organization grows, a need to have additional departments to assist the chief increases as well.  Thus, the only real differences among police organizations stem from necessity to handle the workload.

Leadership in Police Organizations

Leadership in police organizations has not changed radically since Sir Robert Peel introduced the concept of police to Parliament and the English world in 1829.  His concept was for a quasi-military organizational structure.  Although Peel did not want all the concepts of the military implemented, for the people were at that time very much opposed to military forces policing them, he did want the disciplinary structures (Lee, 1901). The concept stuck and today we can see the same disciplinary structures in place in all police organizational leadership, regardless of the size.

For instance, the Justice Department uses the leadership term General for many of the officers in charge of divisions, including the head of the Justice Department, namely, the Attorney General.  The highest officer in the military is a general.  Within state police organizations, such as seen from the Virginia State Police, there are Sergeants, Lieutenants, Colonels, and Captains.  Even in the smallest local police departments, such as Vestal, New York, there are five Sergeants and three Lieutenants.  The same is seen in any police organization.

Sir Robert Peel believed that such designations were important to maintaining order and a chain of command so that the organization, regardless of the size, would not turn into an unruly mob.


Sir Robert Peel believed that police organizations had to have the disciplinary and leadership structures of the military if these were to be efficient and effective.  Considering how these organizations have branched out so much from their original roots, yet have managed to continue to be reasonably successful in their missions to maintain public order, it is a testament to the truth behind this concept.  Although most police organizations are fairly similar in nature, some must maintain additional departments so be effective depending on size and scope of their jurisdiction. Were it not for this leadership concept, the quasi-military structure started by Sir Robert Peel, it is not likely that police organizations would be nearly as effective.

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DOJ. (2013) United States Department of Justice. Retrieved from: http://justice.gov

Lee, W. (1901). A History of Police in England. : .

Town of Vestal, NY. (2013). Vestal Police Organizational Chart. Retrieved from: http://vestalny.com

Virginia State Police. (2013). Virginia State Police Organizational Chart. Retrieved from: http://vsp.state.va.us

Walker-Katz, . (2008). The Police in America: An Introduction (6th ed.). : McGraw-Hill.

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