The Role of Police

by Safety Connection

Do you ever wonder where policing falls in the grand scheme of the 3 Branches of Government?

Reading social media posts and comments reveals the confusion that exists among many. Some blame police officers for not having stricter penalties for crimes or for letting criminals back on the streets too soon. And sometimes police are blamed for enforcing laws that are too strict or not strict enough.

Maybe it’s time for a brief refresher!

The Federal Government

To ensure a separation of powers, the U.S. Federal Government is made up of three branches: Legislative, Executive and Judicial. To ensure the government is effective and citizens’ rights are protected, each branch has its own powers and responsibilities, which includes collaborating with the other branches.

The Legislative Branch is made up of the House and Senate, known collectively as Congress. The legislative branch makes all laws, declares war, regulates interstate and foreign commerce and controls taxing and spending policies.

The Executive Branch consists of the President, his advisors, and various departments and agencies. This branch is responsible for enforcing the laws of the land.

The Judicial Branch consists of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Federal Judicial Center. According to the Constitution, “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” The Federal Judicial Center is the education and research agency for the federal courts.

The State Government

All State governments are modeled after the Federal Government to a degree and consist of the same three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. Most of us deal with our state and local government much more than the federal government, so it’s important to know how it works.

In every state, the Executive Branch is headed by a Governor who is elected by the people. In most states, other leaders in the executive branch are also elected, including the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the secretary of state, auditors and commissioners. States can vary greatly with regard to executive structure, but most include those roles.

All 50 States have legislatures made up of elected representatives. They consider matters initiated by the governor, or introduced by its members, to create legislation that becomes law. The legislature also approves the State’s budget and initiates tax legislation and articles of impeachment, when necessary. The latter is part of a system of checks and balances among the three branches of government that mirrors the Federal system and prevents any branch from abusing its power.

State judicial branches are usually led by the State Supreme Court, which hears appeals from lower-level courts. The Supreme Court corrects errors made in lower courts and therefore holds no trials of its own. Rulings made in State supreme courts are normally binding; however, when questions are raised regarding consistency with the U.S. Constitution, matters may be appealed to the federal level, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Local Government

Local governments generally include two tiers. In Wisconsin, we have counties and municipalities, or cities/towns. In some States, counties are divided into townships. Various kinds of districts also provide functions in local government outside county or municipal boundaries, such as school districts or aldermanic districts.

Municipal governments are generally organized around a population center and usually correspond to the geographical designations used by the United States Census Bureau for reporting of housing and population statistics. Municipalities vary greatly in size, from the millions of residents of New York City and Los Angeles to the roughly 265,000 who live in Madison, Wisconsin.

Municipalities generally take responsibility for parks and recreation services, police and fire departments, housing services, emergency medical services, municipal courts, transportation services (including public transportation), and public works (streets, sewers, snow removal, signage, etc).

Whereas the Federal Government and State governments share power in countless ways, a local government must be granted power by the State. In general, mayors, city councils (our alders), and other governing bodies are directly elected by the people.

Do you see how policing fits in?

Reading social media posts and comments reveals the confusion that exists among many. Some blame police officers for not having stricter penalties for crimes or for letting criminals back on the streets too soon. And sometimes police are blamed for enforcing laws that are too strict or not strict enough.

Springing from the three branches of government, we have the three branches of the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system was established to deal with those who break the laws instituted by the legislative branch of government.

The Components of the Criminal Justice System

Three main components make up the criminal justice system: law enforcement, courts, and corrections. They work together to prevent and punish criminal behavior.

Law Enforcement

This function is the most visible. Police officers are typically the first contact a criminal has with the criminal justice system.

Police patrol communities to help prevent crimes, to respond to crime and disorder, to investigate incidences of crime, and to arrest people suspected of committing crimes. They provide evidence of a case to the District Attorney, who decides whether or not to bring charges based on the evidence. Criminals only enter the court system after they’ve been arrested.

The Court System

The court system consists of attorneys, judges, and less frequently juries. The guilt or innocence of a suspect is determined in a court of law, which is a judicial component, not a law enforcement (executive) component. The suspect, now a defendant, is offered a defense in court, as evidence is presented. The defendant may hire an attorney, be appointed a public defender, or represent himself or herself. At the end of the trial or hearing, the verdict is typically announced, and when found guilty, the convicted person enters the corrections system.

The Corrections System

The corrections system incorporates all forms of sentencing and punishment. It includes incarceration and probation. In Dane County, it also includes the Restorative Court and opportunities for Restorative Justice. A convicted criminal is the responsibility of the corrections system until their full sentence is served or commuted.

Many would say we have a broken criminal justice system at the local level, and the blame is too often placed on police.

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