The police—some 420,000 people working for approximately 40,000 separate agencies that spend more than $2½ billion a year —are the part of the criminal justice system that is in direct daily contact both with crime and with the public. The entire system—courts and corrections as well as the police—is charged with enforcing the law and maintaining order. What is distinctive about the responsibility of the police is that they are charged with performing these functions where all eyes are upon them and where the going is roughest, on the street. Since this is a time of increasing crime, increasing social unrest, and increasing public sensitivity to both, it is a time when police work is peculiarly important, complicated, conspicuous, and delicate.
The rate of apprehension of offenders in property crimes is extremely low—approximately 22 percent of those reported. The police have greater success with violent crimes—approximately 59 percent of those reported. In large part this is because more victims of violent crimes know or can identify their assailants. The ability of a victim or witness to identify the criminal is the factor responsible for solving a large percentage of the crimes that are solved.
To say that the police have a limited ability to prevent crime is not to criticize the police. The police, more than anybody, are frustrated by the wide gap between the task they are expected to perform and the methods at their disposal to perform it.
As America has grown and policing has become correspondingly complex, the existing law enforcement system has not always been altered to meet the needs of a mechanized and metropolitan society.
Over the years, the proliferation of independent and, for the most part, local policing units has led to an overlapping of responsibilities and a duplication of effort, causing problems in police administration and in the coordination of efforts to apprehend criminals. America is a nation of small, decentralized police forces.