Societal Trends Facing Law Enforcement

By C. Sidney Heal, M.P.A., M.S.
Stock image of a blurred crowd of people in a city setting.

American law enforcement agencies reflect the people they serve. All of the nearly 18,000 state and local agencies continually adapt to the values and priorities of the local community. However, they are not immune to larger societal trends. As the new millennium unfolds, a natural tendency exists to get caught up in the momentary excitement without an awareness of changes taking place.

Some of these shifts are of such magnitude that they meet the definition of a megatrend, one of such importance that it always leads to a change in behavior. Law enforcement must stand ready to recognize emerging trends and either adapt or become irrelevant. While a case could be made to highlight many, at least five are becoming irrefutable.

1) Blurring of War and Crime

Years before the September 11 terrorist attacks, American communities had begun to recognize their local law enforcement agency as the first line of defense against acts of terrorism. Local police have responded first to nearly every major incident, including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Even when incidents, such as the 2009 shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, took place on military installations, the responders have included a blend of federal and local law enforcement. Likewise, the preventative measures focused on identifying and interdicting terrorists and predicting targets routinely involve the combined efforts—information sharing, fusion centers, joint operations, terrorism task forces, and regional intelligence centers—of local and federal policing authorities.

U.S. military forces increasingly have become involved in peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peace enforcement efforts that mimic law enforcement operations. They have recognized and used the knowledge, skills, and abilities of reservists who also serve as police officers. The practical knowledge of these dual-role subject matter experts gained from criminal investigations, gang suppression, crowd and riot control, narcotics enforcement, and nonlethal options has enabled capabilities and understanding not otherwise available in the armed forces.

Clearly, the line between roles and functions assigned exclusively to law enforcement or the military has become increasingly blurred. This certainly holds true regarding concerns, like smuggling, illegal immigration, international drug cartels, and other violent transnational criminal organizations. The trend takes on greater significance with reports of terrorists’ relationships with drug trafficking organizations and the accompanying spillover violence associated with their activities.1 Likewise, criminal cartels now use hardware and weapons, such as armored vehicles, submarines, armed helicopters, and rocket launchers.2

Mr. Heal
Mr. Heal retired as a commander with the Los Angeles, California, Sheriff’s Department and is a member of the World Futures Society and Police Futurists International.


Today, in their respective environments, law enforcement SWAT teams are considered on par with military special forces.3 As a result local law enforcement agencies have acquired military surplus equipment and weapons, while nonlethal options now make up part of the armed forces’ arsenal. Accordingly, defense contractors view the law enforcement community as a new market, and both disciplines actively recruit from one another.

2) Cashless Society

Although predictions of a cashless society have existed for as long as credit cards, it now appears likely in the foreseeable future. Surveys reveal that compared with other types of payment, cash used at points of sale accounts for less than one-quarter of all transactions. Without a need for cash, average consumers have less than $80 on their person and below $160 in their homes or cars.4 This makes people less-lucrative targets for street robberies than in the past. Even businesses historically targeted for burglaries, such as gas stations, liquor stores, and small grocery stores, have less cash available today.

Moreover, because cash is a key element for illegal activity, purchases of drugs, stolen goods, and other types of contraband will continue to become problematic for offenders. Cash transactions are anonymous, but those involving electronic transfers are not. In the latter case there are no “off the record” purchases, placing both sellers and buyers at risk.

Of course, this also deters kidnapping for ransom, extortion, terrorist activity, and the operation of black markets. Similarly, when political corruption is less private, it is commensurately more risky. With the increased difficulty in hiding income, cheating on taxes becomes more difficult. Some crimes, like counterfeiting, could become obsolete. Many jails and prisons already forbid inmates from possessing cash and instead provide them with accounts to deter robberies and extortion from other inmates. As the need for cash lessens, armored cars and ATMs will grow scarcer, along with the associated crimes.

A cashless society does not necessarily equate to a crimeless society, although criminals have to operate more carefully. For example, deposits and withdrawals of $10,000 or more have mandatory reporting requirements, hindering illegal drug operations. Further, the estimated $20 billion in drug earnings annually crossing the United States/Mexico border makes wire transfers risky.5 Even when divided into $100 bills, moving that much money requires 200,000,000 notes, or 22 semitruck-loads of cash weighing more than 220 tons.6 Drug dealers know this is impractical and that they must do it by other means, such as money laundering. Similarly, because prepaid credit cards—less likely to be detected—provide the ability to move large sums of money anonymously across borders, they provide a “work around,” with couriers carrying drugs in one direction and “currency” in the other. 

3) Transmutation of Culture

A society’s culture is a composite of shared values and beliefs at a given time and place. It is influenced heavily by members’ religion, politics, customs, language, beliefs, and behavior. Historically, geography predominantly has defined the extent of a particular culture. But, in cyberspace, everyone is connected.

If Facebook were a country, it would have the third-largest population in the world, with only China and India larger.7 An estimated one-third of recently married couples in the United States met through online dating, a multibillion dollar industry.8 People conduct more than 3.5 billion Google searches each day.9 About 2.6 billion persons send approximately 205 billion e-mail messages daily.10 Around only since 1992, text messages have become a mainstay of social interaction with the advent of smart phones and tablets. Each day on average, young Americans send and receive about 88 texts per person.11

Culture seldom changes rapidly; when it does, it usually results from some catastrophe, such as an invasion, pandemic plague, or environmental change. Not so here. Cyberspace has had an unprecedented effect on contemporary culture in both speed and scope. Proximity to one another now is irrelevant, and even traditional obstacles, like language barriers, are mitigated.

This has resulted in a migration of crime, with fraud, identity theft, child pornography, trade-secret theft, industrial espionage, money laundering, credit card theft, and many other offenses morphing to exploit this new domain. Further compounding the problem, the victims are in the local community, but the offenders are not—many times not even in the country, which challenges conventional methods of investigation and prosecution.

Extremists on cultural fringes with radical ideologies now can draw support and inspiration from like-minded persons regardless of physical location. Moral and financial support from conspiracy theorists who propagate their own perspectives encourage and even enable otherwise unfeasible actions. The greatest terrorist threats no longer will come from nationalistic terrorists, but, rather, extremists in small cells and lone actors with a grudge who are nearly impossible to identify and interdict before they take action.12 Disturbing side effects include small groups of extremists with access to chemical or biological warfare agents and leaderless radical movements with members who draw support and inspiration from the group but act autonomously.

4) The Internet of Everything

Often identified as the “Internet of Things,” it involves the ubiquitous interconnectivity among gadgets and machines of all types. Using identifiers, detectors, and sensors, every connected item can provide information as to its individual state, time, and location. Whether a device is hot or cold, moving or stopped, rising or falling, or fast or slow; when an event occurred, how long it lasted, where it happened, or how it is oriented; and myriad other factors constitute real-time actionable information. Everything can be identified, filtered, compared, tracked, combined, stored, analyzed, and incorporated into algorithms in limitless ways.

Daily, people interact wirelessly with more than 1,000 electronic devices, such as thermostats, vehicles, door openers, televisions, computers, security systems, telephones, cash registers, robotic floor sweepers, and many other devices. Estimates predict that in less than a decade, more than 30 billion devices will be wirelessly connected with one another, increasing to as many as 100 trillion in the future.13

This will have an enormous impact on law enforcement when drivers cannot operate vehicles while impaired, exceed speed limits, or violate rights-of-way. Stolen property self-reports and self-locates, and behavior recognition software identifies suspicious conduct and provides alerts to prevent accidents, assaults, thefts, and terrorist attacks. Technologies, such as facial recognition, digital cameras, and biometric sensors, collaborate to identify and track child molesters, parolees, fugitives, and terrorists while also physically banning them from entering prohibited areas. Dangerous chemicals, explosives, and contraband can be detected instantly, and the violator, smuggler, or terrorist automatically can be “tagged” to provide an electronic trail to aid in detection and prevent escape. Abandoned vehicles, packages, and potential bombs immediately can be found, and countermeasures automatically can be implemented to limit damage and loss of life.

As people embrace the new technologies in other areas of their lives, so, too, will they interact with their law enforcement agencies. The contemporary community-oriented policing models will give way to “collaborative policing,” similar to the “hue and cry” methods of yesterday. In this model, victims actively participate in functions traditionally reserved for sworn law enforcement officers. These actions include filling out their own crime reports, conducting their own criminal investigations, locating their stolen property, and, even, electronically identifying and locating the assailant or thief.

5) Transfer of Identity

The widespread use of the Internet has resulted in an identity transference in which individuals have voluntarily moved to cyberspace much of how they are known, recognized, and remembered, as well as how they interact with one another. Everything, from banking transactions and shopping to medical records and school assignments, now is done primarily through the Web.

People’s personal spending preferences, from their choice of airline seats to their most recent purchase and, even, their favorite payment method, now routinely customize and simplify their browsing and purchasing experiences. Social “visits” and competitive games have become blasé. Increasingly, individuals vote, watch television and movies, send greeting cards, listen to music, and read magazines and newspapers electronically, instead of by conventional methods and appliances. They routinely work and socially interact with people they physically never have met. So much of a person’s identity now is Internet based that an entire “reputation management” industry is emerging, focused on protection against identity theft, defamation, and invasion of privacy.

As protectors of the community, law enforcement agencies now face extraterritorial threats. Objectionable behaviors—those unlawful or simply offensive—gradually will require police intervention to prevent escalation. Departments’ current expectations to deal with quality-of-life issues, as well as criminal behaviors, will extend to their cyber counterparts. Future law enforcement agencies will handle everything, from nefarious cyberbullying and phishing scams to criminal fraud and online predators.

Interestingly, this trend has historical precedent. Since the nation’s formative stages, extraterritorial threats have been addressed by expanding the scope of existing law enforcement organizations and adding agencies specifically focused on the new threat. Bandits hiding in the wilderness of old eventually were tracked down and prosecuted as their sanctuaries gradually were reduced and eventually removed. Aside from federal marshals, county sheriffs, and city police, special authorities, such as school, park, housing authority, and airport police, have arisen. Bounty hunters in the American frontier enjoyed freedom of movement and focused on a single criminal or gang; today, cyber bounty hunters do not face restriction by either jurisdiction or privacy concerns and receive compensation based solely on their success.

Ignoring a problem historically has resulted in people protecting themselves through some form of vigilantism. The onset of such protectionism already occurs through public shaming for ethical violations—even lawful ones—by circulating the disgraceful behavior via photos and videos on social media sites.14 More organized and sophisticated efforts have targeted online pedophiles, thieves, and organizations engaged in unacceptable conduct. These have included denial-of-service attacks, personal and financial information disclosures, sensitive corporate document leakages, and even public death threats and demonstrations. “Do-it-yourself justice” will fill any perceived gaps in efforts by legitimate law enforcement entities.

Implications for Law Enforcement

1) Blurring of war and crime: Is the current commotion regarding the “militarization of law enforcement” a natural consequence of preparing for terrorist targets, or might it have been avoided by recognizing and addressing potential concerns from citizens preoccupied with police practices from an earlier day and age?

2) Cashless society: Should agencies work with private enterprise to develop collaborative systems for self-initiated and automated crime reporting, criminal identification, and property- and people-location? 

3) Transmutation of culture: Historically, crimes, such as piracy and terrorism, have required multinational efforts for prevention and eradication. Will a similar course of action be needed for identity theft, child pornography, money laundering, and similar crimes?

4) The Internet of Everything: As vehicles become driverless, can law enforcement ask for compulsory vehicle stops to prevent pursuits? 

5) Transfer of identity: What will the law enforcement community need to address crimes and conduct in cyberspace to prevent vigilantism or physical spillover violence?


While it is impossible to anticipate every new trend, some are evident—only the implications remain unsettled. Clearly, law enforcement agencies must be ready as the future approaches. Their roles, policies, and practices either will adapt or become irrelevant. Undoubtedly, society will continue to change; to remain effective, law enforcement must prepare to face the new challenges that result.

Mr. Heal can be contacted at


1 U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management, A Line in the Sand: Countering Crime, Violence and Terror at the Southwest Border, 112th Cong., 2d sess., 2012, accessed June 25, 2015,
2 Robert J. Bunker, ed., Narcos Over the Border: Gangs, Cartels and Mercenaries (New York, NY: Routledge, 2010).  
3 John B. Alexander, Convergence: Special Operations Forces and Civilian Law Enforcement, JSOU Report 10-6 (MacDill Air Force Base, FL: U.S. Special Operations Command, Joint Special Operations University Press, July 2010), accessed June 25, 2015,
4 David R. Warwick, “The Case Against Cash,” The Futurist 45, no. 4 (July/August 2011): 47.
5 Twenty billion dollars is a conservative estimate and easily defendable. Sergio Ferragut, Organized Crime, Illicit Drugs and Money Laundering: The United States and Mexico (London, UK: Chatham House, November 2012), accessed June 25, 2015,
6 Each $100 bill is about .0043 inches thick, 2 ½ inches wide, 6 inches long, and about one gram in weight. Two-hundred million stacked bills would be more than 13 ½ miles high, weigh more than 220 tons, and occupy more than 89,000 cubic feet. A large semitrailer holds about 4,055 cubic feet.
7 The latest estimate for Facebook subscribers is more than 980 million. The United States would be a distant fourth with a population of about 314 million people. “Facebook Users in the World,” Internet World Stats, last modified May 31, 2015, accessed June 20, 2015,
8 Recent estimates are at least $2.4 billion. Aziz Ansari, “Everything You Thought You Knew About L-O-V-E Is Wrong,” Time, June 4, 2015, accessed June 30, 2015,; and John T. Cacioppo, Stephanie Cacioppo, Gian C. Gonzaga, Elizabeth L. Ogburn, and Tyler J. VanderWeele, “Marital Satisfaction and Breakups Differ Across Online and Offline Meeting Venues,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110, no. 25 (June 18, 2013), accessed June 30, 2015,
9 “Google Search Statistics,” Internet Live Stats, modified daily, accessed June 30, 2015,
10 “E-mail Statistics Report, 2015-2019,” The Radicati Group, Inc., accessed July 20, 2015,
11 Jeffrey Kluger, “We Never Talk Anymore: The Problem with Text Messaging,” Time, August 16, 2012, accessed June 30, 2015,
12 Michael P. Downing and Matt A. Mayer, “Preventing the Next ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorist Attack Requires Stronger Federal–State-Local Capabilities,” The Heritage Foundation, June 18, 2013 (accessed June 30, 2015),
13 “More Than 30 Billion Devices Will Wirelessly Connect to the Internet of Everything in 2020,” ABI Research, May 9, 2013, accessed June 30, 2015,
14 As just one example, a Google search of “stolen valor website” lists more than 275,000 hits, and “stolen valor” yields nearly 1.6 million.