Police officer vs. Cop: What’s the difference?

“Police officer” and “cop” are synonymous with each other and are words for a law enforcement officer, though the term “cop” is more informal. Most people in law enforcement would rather be called a police officer than a cop.

A police officer and a cops are the same. “Cop” is a more informal way of referring to a police officer. In some instances, the term can be used to cast law enforcement in a negative light, so most officers prefer the term “policeman/woman” or “police officer.” There are many different jobs and departments within law enforcement. These include everything from the city level to the federal level. Police officers range from patrol officers and detectives to county sheriffs and state patrol.

Law enforcement agencies vary in the types of safety services they offer. A sheriff’s deputy will have a different jurisdiction and job description than a state patrol officer. This type of departmentalization provides order and organization and compartmentalizes the workload a police officer will run into daily. Each type of law enforcement agency and the department has many different responsibilities. They are most commonly broken into local, state, and federal jurisdictions. Read on to discover what the purviews are for anything from city police to the U.S. Marshal’s Service.


The word “cop” comes from the verb “to grab” or “obtain,” though many people believe it originated as an acronym from “Constable on Patrol. Whatever an officer of the law is called, this often-difficult job does sometimes “grab” perpetrators of crimes and bring them to justice. There are many different law enforcement jobs at all levels, from the sometimes smallest jurisdiction of town constables and city police officers to federal agencies such as the FBI. How these people keep the peace can be as varied as their names.

City Police Departments

Police officer vs. Cop: What's the difference?

The first city police department was established in America around 1791in Philadelphia. Since then, city police departments have grown in towns of every shape and size in the US. In cities and towns across America, police officers patrol and interact with the communities they are keeping safe. What types of police officer positions operate within the city limits? And can they operate outside the towns they’re sworn to protect?

  • Patrol Officer. These foundational members of any police department will often patrol beats or precincts, depending on the city’s size or town. Smaller towns that have only a few officers regard the entire municipal community as their patrol area. City police officers are spread out in precincts and smaller beats or regions within a precinct. This makes community policing that much more critical as officers develop relationships with the people on their beat, which then leads to trust. They also write citations, secure evidence, arrest suspects, initially respond to emergency and non-emergency calls.
  • Detectives. These are usually more experienced officers that investigate more high-priority crimes such as homicide or fraud. In larger cities, a detective might only investigate one type of crime. Most smaller towns might not even employ a detective due to lower crime rates, though one might be available at the county level.
  • University Police. Though technically not a part of a municipal police department, these officers keep law and order on university campuses. Their jurisdiction is limited to campuses, but they work closely with the city and county police agencies to keep students and staff safe.

County Positions

County law enforcement came about long before the United States was a country. The word “county” actually means “a region overseen by a count” and came from England. So, a sheriff was somebody overseeing the county’s laws. The first sheriff in the colonies was thought to be Captain William Stone in 1634. Since then, Sheriff and their deputies have evolved and changed with the times. Forty-eight states have counties in the United States governed by commissioners who are voted into office. Two states are different. Louisiana has parishes, and Alaska is broken into boroughs. Each operates differently, though their county law enforcement is similar.

  • Sheriff’s Deputies. The elected sheriff runs the Sheriff’s Departments in a county. These officers are called deputies and patrol entire counties. They may have officers working within investigative services that supporting smaller towns.  They offer various services to their communities, including outreach and enforcing traffic laws outside state highways and city limits. Sheriff’s deputies–and the sheriffs themselves–play a huge role in holding up the state and federal constitutions. Without them, a lot of laws and mandates couldn’t be upheld.
  • Constable Services. Some states have Constables that report to the county, and like the Sheriff, are voted into four-year terms by the people they serve. Mostly in Texas, but found in other counties, they are peace officers who serve as bailiffs, serve subpoenas, and issue traffic citations. Constables can also be found in smaller towns.
  • Animal Control. They report to the sheriff’s department but often operate independently from deputies. Some counties aren’t large enough to employ individual animal control officers, but many do.
  • County Jail Corrections Officers. These officers also report to the Sheriff’s department. They operate and manage offenders in the county jail.

State Departments

Police officer vs. Cop: What's the difference?

There are many types of law enforcement officers who report to the state. The most obvious is, of course, the state troopers. Many other officers of the state regulate the law in public, though. These positions can be as varied as the communities they help support. 

  • State Troopers. These officers do everything from patrol the state highways to protect the governor. They hold down many investigative and protective positions across all states in the union. From running their own investigations to supporting local agencies, state troopers can do it all.
  • Livestock Law Enforcement Agent. This job has been around in highly agriculturally centered states since about 1873. It is meant to mostly monitor brands and prevent livestock rustling or anything else related to animals and livestock management.
  • Correctional Officer. These officers report to the State Corrections Departments and monitor offenders in state, and sometimes Federal, prisons. 
  • State Fish and Game Wardens. These manage the state’s wildlife resources. They make sure citizens follow the laws regarding fishing and hunting on public and private lands.

Federal Agencies

These jobs are the ones usually highlighted in television procedurals. We see these officers helping state and local agencies solve the most significant crimes that cover multiple jurisdictions. Though this is true, they also have other daily duties they perform that aren’t as exaggerated on the screen.

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI does background checks, criminal investigations, white-collar crimes, police terrorism, cyber-crimes, and many more. They try to work in joint task forces with local and state agencies when the need arises. They work under Attorney General guidelines.
  • United States Marshal Service. The Marshal service operates as protection for federal courts, witness protection, prisoner transport, and apprehending federal fugitives as their primary jobs. 
  • Drug Enforcement Administration and Alcohol Tabaco and Firearms. DEA agents are the ones who enforce the US drug laws. ATF agents handle enforcement of laws regarding sale and rules regarding legal substances and all firearms.
  • United States Fish and Game Wardens. Like state game wardens, these officers enforce laws regarding fishing and hunting, but on federal ground.
  • United States Forest Service Law Enforcement. These agents manage and enforce the law on Forest Service land. They conduct investigations, write citations, and perform all normal Federal policing activities occurring within Forest boundaries.
  • Military Policing Agencies. Each branch of the military has a police arm attached to enforce military law. Other investigative agencies include the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Coast Guard Investigative Service, Air Force Special Investigators, and other military investigative arms.

Unique Positions 

There are a few law enforcement jobs that have unique jurisdictions. This doesn’t encompass all positions that are out of the ordinary but does give a hint of other jobs that exist.

  • Bailiffs. These officers are basically police officers for local, state, and federal courtrooms. They make sure people in court are following the rules. They also protect the judges from any possible aggressive behavior.
  • Tribal Police. Each tribe in the United States is considered a sovereign nation and has the right to govern themselves within federal laws. The larger tribes have their own police departments and assist other tribes.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the different departments and agencies working to keep citizens safe within the United States. The officers who take these duties strive every day to uphold the laws and our constitution.

Not sure if being a cop is the career for you? Check out our article HERE to help you.

Related Questions

Can a sheriff enforce the laws in a city or town?

Sheriff’s deputies can enforce laws in incorporated and unincorporated parts of the county. This means they can enforce laws in a town or city. Most will work with local city police first, though.

Is a Correction’s officer a police officer?

A correction officer is not a police officer in the traditional sense. They do not make arrests. They do enforce rules within a prison setting and write reports and protect people.

Will the FBI just come in and take over an investigation like on TV?

Most of the time, the FBI will be invited to help with an investigation. They create task forces with local and state law enforcement for more extensive criminal investigations. In rare cases, they will “take over” an investigation.

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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.