Who Ya Gonna Call?*

When a crime is committed, the first thing a lot of people think of is to notify the police. But sometimes, the question becomes: which police? Most countries have more than one law enforcement agency. Some have several. And any one of those agencies (sometimes more than one) may have jurisdiction, depending on where the crime is committed, and sometimes what sort of crime it is. For crime writers, that means they need to do the ‘homework’ and find out which law enforcement agency would handle a given crime. And working that out isn’t always easy.

If I may give a personal example, one of the murders in my novel Downfall is committed in Valley Forge National Park. That’s federal property, not state property. So, while the local police might assist, they don’t really have jurisdiction. In fact, as I found out from a very helpful source at Valley Forge, the National Park Service has jurisdiction there. That meant that a Park Ranger would be the lead investigator in this fictional case. Had the murder taken place just a few miles away, the closest town or city police would have jurisdiction.

Fans of Tony Hillerman’s crime novels know that his two protagonists are members of the Navajo Tribal (now Nation) Police. That’s a separate agency, different from whatever state and local police agencies are in the area. When a crime is committed within the Navajo Nation’s territory, this is the law enforcement group that investigates. Of course, as Hillerman fans also know, there are some federal crimes (kidnapping is one example) that would also be investigated by the FBI.

If you read US crime fiction, you may know that some crimes are investigated by sheriffs (I see you, fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels). Sheriffs have different responsibilities depending on which state they are in, and how populated the area is. For example, Longmire is the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. There aren’t any full-sized cities in that county, so he and his team do almost all of the criminal investigation. On the other hand, the sheriff of Los Angeles County does more administrative work, because the LAPD is a considerable force in that county. Nonetheless, both agencies (a sheriff’s office and a police department) can serve warrants, make arrests, and so on.

In Canada, the RCMP is in charge of enforcing federal law everywhere in the country. However, provincial and territorial police departments (such as the Ontario Police Service), have authority in the different provinces and territories. So, for example, Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache has been a member of the Sûreté du Québec, that province’s police service. When a federal crime is committed, that agency works with the RCMP. Sometimes, the RCMP provides police services to provinces and territories under contract, so they may be involved in an investigation at some level, even if they don’t have official jurisdiction. They may also be the only police service available in a sparsely-populated region. We see that, for instance, in Scott Young’s Matteesie Kitologitok novels Murder in a Cold Climate and The Shaman’s Knife. Matteesie is a member of the RCMP who works mostly in Northern Canada, where the population is small and the local economies can’t support a full-sized police force.

In the UK, police forces are more or less regional, and we certainly see that in crime fiction. For example, Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace is a member of the Brighton and Hove police. So, while he may work with national-level security agencies for one case or another, that region is his office’s responsibility. Ian Rankin’s John Rebus is most closely associated with what used to be called the Lothian and Borders Police (now, it’s part of Police Scotland, which has jurisdiction over all of Scotland). Local police officers (the famous ‘bobbies’) are usually members of one of the regional police forces. So, again, crime writers would need to know which UK regional police has jurisdiction in a place where a crime is committed. They’d also need to know whether it might be a crime that would be investigated by one of the UK’s special police agencies.

In some cases, countries have two sets of law enforcement agencies: civilian and military. Both branches investigate crime, and sometimes, there’s disagreement over which agency will handle a certain investigation. So, members of those organizations need to be able to work with their counterparts in other agencies. For example, if you’ve read Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges novels, you know that Bruno is the local police chief of St. Denis. Right down the road from his departmental offices is the local gendarmerie. Gendarmeries are military groups – think ‘barracks’ – who have law enforcement authority, especially in rural and small-town areas of France. They co-exist with local police, and the most successful ones know that cooperation is the best way to get crimes solved.

It’s a similar (not identical) situation in Italy. There are civilian police (Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti and Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano are two examples) who have jurisdiction in given places. There’s also the Caribinieri, the national military police force. They have jurisdiction all over Italy and investigate all sorts of crime. There’s a significant overlap between their responsibilities and those of the civilian police, especially in larger cities such as Rome, Venice, and Milan. Brunetti and Montalbano might not always like the involvement of the carabinieri, but they also know that working with them is a part of their lives.

In India, the Indian Police Service (IPS) has national jurisdiction. There are also state police services for all states, but each state service is led by an IPS officer. Police services in the different cities and towns are under the jurisdiction of the states in which they’re located. So, for instance, Senior Inspector Hoshiyar Khan, whom we meet in Shadaab Amjad Khan’s Murder in Bollywood, is a member of the Mumbai Police. In turn, that police department is a part of the Maharashtra Police, and has jurisdiction in Mumbai.

As you can see (if you didn’t know already), policing can get complicated, and several agencies may be involved in an investigation, depending on where it is and what crime has been committed. So, who ya gonna call? It depends.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ray Parker, Jr. ‘s Ghostbusters.

16 thoughts on “Who Ya Gonna Call?*

  1. Margot, this is a great overview of the complexity of which law enforcement agencies have precedence where. Even knowing some of that, the relationships between various agencies gets complex in some mysteries. Italy is especially confusing to me. And I haven’t read many mysteries set in India. I do love to read police procedurals.


    1. Thanks, Tracy. It really can get complicated to work out who has jurisdiction and to what extent in a given place. There are all sorts of considerations that have to be taken into account. And you make a good point about Italian policing; I’m not always the best at working that out, either. As for India, I haven’t read enough police procedurals set there, but I work on it! Like you, I do enjoy police procedurals.


  2. LOL, yes, it really is complicated, Margot. As a Brit I have a reasonable handle on the UK set up but have always found the different agencies in the US a bit bemusing (and your political system loses me completely!) France is not always straightforward, either, as I’ve discovered from my love of Maigret stories…


    1. Don’t get me started on the US political system, KBR. Please. And, yes, there are all sorts of complications/overlaps/etc. with US law enforcement agencies. I have a bit of a sense of it for the state I live in, but it does vary state to state. You’re right, too, about French law enforcement. That can be a bit challenging. This is why crime fiction is so informative: it helps us get a handle on these things!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I like a few French and Italian crime series (Montalbano, Bruno, Jacquot, Maigret etc.) and their law enforcement always seems so complicated! I was reading a true crime book called The Cold Vanish about a teenager who disappeared in the Olympic NP in the US and it was the NP police who were called in or who took charge. In the end, after years, they found the body but the author blamed the various law enforcement agencies, who didn’t share information or get going quickly enough, for the long delay. I was staggered to read how many people disappear in your NPs.


    1. You bring up one really important, salient thing, Cath: the sharing of information. That is, of course, absolutely critical to solving a case, and when there are different agencies involved, that doesn’t always happen. In theory, those people know how important sharing information is – they do. But when it really happens, they don’t always do that. I know what you mean, too, about French and Italian police structures. They can be really complicated and hard to follow. I don’t envy the people who have to negotiate them!


  4. Ha! Much more complicated than I ever realised! I think I must not pay attention when I read – I just accept that the ‘tec is a Sheriff or a Ranger or an Inspector without really thinking about why it varies. Scotland must be one of the dullest countries now that we’ve gone for a national force. Even England still has the Met, and lots of specialist departments, but here we only get one option of who we’re gonna call! Though – and I’m wondering now – perhaps the British Transport Police still have jurisdiction for railway crimes in Scotland… hmm. Must find out in case I ever get involved in a train hijacking… 😉


    1. Ha! If I were you I’d be very careful on trains. You never do know, FictionFan *thinking of Murder on the Orient Express, Strangers on a Train …* 😉 In all seriousness, I’m sure it is really different now Scotland has one national police force. In some ways, I suppose it must make things a lot more straightforward for reporting and solving crime. But then you don’t have those specialist branches. Hmm…. hard to tell which is better. Certainly makes it easier if you’re an author researching the police! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. That was interesting, Margot. Those struggles for jurisdiction happen a lot in fiction, but I didn’t realize there were so many variations. I had no idea that a Park Ranger would lead an investigation into a crime committed in a US National Park. I wouldn’t think they had the skill set (in general). That situation would make for an interesting read!


    1. Thanks, D. Wallace. I’m glad you thought the post was interesting. There really are ways to establish jurisdiction, and they do vary greatly. I didn’t even know, for instance, that a Park Ranger would lead an investigation, either, until I started researching Downfall. But they do/can. If you want to know more about how Park Rangers do things, I invite you to read Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series. Pigeon is a Park Ranger, and the series follows her through a variety of different assignments. Highly recommended.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Margot: Our Criminal Code covers every province and territory. Every police officer, whether RCMP or provincial police or municipal police, has the authority to lay charges under the Code. A Saskatoon City Police officer could lay a charge outside Saskatoon while an RCMP officer could lay a charge inside Saskatoon. Each has legal jurisdiction. Each rarely ventures into the other force’s policing area. You can phone either but if the report is of an incident outside the policing area you will be referred to the police of that area. Basically everyone just calls the police in their area. Thus jurisdiction is broad but enforcement is narrow. However, more important, if you are accused or suspected of being accused your first call should be your local defence lawyer. The police are not your friends when you are being investigated.


    1. Thanks very much, Bill, for the information and explanation. The co-existence of the RCMP and other policing units is really interesting, and I can see how it’s probably a flexible relationship, since it would differ depending on the circumstances of the crime. And it’s really good to know what to do if one’s ever accused or may be accused of a crime. Just in case I’m ever in Saskatchewan and find myself in trouble, do you know a good lawyer who could defend me?


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