Emerging Issues

American society has always been dynamic, and the current situation is no different. Consideration of police and society, then, must account for the changing nature of that society. Important facets of ongoing societal change include generational differences among the population, the increasing diversity of the American people, immigration from other countries, internal migration patterns, and shifts in jobs and other economic conditions. Among the most obvious factors affecting policing are the different cultures and languages they now encounter, increasing income inequality, and a vast increase in the number of families with both parents working outside the home, leaving more children unsupervised after school and at other times.

Changing times create new challenges and issues. Among the most contentious contemporary issues facing policing are crime trends, mass shootings, drug abuse, and mental health issues. Police practices need continuous refinement to ensure that policing is done in an efficient, effective, and equitable manner. Crime and disorder problems in the community need careful analysis and attention, whether they are of a long-standing nature, such as dealing with violence and theft, or newer problems, such as computer crime. A particular crime-related issue in recent years has been mass shootings, some of which have a nexus to terrorism, some to hate crime, others to mental health, and some in which the motivation cannot be determined. Yet another crime-related challenge is dealing with drug crimes and drug abuse, which is not a new police mission, but drug use patterns continue to shift, with marijuana being legalized or decriminalized in many states, while the recent opioid/fentanyl crisis demonstrates the ongoing ravage of addiction. Handling people experiencing mental health crises is not a new challenge either, but it is receiving increased attention as society becomes more aware that police and jail are not the best answers to what is really a health problem.

There is probably no surer forecast than that technology will continue to change and change ever faster, affecting society and policing. Improvements in technology associated with crime detection, crime solving, surveillance, officer safety, accountability, and exploitation of social media are likely to make tremendous contributions toward more effective and efficient policing. The technology du jour is BWCs, which will not be a panacea but may make important contributions to transparency and accountability. It is hard to predict all the unintended consequences that will follow from these and other new technologies, especially as they relate to privacy and civil liberties issues, except to say that there will be some.

Significant long-term trends that seem likely to continue affecting policing in the future include professionalization, privatization, federalization, and militarization. Together, these trends have the potential to radically change the distinctive nature of American policing—public, local, fragmented, and civilian. Whether the momentum behind these trends is inexorable or more temporary is open to debate. The increasingly complex and transnational nature of crime and the emergence of international terrorism suggest that these trends can only increase in momentum. However, everyday crime and disorder are still much more common than sophisticated international crime and more of a threat to the average American, suggesting that local police may not become an endangered species anytime soon.

Terrorism and homeland security have dominated the police agenda since 2001. As a result, the authority of the police has expanded, federal law enforcement has been reorganized, and state and local police have accepted new high-priority missions. Exactly what these new missions are, at least at the local level, is still being worked out, including whether new policing strategies will need to replace the strategies police have relied on for the past few decades.