mises | Dealing with violent crime constitutes only a small minority of what police deal with on a daily basis. For example, in 2014, out of 11,205,833 arrests made nationwide (in the US), 498,666 arrests were for violent crimes and 1,553,980 arrests were for property crime.
That means 82 percent of arrests were made for something other than violent crime or property crime.
Moreover, many of these non-violent offenses — such as drug use, liquor violations, carrying an illegal knife, or other infractions that should be regarded as small-time offenses can result in serious jail time or prison time, as well as steep fines and lost earnings.
For instance, the highly publicized death of Eric Garner at the hands of police officers was a conflict precipitated by the sale of untaxed cigarettes by Garner. The police officers who killed Freddie Gray in custody in Baltimore later claimed the arrest was necessary because Gray possessed a knife that violated city ordinances.
And then there are the countless cases of non-criminals who have been stopped, searched, arrested and imprisoned for petty drug offenses such as possession.
Indeed, police departments spend an immense amount of time and resources on these non-violent offenses. In their book, The Challenge of Crime, Henry Ruth and Kevin Reitz observe:
[W]e do know that the effort to stem the tide of illicit drugs has been massive — and expensive. On the local level, 93 percent of county police agencies and 82 percent of all municipal agencies with more than one hundred police officers contained a full-time drug enforcement unit, as did about 60 percent of the state police agencies, and almost 70 percent of all sheriffs' departments. New York City alone in 1997 reported over 2,500 police officers dedicated to drug units and task forcese. More than 90 percent of all these police agencies received money and property forfeited by drug sellers for use in law enforcement opertations. ...
State and local police made about 1.6 million arrests for drug abuse violations in 2000, four-fifths of them for drug possession. ... And in 1998, drug offenders were 35 percent of all felons convicted in state courts.
In Gangs and Gang Crime, Michael Newton Reports: "In 1987, drug offenses produced 7.4 percent of all American arrests, nearly doubling to 13.1 percent by 2005."
As Ruth and Reitz note, there are financial incentives to police agencies to pursue drug offenders. The nature of drug offenses also gives the police more reason to make arrests in general. As explained by Lawrence Travis in Introduction to Criminal Justice:
With increased emphasis on drug crimes, agents and agencies of the justice system have uncovered offenses that have been present for years. Because drug offenses have gone unreported in the past, Zeisel (1982) noted that they present an almost limitless supply of business for the police. changing public perceptions of the seriousness of drug offenses has supported increased drug enforcement efforts.
[Peter] Kraska observed that with drug offenders, police "can seek actively to detect drug crimes, as opposed to violent and property crimes, for which they have little choice but to react to complaints." Thus, the volume of drug offenders entering the justice system is more a product of police activity than is that of violent or property offenders.. Political pressure to treat drug offenses more seriously, coupled with giving incentives such as profit from seizing the property of drug offenders, spurs more aggressive police action."
In other words, rather than react to complaints about violent crime or property crime, drug enforcement provides the police with nearly limitless opportunities to search, question, and arrest suspects for any number of offenses related to drugs. Moreover, if the police attempt to stop and search a person, and the person becomes uncooperative, police may then be able to justify an arrest for "resisting arrest" or similar offense even if no drugs are found.
Arrests in turn then bolster a police officer's career, even though little time has been spent on investigating violent crime or recovering stolen property.