Controlling the Police
By: J.T. McBride
Recently one of the many “talking heads” on a national news program declared that “the police in this country are literally out of control.” Another commentator suggested that in some locations the police are “drunk with power” and that more controls were needed to keep the police in line. All of these comments were made in response to a question about the manner in which the police had allegedly “mishandled” a recent major incident in the Midwest.
Finding fault with the police seems to be popular sport lately, along with the implications that society needs to quickly impose more sanctions to control the police and make them more accountable. What type of misconduct is alleged? Most of the more recent contentions about police misbehavior relate to alleged abuse of police powers (like the firing of 137 rounds by Cleveland police officers during a pursuit) or alleged civil rights violations claimed by a former Los Angeles police officer who was shot to death during a police standoff.
Do we really need to impose more controls on the police in the United States? If so, what new controls are justified? How will more oversight impact the effectiveness of the police as they struggle to deal with increasing levels of crime and violence throughout the country? How will more scrutiny affect law enforcement’s ability to contend with newer types of threats such as terrorist acts, cybercrime and human smuggling? Before we can answer any of these questions in a meaningful way, we need to review the nature of the existing controls imposed upon American law enforcement.
We have more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies, employing over 1.2 million people, in the United States. The power and authority necessary to maintain order and to serve and protect American citizens comes directly from the citizens themselves. This enormous grant of authority stems directly from a concept known as the “social contract,” wherein the people give government limited powers to do certain things for us which they cannot easily do themselves.
The specific details of this “social contract” between the people and their government were carefully documented by our Founding Fathers in both the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These two historic writings explain the most significant controls imposed upon government activities (including law enforcement) in the history of the world.
We are a nation of laws and American police officers are exposed to important legal concepts and constitutional provisions from their first day in their basic training academy until the day they retire. Throughout their career, prosecutors, law directors, supervisors, defense attorneys and judges continually remind them of their obligation to behave in a lawful and constitutional manner. They quickly learn that failure to do so runs the risk of sanctions, termination and even criminal prosecution.
Other important limitations imposed upon our police include federal laws and regulations; state constitutions, state laws and state regulations; policies and procedures adopted by state and local police agencies; professional Codes of Ethics; professional standards and accreditation boards; federal and state court decisions (case law and civil court determinations); nature and quality of agency leadership, supervision and training; citizen activists, internal affairs investigations; pressure from lobbying groups, public opinion; and news media scrutiny.
Most of America’s law enforcement officers are highly dedicated individuals who strive each and every day to do their jobs in accordance with the guidelines mentioned above. They are fully aware of the numerous “controls” in place to detect and deal with any abuse of power on their part. The American criminal justice system is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s much better than systems found in some countries where police powers are virtually unrestricted. We must all strive to make sure our system continues to be the very best in the world.
Chief J.T. McBride (Ret.) teaches community policing at Lakeland Community College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.