We all know that when you have a complaint, sometimes it is best to just ask to speak to a manager. Local government organizations have a hierarchical structure, a lot like a private company, and police agencies are a part of that structure. So, start off by figuring out who you should complain to. To do that, you need a little bit of background on who is in charge of police agencies.

Police Agencies

Typically, you will have both a county and a city police agency. The county police agency is usually called the sheriff’s department and the city police agency can be called a police department or a metropolitan police department. If a police department is big enough, it may even have divisions or precincts. If a town is too small to have their own police department, they can enter into a contract with either the sheriff’s department or city police agency to provide police services to that town. (Note: Alaska and Connecticut do not have sheriffs’ departments.)

The Sheriff

Each of these policy agencies has a leader. The leaders of sheriff’s department is the Sheriff. Sheriffs are usually elected by the people. (Note: In Rhode Island and in some counties in New York, the governor appoints the Sheriff. County executives appoint the sheriff in Miami Dade, County and some counties in Colorado. Source)

Once a sheriff is elected, they serve a term, which is 4 years in most states. Some states have laws that allow voters to “recall” a local official, like the Sheriff. A recall allows the voters to “fire” a local official before their term is over. If you want to find out if you can help recall a local official in your state, check this list of state laws. Successful recalls are not common, but they can also pressure local officials to resign. For a list of efforts to recall police sheriffs by year, click here.

Police Chiefs (or Commissioners)

The Police Chief (or the Police Commissioner or Chief Constable) is the leader of the police department. In most places, the Police Chief is appointed, or hired, by an elected government official, like the mayor, the city council, or the city manager. (In some cities, a commission or board hires the Police Chief.) And, if they can hire ‘em, they usually have the power to fire ‘em, but that power can be limited. Unlike the Sheriff whose term is limited to a number of years, in most cities, the Police Chief serves “at the pleasure” of the officials that hired them. In some places, the Police Chief can only be fired “for cause”.

(Note: The Governor of Maryland appoints the Police Chief of the city of Baltimore. Source)