Law enforcement in the United States
Law enforcement in the United States is one of three major components of the criminal justice system of the United States of America, along with courts and corrections. Although each component operates semi-independently, the three collectively form a chain leading from investigation of suspected criminal activity to administration of criminal punishment.
- Bad cops are the product of bad policy. And policy is ultimately made by politicians. A bad system loaded with bad incentives will unfailingly produce bad cops. The good ones will never enter the field in the first place, or they will become frustrated and leave police work, or they'll simply turn bad. At best, they'll have unrewarding, unfulfilling jobs.
- Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop: the Militarization of America's Police Forces
- If even the earliest attempts at centralized police forces would have alarmed the founders, today's policing would have terriﬁed them. Today in America SWAT teams violently smash into private homes more than 100 times per day. The vast majority of these raids are to enforce laws against consensual crimes. In many cities, police departments have given up the traditional blue uniforms for 'battle dress uniforms' modeled after soldier attire. Police departments across the country now sport armored personnel carriers designed for use on a battleﬁeld. Some have helicopters, tanks and Humvees. They carry military-grade weapons. Most of this equipment comes from the military itself. Many SWAT teams today are trained by current and former personnel from special forces units like the Navy SEALs or Army Rangers... At the time the Third Amendment was ratified, the images and memories of British troops in Boston and other cities were still fresh, and the clashes with colonists that drew the country into war still evoked strong emotions. What we might call the 'symbolic Third Amendment' wasn't just a prohibition on peacetime quartering, but a more robust expression of the threat that standing armies pose to free societies. It represented a long-standing, deeply ingrained resistance to armies patrolling American streets and policing American communities.
- Radley Balko, "How did America’s police become a military force on the streets?" (1 July 2013), American Bar Association Journal
- How did we get here? How did we evolve from a country whose founding statesmen were adamant about the dangers of armed, standing government forces–a country that enshrined the Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights and revered and protected the age-old notion that the home is a place of privacy and sanctuary–to a country where it has become acceptable for armed government agents dressed in battle garb to storm private homes in the middle of the night–not to apprehend violent fugitives or thwart terrorist attacks, but to enforce laws against nonviolent, consensual activities? How did a country pushed into a revolution by protest and political speech become one where protests are met with ﬂash grenades, pepper spray and platoons of riot teams dressed like RoboCops? How did we go from a system in which laws were enforced by the citizens–often with non-coercive methods–to one in which order is preserved by armed government agents too often conditioned to see streets and neighborhoods as battleﬁelds and the citizens they serve as the enemy?
- Radley Balko, "How did America’s police become a military force on the streets?" (1 July 2013), American Bar Association Journal.
- Too many of our citizens have cause to doubt our nation’s justice when the law points a finger of suspicion at groups, instead of individuals. All our citizens are created equal and must be treated equally... A strong America is the world's best hope for peace and freedom. Yet the cause of freedom rests on more than our ability to defend ourselves and our allies. Freedom is exported every day, as we ship goods and products that improve the lives of millions of people. Free trade brings greater political and personal freedom.
- Every officer has accepted a calling that sets them apart. Most of us imagine, if the moment called for it, that we would risk our lives to protect a spouse or a child. Those wearing the uniform assume that risk for the safety of strangers. They and their families share the unspoken knowledge that each new day can bring new dangers. But none of us were prepared – or could be prepared – for an ambush by hatred and malice. The shock of this evil still has not faded. At times, it seems like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates too quickly into dehumanization. Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions. And this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose. But Americans, I think, have a great advantage. To renew our unity, we only need to remember our values. We have never been held together by blood or background. We are bound by things of the spirit – by shared commitments to common ideals.
- We are pretty free in America when you compare us to other nations around the world, but we're not pretty free in America when you compare us to past generations... I chronicle easily a hundred different cases where government has overreached and encroached on Constitutional liberties of Americans. We're at the point now in America, a little girl can't run a lemonade stand in her driveway without having the local zoning zealots come in and fine her fifty dollars. We're at the point now where elementary school kids down in Georgia have their irises scanned as they board the bus, all in the name of 'safety'. We're at the point now where nebulous environmental laws prevent homeowners from building a shed in their own back yard because there might be a flood plain issue in a hundred years. This is the America where we're at.
- Whether it's in Ferguson or Baltimore, the response from senior officials, the president or the attorney general, is to vilify law enforcement. That's wrong. It’s fundamentally wrong. It’s endangering all of our safety and security.
- Ted Cruz, as quoted in "Ted Cruz blames Obama for death of Harris County sheriff's deputy", by Matt Levin, Houston Chronicle (31 August 2015).
- Political repression in the United States has reached monstrous proportions. Black and Brown peoples especially, victims of the most vicious and calculated forms of class, national and racial oppression, bear the brunt of this repression. Literally tens of thousands of innocent men and women, the overwhelming majority of them poor, fill the jails and prisons; hundreds of thousands more, including the most presumably respectable groups and individuals, are subject to police, FBI and military intelligence surveillance. The Nixon administration most recently responded to the massive protests against the war in Indochina by arresting more than 13,000 people and placing them in stadiums converted into detention centers. ... Repression is the response of an increasingly desperate imperialist ruling clique to contain an otherwise uncontrollable and growing popular disaffection leading ultimately, we think, to the revolutionary transformation of society.
- Angela Davis, If They Come in The Morning (1971)
- Now, as a cadet, your training barely covered the importance of how to interact with America's one million Deaf citizens.
- American Sign Language is naturally big and expressive. But some officers mistake it as wild or aggressive.
- Presentations of police are often over-dramatized and romanticized by fictional television crime dramas while the news media portray the police as heroic, professional crime fighters . In television crime dramas, the majority of crimes are solved and criminal suspects are successfully apprehended. Similarly, news accounts tend to exaggerate the proportion of offenses that result in arrest which projects an image that police are more effective than official statistics demonstrate. The favorable view of policing is partly a consequence of police’s public relations strategy. Reporting of proactive police activity creates an image of the police as effective and efficient investigators of crime). Accordingly, a positive police portrayal reinforces traditional approaches to law and order that involves increased police presence, harsher penalties and increasing police power.
- Kenneth Dowler, “Media Consumption and Public Attitudes Toward Crime and Justice: The Relationship Between Fear of Crime, Punitive Attitudes, and Perceived Police Effectiveness", Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 10(2) (2003), p.111.
- The public has a long-standing fascination with crime, law, and justice. Crime is a central feature in news, newsmagazines, documentaries, reality-based shows, and fictional drama. The experiences of police, lawyers, judges, private investigators, medical examiners, correctional workers, criminals, and victims are probed in a variety of television shows. Every year, television executives attempt to find crime and justice programs that capture viewers and enjoy high ratings. In particular, the police drama or procedural is a staple of television programming in the United States, and several shows have experienced critical acclaim, large viewing audiences, and longevity. Since 1950, there have been almost 300 police dramas that have appeared on network, cable, and syndicated television. This number does not include the large number of shows that focus on other elements of crime and justice, such as detective shows, shows based on lawyers, judges, correctional workers, and criminals.
- Ken Dowler, “Police Dramas on Television”, Crime, Media, and Popular Culture, (Nov 2016).
- Oftentimes helping others means putting your own life at risk if you are a law enforcement professional.
- Craig W. Floyd, "Law Enforcement's Multiple Death Tragedies" (1 June 2009), In the Line of Duty, 400 7th Street N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C., 20004: National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund
- Every friend of freedom... must be as revolted as I am by the prospect of turning the United States into an armed camp, by the vision of jails filled with casual drug users and of an army of enforcers empowered to invade the liberty of citizens on slight evidence.
- The chances of an innocent black man being gunned down by racist cops are vanishingly small. And that is good news indeed... Black Americans will be taught to hate and fear law enforcement, fed on a steady diet of lies about their own country. America is a better place than they’ve been led to believe. Radical racial politics will only make it worse.
- David A. French, "The Numbers Are in: Black Lives Matter Is Wrong about Police" (29 December 2015), National Review.
- I'm a black man wearing a hoodie and strapped. According to certain social movements, I shouldn’t be alive right now because the police are allegedly out to kill minorities. Maybe, just maybe, that notion is bunk. Maybe if you treat police officers with respect, they will do the same to you. Police officers are people, too. By far and large, most are good people and they're not out to get you.
- Steven Hildreth, Jr., Facebook (27 October 2015), as quoted in "Man’s Facebook post about traffic stop goes viral" (29 October 2015), Tribune Media Wire.
- Bad boys, bad boys! What are you going to do? What are you going to do, when they come for you?
- Inner Circle, "Bad Boys".
- Once they see that you don't have to bribe the police here, they're satisfied.
- I'm convinced that it is the psychopathic personality that searches out a uniform. There's little doubt of what's going on in that man's head who will voluntarily don any uniform
- George Jackson, Soledad Brother
- We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.
- It is an open secret long shared by prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges that perjury is widespread among law enforcement officers.
- Alex Kozinski, as quoted in "Reasonable suspicion: Are police lying in use of force cases?" (7 January 2015)
- Oh, no! Look in the mirror! It's a five-oh! I shouldn't have smoked so much weed, I shouldn't have done so much blow.
- Charlie Mars, "How I Roll" (July 2012), Blackberry Light, YouTube
- All suspects are innocent until proven guilty, in a court of law.
- Harry Newman, COPS
- In America, black people are treated very much as the Vietnamese people or any other colonized people because we’re used, we’re brutalized. The police in our community occupy our area, our community, as a foreign troop occupies territory, and the police are there in our community not to promote our welfare, or for our security and our safety, but they’re there to contain us, to brutalize us and murder us, because they have their orders to do so, just as the soldiers in Vietnam have their orders to destroy the Vietnamese people. The police in our community couldn’t possibly be there to protect our property because we own no property. They couldn’t possibly be there to see that we receive the due process of law for the simple reason that the police themselves deny us the due process of law. And so it’s very apparent that the police are only in our community, not for our security, but the security of the business owners in the community and also to see that the status quo is kept intact.
- Always, the rulers of an order, consistent with their own interests and solely of their own design, have employed what to them seemed to be the most optimal and efficient means of maintaining unquestioned social and economic advantage. Clear-cut superiority in things social and economic—by whatever means—has been a scruples-free premise of American ruling class authority from the society's inception to the present. The initial socioeconomic advantage, begotten by chattel slavery, was enforced by undaunted violence and the constant threat of more violence.
- Modern policing did not evolve into an organized institution until the 1830s and '40s when northern cities decided they needed better control over quickly growing populations. The first American police department was established in Boston in 1838. The communities most targeted by harsh tactics were recent European immigrants. But, as African-Americans fled the horrors of the Jim Crow south, they too became the victims of brutal and punitive policing in the northern cities where they sought refuge.
In 1929, the Illinois Association for Criminal Justice published the Illinois Crime Survey. Conducted between 1927 and 1928, the survey sought to analyze causes of high crime rates in Chicago and Cook County, especially among criminals associated with Al Capone. But also the survey provided data on police activity—although African-Americans made up just five percent of the area's population, they constituted 30 percent of the victims of police killings, the survey revealed.
"There was a lot of one-on-one conflict between police and citizens and a lot of it was initiated by the police," says Malcolm D. Holmes, a sociology professor at the University of Wyoming, who has researched and written about the topic of police brutality extensively.
That same year, President Herbert Hoover established the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement to investigate crime related to prohibition in addition to policing tactics. Between 1931 and 1932, the commission published the findings of its investigation in 14 volumes, one of which was titled “Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement.” The realities of police brutality came to light, even though the commission did not address racial disparities outright.
- Katie Nodjimbadem, “The Long, Painful History of Police Brutality in the U.S.“, Smithsonian.com, (July 27, 2017).
- Fuck the police comin' straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad 'cause I'm brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority.
- NWA, "Fuck tha Police"
- We are an organizational culture held together by an invisible web of obligations: duty, honor and country. We do not abandon one another. That is why we gather here today, to remember our fallen colleagues. These men and women died on duty. Some were killed in accidents, and some were deliberately murdered. We remember many of them now as they once were. Some were very young, at the beginning of their careers. Some were middle-aged and then they were gone from our midst, and we mourned our loss. There is, sadly, nothing as ruthless as truth and nature. Still, we do not lose hope. We are strengthened by their memory. Death ends a life, but not a relationship. Those memories, I think, linger in love. These honored dead have returned to the love that created them, and we miss their faces that we’ll see no more. Yet, we know at the deepest level of our being that something of who they were, and are now, endures at a whole new dimension of reality. And our true nature is to trust and embrace both life and death. As Thornton Wilder once wrote, 'There is a land of the living and the land of the dead, and the only bridge is love, the only survivor, the only meaning.'
- Jerry Parr, speech (December 2000)
- In the United States, police officers fatally shoot about three people per day on average, a number that’s close to the yearly totals for other wealthy nations. But data on these deadly encounters have been hard to come by.
- Lynne Peeples, “What the data say about police shootings”, Nature, 573, (04 September 2019), pp. 24-26.
- Although the databases are still imperfect, they make it clear that police officers’ use of lethal force is much more common than previously thought, and that it varies significantly across the country, including the two locations where Brown and Garner lost their lives. St Louis (of which Ferguson is a suburb) has one of the highest rates of police shooting civilians per capita in the United States, whereas New York City consistently has one of the lowest, according to one database. Deciphering what practices and policies drive such differences could identify opportunities to reduce the number of shootings and deaths for both civilians and police officers, scientists say.
- Lynne Peeples, “What the data say about police shootings”, Nature, 573, (04 September 2019), pp. 24-26.
- The number-one cause that prevents police accountability, that promotes police corruption, that protects police lawlessness, is a culprit called the Fraternal Order of Police. They're the organized guardians of continuous police lawlessness, of police murder and police brutality. The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police is the most rabid, racist body of criminal lawlessness by police in the land. It stands shoulder to shoulder with the Ku Klux Klan then and the Ku Klux Klan now.
- Bobby Rush, as quoted in Bobby Rush: Chicago police union and KKK 'are like kissing, hugging and law-breaking cousins' by Natasha Korecki, 14 June 2020, Politico
- There's a lot of dealings with police officers right now. I don’t think all cops are bad. You know, I think there’s some great cops out there, who do everything in their power to uphold the badge and uphold the honor and protect the people in society. But there are bad cops, and I think that also needs to be addressed. I think the police officers we have right now, you know, some of it is being brought to light, because of video cameras, everybody has a camera phone. But these are things a lot of us have dealt with our whole lives. And I think right now is a perfect time to deal with it. The climate we're in, everybody's being more accepting, you know, so I think the ignorance should stop. I think people realize that, at the end of the day, we're all human beings. So, you know, before we're black, white, Asian, Polynesian, Latino. We're humans. So, it's up to us to stop it.
- Richard Sherman, press conference (16 September 2015), as quoted in "Video: Richard Sherman speaks passionately on Black Lives Matter" (16 September 2015), by Bob Condotta, The Seattle Times, Seattle, Washington.
- We do want and will have a just obedience to the laws of the United States. That we will have.
- William Tecumseh Sherman, letter to the members of the city council of the City of Atlanta (12 September 1864).
- Due to the lack of federal record-keeping, we can’t even tell you precisely how many people are killed by police in the US in any given year, let alone how many of them are disabled. But we do know it’s a lot: A report from the Ruderman Family Foundation earlier this year found wildly varying estimates of the number of disabled people killed by police, from 25 percent to more than 40 percent of police shooting victims. For perspective, census data puts the overall incidence of disability at about 20 percent of the population.
- S.E., Smith, “Disability is a hidden side of the police violence epidemic“, Vox, (Oct 4, 2016).
- In a world where young blacks, especially, are bombarded with claims that they are being unfairly targeted by police, and where a general attitude of belligerence is being promoted literally in word and song, it is hard not to wonder whether some people's responses to policemen do not have something to do with the policemen's responses to them. Neither the police nor people in any other occupation always do what is right but automatic belligerence is not the answer.
- We are trying to help; we are trying to help reduce the violence in Baltimore city. It is a hard, hard game. Hard game. People get hurt who shouldn't, all the time. Citizens, police, family members, everybody. Okay? Even somebody who may be doing something wrong, that's petty, ends up getting hurt beyond a scope that shouldn't ever happen. ... If we didn't care, we wouldn't come out in the street every day.
- Charles A. Thompson, Baltimorean police lieutenant, as quoted in Baltimore – April 25, 2015 (25 April 2015), by Dan Crapanzano.
- No California gentleman or lady ever abuses or oppresses a Chinaman, under any circumstances, an explanation that seems to be much needed in the east. Only the scum of the population do it; they and their children. They, and, naturally and consistently, the policemen and politicians, likewise, for these are the dust-licking pimps and slaves of the scum, there as well as elsewhere in America.
- Avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments, which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.
- Collecting data in and of itself is a good mechanism to hold police agencies accountable.
- A hundred years ago they used to put on a white sheet and use a bloodhound against Negroes. Today they've taken off the white sheet and put on police uniforms, they've traded in the bloodhounds for police dogs, and they're still doing the same thing.
Whenever you’re going after something that belongs to you, anyone who’s depriving you of the right to have it is a criminal. Understand that. Whenever you are going after something that is yours, you are within your legal rights to lay claim to it. And anyone who puts forth any effort to deprive you of that which is yours, is breaking the law, is a criminal. And this was pointed out by the Supreme Court decision. It outlawed segregation. Which means segregation is against the law. Which means a segregationist is breaking the law. A segregationist is a criminal. You can’t label him as anything other than that. And when you demonstrate against segregation, the law is on your side. The Supreme Court is on your side.
Now, who is it that opposes you in carrying out the law? The police department itself. With police dogs and clubs. Whenever you demonstrate against segregation, whether it is segregated education, segregated housing, or anything else, the law is on your side, and anyone who stands in the way is not the law any longer. They are breaking the law; they are not representatives of the law.
James Comey, "Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Racism" (12 February 2015), Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
- America isn't easy. America takes work. Today, February 12, is Abraham Lincoln's birthday. He spoke at Gettysburg about a 'new birth of freedom' because we spent the first four score and seven years of our history with fellow Americans held as slaves. President Healy, his siblings, and his mother among them. We have spent the 150 years since Lincoln spoke making great progress, but along the way treating a whole lot of people of color poorly. And law enforcement was often part of that poor treatment. That's our inheritance as law enforcement and it is not all in the distant past.
- Serious debates are taking place about how law enforcement personnel relate to the communities they serve, about the appropriate use of force, and about real and perceived biases, both within and outside of law enforcement. These are important debates. Every American should feel free to express an informed opinion—to protest peacefully, to convey frustration and even anger in a constructive way. That’s what makes our democracy great. Those conversations—as bumpy and uncomfortable as they can be—help us understand different perspectives, and better serve our communities. Of course, these are only conversations in the true sense of that word if we are willing not only to talk, but to listen, too.
- Let me start by sharing some of my own hard truths. First, all of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups. It was unfair to the Healy siblings and to countless others like them. It was unfair to too many people.
- I am descended from Irish immigrants. A century ago, the Irish knew well how American society—and law enforcement—viewed them: as drunks, ruffians, and criminals. Law enforcement’s biased view of the Irish lives on in the nickname we still use for the vehicles we use to transport groups of prisoners. It is, after all, the “paddy wagon.”
- The Irish had tough times, but little compares to the experience on our soil of black Americans. That experience should be part of every American’s consciousness, and law enforcement’s role in that experience—including in recent times—must be remembered. It is our cultural inheritance.
Joan Petersilia, "Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System", National Institute of Corrections, Department of Justice, (June 1983)
- Earlier studies have shown that arrests depend heavily on witnesses' or victims' identifying or carefully describing the suspect (Greenwood, Petersilia, Chaiken, 1978). Prosecutors may have a more difficult time making cases against minorities "beyond a reasonable doubt" because of problems with victim and witness identifications. Frequently, witnesses or victims who were supportive at the arrest stage become less cooperative as the' case proceeds. Defenders of the system argue that the statistics do not lie, and that the system does not discriminate but simply reacts to the prevalence of crime in the black community.
- Joan Petersilia, "Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System", National Institute of Corrections, Department of Justice, (June 1983), p. xxiii
- When the' crime is murder, forcible rape, robbery, or aggravated assault, a judge has less latitude in deciding about probation, sentence length, or whether the sentence will be served in jail or prison-no matter what color a man is. As we move down the line to lesser crimes, disparity emerges. The most striking example is larceny; Blacks make up only 30 percent of the arrest population, but 51 percent of the prison population. Why the disparity for these crimes? One explanation may be that judges can exercise more discretion in dealing with offenders convicted of these crimes.
- Joan Petersilia, "Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System", National Institute of Corrections, Department of Justice, (June 1983), p. 2
- For critics of the criminal justice system, the arrest and imprisonment rates for blacks and other minorities suggest that the system discriminates against those groups. They argue, for example, that blacks, who make up 12 percent of the national population, could not possibly commit 48 percent of the crime: Yet that is exactly what arrest and imprisonment rates imply about black criminality. Defenders of the system argue that the arrest and imprisonment rates do not lie; the system simply reacts to the prevalence of crime in the black community. As we have noted repeatedly, prior research has not. settled this controversy. For every study that finds discrimination in arrests, convictions, sentencing, prison treatment, or parole, another denies it.
- Joan Petersilia, "Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System", National Institute of Corrections, Department of Justice, (June 1983), p. 89.
- Research on sentence patterns lends support to the contention that the system "values" whites more than it does minorities. For example, Zimring, Eigen, and O'Malley (1976) found that black defendants who killed whites received life imprisonment or the death sentence more than twice as often as blacks who killed blacks. Other research has found this relationship for other crimes as well: Defendants receive harsher sentences if the victim is white and lesser sentences if he or she is black. If harsher sentences do indicate that minority status equals lower status in the criminal justice system, that equation may also help explain why minorities serve longer terms, all other things held equal, than white prisoners.
- Joan Petersilia, "Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System", National Institute of Corrections, Department of Justice, (June 1983), p. 95-96.
- A minority male is almost four times more likely than a white male to have an index arrest in his lifetime: One in every two nonwhite males in large U.S. cities can expect to have at least one index arrest. However, the RIS data indicate that, once involved in crime, whites and minorities in the sample have virtually the same annual crime commission rates. This accords with Blumstein and Graddy's (1981) finding that the recidivism rate for index offenses is approximately .85 for both whites and nonwhites. Thus, the data suggest that large racial differences in aggregate arrest rates must be attributed primarily to differences in involvement, and not to different patterns among those who do participate. Under these circumstances, any empirically derived indicators of recidivism should target a roughly equal number of whites and minorities. In other words, even if recidivism among whites had different causes or correlates than recidivism among non-whites, they should at least balance one another. They should not consistently identify nonwhites as more appropriate candidates for more severe treatment.
- Joan Petersilia, "Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System", National Institute of Corrections, Department of Justice, (June 1983), p. 98.