The police

Structure and organization

There’s no national police force in the US, where policing is organised on a state and local basis. The country has around 500,000 police officers and a total of 40,000 separate police forces, over half of which are simply one or two-man sheriffs’ offices in small towns.

Police forces include city police (possibly with separate departments to deal with schools, traffic and even refuse), county police, transport police, sheriffs’ departments, state police (state troopers) and highway forces such as the California Highway Patrol. An ordinary policeman is usually called a patrolman.

In addition to regular full-time police officers, many towns have auxiliary, part-time police officers, special duty and volunteer sheriff’s posses (which assist sheriffs’ offices in some areas). The American response to increasing crime is usually to put more cops on the beat.

The division between federal and state law can be confusing; for example murder is classified as a state crime, while less serious crimes such as taking a woman across state lines for immoral purposes is a federal crime (although it may be dealt with by a local police force). City police are concerned with local crime, and offences outside their jurisdiction are usually dealt with by state police or federal investigators (the FBI). With the increased emphasis on fighting and preventing terrorism, more and more responsibility has fallen on the local police forces, and many jurisdictions are being stretched to the limit, with promised federal funds for fighting terrorism proving inadequate for the measures proposed.

All police are armed and popular weapons include .38 specials and shotguns. Police officers also carry truncheons (night-sticks), and some forces are issued with an electronic tazer gun administering a charge of 50,000 volts for around eight seconds (originally a cattle prod), used to knock out aggressive drug addicts. In many areas, police wear bullet-proof vests, although even these are no defence against the Teflon-coated bullets (known as cop-killers) used by some criminals. Police officers also carry mace, a riot gas similar to CS gas. Police officers are among the most frightening looking Americans you’re likely to meet, with their carefully developed tough-men looks, truncheons and guns. In some states, police can legally shoot suspected criminals trying to evade arrest, so don’t even think about it!

Variations across regions

As in most countries, the efficiency, honesty and politeness of police officers vary from city to city and state to state. Police corruption is reportedly widespread, particularly in the major cities such as New York, where many officers are involved in criminal activities such as selling drugs seized from pushers. Although some people claim to present their driving licence to a traffic cop along with a $20 bill, you should never attempt to bribe a police officer, even if he gives you an open invitation. As in many countries, most complaints against the police are dismissed out of hand by police review boards, and most people consider it a waste of time reporting cases of bad cops.

If you’re stopped by a policeman, either in a car or when walking, don’t make any sudden moves and keep your hands where they can be seen. Some policemen are extremely jumpy (often justifiably so) and may interpret any movement as an attempt to reach a concealed weapon. Always be courteous and helpful. It may not do any harm to emphasise that you’re a foreigner (depending on your nationality) or to tell the officer you’re a visitor or newcomer. If you’ve broken the law, you should apologise and stress that it was innocently and inadvertently done (although they may not be convinced if you’ve just held up a bank with an AK-47).

In addition to federal and state police forces, there are around 75 federal law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who deal with interstate crime. The FBI has some 20,000 plain clothes agents who normally concern themselves with major offences such as murder, kidnapping and robbery. It publishes a list of the ‘ten most wanted fugitives’ and provides state and local police forces with information.

In the last few years, however, the FBI has had its role expanded to include ‘homeland security’ and there’s talk of merging or at least co-ordinating the activities of the FBI with those of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Each state also has a reserve national guard under the command of the state governor that can be called on to deal with civil unrest such as riots, as well as dealing with natural catastrophes, e.g. earthquakes, fires, floods and hurricanes. The National Guard has had its role vastly increased in recent years. Many companies and individuals also employ private armed guards.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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