There is a widespread belief that policing in the USA suffers from systemic racism. Let us suppose that Joe Biden gets elected President and decides that this is a priority. Let us also suppose that he can get legislation passed to support his policies.

However, policing in the USA is mostly a local affair. The kind of everyday policing that is at issue here is generally organized at a county or city level. Wikipedia says:

There are 17,985 U.S. police agencies in the United States.

How much influence can the federal executive and legislature have on the way in which local policing is done in the USA?

Edit: In response to comments. The question about "who polices the police" has useful answers; the fact that federal charges can be brought where local oversight fails is important because the executive could easily beef up that aspect of enforcement without any new laws. However I'm also interested in ways in which federal pressure can be bought to bear on systemic problems in recruitment, promotion and general discipline.

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    @RickSmith Definitely related, but I don’t think this is a duplicate. That question discusses existing oversight, but the federal government has a lot of power to influence things at the state and local level if they want. I think the limits of what they can do are an open question
    – divibisan
    Aug 30, 2020 at 14:40
  • Comments deleted. Please don't use comments to answer the question or to engage in political debates.
    – Philipp
    Sep 1, 2020 at 14:59
  • Would you be interested in answers that do not involve legislative changes? Or are you only looking for legislation?
    – blud
    Sep 1, 2020 at 19:53
  • I voted to close not based on duplicate but because this question is too open-ended and opinion-based.
    – qwr
    Sep 1, 2020 at 22:02
  • @blud I'd like to see both. I mentioned legislation because I don't want to exclude it, not because I want to exclude actions taken by the executive. Sep 2, 2020 at 7:49

7 Answers 7


How much influence can the federal executive and legislature have on the way in which local policing is done in the USA?

The federal government can influence state and local police agencies in the same way that the federal government influences state and local governments in other regards: Threaten to stop supplying the monies the federal government provides to those state and local governments.

There are precedents galore for this. One example: Strictly speaking, the federal government did not have the constitutional authority in 1974 to establish a nationwide 55 mile per hour speed limit. That nationwide speed limit nonetheless came to pass when the federal government threatened to remove federal highway funding to those states that did not reduce their top speed limit to 55 miles per hour.

The federal government directly provides funds to local and state police agencies through a number of mechanisms. It also provides funds to local and state governments that aren't directly related to policing but that can be tied to policing behaviors should the federal government wish to do so. Federal monies provided to state and and local governments always come with strings attached. In general, state and local governments love those federal funds but hate the strings attached with those funds.

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    Tying funding to any semblance of a metric like policescorecard.org would show changes (to the metric, if not the reality) very quickly
    – Cireo
    Aug 31, 2020 at 20:47

The federal government could end the practice of -- or put conditions on -- selling surplus military equipment to local police agencies: The Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) or LESO Program... allows transfer of excess Department of Defense property (equipment) that might otherwise be destroyed to law enforcement agencies across the United States and its territories.

The office says it has distributed more than $7.4 billion of "items used by America’s military -- clothing and office supplies, tools and rescue equipment, vehicles, rifles, and other small arms" since the enabling legislation was signed to support the "war on drugs" by President Clinton in 1997.

Sabrina Karim, assistant professor of government at Cornell University and an international expert on police reform says her research has found that militarization decreases public trust in policing. "The more militarized the police, the higher the risk that protestors are seen as a threat that must be met with violence tactics."

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    Combat veterans are probably more highly trained, and used to stricter rules of engagement, than many police officers. If there have been complaints against ex-Forces police, I haven't heard them. Aug 30, 2020 at 20:55
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    @RodrigodeAzevedo - Re Also combat veterans. They aren't transferred. They leave the military and later join the police on their own accord. IANAL, but I suspect a law that banned veterans from joining the police would quickly be found unconstitutional. Aug 30, 2020 at 21:55
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    @RodrigodeAzevedo - Heat??? You are showing a bias with that term. And of course they don't need papers. Military personnel become civilians when their term of military service ends. Veterans are free to pursue any civilian job, and that includes policing. Their military training does give them a leg up with regard to some jobs, and that includes policing. Police department bomb squads, for example, are chock full of EOD veterans. Aug 30, 2020 at 22:28
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    I suspect actual combat veterans don't go running around killing people. They've seen enough death and destruction in a real war zone to understand just what happens when you meet violence with violence. If anything, combat veterans are the ones that have the most restraint. I've seen DRUNK veterans refuse to start a fight with bouncers that intend to cause a scene. Only when cornered and outnumbered then he fought his way out (and won), and immediately surrendered to the police when they showed up.
    – Nelson
    Aug 31, 2020 at 5:33
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    @Nelson Generalizing about what combat veterans would or would not do is equally unproductive, how people respond to the stresses and realities of combat varies a lot per person. At best we can observe general trends or tendencies.
    – Cronax
    Aug 31, 2020 at 9:08

The US government can limit police practices it deems unsuitable via funding, as @DavidHammen's answer notes. For example, this recent bill was introduced:

Rand Paul unveils bill to end no-knock warrants

The move aligns the libertarian-leaning Republican with Democrats in the fast-shifting debate on police reform.

Sen. Rand Paul introduced legislation Thursday to stop the use of no-knock warrants, an idea that Democrats are also pushing in their calls for police reform.

The Kentucky Republican’s bill, titled the Justice for Breonna Taylor Act, requires federal law enforcement officers to give notice of their authority and purpose before entering a home. The law would also apply to state and local law enforcement agencies that receive money from the Justice Department.

The legislation comes after Taylor, a 26-year-old African American woman, was shot and killed in her home in Louisville by police who had a no-knock warrant.

“After talking with Breonna Taylor’s family, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s long past time to get rid of no-knock warrants,” Paul said in a statement. “This bill will effectively end no-knock raids in the United States.”



Consent Decrees

When a PD is alleged to have violated a citizen's civil rights, the federal government may intervene via the DoJ Civil Rights Division. If the DoJ finds the PD in violation, it may sue the PD. Instead of litigating a costly court battle and possibly losing the confidence of their city, many PDs enter into a consent decree to avoid admitting guilt. The decree gives oversight authority to the DoJ for a duration of time. If the PD is found to be in violation of the decree, the DoJ may appeal to the courts for relief. It is essentially a custom agreement to give the DoJ special regulatory powers over a PD that it would not normally have.

Consent decrees are an ex post facto solution, but have been invoked 13 times (along with 17 agreements) under the Obama administration. Obviously, they work best in addition to the purse strings, rather than as an alternative.

Note that this action falls directly under the Executive branch, whereas funding allocation is the purview of Congress. This is apropos to the question of what a future President could do vs. the entire Federal government, but also makes clear why the strategies are complementary rather than antagonistic.

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    A consent decree is a negotiated settlement in the place of the government exercising their otherwise established authority. So it's somewhat begging the central question, which is what power the federal government has. Aug 31, 2020 at 5:10
  • The bulk of the problem with consent decrees is they can be used to push a top-down methodology, which can sometimes be political. In other words, the DOJ can threaten a municipal police dept with massive legal actions if they don't comply (which cuts Congress out completely).
    – Machavity
    Sep 1, 2020 at 13:12
  • @Machavity everything a gov't does is, by nature, political. If a PD is in compliance with the Constitution, they have nothing to fear from a DoJ threat. If the DoJ successfully threatens them, then that implies the PD thinks there is a legitimate case against them in court. At the end of the day, the electorate decides whether the DoJ is doing too much or too little. BTW, it's not Congress' job to enforce compliance with the Constitution. Sep 1, 2020 at 18:54

End Qualified Immunity

Qualified Immunity is a Federal policy created by the Supreme Court that gives police some shielding against lawsuits stemming from their actions. The problem is courts tend to rule it applies where no police or municipality has been warned before, even if it should be obvious their actions are not legal

Qualified immunity has led to absurd government abuses. For example, in California, police used qualified immunity as a defense for stealing $225,000 in cash and rare coins from someone’s bedroom while executing a search warrant. The three‐judge panel held that while theft may be “morally wrong,” the officers could not be sued because the Ninth Circuit had never specifically considered the issue, and therefore the right not to have police steal your property while executing a search warrant was not “clearly established” in that jurisdiction.

This could be reversed by Federal legislation.


Some answers here suggest that the federal government could influence the behavior of individual police officers indirectly by pulling the purse strings of the police officers’ employers. Perhaps so, but a more direct approach has worked to right other wrongs.

There are many federal laws that seek to directly influence the behavior and practices of local governments, businesses and private individuals for the common good. These laws provide for civil and / or criminal penalties on a federal level for violations. Examples –

The Fair Labor Standards Act

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Equal Employment Opportunity Act

The Gun Control Act of 1968

The Clean Air Act

The Sherman Anti-Trust Act

The Americans With Disabilities Act

The Occupation Health and Safety Act

The Family and Medical Leave Act

The Freedom of Information Act

So to achieve the goal that you suggest, you need the Anti Systemic Racism in Policing Act, which would provide for civil and / or criminal penalties against individual police officers and / or their police departments if a federal prosecutor or any aggrieved individual can prove to a jury in federal court that a police officer's or their department's actions are the result of systemic racism as defined in the Act.

Simple, right?

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    Perhaps you mean the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which has zero chance of passage in 2020 thanks to the Republican Senate and President. An "Anti Systemic Racism in Policing Act" would have zero chance of passage, ever. Too much stick, not enough carrot, and the name is horrendous. Aug 30, 2020 at 22:41
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    @DavidHammen The question is what the federal government can do, not what it will do. The OP says "Let us also suppose that he can get legislation passed to support his policies.", so you're just dismissing the hypothetical. And there's a good chance that Dems will have the House, Senate, and White House in 2021. Finally, I don't see what you have against the name. Aug 31, 2020 at 5:12

The police forces of the United States comprise a hodgepodge of agencies under various authorities. Aside from the federal agencies (e.g. the FBI) and the various state police forces, there are police forces associated with towns, counties, cities, and other areas. The standards of training, professionalism, and policy vary widely across those diverse agencies.

The U.S. federal government could define standards for training and operation of police forces. They could establish a national police training center that would train new police officers to the unified standards, and provide ongoing training and guidance to leadership. Graduates of the training center would have a level of professionalism and discipline typical of a modern volunteer military (in a non-military organization, it must be said).

The power of the federal government to require the various small agencies to use the national standards and training is not certain, but just establishing these things and making them known as professional resources would encourage states municipalities to at least consider them. More forceful coercion could come from things like withholding federal highway funds from areas that did not embrace the standards and training.

  • Can the federal government withhold money for unrelated things (e.g. highway money for police standards)? I seem to recall that has been a sticking point in the past. (Of course highway patrol is part of highway, but the county and city police are not). Aug 31, 2020 at 14:12

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