Law Enforcement Agencies

byciclepoliceThe city of Seattle instituted bicycle patrols (Bicycle Police) in the late 1980s to combat drug dealers downtown and in various other high crime areas of the city. Speed and stealth allow bicycle patrol officers to surprise offenders in the midst of a crime. The number of arrests made by these patrols far outnumbers those made by foot patrols in the city. Here, two officers apprehend a suspect in the Pioneer Square area of the city.

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.

Police Jurisdiction Generally, police forces at the city, county, state, and federal level have jurisdiction over crimes that take place within their distinct geographic areas. Legislation or special agreements between police forces, however, can extend jurisdiction. Often, jurisdictions overlap in such a way that determining which police force has authority over a particular area or crime can be difficult. This illustration depicts three different crimes and explains which police force has jurisdiction.

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.

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