Crime and Safety

Like most structures in the U.S. government, law enforcement agencies are divided into federal, state, and local jurisdictions. At every level these agencies maintain public order. Unlike many nations, the United States has no national police force or national criminal law. Instead each state, city, county, and sometimes township has its own police units as well as its own laws that regulate police activities and define criminal behavior. Under the Tenth Amendment, law enforcement is primarily the responsibility of local governments, as is the prosecution of the vast majority of crimes committed in the United States.

Law Enforcement Agencies - Local Agencies

In the 18th century, the law enforcement system existed only informally at the local level. Often an appointed justice of the peace served as judge and jury, while an elected county sheriff or constable was the principal law enforcement officer. However, as cities began to grow in the early and mid-19th century, many workers began to migrate to these new urban centers to find jobs. Workers came from other parts of the United States as well as from abroad. Conflicts often arose between native-born workers and immigrant workers because of competition for jobs. Police forces began to be needed to keep order and protect property. From their early beginnings in Boston in 1838, local police units, in county or city, have developed into the most important crime-fighting organizations in the United States.

At first police functioned as little more than night watchmen. Gradually they gained authority from their visibility and their uniforms, and they soon became an accepted first line of defense for maintaining order and safety. However, most local police were appointed by city officials and poorly trained. As a result, police officers were responsible for occasional episodes of brutality against citizens as well as for a failure to deliver equal justice to minority groups. By the 1920s, cities demanded more professional police forces that were better trained and not appointed by politicians.

Since that time, local forces have increased substantially both in size and in professionalism. But city sizes and crime rates have also increased, and local police are often hampered by a lack of funds and facilities. Also, modern city life requires much more from local police than detective work and crime fighting. Many of the functions of today’s police have little to do with maintaining law and order, and a great deal to do with investigating accidents and dealing with the problems of incapacitated adults, missing children, and corner drug sales.

Law Enforcement Agencies - State and Federal Agencies

Besides local forces, each of the 50 states has its own state police system. Developed in the early 20th century, state police perform functions such as patrolling state roads, investigating gambling, and seizing drugs transported on interstate highways. State police also provide local police forces with expert assistance and resources required to fight crime across jurisdictions.

At the federal level, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the largest and best-known law enforcement agency. Established in 1908, the FBI is a division of the U.S. Department of Justice. FBI agents investigate federal crimes, including kidnapping, espionage, theft involving interstate commerce, and terrorism. In addition to its investigative duties, the FBI provides state and local law enforcement agencies with facilities such as laboratories for analyzing fingerprints and genetic evidence. The FBI also runs training programs for local law enforcement personnel.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was created in 2002, oversees other federal law enforcement agencies such as the Secret Service, which protects the president and vice president and their families and investigates counterfeiting, and the Bureau of Border Security, which prevents illegal immigration to the United States. Other important federal law enforcement agencies include the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which combats the distribution and use of illegal drugs, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, which investigates violations of tax laws related to alcohol and tobacco, enforces laws controlling firearms, and investigates bombings. Another federal law enforcement agency, the U.S. Marshals Service, preserves order in courtrooms, handles subpoenas and court summonses, and transports federal prisoners.

Law Enforcement Agencies - Other Agencies

One of the fastest-growing parts of the law enforcement industry is private police, who are employed by private security agencies. They play an increasingly important role in providing security, especially in the workplace. In the mid-1990s private police numbered more than 1.5 million, close to three times the number of police in public enforcement agencies.

Increasing Federal Involvement

The size of nearly all police units has sharply increased since World War II because communities have demanded larger police forces. By the 1970s over 500,000 men and women were employed in 40,000 public law enforcement agencies. By the 1990s these figures had increased to nearly 750,000 people in 45,000 agencies. From the 1970s to the 1990s the combined annual budget of law enforcement organizations more than doubled, not including the cost of prisons. Some of this growth was spurred by public fears, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, that crime was becoming difficult to control.

As a result of these fears, the federal government has become increasingly involved in all levels of law enforcement. Congress and the president have attempted to provide more support for state and local law enforcement agencies. The federal government, state troopers, and local police often share technology such as crime laboratories and fingerprint records. In 1968 Congress passed the Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which established the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). The LEAA provided federal grants to states to hire more police officers, purchase equipment for crime control, and improve coordination between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The act also required the licensing of gun dealers, prohibited the interstate shipment of pistols and revolvers to individuals, and prohibited the sale of handguns to anyone under the age of 21.

In 1994 the president and Congress again responded to citizen concerns with the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which built on the federal, state, and local alliance. Not only did this legislation provide funds for local governments to hire more police, but for the first time it also included money for programs specifically designed to fight violence against women.

The federal government has also become involved in defining and standardizing what constitutes crime in the United States and the rights of those accused of criminal activity. Since World War II the Supreme Court has expanded the rights of suspected criminals to ensure that the innocent are protected. Under the law, an individual has the right to due process—that is, a fair trial and equal treatment. If arrested, people have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, to have access to an attorney, to be fairly questioned by the police, to be advised of their rights, and to be free from unreasonable seizures of personal property.

Some Americans believe that the need to protect individuals from injustice sometimes conflicts with society’s need to enforce the law and maintain social order. A Supreme Court case decided in 1984 addressed such tensions. In its ruling in United States v. Leon, the Court held that evidence obtained by a defective search warrant (which had been thrown out by a lower court in order to protect the defendant’s rights) was admissible. The Court ruled that because the police had believed at the time of the incident that the search warrant was legitimate and they were acting in good faith, the evidence could be used against the defendant.

Current Trends and Issues

Over time, the types of crimes that have been the focus of law enforcement have changed. During the 1950s, Americans worried about organized crime, treason by Communists, and vandalism by city gangs. Today they are more likely to worry about domestic violence and drugs. Domestic violence—abuse that occurs between married couples or individuals in other intimate relationships—was previously considered a private matter. Similarly, drug use was not as much of a concern in the past as it is today, when many Americans consider the sale, possession, and use of illegal drugs among the nation’s most serious problems. Annually, drug offenses rank as the largest category of criminal activity. On every level, law enforcement agencies are fighting a so-called war on drugs. This effort is led at the executive level by a presidentially appointed “drug czar,” the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The director’s main task is to coordinate national drug-fighting efforts and to draw attention to new developments, such as rising use of heroin among teenagers or the efforts of the U.S. government to control production of cocaine in Colombia.