What is Police Power?

Felicia Dye

Many people mistakenly believe that the term police power is self-explanatory. They incorrectly assume that it refers to the authorities granted to law enforcement agencies. These authorities are included among the police powers exercised in modern society, but this is not the essence of the term. When accurately used, this phrase refers to the rights of governments to make laws or regulations. This power is what provides the ability for governments to divide into more local units and to create agencies that are supposed to provide citizen services.

In the United States, the authority of police power is based on the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In the United States, the authority of police power is based on the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

It is because of police power that governments can make laws, regulations, and subdivide into smaller units. In the United States, this authority is said to be based on the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The laws and regulations that are developed from police power are supposed to be limited to those that protect public health, safety, and morals. Examples of the government bodies that possess this type of authority include states, counties, and towns. There are instances documented in case law where governments abuse this power and attempt to exercise excess authority.

Without police power, there would be no social services and no police departments.
Without police power, there would be no social services and no police departments.

Police power generally exists in hierarchies. A national government may have police power granted by its constitution. It will then pass this on to the next level of government, for instance a state. The power will be continually passed along. Each time that this happens another governing body is legitimized and can regulate the citizens in its jurisdiction.

With their police power, different levels of government assign themselves a number of tasks. These include setting speed limits, defining and enforcing laws, and collecting taxes. In the U.S., this type of power is said to be limited to making regulations that protect public health, safety, and morals. The ability to create this hierarchy is supposed to be based on the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Police power can be viewed as has having positive and negative aspects. Its greatest benefit is that it involves governments that obligate themselves to take care of the people. Without police power, there would be no social services and no police departments, for example.

The sinister contrast is that governments tend to use this power to continually expand their authority. In the U.S., there is case law where citizens have successfully sued governments for abusing their power. These cases tend to involve situations in which a government has exercised authority in a manner that is deemed unrelated to benefiting the public.

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Discussion Comments


The police protect private property, not citizens. It is in the guise of protecting citizens that police powers are 'sold' to public, e.g., The Patriot Act, even though Federal, is an example of using peoples' fears to enact legislation that is clearly a governmental overreach.

The pluralism of democracy, also known as an 'adversarial legal system', purports to equalize the distribution of rights and responsibilities via the untenable solution known as 'shared sovereignty', which is an oxymoron; there cannot be two (or more) supreme powers, hence the continual battle between states, people v. states, states v. Feds, people v. organizations, all believing in their individual sovereign rights.

The US Constitution is a contract. It is a business concern, and started as such. And if you really want to understand why the history we're taught is propaganda, read "An Economic Interpretation of the US Constitution" (among others) and you will see that English aristocrats re-created England here, with themselves as new royalty. Civil law v. criminal law: the former is for the well-to-do and revolves around Fourth Amendment protections of personal papers etc, because these types of cases are between individuals and are about fraud and who can push their adversary into bankruptcy and take over their business.

Bernie Madoff is a criminal only because he acted outside the protected game of financial markets. Otherwise he'd be getting billion-dollar bonuses from Goldman-Sachs or Lehman Bros. I guess he didn't want to share.


You other two guys make some valid arguments but let's try to be real about this. We do not live in Nazi Germany or El Salvador or one of the countless examples of extreme police power being used against private citizens. We still live in a free country. The cops are on our side. We should not be complacent about the power that we give to them but we should also not get too up in arms about what is acceptable policing in a civil society.


@nextcorrea - I think you make some good points. Someone once gave me a simple example that I think helps illustrate this issue. If the police suspect you of any wrong doing, even if there is next to no proof, they can detain you, use extreme physical force against you, subject you to huge fines and legal costs and make all kinds of false accusations regarding your behavior. Pat a cop on the back and you can be arrested for assaulting a police officer.

I understand that there is not an easy solution to this issue. There are bad guys out there that need to be taken off the streets using just about any means necessary. But there are a lot fewer evil people than there are people sitting in American jails. We have lost something.


Police power is something that I think gets under discussed in America. We give tremendous power to the police and bend to their discretion on just about any issue. Think I'm wrong, show me an instance when the word of a private citizen trumped that of a police officer.

I think it is time we have a frank and open discussion about what sort of limits we want to set on police power. I am not suggesting that there is no place for police or that they should have no authority. The threat of crime and the necessity of law and order are real. But this is America and we don't want to casually become a police state

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