As you create the bureaucratic world your police characters will work within, it’s worth paying attention to the names of their larger agencies and the smaller investigative units within. The terms used to describe each group often indicates their size, purpose, responsibilities, and level within the larger agency.
The term Department usually denotes the parent organization. The U.S. Department of Justice, the New York Police Department, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department are all examples of this. The term Office may be used as a synonym for Department, especially when the head of that organizational group holds a publicly elected Office. A Sheriff is an elected official, and it is somewhat common to refer to a Sheriff’s Department as a Sheriff’s Office.
Bureaus and Divisions are often large subdivisions within a Department. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is a bureau within the US Department of Justice. The Criminal Investigations Division may be a division within a Police Department.
At the Federal level, the terms Bureau, Agency, Administration and Service usually indicate an individual agency within a Department. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the U.S. Secret Service, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are all individual agencies within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Bureau of Prisons, and the U.S. Marshals Service are agencies within the U.S. Department of Justice.
[SPELLING ALERT: There is only one letter “L” in United States Marshals Service.]
Some State and Local police agencies create their own hierarchy where a Division is comprised of several Bureaus. Examples could be a Criminal Investigations Division having Forensic Bureau; a Patrol Division having bureaus defined by geography, such as Central Bureau or Valley Bureau; a Special Operations Division having a Narcotics Bureau.
The smallest investigative subdivisions are most often called Units or Teams. A Detective assigned to work sexual assault cases might work in a unit called Special Victims Unit. The SVU may be one of a handful of units within a Major Crimes Bureau. The Major Crimes Bureau would likely be one of several bureaus within a Criminal Investigations Division. Similarly, a Narcotics Detective may work on a Narcotics Street Team, within a Narcotics Bureau, in the Special Investigations Division, for the Sheriff’s Office.
Artistic license grants you the ability to dream up any name you desire for these organizational subdivisions. Being aware that the terms department, division, bureau, unit, and team are not necessarily synonyms may be a subtle way to add realism to your work. Understanding these delineations between groups may help you add conflict or explain why certain characters are (or are not) privy to pertinent information that will drive your plot forward.
What Departments and Units are your characters working in? Let me know in the comments below.
If you like what you read here, consider joining the mailing list for updates, seminar notifications and more!