There are all sorts of misconceptions about law enforcement officers, and one of the most common is the idea that all officials do the same basic thing. However, the reality is that their uniform is not the only difference between cops, sheriffs, state troopers, and other types of law enforcement. Understanding what these different branches do can help people have more positive and efficient interactions with their law enforcement officers.
Called a police officer, a patrol officer, or just a cop, this is the most general level of law enforcement. Some police officers are part of special units, like SWAT teams or canine corps. They perform a variety of tasks, including arresting criminals, handling traffic, investigating crimes, and enforcing motor vehicle laws. Most police officers will work specifically within the jurisdiction of a city, though some may be hired by a college, state, or other organization to cover an area that is not within city limits.
What most people call a sheriff is actually more formally titled a sheriff’s deputy. These are patrol officers that have the entire county as their jurisdiction and perform much of the same tasks as city police officers. They work under a sheriff, which is an elected position responsible for managing various duties in the county. Unlike regular police officers, a sheriff and their deputies may have responsibilities like serving papers, running a county jail, or providing security for the county courtroom. Since being a sheriff or sheriff’s deputy is a more specialized job, the exact duties they have will vary from state to state and county to county.
State troopers are law enforcement that works for the entire state. Like other law enforcement officers, they can stop crimes, protect people, and make arrests. Most state troopers’ main job will be to provide highway patrol, so they can enforce traffic laws as roads move throughout multiple cities and counties. Due to their larger jurisdiction, they can also be called in to handle crimes that take place in multiple locations throughout the state. Due to their wide range of duties, troopers often make more than police officers and occasionally have a higher salary than sheriff’s deputies.