During the presidential campaign, both candidates promised voters they would “fix the police.” The killings of minority people by police are on many people’s minds, so the candidates vowed to do something. Although they both promised a lot, can any president actually do much to fix the police?
There are various ways the federal government (and agencies) provide funds or equipment/training to police departments. For instance, when federal law enforcement seizes property during drug busts, that property is often shared with police departments. Sometimes, funds from the feds are used to buy equipment like weapons and vehicles. Other than these financial and training items, there isn’t much the feds can do to fix the police—nor can the president. Here’s why:
- There are approximately 18,000 police departments in the U.S. For the most part, they’re funded by local tax revenues. Police chiefs are usually selected by mayors or city councils and must report to them, not to Donald Trump so that he could fix the police.
- Police chiefs are not only highly independent professionals, but their jobs often allow them lots of freedom to carry-out the duties of police. As a result, chiefs make many of their own decisions, depending on many factors. (Funding, number of officers, population of the city, crime in that area, and what the city council wants the police to do) So, the chief will run the department as she/he wants to do.
- Police chiefs come from a variety of educational backgrounds and skill levels. Because they’re independent, their approach to law enforcement and community engagement is all over the board. One police chief could focus on getting homeless off the streets while another chief could focus on stopping drunk drivers. The president doesn’t have any control over this. Some police chiefs are racist, others are not. Some chiefs love to use all the “military equipment” they have; others never use it.
- The majority of crimes are investigated and prosecuted by local law enforcement: city police and county prosecutors. The federal government prosecutes a fraction of the number of cases handled by local authorities. For instance, many states have made possession of marijuana legal while that still remains illegal under federal law—but the feds don’t prosecute those cases.
So when Mr. Trump (or any federal politician) promises to “get tough on crime” or “fix the police,” there is really very little they can do about local crime. So why do they make these promises? I think it’s because we like to hear the assurances that someone powerful will fix our police—or many other problems we have in our communities. We’ve come to depend on the feds to fix everything—whether they can really do it or whether they should even try.
We are lucky in that, along with fix the police problems and schools, Americans retain local control to hire who we want, fund these functions the way we want, and try to fix the problems ourselves.