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Many mayors of major US cities are claiming that they were not implement some of President-elect Trump's orders regarding deportation. Would the police be obligated to listen to the mayor and ignore the president or would they be obligated to listen to the president and ignore the mayor?

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  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arizona_v._United_States is the closest to case law we have here, but, in this case, Arizona wanted to enforce immigration laws MORE strictly than the federal government.
    – user2565
    Nov 20, 2016 at 4:51
  • To sum up the answers: there are no US Police Officers like there are US Marshals.
    – RonJohn
    Jul 2, 2019 at 14:59

6 Answers 6

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Do United States Police Officers Answer to the President Before the Mayor?

No. In some cities, e.g. New York City, they don't answer to either. Although the mayor can fire and replace the police commissioner there, individual officers are not obliged to obey the mayor. In other cities, the head of the police may be elected separately from the mayor. And the president isn't connected to local police at all.

That said, they do have to comply with the law. And if the law requires them to do certain things in certain situations, then they have to follow that. Even in those places where the police are directly under mayoral control, the mayor can't force them to break the law. E.g. the mayor can't demand an extra-judicial hanging. Or force them to ignore immigration law.

The current battle seems to be being fought mostly in terms of funding. The federal government is sending certain monies to the city. It may stop sending some funds to cities that don't do certain things. Cities are defiantly saying that they'll continue even in the face of loss of funds. Note how this hits two Republican issues: immigration and cutting spending. And a very small number of Republicans live in those cities. As such, don't be surprised if the funding is in fact cut.

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  • I disagree. The chain of command is well-established and that's how police force works. Mayors are in charge of city government in the same way President is of the federal government. President orders his generals for military operation and city mayors order his police commissioner (or whatever he is called) for police operation. I think you misunderstood how it works.
    – Rathony
    Nov 20, 2016 at 11:57
  • In DC, the President actually does have some authority over police. Under the Home Rule Act, the President can order the mayor to provide (for a limited time) such services of the Metropolitan Police as the President deems necessary or appropriate if the President feels it's needed to deal with an emergency.
    – cpast
    Nov 20, 2016 at 22:20
  • "the mayor can't force them ... to ignore immigration law": the mayor can fire them, however, for disobeying an order to ignore immigration law.
    – phoog
    Nov 5, 2018 at 2:35
  • @Rathony I can’t speak for the US / every US jurisdiction, but the principle of police autonomy / arm’s-length control is not unheard of. The police are not a military force (except in certain countries, where they are).
    – owjburnham
    Nov 5, 2018 at 15:09
  • At the county level, the sheriff is usually independently elected and reports to no one but the voters and the courts, except that the county commission indirectly influences the sheriff through funding decisions. The proportion of law enforcement officers in the U.S. who report to local government rather than to state government or to the federal government is higher than in almost any other country in the world.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 13, 2023 at 20:46
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Municipalities are creations of the states. Depending on the state, municipalities may have different levels of independence (and in some states, different municipalities may have different levels of independence within a single state, depending on the municipal charter). Well, except for Washington, DC, where I believe that the city mostly reports to Congress - but that's a onesie special case

States are considered sovereign entities to some extent. Yes, Congress can pass laws that override state laws, but the concept of state sovereignty dates back to the founding of the country (though it was paired back a bit when the Articles of Confederation were supplanted by the constitution. An example of this is how the President has absolute pardon power for federal convictions and zero pardon power for state crimes.

The President has absolutely no constitutional powers over cities. That said, many/most of the programs that Congress passes and funds leaves it to the executive branch to administer. What the President can say he/she's going to do is withhold Congress-passed funds from a city if it doesn't follow his/her dictates.

The Trump administration has tried this with some California cities. I believe that so far, the cities are winning the ensuing court cases.

It's also worth noting that in some US municipalities, the city will have a weak mayor form of government (as opposed to having a strong mayor. Dallas is an example. The police in Dallas report not to the mayor, but to the city council as a whole, through the city manager. Most executive responsibilities are invested in the city manager and not the mayor.

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  • "What the President can say he/she's going to do is withhold Congress-passed funds from a city if it doesn't follow his/her dictates": the president does not have full discretion over the disbursement of federal funds.
    – phoog
    Nov 5, 2018 at 2:40
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You should note that police force has a different chain of command from military force whose top commander is the Commander-in-Chief, President of the US.

Police officers are to follow orders from Mayors who appoint the top police officer called chief of police/police commissioner/superintendent/sheriff. In other words, the commander-in-chief of police officers in each city and county are mayors. (Depending on the size and relevant laws of each city and county, it might work differently.)

Mayors don't follow orders from the President. They follow the law. If they are found not to follow any law, they can be recalled and sued by city council members or citizens depending on the law.

Theoretically, mayors don't have to follow the President's initiatives and policies. However, the federal government has some power to force their initiatives and policies through incentives and disincentives (stick and carrot). Cities and counties rely on support from state and federal government and mayors need to receive as much support from the federal government as possible, one good example of which is infrastructure projects which cost a lot of money. The federal government has ways and means to control mayors. It's always give and take and that's politics.

We will see how many mayors can defy Trump's policies when they become reality. There will be some reasonable middle ground that each side could agree on. That's what I expect to happen.

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  • Not very relevant, but there's State police too, they don't take orders from Mayors. There are also elected Sheriffs who I don't think do.
    – user4012
    Nov 19, 2016 at 15:47
  • 1
    @user4012 Yes, there is. But their roles are not same as city police, for example, in terms of enforcing such laws related with illegal immigrants.
    – Rathony
    Nov 19, 2016 at 15:51
  • There are many parts of the US where there is no local police force and basic policing is provided by state police. There are many more parts of the US where the local police force is the county sheriff's office. State, county, and local police all wield the power of state law, however, not federal, so the president is not in the chain of command for any of them.
    – phoog
    Feb 12, 2023 at 8:13
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There are 2 facets of this - are they required, and can they be compelled even if they are not:

  1. Strictly speaking, there is currently no law which requires state police to participate in immigration enforcement per se.

  2. As another answer noted, municipal law enforcement officers (LEOs) are basically employees of municipal government, and as such (unless they hold an elected office like the Sheriff of Nottingham) they report to the Mayor, NOT to federal executive branch/President.


However, there are ways that they can be persuaded to follow the law:

  1. Direct financial dependency on federal government.

    Between FY2009 and FY2014, the federal government provided nearly $18 billion dollars in funds and resources to support programs that provide equipment and tactical resources to state and local LEAs (Source: White House).

    Additionally, local LEOs receive much more indirect support (intelligence, training, liaison, federal info) as well.

  2. Threat of federal prosecution

    Purely theoretically, illegal immigration is a crime. I'm not sure if it's legally feasible (I'll ask on law.se) but there may be a possibility that a LEO who "harbors" an illegal alien may be prosecuted for aiding and abetting or (if it's organized) conspiracy. IANALADPOOI†, so this is just a random guess that may not be feasible legally or practically.

  3. As another answer noted, financial pressure can be put on the city rulers and the Mayor directly.

    The Federal government typically has a lot of money they can threaten to cut off to the city, if the city is defiant.

    There are also secondary considerations (awarding contracts, etc...).

  4. Last but not least, with sufficient votes, Congress can theoretically even pass a law making it an explicit crime for local LEOs not to enforce immigration law. Not sure how feasible that is in practice as far as getting enough votes, and of course it would have to survive constitutional challenge that is inevitable to arise.

† I Am Not A Lawyer And Don't Play One On Internet

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  • 1
    There's another angle to this, which is that unless they are specifically deputized to do so, state and local police are not even authorized to enforce federal law.
    – phoog
    Nov 20, 2016 at 5:27
  • 1
    @phoog That's not generally true. Unless the feds leave no role for state authorities, state police can arrest for federal crimes if allowed by state law. For instance, state police can arrest for federal immigration crimes like unlawful entry, but not non-crimes like unlawful presence.
    – cpast
    Nov 20, 2016 at 22:23
  • @cpast okay, but if allowed by state law.
    – phoog
    Nov 20, 2016 at 22:37
  • 1
    @phoog Except in places like Arizona that allow probable cause arrest for misdemeanors.
    – cpast
    Nov 20, 2016 at 23:03
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    @ohwilleke See Gonzales v. City of Peoria, 722 F. 2d 468. This literally has come up, for Arizona specifically, and the ruling was that state officers had the authority to arrest for federal crimes as long as state law permitted it. See also US v. Di Re, 332 U. S. 581.
    – cpast
    Feb 14, 2023 at 2:59
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First, except in DC there is no direct connection between local or state government or law enforcement and any branch of the Federal government. Federal officials have more power because the Federal government is larger and has more people, money, lawyers and guns, not because they directly report to someone that is in the Federal government.

Some local law enforcement officers, Sherrifs for instance, may not have a superior that they report to — there is no one that can give them orders and fire them for disobedience.

But everyone is subject to the same laws (basically, there are temporary and time limited exceptions for members of Congress and the President), so if a police officer commits a crime he could be arrested, tried and convicted.

But....the courts (see castle rock and warren vs District of Columbia) have ruled that the police do not have a positive duty to perform their job.

Which makes sense. Take the simple example of a hostage situation, if they have a positive duty to do something, then any time spent trying to negotiate a peaceful ending would be considered criminal. Police have discretion as to when and how to enforce the law, and it is their managers and supervisors (and to a lesser extent the people) who determine if they are doing an adequate job, not the courts.

So, depending upon the exact type of law enforcement officer they are, they may legally be able to tell both the President and the mayor to go away and stop bothering them.

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It varies. In some cities the mayor does control city workers including police officers. In other cities there will be an elected board that has that control and the mayor is only one member of that board or there may not even be a mayor. This control is often indirect with the mayor or board having to work through a chief of police.

However there are also sheriffs deputies. In most places the Sheriff is an elected official at the county level. They do not answer to the mayor or board of a city. Then there are state police or highway patrols that answer to the State's Governor. In some cases like South Carolina where I currently live, there is also a State Law Enforcement Division called SLED that assists local law enforcement with investigations.

Commonly if there is a crime within city limits, the city police will handle it, if it is outside of the city limits the Sheriff's office will take it. and if it is on an interstate highway or other major highway the state police will usually respond. However there is overlap. A city police officer can give you a traffic ticket on an interstate that pass though city limits. Out in more rural areas a state trooper might respond instead of a sheriff it they are closer.

Most likely this question is due to the public stance that many sheriffs have take against some of the new gun control measures that are being discussed. They see these new regulations as being ineffective, most likely unconstitutional, and actually harmful. There are many part of the USA where it will take considerable time for an officer to respond. People in rural areas tend to be self sufficient, including being able to defend themselves. Any Sheriff that enforces such unpopular laws will find themselves out of a job after the next election.

Police have always had discretion on enforcing laws. For example someone pulled over for speeding and they have a small amount of marijuana, the officer may just dispose of the drug and only give them a speeding ticket instead of charging them with drug possession or they may decide to charge them.

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  • While this is interesting information none of it addresses the question of answering to the president or mayor first.
    – Joe W
    Feb 13, 2023 at 20:59

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