THE ROLE OF POLICE IN
"He who saves a nation breaks no law" (Napoleon)
The idea of police role, function, purpose, or mission in society requires us to think beyond the technical and operational aspects of police work, and consider, if you will, the philosophy of policing, and/or more generally, the place of legitimate authority in society. Policing is one of those few lines of work, like teaching and medicine, which have intimate connections with social life, social progress, and social change. Too narrow a view of the police role is bad, and care must also be taken to avoid too broad a view. To begin with, an ideal set of police functions were identified by Goldstein (1977) a long time ago:
To prevent and control conduct widely recognized as threatening to life and property
To aid individuals who are in danger of physical harm, such as the victims of violent attack
To facilitate the movement of people and vehicles
To assist those who cannot care for themselves, the intoxicated, the addicted, the mentally ill, the physically disables, the old, and the young
To resolve conflict, whether it be between individuals, groups or individuals, or individuals and their government
To identify problems that have the potential for becoming more serious problems
To create and maintain a feeling of security in communities
However, in order to understand the ideals, one must understand how they are analyzed. Here are some basic analytical terms used by academics, sociologists mostly, when analyzing the role of police in society:
"Role" -- this is a sociological term that allows us to talk about the characteristics of various people and things without reference to the actual people involved. An example of a role is the wheel that spins in the mouse cage. A status is the mouse. It doesn't matter what kind of mouse you put in the cage; the fact it has a wheel means that spinning is the kind of behavior we would expect in that role. Police have accumulated several roles ("wheels") over the years that they cannot shed or have extreme difficulty shedding. It's hard to exit a role. Here's some examples: (1) Unquestionable Use of Force - this role was first suggested by the criminal justice scholar Egon Bittner. It means somebody in society has to play the role of "bully" you can't talk back to - it's unquestionable or indisputable authority. Police don't have to give you any explanation or take any guff off you when they're using force or pretty much engaged in getting down to business; (2) Information Gathering - this role was envisioned and implemented by J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI. Although society has its national security agencies, nobody is better positioned in society, with the technology, with the know-how, and with the experience, to start collecting domestic intelligence information, if they wanted to. Police cannot help collecting more information on citizens than they have a right to know. Information gathering has just been a natural part of their role. Read "New Insights into J. Edgar Hoover's Role" for more about the police role in counterespionage, e.g.
"Function" -- This is another sociological term that refers to something that has survival value for society or an organization. Police have two kinds of functions: intended and unintended. The unintended functions may resemble roles and, in fact, may be the cause of them, but it's the intended functions (that police may not admit, but are only slightly aware of) that concern us. Here's a list of police functions: (1) Morals Enforcement - the oldest function in police history, shared with religion; a lot of law enforcement is about morality; (2) Class Control - it's been said that outside of Alcoholics Anonymous, there's no better enforcer of American middle class values than the police. They're all about giving their best service to the upwardly mobile middle class. The rich don't need them; they have their own security. And, the police have never been useful in fighting poverty or uplifting the poor in any society. No, police are a middle class institution, and they preserve the class lines very well; (3) Riot Control - everybody knows that you don't use military force against your own citizens, that's what the police are for; (4) Order Maintenance - this is the "Woodsy the Owl" idea of "policing" your picnic area before you leave. It's the "order" part of "law & order". It refers to the nonarrest things police do, like give advice, warnings, or assist with graffiti and litter removal. The police function here is to "beautify" society, if you will. It's the basis of the modern community policing movement; (5) Safety - this is the "green cross" job of making sure that accidents don't happen. The police would love nothing better than to farm out their traffic safety duties to some other agency, but we can't seem to get those meter maids and crossing guards organized into a profession. It's only an historical accident, anyway, that the police took over traffic safety in 1911 because they came up with the idea of street lights; (6) Service - "Who ya gonna call?" Who else besides the police are there 24/7 to answer every emergency or assist you with directions if you get hungry in the middle of the night. The invention of 911 in 1968 in Haleyville, Alabama of all places is something that many police regret ever happened; (7) Crime Fighting - Don your costumes, super heros, it's up, up & away. This function is so closely tied up with image and ideology that it's hard to even have a serious discussion about it, but it's supposed to be neutral.
"Mandate" -- Despite what many in policing believe is the meaning of this term, which can be strictly interpreted as mission objectives or required tasks to be carried out, this is also a term that combines the idea of what the law requires the police to do with a vision of the future, as police help to bring about that future. Probably the most important mandate for law enforcement in general is to uphold their honor and dignity, no matter what else they are tasked to do.
"Style" -- This is a term that gets at how well a person or agency copes under stress. Later on, we learn all about individual styles, but more important is the notion of departmental styles, and how we can classify police agencies by the secrets they reveal under stress. Style is also established by the demographic characteristics of the population a police agency serves. Hence, we can easily say that federal policing has no "watchman" or community policing style since federal agencies serve too broad a demographic population. Cities tend to get the police style they deserve.
"Issue" -- This is a term for anything trans-jurisdictional. There's no such thing as a local issue. All issues are at least national in scope. C. Wright Mills in The Sociological Imagination said that an issue is a threat to mores. I'm not a sociologist of mores, but I'd say something becomes a police issue when it involves ethics.
"Problem" -- I'll defer to Sociology for a definition of this term, but my understanding of it is that a social problem is something that people believe needs to be changed. C. Wright Mills in The Sociological Imagination said that a social problem is a threat to values. I'm not a sociologist of values, but I'd say that a police problem exists when the police think it's right to do one thing, and the public thinks it's right to do another thing.
"Image & Ideology" -- The word "image" is the public relations spin that an agency puts out. It's pretty much synonymous with words like "mystique" or "aura." The word "ideology" refers to a belief in something as true when it's actually false, or at the base of it, false. Ideologies are created by putting a positive spin on something negative. Ideologies also always rest on a lie. It's the opposite of the word "institution" because anything that reaches the level of social institution must rest on a kernel of truth, at least according to the great sociologist, Durkheim.
"Socialization & Personality" -- Socialization is the internalization of norms, when an employee takes on all the attitudes, beliefs, and values of the organization, also known as the Great American buy-in. There are two approaches to the study of police personality: (1) the predispositional approach - before coming to police work, the employee has strong core elements at the center of his/her personality, like a cabbage; (2) the socialization approach - once coming into police work, the employee loses whatever center they had, and whatever was at their core is replaced by reflections or layers of organizational norms, attitudes, beliefs, and values, like an onion.
There are many other terms you'll run into with the academic study of policing. It's one of the most over-analyzed professions on the planet. Perhaps the best that one can do when embarking for the first time into the serious, scholarly study of policing is to keep an open mind, and to think broadly about policing. It's a whole lot more than simply taking phone calls and rushing to the scene of a crime:
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS TO THINK ABOUT:
1. What is the role authority plays in society? For society to function correctly, what attitudes should people have towards authority figures?
2. What incidents occur in society where people question authority figures and their commitment and/or ability to protect and to serve all people equally?
3. Why should society be in the business of protecting, assisting, and serving those who cannot care for themselves? Might not some basic level of service be sufficient and more cost-efficient?
4. What do we depend on the police for? Why are they really needed?
Alternative Measures of Police Performance
Atlantic Monthly Reprint of the 1982 article Broken Windows
The New Structure of Policing
American Bar Association. (1971). The Urban Police Function. New York.
Bittner, E. (1970). The Functions of Police in Modern Society. Washington D.C.: National Institute of Mental Health.
Goldstein, H. (1977). Policing a Free Society. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.
Klockars, C. (1985). The Idea of Police. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Klockars, C. & S. Mastrofski. (1991). Thinking About Police. NY: McGraw Hill.
Reiss, Albert (1971). Police and the Public. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Robinson, C., R. Scaglion, & M. Olivero. (1993). Police in Contradiction: The Evolution of the Police Function in Society. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Last updated: 05/15/05
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