How State Troopers Work

By: Cristen Conger

Police Image Gallery State troopers primarily patrol the roads, state property and rural areas without local law enforcement. See more pictures of police.
Police Image Gallery State troopers primarily patrol the roads, state property and rural areas without local law enforcement. See more pictures of police.
Todd Bigelow/Getty Images

In the law enforcement family, state troopers sometimes seem like the middle child between high-profile federal agents and the omnipresent local police. Although state troopers are commonly associated with highway patrol, their duties extend far beyond the asphalt. They bridge an important gap between the police work in your neighborhood and nationwide law enforcement strategies.

State police departments were formed over a period of about 50 years, beginning in the early 20th century. Issues brought about by population growth and booming industries during that time highlighted the need for statewide law enforcement.


Instability from coal and steel strikes, particularly The Great Anthracite Strike of 1902, led to Pennsylvania's establishment of the first state police force in 1905. Prohibition and the rise of the automobile also created a new set of criminals who could escape more easily across county and state lines and out of the hands of local police. Consequently, every state except Hawaii now has its own form of state police enacted through their governments' legislative bodies.

Since these troopers are organized on the state level, they are essentially a governor's police force with the main responsibilities to protect high ranking officials, state property and rural areas that don't have local police departments. They also act as the glue that holds together statewide networks of local departments by assisting when necessary with situations such as criminal investigations, disaster relief and search and rescue missions. Their focus on state roads and highways is also instrumental in catching crooks on the run.

In addition to these responsibilities, state police conduct their own investigations to tackle important criminal issues. Illegal drugs rings, gun trafficking and organized crime are just a sampling of cases they tackle. To prepare them for handling these major tasks and providing resources for local departments, state police agencies have some of the most technically advanced equipment and specially trained units in the nation.

In this article, we'll explore how law enforcement works on the state level and all the facets of being a trooper. First, let's look at exactly who they are and how they're unique from local police.

Difference between Police and Troopers

Local police officers and state troopers may seem like different versions of the same thing, like competing brands of pickup trucks. Both enforce the law and protect citizens with the same basic equipment and procedures. Even the hiring and training requirements, which require admission to and completion of police academies, are generally equivalent. But while they share similar functions, state troopers are meant to have more horsepower than the average police station.

Take, for instance, jurisdiction. While local police are confined to cities, state troopers usually have authority spreading across -- you guessed it -- the whole state. But here's where things can get tricky. Depending on the location, the state law enforcement can be called the state police, state patrol or highway patrol. An agency may also be organized under a state's department of public safety or be its own entity.


Normally, state police and state patrol are granted general authority across the entire state. Highway patrol agencies, however, have specific authority, which means authority is confined to specific areas within the state. For instance, the Georgia state police can enforce the law anywhere in the state when necessary, while the California Highway Patrol is limited to state roads and other state property.

State police forces are also much smaller than many metropolitan ones. In 2006, the New York City police department had more than 35,000 police officers, compared with around 4,500 state troopers [source: FBI].

But when it comes to smaller cities and towns, the opposite is true. A majority of local police departments employ fewer than 10 officers with most state trooper forces hovering below 2,000 [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics].

That increased horsepower also comes with a higher price tag. The median state trooper salary was $52,540 in 2006, about $5,000 more than local law enforcement.

And just like cars have different body styles and paint jobs, local and state police each have unique uniforms. Many times, state trooper uniforms are brown, rather than blue, and troopers wear a wide-brimmed Smoky the Bear styled hat. Also, the state troopers often wear star-shaped badges and patches on their sleeves to indicate their ranks. In fact, new troopers in Maryland are called "slick sleeves" because they don't wear a sleeve patch at that rank.

The ranking system reflects the troopers' paramilitary nature. Similar to local police, state troopers adhere to the following chain of command:

  • Trooper
  • Corporal
  • Sergeant
  • Lieutenant
  • Captain
  • Major
  • Lieutenant Colonel
  • Colonal

Now that we understand who state troopers are, let's look at the heart of their work -- highway patrol.

Trooper Highway Patrol

State troopers are responsible for patrolling state roads and highways.
State troopers are responsible for patrolling state roads and highways.
SW Productions/Getty Images

In 2006, more than five million car crashes occurred on U.S. roads, resulting in 117 deaths per day on average [source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration]. Given those statistics, you can see why highway patrol is one of the most important state trooper duties. It is also the first job given to many new troopers.

When accidents happen on the highways, state police are often the first responders to the scene. If they involve injuries, troopers can call in the appropriate medical help. For major accidents, some state police employ collision reconstruction units that record exactly how a crash occurred. That information can then be used in court for determining who was at fault and whether criminal activity was involved.


As mentioned earlier, some states have highway patrol departments that have specific authority over state roads and property. California has the largest highway patrol force in the nation, with nearly 10,000 officers [source: FBI]. Although their law enforcement work is done mostly from the roads, they deal with many types of non vehicle-related crimes. For instance, North Carolina Highway Patrol officers seized 6,189 pounds of marijuana in 2007 [source: North Carolina Highway Patrol].

When you see state patrol cars camped out on the side of the road, they are watching for various driving infractions, such as expired tags, with a particular eye for speeders. Speeding contributes to about 31 percent of car-related fatalities and racks up more than $40 billion in related expenses [source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration]. Because of the high risks, speeding tickets are the most common traffic citation given [source: FindLaw].

To catch these speed demons, state troopers have a few different tools at their disposal. Radar guns measure speed by detecting the frequency of radio waves between the stationary police cruiser and a car moving on the road. Lasers, which are more expensive and used less frequently, can also detect a car's speed with more accurate precision. During police chases, stop sticks may come in handy. Trained officers can put these planks with sharp nail-like projections in the path of a renegade car to puncture its tires and bring it to a halt.

Troopers also keep their eyes peeled for impaired drivers. In 2006, 1.4 million people were arrested by state and local police for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs [source: FBI].

Some state troopers are limited to patrolling state or public property, such as airports.
Some state troopers are limited to patrolling state or public property, such as airports.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Road safety involves commercial vehicle enforcement as well. Many state police departments monitor the safety of large cargo trucks on the roads through check points and weigh stations. Commercial truck drivers are required to stop at weigh stations where state troopers, or other transportation officials, may weigh the truck, verify the driver's commercial license and ensure that the vehicle isn't stolen or carrying illegal cargo. For more information about weight stations, read How do truck weigh stations work.

Now that we know how troopers keep the roads safe, let's look at the types of criminal investigations state troopers conduct.

State Police Criminal Investigations

State police often target large-scale illegal drug distributors, such as marijuana growers.
State police often target large-scale illegal drug distributors, such as marijuana growers.
Jeff Rotman/Getty Images

Just like local police departments, state troopers have their own investigative divisions to solve crimes. Some states have separate bureaus of investigation for this, while others have detective ranks built into the state police department.

The criminal investigations at state police agencies may concentrate on some of the same people who are under local police departments' radar. But the state police investigations often have a broader scope. These investigations may cover felons who have committed a series of crimes across the state, drug lords or suspected terrorists. State troopers may also collaborate with local and federal officers as well, depending on the case.


One of the main reasons that state police were formed was to prevent criminals from skipping over county lines to escape punishment. State police, however, can step in to capture at-large criminals in the state, regardless of the local jurisdiction. This happens when felony suspects or high-profile criminals that federal authorities are looking for are on the loose. Also, the state troopers' role in policing rural areas that don't have their own law enforcement agencies helps keep criminals from using those areas as hiding places.

Illegal drugs are a major concern of state criminal investigations units. The state may form a drug task force, or special investigative project, with local departments in areas known to have high drug activity. From 1980 to 2006, the number of drug-related arrests in the United State skyrocketed more than 300 percent [source: Bureau of Justice Statistics]. Specially trained state troopers may go undercover through a sting operation to catch dealers or manufacturers. Many state agencies even have helicopters with heat sensors that can detect where marijuana may be growing in houses.

To reduce the violent crime rate, state police also try to halt illegal gun trafficking. Gun trafficking happens when firearms are sold to people who aren't authorized to own them. According to the Illinois State Police, more than 90 percent of guns used in crimes are trafficked [source: Illinois State Police Department]. State police can pinpoint drug trafficking activity by analyzing data from gun-related crime to track down the source of the guns. State police may also work with federal agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco and local police departments to catch traffickers.

Since September 11, 2001, the federal government has heavily funded counterterrorism efforts in state police departments. The Department of Homeland Security doled out more than $500 million to states in counterterrorism grants for the 2007 fiscal year [source: Department of Homeland Security]. This funding goes toward training for terrorism attack response, monitoring terrorism activity in the state and capturing information related to state and national terrorism activity.

In recent years, public attention has increasingly shifted toward illegal immigration. Since immigration is a federal issue, state police have no authority to arrest people they suspect are in the United States illegally. However, there have been efforts to change that, particularly in Massachusetts. There, former governor and unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney brokered a deal to allow a select number of state police to detain suspected illegal immigrants [source: Levenson and Saltzman]. Missouri is also among other states that have recently granted this power to state police officers.

When major criminal investigations arise, special units are sometimes called. We'll explore the most common special units on the next page.

Special Units

Some state police helicopters have heat sensors to track where marijuana is being grown indoors.
Some state police helicopters have heat sensors to track where marijuana is being grown indoors.
Simon Whitmore/Getty Images

State troopers, while sometimes smaller in number, are often rich in resources. Because they must be equipped to handle a multitude of situations across the geography of their state, troopers are sometimes trained in special units. Although states will vary in what they offer, here are some of the more common special units:

A state police officer guards a crowd at the inauguration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
A state police officer guards a crowd at the inauguration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
  • Aviation: Many state police departments have a small fleet of planes and helicopters. These can be used for emergency medical services, search and rescue missions, surveying traffic, chasing criminals on the run or simply transporting officers quickly. The Maryland State Police Department houses 12 helicopters and two airplanes in eight regional locations.
  • Forensics: A state's sophisticated forensics equipment and scientists can be huge assets to local police departments. The Louisiana State Police Crime Lab, for in¬≠stance, has a broad range of capabilities to analyze and properly handle all types of physical and biological evidence found at crime scenes. Its lab is divided into the following substations: DNA, evidence handling, drug analysis, physical evidence, toxicology, and blood alcohol testing. The DNA scientists use a combined DNA index system that compares the DNA taken from crime scenes with that of convicted felons for possible matches.
  • Executive Security: State police are to governors what the Secret Service is to the president. State police must protect their governors and other visiting officials. Officers may be stationed at the governor's home to act as security guards for the family and for other state leaders, such as the Speaker of the House and the Lieutenant Governor.
  • SCUBA: Underwater diving isn't just for vacations and Sea World. Scuba law enforcement units generally are used for underwater recovery of people or evidence. Although it may not seem like police would perform many scuba-related searches, the unit in the Virginia State Police Department performed 89 in 2004. During those exercises, the divers pulled up 11 bodies, five murder weapons and 11 vehicles [source: Virginia State Police Department].
  • Computer Crimes: In today's digitized world, the computer is used in crime, including identity theft and child pornography. The New Jersey State Police Cyber Crimes Unit has worked with corporations when people have hacked into their networks, as well as resolved fraud and identity theft issues. Their computer forensics lab also collaborates with the FBI to analyze forensic information from computers, cell phones and other digital technologies.
  • Illegal Drugs: While local police may arrest many people for possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, the state police go after those who make and sell it. Drug enforcement on the state level usually focuses on major cases. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the investigative division of the Georgia Department of Public Safety, has three regional offices and 13 multi-county offices that tackle issues of illegal drug smuggling, distribution, drug labs and trafficking [source: Georgia Bureau of Investigation]. Through these consolidated efforts, one drug raid in 2003 netted more than 46,000 marijuana plants worth more than $93 million [source: Georgia Department of Public Safety].

Next, find out how the patrol and investigative branches work together to affect crime. ­


State Police Success Rates

The number of alcohol-related vehicle deaths has dropped 5 percent since 1996.
The number of alcohol-related vehicle deaths has dropped 5 percent since 1996.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The success of state police departments is difficult to quantify. The FBI publishes a Uniform Crime Report each year that details the number of crimes committed and cleared, or solved. However, these statistics take into account the actions of local police departments as well, not just state troopers.

Nevertheless, let's look at state-by-state violent crime rates, since state troopers fill in where local police departments may leave off. From 2000 to 2006, 20 states showed an increase in violent crime incidents [source: Bureau of Justice Statistics]. That illustrates that state troopers continue to face many obstacles in attempting to curb crime.


But individual state police departments may report more favorable outcomes. For example, the Delaware State Police Department claims an average 93.5 percent clearance rate for homicide cases [source: Delaware State Police], and Maine State Police says it generally meets at least a 90 percent clearance rate for homicides [source: Maine State Police Department]. The Uniform Crime Report from the FBI shows a national clearance rate of 66.7 percent for murders [source: FBI].

Since state troopers and highway patrol play a major role in road safety, another measure of success may be found in this area. From 1996 to 2006, the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration reported only a slight dip in the number of motor vehicle-related fatalities -- down from 33,534 to 32,092 [source: National Highway Safety Traffic Administration]. On the other hand, crash-related injuries consistently fell throughout that period by nearly one million incidents [source: National Highway Safety Traffic Administration]. Also, alcohol-related fatalities, which account for just under half of all road deaths, dropped by 5 percent [source: National Highway Safety Traffic Administration].

But why should we care about road safety? Isn't violent crime more of an immediate threat? Actually, in 2006 the murder rate per 100,000 people was 5.7 [source: FBI], while the motor vehicle fatality rate was almost triple at 14.24 [source: National Highway Safety Traffic Administration].

State police also play an important role with national drug enforcement efforts, as we've discussed. Likewise, drug-related arrests have climbed steadily since 1980. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were over 1.8 million state and local police arrests for drug charges in 2006, compared with 580,900 in 1980 [source: FBI]. Also, of the more than 14 million criminal arrests made nationwide in 2006, the largest portion came from drug-related activity [source: FBI].

With all of this information, a concrete evaluation of success is difficult to pin down. Many variables influence crime-related figures and reporting methods. While it is clear that troopers put much effort into public safety, the statistics provided reveal a mixed bag of highs and lows. To learn more about state law enforcement, go to the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Bureau of Justice Statistics. "Drugs and Crime Facts: Enforcement." September 2006. (March 7, 2008)
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Police and Detectives." December 18, 2007. (March 4, 2008)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Clearances." Uniform Crime Reports. 2007. (March 4, 2008)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Estimated Number of Arrests: United States, 2006." Uniform Crime Reports. 2007. (March 7, 2008)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Police Employees." Uniform Crime Reports. 2007. (March 4, 2008)
  • FindLaw. "Avoiding Traffic Tickets: How to Stay Out of Trouble." 2004. (March 5, 2008)
  • Georgia Bureau of Investigation. "Bing Unit." (March 6, 2008),2096,67862954_88103912,00.html
  • Georgia Department of Public Safety. "2003 Annual Report." (March 6, 2008)
  • Illinois State Police. "Governor Sets up Gun Crime Unit in State Police." March 15, 2005. (March 4, 2008)
  • Levenson, Michael and Saltzman, Jonathan. "Troopers can arrest illegal immigrants in Romney deal." The Boston Globe. December 3, 2006. (March 5, 2008)
  • Maryland State Police. "Rank Structure." (March 4, 2008)
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Traffic Safety Facts: 2006 Data --- Overview." (March 5, 2008)
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Traffic Safety Facts: 2006 Data --- Speeding." (March 5, 2008)
  • New York State Troopers Police Benevolence Association. "Troopers at Work." (March 4, 2008)
  • North Carolina Highway Patrol. "Statistics: Drug Seizures." North Carolina Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. (March 7, 2008),000014,000791
  • Olsen, Marilyn. "State Trooper: America's State Troopers and Highway Patrol." 2001. Turner Publishing Company. (March 3, 2008),M1
  • Pennsylvania State Police. "2006 Annual Report." (March 6, 2008)
  • Reaves, Brian A. "Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, 2004." Bureau of Justice Statistics. June 2007. (March 4, 2008)
  • Russell, Gregory et al. "Law Enforcement in the United States." Jones and Bartlett Publishers. 2005. (March 4, 2008)