Police and Law Enforcement Services in Cities and Towns
This page provides an overview of the authority and requirements for providing law enforcement services in Washington State, including links to the constitutional and statutory citations, a brief description of service delivery options, mutual aid agreements, and links to pages detailing the relationship of city or town police departments to the county sheriff.
Code cities are required to appoint a chief law enforcement officer (RCW 35A.12.020). Towns are required to appoint a town marshal (RCW 35.27.070) and the town police department must be under the direction and control of the town marshal. Second class cities are required to appoint a police chief (RCW 35.23.021) and the city police department must be under the control and direction of the police chief, subject to the direction of the mayor or city manager.
Neither the state constitution nor state law mandates a specific number of law enforcement officers or level of law enforcement services. This is primarily a policy decision for the city or town council or commission to determine.
If a city or town has more than two full-time law enforcement officers, including the chief of police, state law requires the city or town to establish a police civil service system as required by chapter 41.12 RCW. A city or town does not have to adopt chapter 41.12 RCW if it has provided for civil service in the police department by a system that substantially accomplishes the purposes of the state provisions. For more information, see our page on Civil Service.
Peace Officer Certification
RCW 43.101.200(1) requires all newly hired peace officers, except volunteers, and reserve officers, to engage in basic law enforcement training which complies with the standards adopted by the Washington Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC). Persons hired as peace officers have six months from the beginning of employment to commence basic law enforcement training. The CJTC website includes a complete description of this requirement as well as frequently asked questions.
- Article XI, §11, Washington State Constitution — General police power of cities.
- Ch. 36.28 RCW — County Sheriff
- First Class Cities
- RCW 35.22.280(34) and RCW 35.22.280(35) — Specific powers to enact and enforce criminal ordinances of the city.
- Second Class Cities
- RCW 35.23.021 — City officers enumerated, including police chief.
- RCW 35.23.161 — Chief of police and police department.
- RCW 35.23.440(29) and RCW 35.23.440(30) — Provides specific powers to enact and enforce criminal ordinances of the city.
- RCW 35.27.070 — Town officers enumerated, including town marshal.
- RCW 35.27.240 — Town marshal is charged with overseeing the town police department.
- RCW 35.27.370(14) — Provides specific powers to enact and enforce criminal ordinances of the town.
- Code Cities
- RCW 35A.11.020 — Provides specific power to adopt and enforce criminal ordinances of the city.
- RCW 35A.12.020 -— Covers appointive officers, including chief law enforcement officer.
- RCW 35A.21.030 — Mandatory duties of code city officers.
- RCW 35A.21.161 — Regulation of activities under state law.
- Unclassified Cities
- RCW 35.30.010(6) and RCW 35.30.010(8) — Provides specific powers to enact criminal ordinances of the city.
- RCW 10.92.020 — Addresses the power and authority of Tribal police officers, including training requirements, jurisdiction, civil liability, sovereign Tribal governments, and interlocal agreements.
- RCW 14.08.120(2) — Addresses specific powers of municipalities operating airports (county, city, town, airport district, port district).
- RCW 35.88.020 — Allows for the appointment of special police to protect and ensure the water supply of a city or town. (Note: This citation refers to the special police as having the powers of constables. The statutes relating to constables were repealed by Laws of 1984, Ch. 258.)
- RCW 53.08.280 — Port district operating an airport with a police department as authorized by RCW 14.08.120.
- RCW 35.61.370 — Allows a metropolitan park district containing city with population over one hundred thousand to commission police officers.
- RCW 81.60 — Addresses railroad police and regulations.
Service Delivery Options
A city or town may provide law enforcement protection in a number of different ways. One way is to establish a municipal police department under the direction of a locally appointed police chief or marshal.
Another is to enter into an interlocal agreement with another jurisdiction (typically the county or a neighboring city or town) to provide law enforcement services. The level of service and cost must be negotiated between the jurisdictions. If a city or town contracts for police protection, it is not necessary to appoint a city employee or officer to serve as chief law enforcement officer. Rather, one of the officers from the jurisdiction being contracted with can serve in that capacity.
For examples of such interlocal agreements, see Interlocal Cooperation in Law Enforcement.
Mutual Aid Agreements
The Interlocal Cooperation Act, Ch. 39.34 RCW, and the Washington Mutual Aid Peace Officers Powers Act, Ch. 10.93 RCW, authorizes for law enforcement agency to contract with any other law enforcement agency to provide mutual law enforcement assistance. Many municipalities enter into such contracts with other cities, the county, or the state patrol. Many jurisdictions in this state have such contracts to provide back-up assistance in emergency situations.
For examples of mutual aid agreements, see Interlocal Cooperation in Law Enforcement.
Authority of Sheriff in the Corporate Limits of a City
The authority of the county sheriff and the authority of city or town police departments are generally concurrent within the cities and towns located within a particular county. Neither the county sheriff nor the city police have exclusive authority to investigate crimes and enforce state laws within city and town boundaries.
However, unless the city has an interlocal agreement with the county that grants such authority for enforcement to the county sheriff, city and town police departments have the exclusive power to enforce violations of local ordinance provisions within their jurisdictions that are not also violations of state law, while the county sheriff may enforce violations of state law within city or town boundaries. Absent a specific agreement to do so, the sheriff is not required to provide services within those city or town boundaries.
Attorney General's Opinions
The Office of the Attorney General has been asked to clarify the relationship between county sheriffs' departments and city/town police departments in a number of opinions. A few are provided below, though this is not a comprehensive listing:
- AGO 1990 No. 4 — The conclusion is that the county sheriff does have a general duty to enforce state laws in both incorporated and unincorporated areas of the county, and there is no obligation to provide cities with a specified number of police officers or with a specific level of police services.
- AGO 1961-62 No. 25 — The conclusion is that the both the city police and the county sheriff have concurrent authority to investigate felonies occurring within the city or town limits.
- AGLO 1974 No. 96 — The conclusion is that the county sheriff has full jurisdiction to investigate motor vehicle accidents involving a violation of state law, even within incorporated cities and towns.