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An overview of the federal police force

Federal law enforcement can be divided into eight primary divisions

FBI agents

Federal agents get ready to search the apartment of a terrorism suspect in Aurora, Colorado.

AP Photo/Ed Andrieski

By Police1 Staff

A federal police force is technically prohibited by the U.S. constitution, but instead we have what’s called federal law enforcement agencies. The reason for this is that the nation’s founders thought that the best way to maintain a democratic government was to leave law enforcement decentralized and in the hands of the individual states. That said, there is a need to have federally operated agencies to enforce various types of laws, so the distinction between federal police force and federal police agency is one primarily of semantics.

Federal law enforcement is divided into eight primary divisions or eight federal police force branches: the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE); Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF); Department of Homeland Security; U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); U.S. Secret Service; and the U.S. Marshall Service.

While they aren’t called branches of the federal police force, the reality of the situation is that some U.S. law enforcement is in the hands of the federal government. Here’s a synopsis of what these different agencies do:

1. Federal Bureau of Investigations

The FBI is one of the oldest of the federal law enforcement agencies. It’s a federal police force tasked with protecting the U.S. against terrorist threats and intelligence offenses. They also enforce federal criminal laws and step in to help in any situation that’s too large for a local law enforcement agency. An example of this would be serial killings that would normally be above the specialty of a local police force.

2. Central Intelligence Agency

The CIA is a highly secretive federal police force whose mission is to collect and evaluate foreign intelligence in an effort to protect the security of the United States. They may also be involved in covert activities in other countries at the discretion of the president of the U.S. They are highly involved in combating international terrorism and frequently work with other countries in that effort.

3. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

ICE is the second largest agency in the federal police force. They’re under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security and are in charge of enforcing laws involving border control, customs, trade and immigration. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, they’ve been heavily involved in monitoring U.S. borders for potential terrorist suspects. They’re the federal police force that enforces illegal immigration activities throughout the U.S. and investigates illegal drug importation.

[More: How to become a border patrol or ICE agent]

4. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives

The ATF is under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Justice. They investigate and enforce the illegal trafficking of firearms and explosives as well as the theft and the unlawful sale and distribution of alcohol and tobacco.

5. Department of Homeland Security

The Department of Homeland Security is the third largest cabinet department and was created after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001. It’s tasked with protecting the U.S. against terrorist attacks and responding to natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.

6. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

The DEA is responsible for enforcing laws relating to controlled substances like marijuana, cocaine and heroin. They work with other federal, state and municipal agencies, as well as with foreign governments to reduce the trafficking of illegal drugs.

7. U.S. Secret Service

The Secret Service’s primary function is to protect the President of the United States, but they also guard the President’s family, as well as the Vice-President and other high ranking government officials who might face security threats. This federal police force operates under the Department of Homeland Security and is also tasked with protecting against counterfeiting of U.S. currency and credit card fraud.

8. U.S. Marshall Service

The U.S. Marshall Service is the oldest federal police force in the country. They’re in charge of conducting the safe transfer of federal prisoners and protecting federal courts and judges. They also serve as covert law enforcement on U.S. air carriers.

This article, originally published August 2010, has been updated.


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