In the United States, the criminal justice system has a number of separate branches with the common goal of public safety. Police departments are a part of the larger criminal justice system that includes prosecutors, courts, juvenile justice systems, and correctional agencies such as prisons and probation and parole departments. The effectiveness of the criminal justice system is determined by many different agencies on the local, state, and federal levels. Police are one of the most visible representations of the criminal justice system in the eyes of the public.
Police departments do not write laws; they are tasked with the responsibility of enforcing laws that are enacted by elected officials in the legislature and that are interpreted by the courts. Enforcing laws is just one of many different roles of the police. Other important roles include working with communities to prevent crimes and solve various “quality of life” problems, maintaining order, and conducting investigations.
Police officials are responsible for performing their various roles and responsibilities in a way that protects everyone’s constitutional rights. At its most basic level, constitutional policing can be described as “legal policing.” This means that policing must be conducted in accordance with the parameters set by the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions, and the many court decisions that have defined in greater detail what the text of the Constitution means in terms of the everyday practices of policing.
“What we need to understand is that “constitutional policing” is both foundational and aspirational for the police. The Constitution, in other words, provides both the basic legal framework within which we operate and the larger ethos which we strive to embody.”
- Policing consultant and retired Police Chief Noble Wray
Police are entrusted with an enormous amount of authority, including the authority to use force, and it is important that the police undertake these tasks in a manner that is legal, and also is respectful to community members and is in keeping with local priorities. (For example, different communities may vary in their approach to certain issues, such as the enforcement of federal immigration laws or drug decriminalization or legalization.) Police agencies must also promote transparency and accountability to demonstrate to the community that officers act fairly and impartially, and that there are systems in place to detect mistakes or abuses of police authority. Public trust and cooperation are key elements of effective policing, and are lost when police engage in unconstitutional or unprofessional conduct.