Terrorism, Federalism, and Police Misconduct

By Stuntz, William J. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Terrorism, Federalism, and Police Misconduct


Stuntz, William J., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


The defining characteristic of American criminal law enforcement -- the characteristic that most distinguishes it from law enforcement elsewhere in the developed world -- is its localism. There are approximately 800,000 police officers in the United States. (1) Over 660,000 of them work for local governments. (2) And personnel statistics understate the system's local tilt. There are approximately 50,000 federal criminal cases per year. (3) Criminal cases brought by local agencies each year number in the millions; (4) local district attorneys win about one million felony convictions per year. (5)

This imbalance is very much the historical norm. The federal government has never employed a sizable fraction of the nation's law enforcement officers or prosecutors, nor housed a large portion of its prisoners. While other traditional staples of local government -- poor relief, road construction, even to some degree primary and secondary education -- have migrated up the sovereignty ladder, with state and national budgets absorbing a much larger share of the burden of providing services over the past century, local governments have only tightened their hold on law enforcement. As Tom Stacy and Kim Dayton noted a few years ago, the federal share of law enforcement has steadily declined over the course of the past half-century (and the local share has steadily risen). (6) Try to think of another government activity about which one could say that.

In short, in the United States, two levels of government -- local and federal (the states do almost no criminal prosecution and very little policing) -- share the job of enforcing criminal law. But they do not share that job equally. Local governments dominate, more so than in any other sphere of governance or regulation. The federal government serves only as a backstop, and not a very important backstop at that.

That long-standing truth may be about to change, for reasons that go directly to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington this past September 11. Not fundamentally: we are not about to create a federal law enforcement bureaucracy that can process millions of cases per year, nor are we likely to have a national police force that can assign officers to walk a beat in urban neighborhoods anytime soon. But real change is a real possibility. If it happens, the heart of the change will be this: Before last September, terrorism occupied a very small place in both politics and law enforcement; today and for some time to come, it is likely to occupy a large place -- not dominant, but large. And while the crimes terrorists commit are crimes under state and federal law alike, everyone assumes that the FBI's role in fighting terrorism will be primary, at least within America's borders. Local police departments will be (and already have been) powerfully affected. (7) But in this sphere, they are the backstop. The FBI is where the buck stops.

My goal in this brief Essay is to raise what might seem a minor question (at least, minor compared with the questions discussed elsewhere in this Special Issue): what might that change mean for the level of police misconduct in the United States? We have a large body of law devoted to policing the police, along with a large body of literature devoted to theorizing about police misbehavior and what the law can do about it. Both the law and the theory have focused almost exclusively on local police. In a society where local policing dominates criminal law enforcement, that is as it should be. But the fight against terrorism is likely to chip away at that dominance. It is worth thinking about what that development might mean for legal regulation of those who enforce the criminal law. Which in turn depends on what more federal power will mean for the amount of abusive behavior by law enforcers.

At first blush, more federal power in this area would seem to be a piece of very good news. We are used to thinking of the federal legal system as better, in all respects, than its state and local counterparts.

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