Protesters calling for an end to police brutality and a beginning to better race relations in America have filled the streets in New York, Washington and other U.S. cities recently, angry over several incidents in which young black men died in confrontations with white police officers, and no prosecution taken against the accused police.
The cases, stretching from Ferguson, Missouri, to Cleveland, Ohio, to Staten Island, N.Y., have public officials scrambling to balance the rights of demonstrators to take to the streets and the demands of public safety, as some protests turn violent. They also are focusing world attention on the power of local police in America.
Under our system of government, authority to enact laws to preserve and protect public safety, health and welfare is granted to the states. Under this grant, police have three primary functions: maintain public order, enforce state and local laws, and render public service, such patrolling the community and responding to emergencies. The federal government’s lawmaking authority is limited to specific grants of power found in the Constitution. Ours is a system of government checks and balances, and unless constitutional questions arise in a local police action, the check on police power is found in the local and state courts, not Washington.
When in the course of an officer’s duties he or she has cause to think that a serious law has been broken, the officer can handcuff and arrest the person, who will be held pending an impartial court hearing on the arrest. If the person in question is believed to be an immediate danger to the officer or the people around them, local laws in most jurisdictions allow the use of deadly force.
A significant number of killings by police in such confrontations, however, including the deaths of people who are unarmed such as in the Ferguson and Staten Island incidents, have raised questions across the country about excessive use of force. That grand juries reviewing the incidents found no wrongdoing by local police has also angered many Americans, upset that the legal system may be broken.
This is where the federal government may come in, with its own check on local police power. The U.S. Justice Department may take action if it believes local police crossed the line in the exercise of their duties, violating a person’s constitutional rights even while he or she may have been breaking local law. Such investigations may be launched in the Ferguson and other cases.
The ways that police enforce the laws intended to protect us all have critical implications for our democracy and the quality of life in the United States.