Law enforcement agency

A law enforcement agency (LEA), in North American English, is a government agency responsible for the enforcement of the laws.

Outside North America, such organizations are usually called police services. In North America, some of these services are called police, others are known as sheriff's offices/departments, while investigative police services in the United States are often called bureaus, for example the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Other terms defined in this article
local police
international law enforcement agency
multinational law enforcement agency
federal law enforcement agency
federal police
national law enforcement agency
national police
religious police
military police
civilian police
secret police


A police officer and a police car are traditional identifiers of a locally based law enforcement agency.

LEAs which have their ability to apply their powers restricted in some way are said to operate within a jurisdiction.

Non executive powers jurisdictional coverage of Europol

LEAs will have some form of geographic restriction on their ability to apply their powers. The LEA might be able to apply its powers within a country, for example the United States of America's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, within a division of a country, for example the Australian state Queensland Police, or across a collection of countries, for example international organizations such as Interpol, or the European Union's Europol.

LEAs which operate across a collection of countries tend to assist in law enforcement activities, rather than directly enforcing laws, by facilitating the sharing of information necessary for law enforcement between LEAs within those countries, for example Europol has no executive powers.[1]

Sometimes a LEA’s jurisdiction is determined by the complexity or seriousness of the non compliance with a law. Some countries determine the jurisdiction in these circumstances by means of policy and resource allocation between agencies, for example in Australia, the Australian Federal Police take on complex serious matters referred to it by an agency[2][3] and the agency will undertake its own investigations of less serious or complex matters by consensus, while other countries have laws which decide the jurisdiction, for example in the United States of America some matters are required by law to be referred to other agencies if they are of a certain level of seriousness or complexity, for example cross state boundary kidnapping in the United States is escalated to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.[4] Differentiation of jurisdiction based on the seriousness and complexity of the non compliance either by law or by policy and consensus can coexist in countries.

A LEA which has a wide range of powers but whose ability is restricted geographically, typically to an area which is only part of a country, is typically referred to as local police or territorial police. Other LEAs have a jurisdiction defined by the type of laws they enforce or assist in enforcing. For example, Interpol does not work with political, military, religious, or racial matters.[5]

A LEA’s jurisdiction usually also includes the governing bodies they support, and the LEA itself.

Organization and structure

Jurisdictionally, there can be an important difference between international LEAs and multinational LEAs, even though both are often referred to as "international", even in official documents. An international law enforcement agency has jurisdiction and or operates in multiple countries and across State borders, for example Interpol.

A multinational law enforcement agency will typically operate in only one country, or one division of a country, but is made up of personnel from several countries, for example the European Union Police Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina.[6][7] international LEAs are typically also multinational, for example Interpol,[8] but multinational LEAs are not typically international.

Within a country, the jurisdiction of law enforcement agencies can be organized and structured in a number of ways to provide law enforcement throughout the country. A law enforcement agency’s jurisdiction can be for the whole country or for a division or sub-division within the country.

Within divisions of a country

LEA jurisdiction for a division within a country can typically be at more than one level, for example at the division level, that is state, province, or territory level, and for example at the sub division level, that is county, shire, or municipality or metropolitan area level. In Australia for example, each state has its own LEAs. In the United States for example, typically each state and county or city has its own LEAs.

As a result, because both Australia and the United States are federations and have federal LEAs, Australia has two levels of law enforcement and the United States has multiple levels of law enforcement, Federal, Tribal, State, County, City, Town, Village, special Jurisdiction and others.

Division into operations areas

Often a LEA’s jurisdiction will be geographically divided into operations areas for administrative and logistical efficiency reasons. An operations area is often called a command[9] or an office.[10][11]

While the operations area of a LEA is sometimes referred to as a jurisdiction, any LEA operations area usually still has legal jurisdiction in all geographic areas the LEA operates, but by policy and consensus the operations area does not normally operate in other geographical operations areas of the LEA. For example, the United Kingdom’s Metropolitan Police is divided into 32 Borough Operational Command Units, based on the London boroughs,[9] and the New York City Police Department is divided into 77 precincts.[12]

Sometimes the one legal jurisdiction is covered by more than one LEA, again for administrative and logistical efficiency reasons, or arising from policy, or historical reasons. For example, the area of jurisdiction of English and Welsh law is covered by a number of LEAs called constabularies, each of which has legal jurisdiction over the whole area covered by English and Welsh law, but they do not normally operate out of their areas without formal liaison between them.[13][14]

The primary difference between separate agencies and operational areas within the one legal jurisdiction is the degree of flexibility to move resources between versus within agencies. When multiple LEAs cover the one legal jurisdicition, each agency still typically organises itself into operations areas.

In the United States within a state's legal jurisdiction, county and city police agencies do not have full legal jurisdictional flexibility throughout the state, and this has led in part to mergers of adjacent police agencies.[15]

Federal and national

When a LEA’s jurisdiction is for the whole country, it is usually one of two broad types, either federal or national.

Federal responsibilities

When the country has a federal constitution, a whole-of-country LEA is referred to as a federal law enforcement agency.

The responsibilities of a federal LEA vary from country to country. Federal LEA responsibilities are typically countering fraud against the federation, immigration and border control regarding people and goods, investigating currency counterfeiting, policing of airports and protection of designated national infrastructure, national security, and the protection of the country’s head of state and of other designated very important persons, for example the Protective Service of the Australian Federal Police,[16] or the Protective Mission of the United States Secret Service;[17] and the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service (DSS).

A federal police agency is a federal LEA which also has the typical police responsibilities of social order and public safety as well as federal law enforcement responsibilities. However, a federal police agency will not usually exercise its powers at a divisional level. Such exercising of powers is typically via specific arrangements between the federal and divisional governing bodies.

Examples of federal law enforcement agencies are the Australian Federal Police (Australia), Federal Police of Brazil (Brazil), Central Bureau of Investigation (India), Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Protective Service, United States Park Police (United States), Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Canada), and the State Security Service (Nigeria).

A federated approach to the organisation of a country does not necessarily indicate the nature of the organisation of law enforcement agencies within the country. Some countries, for example Austria and Belgium, have a relatively unified approach to law enforcement, but still have operationally separate units for federal law enforcement and divisional policing. The United States has a highly fractured approach to law enforcement agencies generally, and this is reflected in American federal law enforcement agencies.

Relationship between federal and federated divisions

In a federation, there will typically be separate LEAs with jurisdictions for each division within the federation. A federal LEA will have primary responsibility for laws which affect the federation as whole, and which have been enacted by the governing body of the federation.

Members of a federal LEA may be given jurisdiction within a division of a federation for laws enacted by the governing bodies of the divisions either by the relevant division within the federation, or by the federation's governing body. For example, the Australian Federal Police is a federal agency and has the legal power to enforce the laws enacted by any Australian state, but will generally only enforce state law if there is a federal aspect to investigate.[18]

Typically federal LEAs have relatively narrow police responsibilities, the individual divisions within the federation usually establish their own police agencies to enforce laws within the division. However, in some countries federal agencies have jurisdiction in divisions of the federation.

This typically happens when the division does not have its own independent status and is dependent on the federation. For example, the Australian Federal Police is the police agency with jurisdiction in Australia’s dependent territories, Jervis Bay Territory,[19] Cocos Islands,[20] Antarctic Territory, and Christmas Island[21] Similarly, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is a federal agency and is the sole police agency for Canada’s three territories, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon.[22]

Note that this is a direct jurisdictional responsibility and is different from the situation when a governing body makes arrangements with another governing body's LEA to provide law enforcement for its subjects. This latter type of arrangement is described under Establishment and constitution of law enforcement agencies.

Some federations escalate non compliance with laws with divisional or federal laws which involve multiple divisions within the federation to a federal LEA. The United States for example escalates kidnapping[4] to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In Australia, states liaise directly with each other when non compliance with laws crosses state boundaries. Some countries provide law enforcement on land and in buildings owned or controlled by the federation by using a federal LEA, for example the United States’s Department of Homeland Security[23] is responsible for some aspects of federal property law enforcement.

Other countries, for example Australia, provide law enforcement for federal property via federal LEAs[24] and the LEAs for the division of the federation in which the property is located.

Typically LEAs working in different jurisdictions which overlap in the type of law non compliance actively establish mechanisms for cooperation and even establish joint operations and joints task forces.[25][26][27][28] Often, members of a LEA working outside of their normal jurisdiction on joint operations or task force are sworn in as special members of the host jurisdiction.

National responsibilities

A national law enforcement agency is a LEA in a country which does not have divisions capable of making their own laws. A national LEA will have the combined responsibilities that federal LEAs and divisional LEAs would have in a federated country.

National LEAs are usually divided into operations areas.

A national police agency is a national LEA which also has the typical police responsibilities of social order and public safety as well as national law enforcement responsibilities. Examples of countries with national police agencies are Canada, New Zealand, Italy, France, Japan, Netherlands, Philippines and Nicaragua.

To help avoid confusion over jurisdictional responsibility, some federal LEAs explicitly advise that they are not a national law enforcement agency, for example the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation does this.[25]