Policing in a Global Society

Article excerpt

Society is becoming increasingly global. Today, we can travel faster, more easily, more often, and for less money than ever before. Communications technology, from cellular telephones to the Internet, allows us to make worldwide connections from virtually any location. Many of us commute everyday through sprawling, multicounty, even multistate metropolitan areas. Some of us even fly to and from distant cities in the same day.

These capabilities also can present challenges to law enforcement. First, a mobile society may generate greater opportunities for crime by putting strangers together in unfamiliar surroundings. The resulting alienation and anonymity weakens social restraints on behavior. Second, offenders, victims, and witnesses of crimes may return or move to another jurisdiction, complicating cases for investigators and prosecutors. Extraditing a fugitive, whether from another country or another state, can prove a complex, drawn out, and expensive process.

The ease of international travel and the conflicts in national sovereignty have been factors in highprofile cases from drug smuggling and terrorism to traveling serial killers and sexual predators. Now, computers and the Internet create new varieties of criminals, from high-tech criminals to online pedophiles, who cross jurisdictional lines in seconds. These jurisdictional problems can occur in any community, regardless of its population or geographical size, but areas with multicultural demographics and economies oriented toward international commerce remain particularly vulnerable. In the United States, an example of such areas would include New York City and Washington, DC, as well as communities along the Pacific Coast and in the Sunbelt.


The system of justice in the United States, which focuses on territorial jurisdiction, hampers the ability to police in a global society. Unlike citizens of most other countries, Americans consider law enforcement primarily a local concern. While criminal statutes apply throughout a state, sheriffs have enforcement powers only within the geographic boundaries of their respective counties, and city police officers can conduct investigations and make arrests only for crimes that occur within their particular municipal limits.

Through the end of the 19th century, local sheriffs and police served adequately because the predominant focus was to maintain order. Constables on patrol chased away undesirables and only arrested the disorderly individuals or burglars they happened upon. In rural areas, sheriffs only occasionally left their courthouses and jails to form posses to track outlaws. State police, with the power to cross county lines, did not exist. The U.S. marshals presiding over western territories represented the only federal law enforcement agency with the authority to cross state lines.

The need for state constabularies and federal investigators did not arise until after World War I, when the automobile gave criminals easy transportation from one community, county, or state to another-- effectively putting them beyond the reach of the local foot patrol officer and the sheriff's posse. Soon, the bootleggers of Prohibition and the bank robbers of the Great Depression sped across local boundaries with alarming regularity. For the first time, the limits of local jurisdictions became a major public concern in the provision of effective and efficient police services.

In response, law enforcement substantially changed the way it operated. Police departments adopted the automobile, telephone, teletype, two-way radio, and computer to track the mobile offender. Latent fingerprints and other trace evidence became accepted as positive proof of a crime, linking an unknown suspect to a distant crime scene (as DNA may become in the next century).

State lawmakers created new police organizations with statewide enforcement powers. Some provided a full range of police services, such as patrolling, conducting investigations, and operating forensic laboratories. …