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Crime and Safety, Increasing Federal Involvement

fingerprint records, LEAA, Safe Streets Act, Violent Crime Control, Law Enforcement Act

The size of nearly all police units has sharply increased since World War II because communities have demanded larger police forces. By the 1970s over 500,000 men and women were employed in 40,000 public law enforcement agencies. By the 1990s these figures had increased to nearly 750,000 people in 45,000 agencies. From the 1970s to the 1990s the combined annual budget of law enforcement organizations more than doubled, not including the cost of prisons. Some of this growth was spurred by public fears, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, that crime was becoming difficult to control.

As a result of these fears, the federal government has become increasingly involved in all levels of law enforcement. Congress and the president have attempted to provide more support for state and local law enforcement agencies. The federal government, state troopers, and local police often share technology such as crime laboratories and fingerprint records. In 1968 Congress passed the Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which established the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). The LEAA provided federal grants to states to hire more police officers, purchase equipment for crime control, and improve coordination between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The act also required the licensing of gun dealers, prohibited the interstate shipment of pistols and revolvers to individuals, and prohibited the sale of handguns to anyone under the age of 21.

In 1994 the president and Congress again responded to citizen concerns with the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which built on the federal, state, and local alliance. Not only did this legislation provide funds for local governments to hire more police, but for the first time it also included money for programs specifically designed to fight violence against women.

The federal government has also become involved in defining and standardizing what constitutes crime in the United States and the rights of those accused of criminal activity. Since World War II the Supreme Court has expanded the rights of suspected criminals to ensure that the innocent are protected. Under the law, an individual has the right to due process—that is, a fair trial and equal treatment. If arrested, people have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, to have access to an attorney, to be fairly questioned by the police, to be advised of their rights, and to be free from unreasonable seizures of personal property.

Some Americans believe that the need to protect individuals from injustice sometimes conflicts with society’s need to enforce the law and maintain social order. A Supreme Court case decided in 1984 addressed such tensions. In its ruling in United States v. Leon, the Court held that evidence obtained by a defective search warrant (which had been thrown out by a lower court in order to protect the defendant’s rights) was admissible. The Court ruled that because the police had believed at the time of the incident that the search warrant was legitimate and they were acting in good faith, the evidence could be used against the defendant.

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