Crime Control Revisited (1970s–1990s)

As the political mood of the country turned conservative during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, crime control dominated the police agenda in the United States.

Controlling street crime

American police experimented with a variety of programs designed to control street crime. Scientific evaluations show that these police programs reduce crime:

  1. Extra police patrols in high‐crime hot spots.

  2. Repeat offender units that monitor repeat offenders on the streets.

  3. Efforts to arrest employed suspects who engage in domestic abuse (studies indicate that arrests are more likely to deter employed spouse abusers than unemployed abusers).

Other police programs do not work. These include neighborhood watch programs, which fail to reduce burglaries, and police crackdowns on drug markets, which fail to reduce violent crime or disorder for more than a few days.

Controlling illegal drugs

Controlling drugs and fighting drug‐related crime are among the major responsibilities of law enforcement at all levels of government. Police involvement in the drug war is costly. First, economic costs are staggering. For example, federal expenditures for drug control rose from $1.5 billion in 1981 to $18 billion in 1998. Drug‐related law enforcement consumes more than half of this budget. Treatment, education, crop control, interdiction (interception of drugs), research, and intelligence account for the rest. Second, police involvement in the drug war exacerbates police corruption. Of course, police corruption is nothing new. Police corruption related to liquor laws when alcohol prohibition was in effect. The same type of prohibition‐style corruption is rampant in drug enforcement today. More than 100 drug corruption cases involving law enforcement officers are prosecuted in federal and state courts each year. Third, the drug war poisons police‐community relations. Some lawyers, activists, and politicians claim the drug war is racist. As proof of police racism, they assert that in some cities the main targets in the war on drugs are minority neighborhoods and minority suspects. Fourth, strict enforcement of the drug laws may actually make the drug problem worse by boosting drug prices and by increasing profits for drug traffickers.

Police drug‐education programs have not fared much better than the law enforcement programs. During the 1990s, thousands of school districts across America involved the police teaching DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education). Recent evaluations show DARE does not prevent students from using illegal drugs.

The déjà vu character of police brutality

Just as police brutality reared its ugly head in the first big city police departments in the 19th century, it resurfaced in many U.S. cities during the 1990s. After the Rodney King incident, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held hearings in six cities on the issue of police brutality of minorities. A report written by the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School documents examples of excessive force, verbal abuse, unjustified searches, and trumped‐up charges against minorities. Critics rhetorically pose the question “Who will police the police?”

The crime control counterrevolution

In response to the issue of controlling the police, the Burger Supreme Court (1969–1986) and the Rehnquist Court (1986–) have deferred to the police to control themselves. The appointment of new justices by conservative Republican presidents and others by a middle‐of‐the‐road Democratic president swung the makeup of the Supreme Court to the right. Under the leadership of Warren Burger and William Rehnquist, the Court has carved out exceptions to the due process rights established by the liberal Warren Court. The net effect of rulings by the conservative Burger and Rehnquist Courts on criminal procedure has been to unshackle the police from Fourth and Fifth Amendment limitations.