Do Police Officers Need to Know All the Laws? 

Laws are created for a number of different reasons. Some laws are written to protect us from harming ourselves, like the Click-it or Ticket seat belt law. Most laws have been established to deter citizens from harming one another and to protect us from being harmed by other people, businesses, and government. 

Do police officers need to know all the laws? Not even the best lawyer is expected to know all the laws. The sheer volume of statutes and case law fills libraries. When it comes to police officers, their focus is on criminal law, the smallest fraction of the entire realm of law. In general, the job of a police officer is to know which laws they are in charge of enforcing and enforce them accordingly. 

The complexity of civilization requires rules of engagement and those rules are what lead to the development of law. Once a society creates law there must be an agreement as to who enforces them and how those laws are enforced. Without enforcers, there isn’t much point in creating the laws.   

Definition of Law Enforcement 

The system collectively known as law enforcement requires a level of trust that is both vital and fragile. It entrusts a small group of people to

Do Police Officers Need to Know All the Laws? 

police the actions and activities of an entire community. It relies on that group of enforcers to be trustworthy and unbiased with regard to how those community members are treated. 

The development of trust between the law enforcement system and the society it governs is essential to maintaining order. If people are certain the system is looking out for them, they are more apt to comply with the established law and those who enforce it. In turn, the law enforcement system is assured that the majority of the population is happily compliant. This mutual trust leads the way to a positive relationship between the members of the community and those select members empowered with authority. 

When Citizens Don’t Trust the System 

America’s history is plagued with incidents of civil unrest that sparked from mistrust of the law enforcement system by the citizens under its reign.  

  • Watts Riots – August 11-16, 1965 
  • Location: Los Angeles, CA 
  • Cause: Traffic stop escalates after a mother arrives on the scene to scold her son for drunk driving. A scuffle ensued between the police, the mother, and the son. Word reaches the community that the police roughed up the boy and had kicked a pregnant woman. 
  • Underlying causes:  
  • Long-standing racial tension between the law enforcement system and the community 
  • Poverty, unemployment, and a sense of hopelessness that leads to a feeling of isolation from American society 
  • Results of the 6-day riot:  
  • Mobilization of 16,000 law enforcement officers 
  • Deployment of approximately 4,000 California National Guard 
  • Between 31,000-35,000 active rioters and about 70,000 sympathizers 
  • Threats of deadly force by responding officers 
  • 34 fatalities 
  • 1,032 injuries 
  • 3,438 arrests 
  • Over $40 million in property damage 


  • 1992 Los Angeles Riots – April 29-May 3, 1992 
  • Location: South Central Los Angeles 
  • Cause: The acquittal of four Los Angeles Police Department officers charged with the use of excessive force during the arrest of Rodney King who had been fleeing the police at speeds in excess of 110 miles per hour.  
  • Underlying causes:  
  • The people of South Central lost complete faith in the system when the American judicial system failed them.  
  • Video evidence seen around the nation clearly shows the extreme brutality the police used during the encounter (struck with a baton 56 times) 
  • The extensively long history of racial inequality of the area and building tension between police and the people 
  • Results: 
  • Deployment of 10,000 California National Guard 
  • The assistance of 1,700 federal law enforcement officers trained in riot control 
  • Reinforcements of 3,500 federal troops, including 1,500 Marines 
  • 63 deaths 
  • 2,383 injuries 
  • 12,000 arrests 
  • More than $1 billion in property damage  


  • Ferguson Unrest – August 9-25, 2014 and November 24- December 2, 2014 
  • Location: Ferguson, Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis) 
  • Causes: A police officer fatally shoots an 18-year old during an encounter while responding to a robbery call. The protests and rioting reignite in November when the Grand Jury selected not to indict the officer in the shooting death of the teen. 
  • Underlying Causes:  
  • History of racial tensions between the law enforcement system and the people of the St. Louis area 
  • False claims by eyewitnesses who were later determined to have not even been at the scene 
  • General mistrust of the police force by African-American citizens 
  • Results: 
  • A militarized police force with the use of dogs, snipers, tactical vehicles, tear gas, and rubber bullets 
  • Over 50 law enforcement agencies involved 
  • Deployment of 2200 National Guard 
  • 1 death 
  • 16 injuries (10 citizens, 6 police officers) 
  • 321 arrests 
  • Approximately $5 million in property damage 

When the law enforcement system doesn’t trust its citizens 

What happened in Ferguson, Missouri garnered national attention because of the police choosing to engage with protestors in full riot gear to disperse otherwise peaceful crowds. The media focused on the violations of First Amendment rights as reporters and journalists were being arrested throughout the weeks of unrest. It sparked debates once again about the excessive use of force on black citizens by white police officers. 

However, the lesson everyone seems to have missed regarding what happened in Ferguson, Missouri is that this is what happens when the law enforcement system doesn’t trust the citizens under its watch. This doesn’t excuse the aggressive tactics used by officers during the protests (threats of arrest, tear gas, etc), but considering there was only one related death, fewer injuries, and a fraction of the arrests compared to those seen in the racially motivated riots of the past, one must consider the fact that the actions did have better results. 

While the majority of protestors were peacefully assembling, there were those few who engaged in aggressive actions against the police. Bottles were hurled and fires erupted from Molotov cocktails being thrown at officers. Some will say that this conduct was in response to the elevated militaristic stance the police had established. News reports described Ferguson as a warzone and it certainly looked like one on television. 

Some of the tactics police used during the Ferguson unrest was overtly threatening like using the scope of the sniper rifle to watch over the crowds. Other tactics like the use of rubber bullets prevented the need for real bullets to be fired. And quite possibly why there was only one fatality during the weeks of unrest and it was ruled a homicide. 

Human behavior can be predicted up to a point and when racial tension gets stirred into the mix things can turn volatile rather quickly. The police department of Ferguson, Missouri had an idea of how the citizens were likely to react to the news of the initial shooting based on similar events in America’s past. While they stepped over the line in how they handled some situations, the method of flexing all their muscle may have been what prevented more extensive property damage and loss of life like that seen during the riots in Los Angeles. 

Roles of Law Enforcement 

Law enforcement encompasses every aspect of societal law. The law enforcement system begins with the process of deterring rule violations.

Do Police Officers Need to Know All the Laws? 

Examples include security cameras that monitor customers in stores to prevent shoplifting, traffic cameras at intersections designed to thwart drivers from running red lights, and the presence of uniformed officers patrolling neighborhoods and streets. 

Discovery of rules being broken is the part of the law enforcement system that is the responsibility of law enforcement officers. These are the people who directly engage with the public. Their goals of dissuading and discovering criminal activity are achieved through physical presence, surveillance, and investigation. 

The court system is the component of the law enforcement system that rules on the guilt or innocence of the accused. Cases are heard, the evidence is presented and skilled lawyers battle it out to determine the truth and decide the fate of the defendant. The judge presides over the proceedings and juries listen closely in order to make a choice of which lawyer to believe based on the depositions they gave.  

Depending upon the outcome of the case, a defendant may find themselves in the final stages of the law enforcement system, corrections. The United States has 102 federal prisons, 1,719 state prisons, over 3,000 local jails, and countless numbers of detention facilities and psychiatric hospitals. Combined, these places house 2.3 million American people and ranking the United States with the highest percentage of the incarcerated population in the world. 

Law Enforcement vs Policing 

People tend to use the terms of law enforcement and policing conversely. Most discussions of the criminal justice system interchange the two erroneously. In fact, policing and law enforcement have significantly different meanings. 

The idea of law enforcement only looks at laws by the strictest of terms and in the adherence to what is written. In its basic form, law enforcement means enforcing the law as is stated regardless of the circumstances. There is no wavering or alternate interpretations of the meaning of the law when talking about law enforcement. 

Policing, on the other hand, is a method of crime-fighting and crime prevention that uses a holistic approach. It takes into account the circumstances of the situation in addition to the reason’s the problems exist. Policing is different than law enforcement in that those of authority work in cooperation with the citizens, businesses, and city leaders. Collaboration occurs between the police officers and those being policed in an effort to meet the needs of the community. 

Finding a balance between total authoritarian, letter of the law enforcement and chaos requires policing. The first step to a balance of policing requires citizens to take responsibility for their actions and play by the rules of society. Additionally, members of a community are expected to contribute to the system as a means of finding solutions to neighborhood problems.  

Likewise, those with the authority of law enforcement must provide a sense of security to the residents. They should assist the people in obtaining a sense of community and pride that is the American dream. Most importantly the system of law enforcement must build a rapport with the individuals on a level that shows genuineness, respect, and understanding. 

10 Types of Law Enforcement Officers 

The terms law enforcement and police officer bring to mind images of patrol cars with flashing red and blue lights. Those words evoke feelings of anxiety for some and sighs of relief for others. In the United States, there are 10 types of law enforcement officers with uniformed officers being the most familiar. 

Do cops have business cards? Read this to find out:

#1 Uniformed Officers   

These are the men and women who respond to emergency calls, patrol the streets, and help citizens in the community. They work in big cities and small towns. Becoming a uniformed officer requires attending Police Academy where cadets will learn things like: 

  • Criminal Law 
  • Patrol and Investigation Procedures 
  • Community Policing 
  • Firearms 
  • Defense Tactics 

They also take courses on first-aid and handling emotional situations. Education requirements to apply to a police department differ from state to state with some requiring college credit hours. Those states not listed below only require a high school diploma in addition to the completion of Police Academy training. 

State College Education Required 
Delaware 60 credits 
Florida 30 credits 
Georgia 90 quarter credits 
Idaho 2 years of college 
Illinois   Bachelor’s degree 
Indiana 60 credits 
Kentucky Associate’s degree or 60 credits 
Louisiana 60 credits 
Minnesota Associate’s degree 
Nevada Bachelor’s degree 
New Hampshire 60 credits 
New Jersey Bachelor’s degree 
New Mexico 60 credits 
New York 60 credits 
North Dakota Bachelor’s degree 
Oklahoma Associate’s degree 
Pennsylvania Associate’s degree of 60 credits 
Texas 60 credits 
Wisconsin Associate’s degree or 60 credits 

 # 2 Detectives 

These are the people working at active crime scenes directing the gathering evidence. They interview witnesses and suspects to try and piece together what happened. Detectives need to be extremely detail-oriented and meticulous when writing their reports. Every minute detail could be the key to solving the case so a keen eye is vital. Police detectives are promoted to the position after exemplary work as a uniformed officer. There may also be an exam required or additional schooling to become a detective. 

# 3 State Police and Highway Patrol 

This group of law enforcement officers patrols over our nation’s highways and rural communities. They assist local police departments in emergency situations or when cases stretch beyond local resources and jurisdiction. Becoming a state patrol officer is much the same as regular uniformed officers with the only difference being the agency applied to. 

#4 Fish and Game Wardens 

The law enforcement professionals whose job is to protect America’s wildlife work for state conservation departments and federal agencies. Fish and game wardens enforce the laws of hunting and fishing. They may be involved in search and rescue missions and investigations of accidents.  

The terrain covered by this department often requires boats and off-road vehicles. There is stiff competition for these coveted positions and many agencies require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in biology or conservation-related subject matter. 

#5 Transit and Railroad Officers 

While uniformed officers patrol the streets, transit, and railroad officers police and protect public transportation systems. Subways, commuter trains, and freight trains all fall under their jurisdiction. Transit and railroad officers work in rail yards and transportation stations. Tasks include prevention of: 

  • Vandalism 
  • Trespassing 
  • Theft 
  • Smuggling 
  • Crimes associated with mass transportation 

Training to be a transit and railroad officer is the same as uniformed officers although some locations may require additional specialized training. 

#6 Sheriffs 

This position is unique when compared to the others in the list in that most sheriffs are elected by the citizens of the community. The role of a sheriff is akin to the role of a city’s police chief. They handle the policing at the county level and oversee areas outside the jurisdiction of local police departments. Sheriffs begin their careers as uniformed officers and sheriff’s deputies. 

#7 Special Jurisdiction Officers 

These uniformed officers work in public schools, colleges, and universities. They are responsible for policing public venues like airports, hospitals, and government buildings. This branch of law enforcement offers the same level of service to its jurisdiction as local police do to their communities. 

#8 Air Marshals 

Like officers on the streets and agents on trains, federal air marshals protect passengers and crew while traveling through the air. All forms of aviation, especially commercial flights, fall under the watchful eye of air marshals. Their job is to defend against hostile passengers and terrorist acts while aboard airplanes and other flying craft. 

Education requirements for becoming an air marshal include 14-weeks of training by the federal government. In addition, a minimum of a bachelor’s is required in one of the following fields: 

  • Criminal Justice 
  • Homeland Security 
  • Criminology 
  • Sociology 

#9 Border Patrol Agents 

Nearly 4,000 miles on the north and close to 2,000 miles on the south, the United States has an extensive stretch of borders. Add in the

Do Police Officers Need to Know All the Laws? 

coastlines of the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico, and the number of square footage in need of protection grows profoundly. Border Patrol agents have the responsibility of protecting the country from dangerous people trying to enter illegally. 

This group of law enforcement agents is responsible for patrolling rural areas along the boundaries of Canada and Mexico. Some agents work aboard boats patrolling the waters of the nation’s coastlines. Border Patrol officers watch for illegal activities like smuggling and trafficking. They manage the process of screening people at customs checkpoints along the borders of Canada and Mexico and in international airports around the country. 

Working for Customs and Border Patrol agencies can offer specialized work such as horse patrol, bike patrol, and emergency medical services. Becoming a Border Patrol agent requires both law enforcement experience as well as college courses in the field of criminal justice. 

#10 Crime Scene Investigator 

Also known as forensic scientists or forensic technicians, these are the people combing the crime scene for evidence. They use the technologies of science to study the clues found during the investigation. Their job involves collecting and documenting vital crime scene information obtained from the evidence. Crime scene investigators may be tasked with performing laboratory testing and analysis. Some are asked to testify as expert witnesses in court where they explain complex subject matter in easy to understand terminology. Becoming a crime scene investigator requires a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or fields like forensic science and biology. 

Related Questions

What do police officers have to learn? 

In order to graduate from a basic recruit training program or police academy depending on the state, individuals will learn essential laws related to law enforcement. Course work includes topics on patroling, criminal justice tactics and weapons, traffic stops, and traffic codes related to them, as well as classes on emergency response and criminal law. Prerequisites for police training programs vary by state as does the amount of time required to complete the program. 

Who polices the police? 

Internal Affairs is the division of a law enforcement agency charged with investigating law enforcement officers accused of crimes or misconduct. Under the United State’s Department of Justice in the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). This office oversees the standards and guidelines for internal affairs.  

Do all of the different states in the United States follow the same traffic rules? 

Each state has its own traffic code developed from the universal standards that the United States created after participating in the 1949 Convention sur la circulation routière in Genève. This uniformity of rules from state to state lends well to the cooperation between states to grant the same privileges and penalties to out of state drivers as they do in-state drivers. 

Related Articles

Make-up and Long Hair in the Fire Service

To learn how to best prepare and study for your police exam click here.

Interested to learn more about the civil service? Check out our free guide here: 

Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.