What’s the difference between Texas law enforcement agencies?

Though they all wear a badge, vow to protect and serve and have statewide jurisdiction, not every Texas law enforcement officer is the same. From the local to state level, from homes to the highway, there are different groups that each handle a variety of duties uniquely assigned to them.

Law enforcement agencies are like a pyramid.

First there are agencies you would call like the local police or the sheriff depending on where you live.  In incorporated area you will probably call the local police.  In unincorporated areas you will most likely be calling the sheriff’s department.

Then things get more specialized. There are the Highway Patrol and game wardens, for example. Then comes the top tier: federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, ATF, Federal Marshals, and Border Patrol to just name a few.

The ways in which different agencies work together varies. A task force or informal collaboration will be established if a crime transcends lines of jurisdiction within Texas like city and county lines.

Municipal police

Municipal police are the law enforcement agency we see the most. These are your city police officers and are directed by your local governments. These officers are tasked with maintaining order within the city limits. Local police departments are tasked with investigating crimes, enforcing state laws, city ordinances, and conducting patrols. They maintain order in the city.  Within the police department you can have various specialist like the patrol, investigation, SWAT, vice, narcotics, gang, community affairs, neighborhood police officers, fusion center, and crime scene sections.

City Marshals

City marshals are the primary agency supervising proceedings in criminal and non-criminal cases in their city’s court.

Like other agencies, city marshals enforce laws and make arrests. Marshals have additional specialized duties including enforcing warrants, conducting environmental criminal investigations, serving at the municipal courts and operating the city detention center.

Dallas city marshals and Dallas Police Department officers use the same dispatcher, so the two agencies work together frequently. For example, they recently collaborated on arrests in a special operations case involving suspects with warrants for misdemeanor and felony domestic violence.


A sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in a county. county Sheriffs manage the county jail and serve as bailiffs in county court.

While municipal police are restricted to their city,  the sheriff’s offices have jurisdiction over any city in their county.

Some smaller cities don’t have their own police department. Instead, they contract with the county sheriff’s office to provide law enforcement for their citizens. The Sheriff’s office is also responsible for law enforcement services in unincorporated areas, where there’s no governing municipal enterprise.


Counties are also served by constables, who work as bailiffs, make arrests and serve civil papers and warrants. Counties are divided into precincts, and each precinct is to have a constable,  as required by the Texas Constitution of 1876.

In Dallas County, for example, there are five precincts, each with its own constable. Both constables and sheriffs are elected for four-year terms on a county ballot, though there are no term limits.

Texas Rangers and Highway Patrol

The Texas Department of Public Safety houses the Texas Rangers and Texas Highway Patrol Division. Highway patrol troopers are responsible for traffic supervision and criminal law enforcement, including matters related to drug and human trafficking, on the state’s rural highways.

DPS will patrol a state highway in a small city even though the road is within the city’s limits. However, in larger cities such as Dallas, Fort Worth, or Houston, state highways are the city police’s responsibility. Highway patrol troopers also help sheriffs in unincorporated areas of the state.

The Texas Rangers are DPS’ primary criminal investigative branch. The agency investigates a myriad of cases including murder, sexual assault, missing people and bank fraud.

The Texas Rangers are also tasked with overseeing border security and the special operations group programs including: SWAT, bomb squad, Ranger reconnaissance team, special response teams, crisis negotiation teams, and explosive ordnance disposal. The Rangers also have an unsolved crimes investigation program, public corruption unit, and public integrity unit.

DPS also has a narcotics, intelligence, auto theft, and crime laboratory sections.

The Texas Rangers may be called upon for help by smaller agencies if there’s a case in which the Rangers have a particular expertise, if an agency has a case against one of its own officers or other conflict of interest or if the local district attorney requests the Rangers’ help.

Game Wardens

Game wardens for Texas Parks and Wildlife ensure that hunting and fishing laws are obeyed as well as enforce water safety, especially in terms of boating. These wardens also conduct search-and-rescue missions and provide natural disaster response.

Specialized Agencies

In addition to law enforcement agencies for cities or the state, there are also specific units for schools, hospitals, ports, public transit and airports. The Dallas Independent School District has their own police department. The DFW airport and DART have on-site police department.

Each group has their own focus, but there are no laws preventing agencies from assisting each other.

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1 Response to What’s the difference between Texas law enforcement agencies?

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