views updated May 14 2018


Haia Shpayer-Makov

Policing has taken many forms historically and has gone through radical transformations, making it difficult to offer a precise and universal definition of the term "police." This essay employs the term broadly to mean official organs entrusted with the enforcement of law and order and endowed with the right to use force for public ends.

Throughout most of history the police were only one, and not necessarily the prevalent, instrument of law enforcement. In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (1300–1600) a variety of institutions and individuals performed the functions of law and order maintenance that we now associate with the institutions called "police." Moreover, the authority to sanction violence in the name of law enforcement was not the monopoly of the rulers. Life in medieval Europe was highly localized, and this was reflected in the application of power and the control of crime as well. Political sovereignty was fragmented and local authority was largely independent of royal direction. Many cities authorized special patrols and watches to protect life and property and to bar strangers from entry, particularly at night. Manorial lords often imposed their will and/or defended their rights with their own private means of coercion. Some religious institutions, such as the Inquisition, deployed their own law enforcers to attain their sectional goals. The church, universities, guilds, and corporations had their own means of implementing administrative rulings. In the relatively unified kingdom of England, a more systematic policing structure emerged, based on local lords who were appointed by the Crown as justices of the peace, and on their subordinates, the constables, who helped them keep the peace and bring malefactors to justice. Service as a constable, though unpaid, was obligatory for adult men in the parish for one year by rotation or appointment.

In most places in Europe, however, a permanent coercive force was nonexistent, and the enforcement of laws, rules, and norms depended on the acceptance of their legitimacy by the local population. In general, sanctions and social pressure were sufficient to regulate internal affairs, and if not, the community often administered its own justice. Warnings, reprimands, and ostracism could compel conformity to rules. The local worthies (for example, the parish priest or the lord's agent) often acted as go-betweens to settle an injury, by agreement of both parties involved.

It is during the seventeenth century that the expansion and growing importance of the police in European society are first observable. This change did not signify any sort of break with the past. The emerging policing structure was rudimentary, and it functioned side by side with traditional patterns of law enforcement well into the modern period. The more intensive adoption of police organs, though, marked the beginning of a general trend, which in retrospect constituted one of the major societal developments of the modern era.

To be sure, no one system of policing was common throughout Europe at any one time, nor was this area unified by a similar chronology. The presence, character, functions, purposes, and authority of law enforcement agencies varied greatly not only between states but also from one region to the other and over time. Furthermore, the development of national policing systems proceeded at different speeds. Nonetheless, many parts of Europe experienced parallel developments with regard to their civil and criminal justice systems, and political bodies, whether local or central, private or public, took similar steps to enforce them.

European societies often looked to each other for models of policing, both positive and negative, to emulate or to discard. Whereas Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Italy were deeply influenced by the French mode of policing, in England opposition to police reform during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the implementation of reform thereafter, were both guided by rejection of the French system, which was perceived as too authoritarian and intrusive for the British tradition of government. Later on in the nineteenth century police reformers on both sides of the Channel felt they had a lot to learn from each other's systems. Once reorganized early in the nineteenth century, the English constabulary became a frame of reference for police forces all over the world. Conquest was also a factor in the import and transfer of ideas and practices from one part of Europe to another. French expansion under Napoleon resulted in the implementation of a centralized police system in some areas under subjugation. And policing arrangements in the European colonies were molded under the impact of European rule.

Thus, despite wide diversity, a pattern of policing evolved in Europe made up of different combinations of law-enforcing traditions and methods in each nation, but having a measure of uniformity. Processes of consolidation and convergence accelerated in the nineteenth century and by the early twentieth century were well established, resulting in a policing structure generally resembling that of today. Broadly similar in the various European states, the police became a fundamental component of the criminal justice system and a mainstay of all governments in Europe and, in light of the European influence, throughout the world.


Clearly, the expansion of formal police forces at the dawn of the modern era was connected to broader social phenomena. Economic, social, cultural, and political forces, which comprised what we call the processes of modernization, made an indelible mark on police development. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted today that the expansion of the police in Europe cannot be explained apart from state formation during the late Middle Ages and early modern period, although theorists interpret this relationship in varied ways. For example, marxist historians, while concurring that specialized police agencies developed in the context of the state, link the rise of police power more closely to the transition from a kin-based to a class-dominated society. Viewing class conflict as the driving force behind social change, and the emergence of private property at the end of the Middle Ages as the basis of class formation, marxists maintain that the need of the rising capitalist class to control the means of production accounted for the growth of police institutions. According to this interpretation, the state used its growing monopoly over violence and surveillance to support capital in its struggle to achieve and maintain a privileged position vis-à-vis labor. Indeed, both business and the state were concerned with preserving the socioeconomic order and thus often shared compatible and even overlapping objectives. Indubitably, the state commonly represented class interests, although it also had other goals that it strove to achieve and therefore cannot be seen solely as the servant of the capitalist class.

Viewed from the broader perspective of state building, the ability of emerging states to consolidate their power within clearly demarcated boundaries depended on their ability to impose uniform rule, coordinate internal control, and monopolize the use of force. Eroding or coopting the power of feudal lords and other independent political agents was thus essential for state builders. To attain these goals, sovereign states had to develop both their own sources of income and instruments of coercion. Invariably, the creation of standing armies accompanied the centralization of power. Aside from fighting wars to maintain the independence of the state, the army became the principal means of internal pacification in the early modern period (c. 1500–1800). Gradually sovereigns came to accept that they could not routinely achieve control and carry out law-enforcing functions without civil organs invested with punitive powers and loyal to the regime. The steadily growing role of the ruler as a legislator and source of ordinances made this requirement even more compelling.

In contrast to the army, a grid of police forces was not immediately established to meet the demands of consolidation. Initially, the state relied mainly on the army, judiciary, bureaucracy, and private entrepreneurs to collect taxes and gain control over its territories. Permanent, centrally directed police organs appeared only very slowly across the European landscape despite the absolutist character of most continental regimes in the early modern period. Not until the middle of the seventeenth century, with the accelerated growth of state bureaucracies, can we see the beginnings of a more resolute and methodical policy for the establishment of formal police institutions. The political scientist and police historian David Bayley has suggested that the centralization of law enforcement was likely to occur where attempts to consolidate state control were met by prolonged violent resistance. Three major European powers illustrate his point.

France, facing incessant attempts to stem the tide of state encroachment into local power bases, pioneered the notion of a centralized police structure which, though modified greatly over time, has persisted to the present. During the first half of the seventeenth century, royal officials were made responsible for administering justice, finances, and public order in provincial centers. However, a highly rebellious aristocracy and various instances of domestic disorder prompted Louis XIV (ruled 1643–1715) to reinforce royal power in 1667 by creating the specialized post of lieutenant of police for Paris under his direct control. This official and the policemen at his disposal were entrusted with a wide range of tasks. The considerable powers invested in the post, and close proximity to the king, made the head of police one of the most important officeholders in France. Additionally, as was customary in early modern Europe in the case of high offices, the upper echelons of the new Paris police held venal posts designed to meet the perpetual need of the monarch for revenues to finance his wars. Ever more intent on furthering central administrative control over the periphery at the expense of privileged individuals and bodies as well as on gaining revenue, Louis eventually nominated lieutenants of police and police commissioners in the principal cities and towns of France in 1699. A network of urban police administrations was thus created directly under the supervision of the police lieutenant in Paris, aimed at allowing the ruler closer surveillance over his kingdom. However, these venal posts were often purchased by a local count or bishop who took little notice of orders issues by the lieutenant in Paris, though he might have corresponded with the lieutenant and sent him information—if it suited the local official's interests. For all the efforts made by the French monarchs, policing in the provinces remained largely local.

Two other European powers, Prussia and England, support Bayley's argument from a negative perspective. Though no less absolutist, Prussian rulers allowed the Junkers (landed aristocrats) to exercise police functions in their own territories. The Junkers, having largely accepted the monarch's dominance and their own obligation to serve in his army and administration from the seventeenth century on, posed no threat to the growing concentration of power in the hands of the royal sovereign. Similarly, sporadic popular resistance to state activity was not perceived by the Prussian monarchs as threatening. With the unification of Germany in the early 1870s, each constituent state largely took charge of its own police matters, a situation that resumed in the post–World War II era in West Germany after the interlude of the Nazi period, when Adolf Hitler had established the Gestapo as a centralized police force. The relatively decentralized police structure in Prussia and later in Germany, however, did not prevent the rulers from using the police as a powerful political weapon or from maintaining strong control over policing in cities, towns, and counties. In England, where royalty had asserted control over its territories in the Middle Ages, considerably predating the consolidation of the modern continental state, the aristocracy was allowed to wield power locally as it presented no serious challenge to the unity of England. No centralized police system was created. English law enforcement continued to be based mainly on local justices of the peace and constables.

It is important to emphasize that even where the state took no systematic steps to set up centralized law enforcement, it nonetheless benefited from the spread of police control locally in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However unprofessional, unimpressive, and mostly socially inferior, local policemen exerted power through surveillance and represented legitimate authority. The element of sovereignty was implicit in the nature of their task and in their powers of prohibition and coercion. Moreover, certain locally controlled police, such as the constables in England, actually acted in the name of the monarch even if they were not under royal control. Thus, in an indirect way, wherever policing existed, it contributed to the general functioning of state institutions and the centralization of state power.


Between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries the term "police" was understood altogether differently from today. It did not refer to personnel or to an institution but to the application of laws and ordinances. Coming into use during the fifteenth century in the German territories (in its German form policey), the word police (which derived from the Greek polis, meaning city-state) denoted the administration of domestic affairs generally. The tasks undertaken by organs associated with policing were thus far more extensive than in the twentieth century.

State security. An analysis of police activity in the early modern period reveals that only a small fraction of it concentrated on the detection or prevention of crime. As power in a given country became increasingly centered on the sovereign, and as the sovereign invested greater energy in securing the state against internal opposition, the relevance of the police as a political instrument grew steadily. As early as 1554, the Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible (ruled 1533–1584) set up the infamous oprichniki, a police force of six thousand uniformed men who, in addition to serving as his bodyguards, also supervised public places. Unbridled by any legal restrictions, this force used mass terror and torture to guard the sovereign and his regime against perceived threats from the aristocracy, the church, and the peasants. Members of the force were rewarded for their efforts by grants of land confiscated from their original owners. The oprichniki survived for only seven or eight years, though it set a pattern for successive Russian regimes for over four centuries. While the sixteenth century was not yet ripe for a permanent body of political policemen in Russia, various tsarist officials filled the task of forestalling subversion until, in 1697, as part of a broad centralization effort, tsar Peter the Great (ruled 1682–1725) established the Preobrazhensky Office to tighten his hold on the population. From then on, under different names and authorities, an almost uninterrupted chain of secret police organizations in Russia responded with varying degrees of repression to the slightest indication of discontent in the country, thereby undermining the development of a civil society distinct from the state.

Besides disrupting or suppressing the activities of groups and individuals suspected of disloyalty, the organs charged with political policing engaged in amassing information on a multitude of subjects, a reflection of the broader strategy adopted by state makers of obtaining systematic knowledge as a way of enhancing state power and increasing revenue. Not satisfied with the employment of visible police forces, Louis XIV also resorted to extensive undercover police operations. This use of spies and informers was not unprecedented. Regimes everywhere had relied on such methods to protect themselves against real and imagined plots and conspiracies as well as any other opposition. Louis, however, was to excel in this respect. With the help of the lieutenants of the Paris police, he entrenched a nationwide system of surveillance while also utilizing the provincial police to maintain close control over dissidence. A century later, at the start of the French Revolution, this royal police force disintegrated, and attempts were made to establish locally elected forces in French cities. These efforts were short-lived, and successive regimes, whether headed by the Bourbons, revolutionary governments, the Directory, or the Bonapartes, continued (and under Napoleon even markedly extended) the tradition of utilizing both open and secret policing to strengthen central power. As with other aspects of French culture, this system was studied and in some cases adopted by rulers across the Continent.

The Habsburg monarchy was equally notorious in employing police officials to observe anyone who might be a potential enemy and to act vigorously upon this information. Having gained supreme royal power over the periphery somewhat later than France (in the mid-eighteenth century), Austria lagged behind in forming a systematic network of spies and informers. Still, Austrian monarchs, perceiving themselves as highly vulnerable, managed to outdo the French in the use they made of this potent tool. Greatly improving upon the existing mechanisms of social control, Emperor Joseph II (ruled 1765–1790) entrusted his agents with reporting on the activities and opinions of ordinary people as well as of the aristocracy, clergy, and such other institutions as charities and schools. In building this apparatus of surveillance, he was guided by Count Pergen, an innovator in police administration who, like General Aleksandr Benckendorff in early-nineteenth-century Russia and Joseph Fouché under the Directory, Napoleon I, and the restored Bourbon monarchy, was instrumental in helping monarchs organize and operate an extensive political-cum-police network. The French Revolution and its aftermath led to a tightening up of police operations almost everywhere in Europe. Haunted by fears of revolutionary ideas and French agents, Austria was galvanized into an incessant vigil over organizations and individuals who might fall prey to such ideas, over state officials to ensure their loyalty to the regime, and over possible spies.

Although governments also used various public servants of the Crown to look out for possible sources of sedition, it was the secret police who were most intensively involved. Generally better remunerated than ordinary policemen (when these were paid), secret agents were specially recompensed for their zeal in rounding up suspects or submitting incriminating reports. Countless innocent victims paid dearly for these efforts. The agents' intelligence gathering did not aim solely at overt activities but included reporting on opinions. Moreover, they also punished suspects. Their task was internal security, but these agents extended their operations abroad to keep track of travelers and to intimidate political refugees who flocked to other European cities as a result of repression at home, particularly during the nineteenth century. While the effectiveness of these operations is impossible to measure, clearly they did not manage to stop the spread of dissent and stem the tides of revolution in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, especially in those countries in which the police were all-powerful. They may, however, have prevented specific challenges to regimes, such as cases of potential assassinations.

Public order. Beyond the need to curb oppositional elements, routine order was also considered essential for social stability and state control. The notion that the sheer presence of police forces could deter lawbreaking and prevent acts of defiance was increasingly accepted in the eighteenth century by both national and local governments. European cities had long maintained official bodies acting in a police capacity, in addition to military garrisons, patrols, and watchmen, and now they were determined to expand policing arrangements in the locality. Reform of the administrative organs of state during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries facilitated the evolution of more specialized and centralized systems of policing. The growing importance of cities as centers of both power and civil unrest impelled central authorities to concentrate on securing order and effective law enforcement in urban areas. As a result of both state and municipal efforts, cities had better-organized institutions of policing, while policing in the countryside was largely contingent upon local initiatives. Police administrators were nominated in some capitals. Paris led the way in 1667. St. Petersburg followed suit in 1718, Berlin in 1742, and Vienna in 1751. Directors of police were appointed in many other cities all over Europe during the course of the eighteenth century. London was the most prominent exception to this trend, although policing arrangements there underwent certain reforms in the eighteenth century. Significantly, the city teemed with petty crime and unruliness.

State security and public order were obviously interrelated, and therefore keeping the peace became an important factor in the widespread trend during the eighteenth century to restructure policing arrangements. Additionally, central and local rulers were impelled by the need to modernize their societies and provide solutions to mounting urban problems. A more prosperous and healthier population could also augment the resources of the state and its military capability. Local elites were also prompted by civic pride. While in Russia police regulations focused on the repressive and negative aspects of law enforcement, in French, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian towns police ordinances incorporated a plethora of constructive tasks, including essential municipal services such as street lighting, street cleaning, garbage collection, supervision of public hygiene, and monitoring the quality of the water supply. Depending on the institutional power structure in each locality, and in the absence of other officials to perform such jobs, police agents often became responsible for fire prevention, first aid, finding shelter for abandoned children, the provision of welfare and food supply, and the control of traffic. Sometimes policemen were assigned the task of reminding inhabitants to lock their doors. Whether in the interest of the state, the local authorities, or the common good, the police performed essentially noncoercive duties, which improved the quality of life in cities and towns. Eighteenth-century observers consistently commented on how safe, orderly, and hygienic Paris had become, certainly in comparison to London.

The maintenance of order in the countryside was also basic to state security. Particularly important was public safety on the roads and highways. Here, too, France proved prescient in organizing a patrol system responsible to the central authorities. The origins of the maréchaussée, a paramilitary body of mounted and foot constabulary tasked to look out for deserters and protect rural inhabitants from violence by soldiers, can be traced to the medieval period. In the sixteenth century the role of this body was expanded to include maintaining order, repressing highway robbery and smuggling, gathering information, and monitoring vagabonds and civil crime in the countryside, while at the same time its military character became more distinct. Performing both military and police duties, these ex-soldiers were fully armed and uniformed, lived in barracks, and operated in military conditions mostly under military authority. In the eighteenth century the maréchaussée was reorganized into a nationwide force with clearly defined tasks and a coordinated presence throughout the country. In 1791, at the height of police experimentation by the revolutionaries, it was restructured again, as the Gendarmerie Nationale, serving as a model for most European countries during the next few decades.

Policing economic activities and public morality. State interests in early modern Europe went beyond the security of the regime and the preservation of order. No less important was the regulation of industry and commerce. Most European states pursued mercantilist policies aimed at augmenting national wealth and military power. In implementing such policies, national and local police officers in countries such as France, Prussia, and Austria intervened in various stages of the processes of production and trade by, for example, inspecting markets and fairs, supervising food prices, and checking the accuracy of weights and measures. In so doing, these officers penalized instances of usury and embezzlement and prevented monopolies and profiteering.

A key element in mercantilist strategies was to ensure the industriousness of the population. With demographic growth forcing surplus populations off the land, and the growing mobility of labor, governments and local authorities adopted policies of either criminalizing or domesticating transient labor and of setting paupers to work. The police played an active role in regulating the labor supply and inculcating the ethos of paternalism and hard work among the lower orders. Particularly targeted for police attention were masterless men and laborers who refused to work for low wages. The able-bodied unemployed were forced to work, runaway servants were apprehended, and insubordinate workers were punished. The aim was to reduce the number of indigents who became a burden on the community and to augment the supply of cheap labor. Even if these policies were implemented only sporadically and inconsistently, the police benefited both the state economy and the nascent capitalist class. Furthermore, acculturation of the surplus and marginal population was undertaken because this population was seen as a source of social instability. Subsequently, ordinances were issued and measures were taken all over Europe against beggars, vagrants, peddlers, gypsies, Jews, and/or casual workers.

The policing of economic activities was not carried out for material reasons alone. The police were also an important tool for regulating conduct and fostering conformity to accepted social norms. Fear of godlessness sometimes led to the enforcement of religious observance in Catholic and Protestant countries alike, with infractions of Sunday and holiday observance treated with particular harshness. This impulse to standardize moral behavior resulted in police attacks on various forms of popular culture and amusements throughout Europe. Feasts and festivals were often rigidly supervised, certain games prohibited, and theatrical performances censored. In some areas, dress was inspected and ostentation banned. Sexual misbehavior was also occasionally treated heavy-handedly by the police. In some places, mothers were punished for bearing children out of wedlock. It was also common for police to inspect lodging houses and regulate street prostitution. Police registration of local inhabitants and visiting foreigners enabled local and national authorities to gain information and monitor their movements.


Clearly, policing in continental Europe in the early modern period implied growing penetration into the private lives of ordinary people. In comparison with today, however, such intervention was only intermittent and only partly the product of state regulation. The attempts to create strong states and achieve territorial consolidation by forming or expanding instruments of rule succeeded only partially. An array of bodies and offices fulfilling various, often overlapping, police and nonpolice functions continued to coexist in the different territorial entities, with little or no collaboration between them. Only some were part of the state bureaucracy, while others were controlled by local power holders or were privately employed. In fact, until the nineteenth century, no state had developed a full-scale nationwide police network. Small communities throughout Europe continued to rely on informal arrangements, and local lords still exercised both police and judicial powers. In eastern Europe, policemen were often the protégés of local dignitaries, who used them principally to execute their own private orders. All of this meant that large areas of Europe remained free of the presence of permanent forces of law and order, and the existing ones were unevenly distributed. Even as rulers enacted a growing number of laws and ordinances, they neither possessed adequate manpower nor allocated sufficient finances to implement them throughout entire territories. In times of disturbances they preferred to employ the military. This partial condition of law enforcement reflected the limited power of the absolute state. Paradoxically, in England, where constables were less intrusive and had a more limited range of duties, the policing system was relatively widespread and entrenched, though there, too, enforcement was patchy.

The sparse distribution of police agencies often impelled the community to rely on its own resources to pursue offenders. Local inhabitants in England were supposed to raise the hue and cry if they detected lawbreakers. The novelist Henry Fielding, who was a London magistrate in the mid-eighteenth century, along with his brother John, also a London magistrate, appealed to the general public and to pawnbrokers in particular to disclose any information they might have about stolen property, thieves, and their methods. In England and in many continental communities, redress for crime fell almost entirely on the victims. It was they who brought the crime to the attention of the authorities and they themselves were often responsible for capturing the offender, collecting evidence, finding witnesses, and bearing the costs of prosecution. The propertyless clearly had less access to the legal system, allowing a substantial number of culprits to be spared. The haphazard nature of law enforcement also gave rise to commercial enterprise. For example, the Thames Police of London (established in 1798) was initially funded by private insurance companies with a view to reducing theft from the London port and retrieving stolen property. The infliction of harsh punishments throughout Europe on selected offenders, often for the slightest deviation from the norms, was partly meant to serve as a deterrent to crime in the absence of systematic law enforcement.


The modern police configuration took shape only gradually. During the course of the nineteenth century, governments everywhere took steps to make policing routinized, pervasive, and constant, even though much of law enforcement was still locally controlled. Despite budgetary constraints, police forces were increasingly publicly funded and, initially in cities, uniformed foot patrols became the principal and largest component of the national policing structure. In 1829 two major cities in Europe—Paris and London—were provided with a system of uniformed police, followed in 1848 by Berlin, the first city in Germany to have a municipal police force. Provincial cities, towns, and villages soon acquired their own police as well. State-controlled gendarmeries appeared across almost the entire Continent, filling the vacuum in much of rural Europe where the law had been only sporadically enforced by official police forces. The authority of the gendarmeries sometimes extended to cities, as was the case in France and Prussia. The fact that most countries opted for a military style of force to police the countryside demonstrated the widespread impact of military models and culture on police development.

As a result of such initiatives, police forces grew in size and complexity, and the policeman became a familiar figure in almost every neighborhood. His uniformed presence was expected to be sufficiently threatening to deter would-be lawbreakers. Moreover, the policeman gradually became both a key agent for integrating people and territory and a visible symbol of the state's jurisdiction.

Evolving duties. The police labor force that emerged in the course of the nineteenth century was typically full-time, regularly paid, and subject to bureaucractic control. Work for the large proportion of policemen who composed the lower levels of the hierarchy was harsh, wearisome, and meagerly remunerated. However, the regularity of income and the various welfare benefits extended to policemen in many countries made the job attractive, especially for the unskilled and for displaced rural workers. For their part, decision makers in countries such as Britain generally preferred rural to industrial workers, since the latter were seen as less compliant and loyal. Police relationships with social groups from which they emanated form an important part of modern social history. Generally, police have reliably disciplined popular unrest when called upon to do so.

Police officers throughout Europe continued to discharge a mosaic of functions, retaining many of their old tasks. In addition to preventing and discovering unlawful activities and maintaining order and stability, the police still were expected to strengthen industrial discipline, control the indigent, and carry out various duties in the areas of public health and welfare. Supporting bourgeois standards, they policed deviations from moral norms and restrained popular pastimes. Some estimates suggest that a full half of police time in urban areas aimed at controlling popular leisure. In the same vein, police cleared public spaces of petty merchants, gamblers, and the drunk and disorderly even more vigorously than before. Traffic control and the prevention of juvenile delinquency became important police assignments toward the end of the nineteenth century. However, with the exception of the British force, the range of police tasks actually narrowed substantially during the course of the century. By the beginning of the twentieth century, for example, the police had largely abandoned the policing of the poor and the provision of a number of municipal services as other state administrators and agencies emerged to handle these functions. In contrast, while governments continued to employ armies throughout the nineteenth century to keep order in times of emergency, particularly during riots, civil disorder, and strikes, police reorganization allowed the gradual replacement of the army by the police, which during the twentieth century took predominant charge of maintaining internal public order, leaving the army as the principal guardian of external security.

Indeed, the general trend in the occupational world toward specialization and differentiation of tasks was reflected in efforts by police administrators throughout Europe to demarcate responsibilities more clearly and provide more specialized services. Separate departments were created for uniformed policing, detective work, political surveillance, and specialized tasks. These developments pointed to the growing professionalization of policing in Europe. A reflection of this trend was increasing attention to technical expertise. Toward the end of the nineteenth century police forces in Europe adopted the telegraph, telephone, fingerprinting, forensic science, photography, and other new technologies as indispensable tools for their work. Another modern notion was the application of uniform rules for the administration of the force. Entrants had to comply with a set of established selection criteria demanding not only physical stamina but also literacy skills, and the period of training that recruits underwent was progressively expanded. Whether as part of state or local government, the police were relatively ahead of private institutions in establishing standardized procedures, amassing systematic information, and compiling statistical records relating to various aspects of their work.

What also distinguished the new police was a growing tendency to follow due legal process or at least present a semblance of adherence to the rule of law. The spread of constitutional structures during the nineteenth century meant that government in general was held more accountable, and heads of state were obliged to operate within the confines of the law. Among the most visible representatives of the state, the police, too, had to demonstrate that they were subordinate to the law. Although secret police departments often disregarded legal procedures, official rhetoric increasingly adopted the vocabulary of the Enlightenment. Sensitivity to public opinion became more evident during the latter part of the nineteenth century in such liberal societies as England, although even states which retained absolutist notions of government, like Germany, were forced to justify police activities.

Police and the public. In effect, state expansion only augmented the state's dependency on the cooperation of its citizens, whose loyalty now had to be won. Although the working classes were everywhere the primary target of both secret and open policing, their demands were also considered, especially after the revolutions of 1848. The more liberal the government, the more it stressed that the main objective of the police was not to serve the interests of the state or the privileged classes but to defend the individual and the community against unlawful intervention. Instructions to be cordial to the public pervaded the training of police constables in England. Clearly, surveillance and control needed to be less visible or explicit and more subtle, a tendency that coincided with the growing reluctance to use the might of the army to curb protest.

The policed population was never passive regarding police power. Hostility to police activity by the governed continued throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the presence of the police and their purposes had been accepted, if sometimes grudgingly, as a necessity. The appearance of police officers as major figures in European novels of the nineteenth century and the emergence of detective fiction at the end of the century illustrate the growing legitimacy and importance of police officials in modern society. As more people appealed to police for assistance even in private matters, the police in turn extended services relating to individual safety and everyday needs.

Historical accounts of the shift to full-time and systematic policing adduce a variety of factors. The weakening of the paternalistic face-to-face forms of control in rural areas, the rapid expansion of cities, and the growth of industrial capitalism, which required a disciplined labor force, created an underlying feeling that contemporary police arrangements were inadequate and inefficient. Incidents of collective violence and civil strife were commonly interpreted by the new bourgeoisie as symptoms of a social breakdown. Now in a better position than ever to influence state policies, this sector opposed any restraint on the expansion of the capitalist economy and any challenge to private property. Reports about rising crime rates and fears of the growing power of the industrial masses, the more organized nature of political protest, and the spread of socialist doctrines calling for the overthrow of the social order strengthened pressure to alter traditional policing arrangements. An organized and permanent police force was recommended as a means of ensuring punishment. Democratization, the decline of overt public punishment, and the humanization of personal relations were also important in laying the groundwork for police reform. The restructuring of police forces was designed to improve control over cities, suppress new forms of crime, and supervise the lower social orders. The rise of new concepts of state management that stressed administrative efficiency and rationalization also shaped the new police.

English and continental police. Despite the convergence of varied national models into a generally discernible pattern of law enforcement during the nineteenth century, a broad dividing line was observable between the police in England and the police in the major continental powers such as France, Germany, and Italy. Early uncritical accounts of police development in England emphasized such a distinction by portraying the origins, aims, and practices of the English police as radically different from police histories elsewhere. Such observations mirrored the arguments of police reformers in nineteenth-century England who maintained that, unlike its continental counterparts, the constabulary system had arisen from the community and was therefore the custodian of traditional liberties and a servant of the people. Implicit in these arguments was the conviction that the mission of the English police was simply to protect the majority against a handful of violators of the law. Since the 1970s, police historians writing from the perspective of social history have challenged such interpretations and have shown that the difference between the police on the Continent and in England was more apparent than real. They have pointed to the fierce resistance that the new police encountered in all working-class areas and to their societal partiality. Various studies have focused on the role that the police played in suppressing demonstrations and popular forms of entertainment and in their biased and brutal interventions in industrial disputes. In these studies the new English police appear as an instrument of bourgeois reforms and interests. Research has also revealed that the English police were no less corrupt or corruptible than police forces across the Channel and that English policemen did not always adhere to the letter of the law.

Nonetheless, in some respects the English police may be contrasted with the majority of the continental powers. In much of mainland Europe the modern police emerged out of the politics of absolutism and matured against a background of uprisings and revolutions. The absence of such experiences informed the evolution of policing in England. The result was that while continental police forces tended to pay greater attention to keeping rulers in power and less to the prevention of crime and protection of property, the emphasis in England was substantially different. Although British governments had used spies and informers to keep a sharp eye on agitators and assure internal peace, until the quite late establishment of the Special Branch (in 1884) to combat Irish and anarchist terrorism these agents had never been part of a permanent system, as was often the case on the other side of the Channel, and they had never been used as extensively. In fact, less occupied with state security, Britain was almost the only European power to extend asylum and shelter to the many political refugees fleeing persecution in Europe. Moreover, whereas a number of continental forces were responsible to central government, the English police continued to rely on a local system of policing, albeit against growing state intervention in police affairs as in other aspects of life. Of all the professional forces formed throughout England during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, only the Metropolitan Police of London were organized as a central body accountable to the Home Office. All other police, whether borough or county, were locally controlled.

In another context, all police forces in Europe bore some resemblance to military institutions, whether in the use of uniforms, rigid discipline, hierarchical structure, ritual, or violence. Yet countries with a strong military tradition, such as Germany, tended to follow military models more closely, while in England a widespread fear of military influence reduced the tendency to adopt military precepts in all parts of the British Isles, apart from Ireland. In German, French, and many other continental forces a military background was either a prerequisite or a preference for enrollment, and military weapons were commonly used, whereas many police administrators in England were reluctant to recruit ex-soldiers, firearms were deployed only under special circumstances, and a gendarmerie type of police was never created.


Significantly, despite the reduction in police functions on the Continent and the legal constraints within which they increasingly operated, the police continued to grow and considerably strengthen their position and status during the twentieth century. They attained ultimate power after World War I in one-party states, whether fascist or communist, where they were unrestricted by law or tenets of public accountability. Totalitarian regimes, in particular, showed an obsessive reliance on both the secret and uniformed police to monitor the life of the people, ruthlessly suppress dissidence, and detain anyone considered an enemy of the regime. Some historians now claim that the numerical strength and intrusiveness of the police were greater in communist countries than in Nazi Germany and that state security institutions under the tsars were less coercive than under the Soviet regime. Studies have also shown that for all the terrorism perpetrated by the Gestapo and Soviet security forces, their efficiency depended to no small degree on collaboration and denunciations from the citizenry. Apparently, not only in nontotalitarian societies do the police need public cooperation.

By virtue of their wide dispersion, size, activities, and formal organization, the police everywhere served as vehicles of state expansion. Yet developments in Europe in the twentieth century highlight the complex relationship between the state and its law enforcement apparatus. While instances of police resistance to the rise of nondemocratic regimes have been recorded, police complicity was more prevalent. The same was true in areas under foreign occupation. Such responses indicate that the forces of law and order were not monolithic and not necessarily persistently loyal to the state they served, but followed their own inclinations. The tenuous support that the Weimar police (and army) extended to democratic Germany provides further proof of the ambiguous political role and attitude of some police forces.

Despite the cold war after World War II, the inhabitants of Western Europe on the whole enjoyed a growing liberalization of police practices. One manifestation of this was the gradual coopting of women to this male-dominated occupation. At the same time, police forces became more technically complex organizations. Cars and electronic equipment made it possible to offer quicker service, be more accessible to the public, and perfect the means of social control without seeming coercive. Communication devices also facilitated better supervision of subordinates by their officers. Indeed, by the end of the twentieth century the workings of the police had become much more controlled and subject to bureaucratic intervention. There was also a shift toward proactive techniques of law enforcement involving greater emphasis on surveillance by means of acquiring detailed knowledge of the population. Crime investigation has always taken up only a small proportion of the policeman's time (apart from detectives, of course). Now more than ever law enforcers—even patrol officers—engage in the processing of knowledge by writing reports, undertaking administrative duties, and collecting and sorting information. The use of computer technology for data storage, retrieval, and analysis has further enhanced the surveillance capacities of the police.

These intangible interventionist measures are currently causing grave concern in the liberal democracies of Europe. However, this is but one topic in the broader debate over the role of police in society, which includes such contentious issues as police accountability, selective enforcement, discriminatory policing of minority groups, and the question of officers' discretion. Beyond these concerns, the police figure prominently in public discourse, as reflected in the preoccupation of the mass media with the agencies of law enforcement. The interest in police and policing is no less extensive among academics of diverse disciplines. As part of the growing attention to crime and the criminal justice system among social historians during the 1970s, the police became a major field of scholarship. Since then, these historians have offered varied perspectives on how patterns of law enforcement were shaped by changing historical processes. Placing the police within a broad socioeconomic context, they emphasize the role the police play in mediating between centers of power and all areas of life. The police are seen as a social control mechanism, and their development is analyzed against wider strategies of power in society. The social history of the police thus affords insight into the machinery of government at various levels and its impact on ordinary people. A significant contribution relates to the ways that police have historically interacted with and reinforced social and cultural norms. Since the police have dealings not only with offenders but with the population at large, studies of the police facilitate a deeper understanding of collective mentalities and of the life of the nonprivileged sectors of society. Also instructive is the focus on the police as an independent agency with its own motivations and interests. During the 1990s scholarship shed light on the policeman as a worker and the ruling police elite as an employer. By combining high politics with history from below, social historians of the police have succeeded in broadening our horizons on the social dimensions of the past while at the same time enriching our appreciation of domestic politics.

See alsoStreet Life and City Space (volume 2);Absolutism (volume 2);The Reformation of Popular Culture (volume 5);Festivals (volume 5); and other articles in this section.


Axtmann, Roland. " 'Police' and the Formation of the Modern State. Legal and Ideological Assumptions on State Capacity in the Austrian Lands of the Habsburg Empire, 1500–1800." German History 10 (1992): 39–61.

Bayley, David H. Patterns of Policing: A Comparative International Analysis. New Brunswick, N.J., 1985.

Dandeker, Christopher. Surveillance, Power, and Modernity: Bureaucracy and Discipline from 1700 to the Present Day. Cambridge, Mass., 1990.

Dean, Mitchell. "A Genealogy of the Government of Poverty." Economy and Society 21 (August 1992): 215–251.

Diederiks, Herman. "Patterns of Criminality and Law Enforcement during the Ancien Regime: The Dutch Case." Criminal Justice History 1 (1980): 157–174.

Emerson, Donald E. Metternich and the Political Police. The Hague, Netherlands, 1968.

Emsley, Clive. The English Police: A Political and Social History. 2d ed. New York, 1996.

Emsley, Clive. Gendarmes and the State in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Oxford, 1999.

Emsley, Clive. Policing and Its Context, 1750–1870. New York, 1984.

Emsley, Clive, and Barbara Weinberger, eds. Policing Western Europe: Politics, Professionalism, and Public Order, 1850–1940. New York, 1991.

Ericson, Richard V., and Kevin D. Haggerty. Policing the Risk Society. Toronto, 1997.

Evans, Richard J. "In Pursuit of the Untertanengeist: Crime, Law, and Social Order in German History." In Rethinking German History: Nineteenth-Century Germany and the Origins of the Third Reich. London, 1987.

Fosdick, Raymond B. European Police Systems. Montclair, N.J., 1969.

Gellately, Robert. The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy, 1933–1945. Oxford, 1990.

Giddens, Anthony. The Nation-State and Violence. Vol.2of A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. Berkely, Calif., 1985.

Hingley, Ronald. The Russian Secret Police: Muscovite, Imperial Russian, and SovietPolitical Security Operations, 1565–1970. London, 1970.

Johnson, Eric A. Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans. New York, 1999.

Johnson, Eric A. Urbanization and Crime: Germany 1871–1914. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Knemeyer, Franz-Ludwig. "Polizei." Economy and Society 9 (May 1980): 172–196.

Levi, Michael, and Mike Maguire. "Crime and Policing in Europe." In Social Europe. Edited by Joe Bailey. 2d ed. London, 1998. Pages 177–202.

Lis, Catharina, and Hugo Soly. "Policing the Early Modern Proletariat, 1450–1850." In Proletarianization and Family History. Edited by David Levine. Orlando, Fla., 1984. Pages 163–228.

Radzinowicz, Leon. A History of English Criminal Law and Its Administration from1750. 4 vols. London, 1956.

Raeff, Marc. The Well-Ordered Police State: Social and Institutional Change throughLaw in the Germanies and Russia, 1600–1800. New Haven, Conn., 1983.

Reiner, Robert, ed. Policing. 2 vols. Brookfield, Vt., 1996.

Spencer, Elaine Glovka. Police and the Social Order in German Cities: The DüsseldorfDistrict, 1848–1914. DeKalb, Ill., 1992.

Stead, Philip John. The Police of France. New York, 1983.

Williams, Alan. The Police of Paris, 1718–1789. Baton Rouge, La., 1979.


views updated May 17 2018


POLICE. Police, services composed of trained, full-time, paid officers dedicated to reducing the causes of crime, deterring its commission by regular patrols, and investigating lawbreaking and apprehending its perpetrators, are central to the operation of modern, bureaucratic, and centralized states. But at the start of the early modern period, most European states lacked effective professional police forces, and such agencies developed only slowly, in part because of the relative weakness of early modern state institutions and the fiscal limitations under which they labored. Also, the very word "police" described for early modern administrators all those institutions and regulations necessary to establish a well-ordered state, not just to fight crime. Thus officials encumbered some early police agencies with far more duties than those of their modern counterparts.

Everywhere too the effectiveness of early modern policing was limited by the reluctance of much of the population to have recourse to the police. Historians find this reticence revealed in several ways. Early modern Europeans often themselves regulated much of the behavior controlled by modern police. Among established populations, disputes that produce police action in modern societies often entirely escaped the attention of the authorities in the early modern period, when they concluded with subjudicial settlements mediated by priests, notaries, or local dignitaries. Additionally, interpersonal violence frequently resulted in vendettas that endured for years before coming to the cognizance of the authorities. Indeed, citizens sought state judicial and police authority only under certain circumstances. For example, local residents readily reported to authorities the activities of outsiders, like wandering vagrants, and they also sought the assistance of agents of the state against neighbors whose misdeeds transcended local thresholds of tolerable behavior. Early modern police agencies, both traditional institutions and newer forces that proved to be the precursors of modern policing, depended on such civilian cooperation for the limited effectiveness they possessed.


When they did have contact with representatives of police authority, most early modern Europeans dealt with agents of seigneurial, municipal, or royal courts charged with executing arrest orders issued by magistrates in response to citizen complaints. On the Continent, larger courts often had paid officers for such duties, men bearing a variety of titles, including sergents in many French jurisdictions and sbirri in the Papal States. The numbers of such officers were always limited, and they were at a great disadvantage in the face of concerted opposition to the execution of their orders. In late-seventeenth-century Amsterdam, for example, the force of the schout, an official who functioned much like a public prosecutor and police chief, numbered only eighteen men in a city of 200,000 inhabitants. The same number of officers served the criminal court of Florence, the Otto di Guardia e Balìa, in the mid-sixteenth century when the city had sixty thousand citizens.

At even greater disadvantage were the unsalaried officers of justice common in several countries. In England, western Germany, Sweden, and much of the Dutch Republic, justice and policing were in the hands of unpaid citizens serving terms of office that punctuated their everyday occupations. Often without formal legal education, the justice of the peace of England, the länsman of Sweden, the Schultheis of Württemburg, and the judge of the Dutch schepenbanken sought execution of their orders by unpaid officers also drawn from the local community. These men, including the English constable and the Dutch baljuw, ruwaard, or drossard, might sometimes be in considerable danger while fulfilling their duties because they usually acted alone. Their only possible aid might have been the citizen participation in a general hue and cry required by ordinances in England and many German jurisdictions.

In addition to these agents of the courts, most European towns had various forces that also performed police functions. Even small cities on the Continent possessed ceremonial municipal guard units composed of local citizens who turned out armed and uniformed on such occasions as a royal visit, but they were ill-trained and of little practical use for law enforcement. More common were various sorts of watch units enlisting men who sometimes drew municipal salaries, like those of the guet of Bordeaux in the eighteenth century. The Bordeaux watch was quite typical of many such units in its numerical weakness. It had but seventy men to patrol a city with a late-eighteenth-century population of about 100,000 persons. Night watch arrangements in England were even less formal and until the eighteenth century depended on the Statute of Winchester of 1285, which required individual citizens to take unpaid turns in nightly patrols of their local parishes.


Only slowly did some European states manage to create full-time, paid, professional police forces, and France led in this process. France was the only European state to create and maintain a centrally administered agency of rural policing in the early modern period. That force, the Maréchaussée, originated in an armed military police force that not only maintained order along the army's line of march and pursued deserters but also had the power to try in its own courts those it apprehended. By the sixteenth century the French monarchy added to that force's military duties competence over a growing list of nonmilitary offenses, including highway robbery, vagabondage, popular disturbances, and other offenses that the crown viewed as fundamental threats to France's stability. Until the French Revolution the Maréchaussée retained its dual power to arrest certain kinds of criminals and to judge those it apprehended in military courts, whose verdicts were not subject to appeal.

The number of lawbreakers who experienced this summary justice of the Maréchaussée was limited chiefly by the force's manpower. By 1789 the Maréchaussée mustered only 4,114 officers and men assigned to outposts throughout the kingdom. Such numbers were inadequate for effective rural policing, and in the Bordeaux généralité in 1790, for example, only 111 mounted policemen patrolled 26,000 square miles of territory. Thus the blue-uniformed Maréchaussée officers must have been rare sights indeed in most rural hamlets, and their effectiveness, like that of more traditional police agents, ultimately depended on the cooperation of those they policed. Nevertheless, many French people recognized the importance of professional rural policing, and their demands (cahiers de doléances) for the Estates-General of 1789 frequently called for an improved force. As a result, legislation in 1791 created the gendarmerie nationale, an enlarged Maréchausseé deprived of its judicial authority, that still served rural France in the early twenty-first century.

France also led Europe in the creation of modern urban policing. In his edict of 15 March 1667 Louis XIV created the office of lieutenant général de police de la ville, prévôté et vicomté de Paris. The holder of this office was a magistrate who presided over a police court once weekly but, more importantly, was the administrator charged with maintaining all aspects of order in a growing capital city whose population reached 600,000 by the 1780s. The traditional early modern definition of police functions initially shaped the work of subordinates of the lieutenant général, and street lighting, trash collecting, firefighting, care of foundlings, building inspection, enforcement of commercial regulations, censorship, and other duties occupied many of them. But in 1788 the lieutenant général also commanded 1,931 men who did the work of a modern police force. He deployed various types of uniformed units for mounted and foot patrols of the city, coordinated the efforts of police investigators and spies, and administered police justice through his own court, aided by forty-eight commissioners (commissaires), magistrates stationed throughout the city and empowered to initiate criminal procedures and to order arrests.

The only other early attempts by a European central government at large-scale policing operations originated in the lands of the Spanish monarchy. In their Castilian lands, the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella created the Council of the Holy Brotherhood (Santa Hermandad) in 1476 to consolidate locally funded militias into a federation of rural forces that had police and judicial powers, like the Maréchaussée, over a select group of crimes, including murder, rape, highway robbery, and rebellion. Founded in response to the disorders of the succession crisis of the early reign of Isabella in Castile and to lawlessness accompanying the Granada War of 14821492, these armed and uniformed forces never developed into a permanent national police. The monarchs never gave the council crown funding, failed to extend it to the rest of their Iberian territories, and disbanded it entirely in 1496 with the end of the Granada War. For over two centuries thereafter, rural policing responsibilities were entirely in the hands of local governments, not all of which had the will or means to fund forces. Even when the crown established a number of royal police units in the eighteenth century, these forces lacked central direction and adequate funding. Only in 1835 did Spain achieve national policing with the advent of the guardia civil.

Spanish monarchs also attempted to establish rural policing in their Netherlands territories. There, a force endowed with both police and judicial powers operated in Artois from about 1517 until the county's annexation by France in 1659. Other such forces emerged in the seventeenth century in the counties of Flanders and Namur, but all had limited effectiveness because of insufficient funding and manpower, problems that continued to hamper the work of police brigades functioning in these areas even after they passed to Austrian Habsburg rule in 1714.

Elsewhere in Europe efforts at improved policing, funded by growing state resources and driven by a rising fear of crime rooted in several developments, appeared only in the eighteenth century. Certainly the growth of a cheap popular press highlighted existing crime for government officials and encouraged them to improve police services. Officials also sought to bolster police resources in response to new threats to public order. Historians of British crime, for example, show that property crime increased in periods of economic distress, and these periods frequently followed the conclusions of the century's many wars. Additionally, population growth and structural economic changes, like enclosure, everywhere produced large numbers of vagrants, who generated considerable fear in settled populations.

Greater London, Europe's largest metropolitan area, produced a number of developments in eighteenth-century policing. Composed of numerous independent municipalities, it presented significant problems in policing. Until 1735 the various municipalities of the metropolis attempted to meet their police needs within the provisions of the Statute of Winchester, that is, with constables and unpaid night watches whose authority ceased at individual parish or municipal boundaries. In 1735 two parishes, St. James, Piccadilly, and St. George, Hanover Square, secured legislation permitting them to levy local taxes to pay permanent, professional patrols for their jurisdictions. Other jurisdictions followed suit, and slowly thereafter local and national authorities created a variety of police units, including highway and river patrols, with general jurisdiction in the metropolitan area. One of these units, the Bow Street Runners, initially privately employed by the London magistrates Henry and John Fielding, was the prototype for the modern detective branch of policing. Only in 1829, however, did Parliament create the London Metropolitan Police, a unified force with jurisdiction encompassing all of Greater London.

The middle and late eighteenth century witnessed experiments in rural policing too, especially on the European continent. Southern German states, including Baden, Bavaria, and Württemburg, employed mounted police units called Hatschiere, composed of former soldiers, to patrol rural areas and especially to search for vagrants. These states also used hussars, cavalrymen drawn from the regular army, for patrols and arrests, but neither these units nor the Hatschiere seem to have had sufficient discipline or numerical strength to provide effective policing. The same problems seem to have afflicted the mounted police units created by Victor Amadeus III of Piedmont-Sardinia in the 1770s and 1780s.

European police agencies remained relatively weak by modern standards through the late eighteenth century. Nevertheless, the foundations of modern policing are evident in developments in the late early modern period.

See also Crime and Punishment ; State and Bureaucracy .


Beattie, J. M. Policing and Punishment in London, 16601750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror. Oxford, 2001.

Brackett, John K. Criminal Justice and Crime in Late Renaissance Florence, 15371600. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

Emsley, Clive. The English Police: A Political and Social History. 2nd ed. London, 1996.

Kent, Joan R. The English Village Constable, 15801642: A Social and Administrative Study. Oxford, 1986.

Lorgnier, Jacques. Maréchaussée, histoire d'une révolution judiciaire et administrative. 2 vols. Paris, 1994.

Lunenfeld, Marvin. The Council of the Santa Hermandad: A Study of the Pacification Forces of Ferdinand and Isabella. Coral Gables, Fla., 1970.

Reynolds, Elaine A. Before the Bobbies: The Night Watch and Police Reform in Metropolitan London, 17201830. Stanford, 1998.

Williams, Alan. The Police of Paris, 17181789. Baton Rouge, La., 1979.

Julius R. Ruff


views updated Jun 08 2018


For modern sociology the core problem of police has been, and continues to be, the extrication of the concept police from the forms and institutions in which it has been realized and the symbols and concealments in which it has been wrapped. Doing so is essential to the interpretive understanding of the idea of police and is prerequisite to mature answers to the question of what policing means, has meant, and can mean. In one form or another it is the project that has occupied sociologists of police since the early 1960s, and although there is occasional overlap and interchange, attention to it is primarily what distinguishes contributions to the sociology of police from scholarly efforts in the study of police administration, jurisprudence, criminalistics, and police science.


By the end of the 1960s a small number of now-classic empirical studies of police had made it apparent that conventional understandings of the idea of police were fundamentally and irreparably flawed. In the face of large-scale studies by Reiss (1971) and Black (1971) which showed that the model tour of duty of a patrol officer in the high-crime areas of the nation's largest cities did not involve the arrest of a single person, it became impossible for sociologists to continue to speak of police as "law enforcers" or of their work as "law enforcement." Likewise, both Skolnick's Justice without Trial (1966) and Wilson's Varieties of Police Behavior (1968) illustrated dramatic differences in the way police were organized and the relationships they elected to enjoy with courts and law. Similarly, early studies of both the exercise of patrol officer discretion (Bittner 1967a, 1967b) and requests for police service (Cumming et al. 1965; Bercal 1970) cast substantial doubt on the notion that a substantial, much less a defining, activity of police was "fighting crime."

Police Role and Functions. The task of extricating the concept of police from these common misconceptions was assumed by Egon Bittner in The Functions of Police in Modern Society (1970). A fundamental theme of Bittner's work was that to define police as "law enforcers," "peacekeepers," "agents of social control," "officers of the court," or, indeed, in any terms that suppose what police should do, confuses police role and function. Throughout history, in this country and in others, police have performed all sorts of functions. In fact, the functions, both manifest and latent, that police have performed are so numerous and so contradictory that any attempt to define police in terms of the functions they are supposed to perform or the ends they are supposed to achieve is doomed to failure.

Force as the Core of the Police Role. Sociologically, policing cannot be defined in terms of its ends; it must be defined in terms of its means. In Functions Bittner advanced an approach to understanding the role of the police that was based on the single means that was common to all police, irrespective of the ends to which they aspired or were employed. The means Bittner found to define police was a right to use coercive force. Police, said Bittner, are "a mechanism for the distribution of non-negotiably coercive force" (1971). No police had ever existed, nor is it possible to conceive of an entity that could be called police ever existing, that did not claim the right to use coercive force.

Sociologically, Bittner's formulation had three major virtues. First, it was universal. It was applicable to police everywhere and at all times, police as diverse as the sheriff's posse of the old West, the London bobby, the FBI, or the police of Hitler's Third Reich or Castro's Cuba. Second, it was politically and morally neutral. It could be used to refer to police whose behavior was exemplary as readily as it could be applied to police whose behavior was appalling. Third, it made it possible to make explicit and to probe in systematic ways a host of questions about the role of police that could not previously be explored because they had been concealed in the confusion between role and function: Why do all modern societies, from the most totalitarian and most tyrannical to the most open and democratic, have police? What does having police make available to society that no other institution can supply? What functions are appropriate to assign to police and what are best left to other institutions?

These questions are of such enormous consequence and so fundamental to an understanding of the role of the police that it is difficult to conceive of a sociology of police existing prior to their recognition.

Why Police? If police are a "mechanism for the distribution of non-negotiably coercive force," why should all modern societies find it necessary to create and sustain such a mechanism? What does having such a mechanism make available to modern societies that no other institution can provide?

Bittner's answer is that no other institution has the special competence required to attend to "situations which ought not to be happening and about which something ought to be done NOW!" (1974, p. 30). The critical word in Bittner's careful formulation of the role of the police is "now." What the right to distribute coercive force gives to police is the ability to resolve situations that cannot await a later resolution. The crucial element is time. Turning off a fire hydrant against the wishes of inner-city street bathers, preventing the escape of a serial murderer, halting the escalation of a domestic dispute, or moving back the curious at the scene of a fire so that emergency equipment can pass—these and hundreds of other tasks fall to police because their capacity to use force may be required to achieve them "now."

This view of police radically inverts some conventional conceptions. While popular opinion holds that police acquire their right to use coercive force from their duty to enforce the law, the sociology of police holds that police acquire the duty to enforce the law because doing so may require them to invoke their right to use coercive force. Similarly, focus by police on the crimes and misdemeanors of the poor and humble, and their relative lack of attention to white-collar and corporate offenders, is often promoted as reflecting a class or race bias in institutions of social control. While not denying that such biases can exist and do sometimes influence the direction of police attention, if such biases were eliminated entirely, the distribution of police effort and attention would undoubtedly remain unchanged. It would remain unchanged because the special competence of police, their right to use coercive force, is essential in enforcement efforts in which offenders are likely to physically resist or to flee. In white-collar and corporate crime investigations, the special competence of lawyers and accountants is essential, while the special competence of police is largely unnecessary.


Although all modern societies have found it necessary to create and maintain some form of police, it is obvious that any institution that bears the right to use coercive force is extraordinarily dangerous and highly subject to abuse and corruption. The danger of the institution of police would appear to be magnified when it gains a monopoly, or a near-monopoly, on the right to use coercive force, and when those who exercise that monopoly are almost exclusively direct and full-time employees of the state. Appearances and dangers notwithstanding, these are nevertheless the major terms of the institutional arrangement of police in every modern democracy. Some comment on the sociology of this institutional uniformity may be helpful.

Avocational Policing. For most of human history most policing has been done by individuals, groups, associations, and organizations in the private sector. This type of private-sector policing, done by citizens not as a job but as an avocation, may be classified into at least three types, each of which offered a somewhat different kind of motivation to private citizens for doing it (Klockars 1985). Historically, the most common type is obligatory avocational policing. Under its terms private citizens are compelled to police by the threat of some kind of punishment if they fail to do so. In American police history the sheriff's posse is perhaps the most familiar variety of this type of policing. The English systems of frankpledge (Morris 1910) and parish constable (Webb and Webb 1906) were also of this type.

A second type of private-sector policing, voluntary avocational policing, is done by private citizens not because they are obliged by a threat of punishment but because they, for their own reasons, want to do it. The most familiar American example of this type of policing is vigilante groups, over three hundred of which are known to have operated throughout the United States up to the end of the nineteenth century (Brown 1975).

A third type, entrepreneurial avocational policing, includes private citizens who as English thief takers, American bounty hunters, French agents provocateurs, and miscellaneous paid informants police on a per-head, per-crime basis for money.

The institutional history of these avocational forms of policing is thoroughly disappointing, and modern societies have largely abandoned these ways of getting police work done. The central flaw in all systems of obligatory avocational policing is that as the work of policing becomes more difficult or demanding, obligatory avocational policing takes on the character of forced labor. Motivated only by the threat of punishment, those who do it become unwilling and resistant, a situation offering no one any reason to learn or cultivate the skill to do it well. All forms of voluntary avocational policing suffer from the exact opposite problem. Voluntary avocational police, vigilantes and the like, typically approach their work with passion. The problem is that because the passionate motives of voluntary avocational police are their own, it is almost impossible to control who and where and what form of police work they do and on whom they do it. Finally, the experience with entrepreneurial forms of avocational policing—thief takers, bounty hunters, and paid informants—has been the most disappointing of all. The abuse and corruption of entrepreneurial avocational police has demonstrated unequivocally that greed is too narrow a basis on which to build a police system.

Sociologically, the shortcoming of all forms of avocational policing is that none of them offers adequate means of controlling the police. This observation leads directly to the question of why one might have reason to suspect that a full-time, paid police should be easier to control than its avocational precedents. What new means of control is created by establishing a full-time, paid, police vocation?

The answer to this problem is that only when policing becomes a full-time, paid occupation is it possible to dismiss, to fire, any particular person who makes his or her living doing it. The state can only hire entrepreneurial avocational police, bounty hunters, paid informants, and thief takers; it cannot fire them. Vigilantes are driven by their own motives and cannot be discharged from them. Obligatory avocational police are threatened with punishment if they don't work; most would love to be sacked. Because the option to fire, to take police officers' jobs away from them, is the only essential means of controlling police work that separates the police vocation from all avocational arrangements for policing, how that option is used will, more than anything else, determine the shape and substance of the police vocation.

The Police Vocation. The English, who in 1829 created the first modern police, were intimately familiar with the shortcomings of all forms of avocational policing. They had, in fact, resisted the creation of a paid, full-time police for more than a century, out of fear that such an institution would be used as a weapon of political oppression by the administrative branch of government. To allay the fears that the "New Police" would become such a weapon, the architects of the first modern police, Home Secretary Robert Peel and the first commissioners of the New Police, Richard Mayne and Charles Rowan, imposed three major political controls on them. Peel, Mayne, and Rowan insisted that the New Police of London would be unarmed, uniformed, and confined to preventive patrol. Each of these features shaped in profound ways the institution of the New Police and, in turn, the police of the United States and other Western democracies that explicitly copied the English model.

Unarmed. Politically, the virtue of an unarmed police is that its strength can be gauged as a rough equivalent of its numbers. Weapons serve as multipliers of the strength of individuals and can increase the coercive capacity of individuals to levels that are incalculable. One person with a rifle can dominate a dozen citizens; with a machine gun, hundreds; with a nuclear missile, thousands. One person with a police truncheon is only slightly stronger than another, and that advantage can be quickly eliminated by the other's picking up a stick or a stone. In 1829 the individual strength of the 3,000 constable, unarmed New Police offered little to fear to London's 1.3 million citizens.

While this political virtue of an unarmed police helped overcome resistance to the establishment of the institution, the long-run sociological virtue of an unarmed police proved far more important. Policing is, by definition, a coercive enterprise. Police must, on occasion, compel compliance from persons who would do otherwise. Force is, however, not the only means to compel compliance. Sociologically, at least three other bases for control are possible: authority, power, and persuasion.

Unarmed and outnumbered, the New Police "bobby" could not hope to police effectively on the basis of force. Peel, Mayne, and Rowan knew that if the New Police were to coerce successfully, they would have to do so on the basis of popular respect for the authority and power of the institution of which they were a part. The respect owed each constable was not owed to an individual but to a single, uniform temperament, code of conduct, style of work, and standard of behavior that every constable was expected to embody.

In order to achieve this uniformity of temperament, style, conduct, and behavior, the architects of the New Police employed the option to dismiss with a passion. "Between 1830 and 1838, to hold the ranks of the New Police of London at a level of 3300 men required nearly 5,000 dismissals and 6,000 resignations, most of the latter not being altogether voluntary" (Lee 1971; p. 240). During the first eight years of its organization, every position on the entire force was fired or forced to resign more than three times over! Unlike their earlier London counterparts, the new American police were undisciplined by the firing option. What prevented the effective use of the firing option by early American police administrators was that police positions were, by and large, patronage appointments of municipal politicians. In New York, for example, the first chief of police did not have the right to fire any officer under his command. So while London bobbies were being dismissed for showing up late to work or behaving discourteously toward citizens, American police were assaulting superior officers, taking bribes, refusing to go on patrol, extorting money from prisoners, and releasing prisoners from the custody of other officers.

In New York, Boston, Chicago, and other American cities the modern police began, in imitation of London's bobbies, as unarmed forces; but, being corrupt, undisciplined, and disobedient, they could not inspire respect for either their power or their authority. In controlling citizens they had no option but to rely on their capacity to use force. The difficulty with doing so unarmed is that someone armed with a multiplier of strength can always prove to be stronger. Gradually, against orders, American police armed themselves, at first with the quiet complicity of superior officers and later, as the practice became widespread, in open defiance of departmental regulations. Eventually, in an effort to control the types of weapons their officers carried, the first municipal police agencies began issuing standard service revolvers.

The long-run sociological consequence of arming the American police can be understood only by appreciating how it shaped American police officers' sense of the source of their capacity to control the citizens with whom they dealt. While the London bobbies drew their capacity for control from the profoundly social power and authority of the institution of which they were a part, American police officers understood their capacities for control to spring largely from their own personal, individual strength, multiplied if necessary by the weapon they carried on their hips. This understanding of the source of their capacity for control led American police officers to see the work they did and the choices they made in everyday policing to be largely matters of their individual discretion. Thus, the truly long-run sociological effect of the arming of the American police has been to drive discretionary decision making to the lowest and least public levels of American police agencies. Today how an American police officer handles a drunk, a domestic disturbance, an unruly juvenile, a marijuana smoker, or a belligerent motorist is largely a reflection not of law or agency policy but of that particular officer's personal style. This is not to say that law or agency policy cannot have influence over how officers handle these types of incidents. However, one of the major lessons of recent attempts by sociologists to measure the impact of changes in law or police policy in both domestic violence and drunken driving enforcement is that officers can resist those changes vigorously when the new law or policy goes against their views of proper police response (see Dunford et al. 1990;Mastrofski et al. 1988).

Uniformed. Politically, the requirement that police be uniformed is a guarantee that they will not be used as spies; that they will be given information only when their identity as police is known; that those who give them information, at least when they do so in public, are likely to be noticed doing so; and that they can be held accountable, as agents of the state, for their behavior. The English, who had long experience with uniformed employees of many types, understood these political virtues of the uniform completely. In fact, an incident in 1833 in which a police sergeant assumed an ununiformed undercover role resulted in such a scandal that it nearly forced the abolition of the New Police.

By contrast, the early American understanding of the uniform was totally different. Initially it was seen to be a sign of undemocratic superiority. Later it was criticized by officers themselves as a demeaning costume and resisted on those grounds. For twelve years, despite regulations that required them to do so, early New York policemen successfully refused to wear uniforms. In 1856 a compromise was reached by allowing officers in each political ward to decide on the color and style they liked best.

Despite the early resistance to the uniform and the lack of appreciation for its political virtues, American police eventually became a uniformed force. While the London bobby's uniform was explicitly designed to have a certain "homey" quality and to reflect restraint, the modern American police officer's uniform is festooned with the forceful tools of the police trade. The gun, ammunition, nightstick, blackjack, handcuffs, and Mace, all tightly holstered in shiny black leather and set off with chromium buckles, snaps, badges, stars, flags, ribbons, patches, and insignia, suggest a decidely military bearing. The impression intended is clearly one not of restraint but of the capacity to overcome the most fearsome of enemies by force.

The Military Analogy and the War on Crime. To understand the sociology of the American police uniform, it is necessary to see in it a reflection of a major reform movement in the history of the American police. Around 1890 American police administrators began to speak about the agencies they administered as if they were domestic armies engaged in a war on crime (Fogelson 1977).

The analogy was powerful and simple. It drew upon three compelling sources. First, it sought to connect police with the victories and heroes of the military and to dissociate them from the corruption and incompetence of municipal politics. Second, it evoked a sense of urgency and emergency in calls for additional resources. From the turn of the century to the present day, the war on crime has proved a useful device for getting municipal governments and taxpayers to part with money for police salaries and equipment. Third and most important, the war on crime and the military analogy sought to create a relationship between police administrators and politicians at the municipal level that was similar to the relationship enjoyed by military generals and politicians at the national level. At the national level Americans have always conceded that the decision on whether to fight a war was a politicians' decision, but how that war was to be fought and the day-to-day discipline of the troops was best left to the generals. By getting the public and the politicians to accept these terms of the police-politics relationship, the early police administrators found a way to wrest from the hands of politicians the tool they needed to discipline their troops: the option to fire disobedient officers.

The uniform of the war-ready American police officer is testimony to the fact that since the 1940s, American police administrators have won the battle to conceive of police as engaged in a war on crime. In doing so they have gained control of the option to fire for administrative purposes. However, the cost of that victory has been enormous.

A major problem is the idea of a war on crime and the expectation police have promoted that they can, in some sense, fight or win it. In point of fact, a war on crime is something police can neither fight nor win for some fundamental sociological reasons. It is simply not within the capacity of police to change those things—unemployment, the age distribution of the population, moral education, civil liberties, ambition and the social and economic opportunities to realize it—that influence the amount and type of crime in any society. These are the major social correlates of crime, and despite presentments to the contrary, police are but a small tail on a gigantic social kite. Moreover, any kind of real "war on crime" is something that no democratic society would be prepared to let its police fight. No democratic society would be able to tolerate the kinds of abuses to the civil liberties of innocent citizens that fighting any real "war" on crime would necessarily involve. It is a major contribution of the sociology of police since the 1960s to demonstrate that almost nothing police do can be shown to have any substantial effect on reducing crime.

The problems of policing in the name of crime when one cannot do much of anything about it are enormous. It is not uncommon for patrol officers to see their employers as hypocritical promoters of a crime-fighting image that is far removed from what they know to be the reality of everyday police work. They may seek to explain what they know to be their failure to do much about crime in terms of the lack of courage of their chief, the incompetence of police administration, or sinister political forces seeking to "handcuff" the police. They often close off what they regard as the disappointing reality of what they do in cynicism, secrecy, and silence—the "blue curtain," the occupational culture of policing.

Equally problematic as a spoil of the early chiefs' victory in their war on crime is the quasi-military police administrative structure. Once heralded as a model of efficiency, it is now regarded as an organizationally primitive mode of management. It works, to the extent that it works, by creating hundreds and sometimes even thousands of rules and by punishing departures from those rules severely. The central failing of such an administrative model is that it rests on the unwarranted assumption that employees will not discover that the best way to avoid punishment for doing something wrong is to do as little as possible. The administration can, in turn, respond by setting quotas for the minimum amount of work it will tolerate from employees before it moves to punish them, but if it does so, that minimal amount of work is, by and large, all it will get.

Preventive Patrol. The third major mechanism with which architects of the New Police sought to neutralize their political uses was to confine police to preventive patrol. This restriction was understood to have the effect of limiting the uniformed, patrolling constable to two relatively apolitical types of interventions: situations in which constables would be called upon for help by persons who approached them on the street and situations that, from the street, constables could see required their attention. These political virtues of patrol impressed the architects of the New Police, particularly Sir Richard Mayne. Mayne postponed the formation of any detective unit in the New Police until 1842, and during his forty years as commissioner held its ranks to fewer than 15 detectives in a force of more than 3,500.

In the early American experience, uniformed patrol served the principal purpose of imposing some semblance of order on unruly officers. Patrol offered some semblance of assurance that officers could be found at least somewhere near the area to which they were assigned. And while American police created detective forces almost immediately after they were organized, patrol has become in the United States, as in Britain and other modern democracies, the major means of getting police work done.

Sociologically, patrol has had tremendous consequences for the form and substance of policing. It has, for example, been extraordinarily amenable to the three most profound technological developments of the past century: the automobile, the telephone, and the wireless radio. And while there is no evidence that increasing or decreasing the amount of patrol has any influence whatsoever on the crime rate, each of these technological developments has made police patrol more convenient and more attractive to citizens who wish to call for police service. It is not an exaggeration to say that the vast majority of the activity of most modern police agencies is driven by a need to manage citizen demand for patrol service.

In recent years, attempts to manage this demand have taken many forms. Among the most common are the creation of computer-aided dispatch systems that prioritize the order in which patrol officers are assigned to complaints and increasingly stringent policies governing the types of problems for which police will provide assistance. Also increasingly common are attempts to handle complaints that merely require a written report, by taking that report over the telephone or having the complainant complete a mail-in form. In no small part, such efforts at eliminating unnecessary police response and making necessary police response efficient have produced some of the increasing cost for police labor.


Despite efforts at prioritization, limitation of direct police response, and development of alternative ways of registering citizen complaints, demand for police service continues to grow. Despite the fact that individual citizens appear to want this form of police service more than any other, some contemporary approaches suggest that the entire idea of "dial-a-cop," "incident-driven" policing requires reconsideration. Two such approaches, "community-oriented policing" (Skolnick and Bayley 1986) and "problem-oriented policing" (Goldstein 1979, 1990), have been advanced as the next generation of "reform" movements in American policing (Greene and Mastrofski 1988).

As theories of police reform, both "problemoriented" and "community-oriented" policing are grounded in the suspicion that the traditional police response of dispatching patrol officers in quick response to citizen complaints does little to correct the underlying problem that produced the complaint. To some degree at least, this suspicion is confirmed by studies that tend to show that a fairly small number of addresses tend to generate disproportionate numbers of calls for police service, and that patrol officers commonly return to such "hot spots" again and again to attend to similar problems (Sherman et al. 1989). Both problem-oriented and community-oriented policing offer strategies to deal with such problems that go beyond merely dispatching an officer to the scene. Problem-oriented policing offers a generic, four-step, problem-solving strategy—scanning, analysis, response, and assessment—that police can use to identify problems and experiment with solutions. Community-oriented policing, by contrast, does not offer a mechanism for problem analysis and solution. It is, however, committed to a general strategy that calls for cooperative, police-community efforts in problem solving. In such efforts it encourages the employment of a variety of police tactics—foot patrol, storefront police stations, neighborhood watch programs—that tend to involve citizens directly in the police mission.

While both approaches to reorienting policing have been heralded as revolutionary in their implications for the future of policing, both confront some major obstacles to their realization. The first is that neither problem-oriented nor community-oriented police efforts have been able to reduce the demand for traditional patrol response. Unless that demand is reduced or police resources are increased to allow it to be satisfied along with nontraditional approaches, the community- and problem-oriented policing approaches will most likely be relegated, at best, to a secondary, peripheral role.

The second problem confronting both community- and problem-oriented policing stems from the definition of police and the role appropriate to it in a modern democratic society. The special competence of police is their capacity to use force, and for that reason all modern societies find it necessary and appropriate to have them attend to situations that cannot await a later resolution. Reactive, incident-driven, dial-a-cop patrol is a highly popular, extremely efficient, and (as nearly as possible) politically neutral means of delivering that special competence. To expand the police role to include responsibility for solving the root problems of neighborhoods and communities is an admirable aspiration; but it is a responsibility that seems to go beyond the special competence of police and to require, more appropriately, the special competence of other institutions.

In the past quarter of a century, the scholarly literature on police has grown so dramatically that a guide is quite helpful if not essential for the reader who seeks to explore the sociology of police. There are seven classic works in the sociology of police that continue to frame most modern dialogues: Michael Bantons's The Policeman in the Community (1968), Egon Bittner's Functions of Police in Modern Society (1970), Herbert Packer's The Limits of the Criminal Sanction (1968), Jerome Skolnick's Justice without Trial (1966), William Westley's Violence and the Police (1970), and James Q. Wilson's Varieties of Police Behavior (1968). These classic works are informed, dramatized, broadened, and otherwise enhanced by a second generation consisting of five extraordinary empirical and theoretical works: Donald Black's Manners and Customs of the Police (1980), David Bayley's Forces of Order: Police Behavior in Japan and the United States (1976), William Ker Muir, Jr.'s Police: Streetcorner Politicians (1977), Peter Manning's Police Work: The Social Organization of Policing (1977), and Jonathan Rubinstein's City Police (1973).

Beginning in the 1980s, the literature on the sociology of police may be thought of as dividing into three tracks. One track continues the general reflections on the nature of the police institution and its enterprise and includes Richard Ericson's Making Crime (1982), Carl Klockars's The Idea of Police (1983), Robert Reiner's The Politics of the Police (1985), and most recently Richard Ericson and Kevin Haggarty's Policing the Risk Society (1997). A second track includes a collection of studies that focus on particular types of or particular problems in policing. Among them are Geoffrey Alpert and Laurie Fridell's Police Vehicles and Firearms: Instruments of Deadly Force (1992), Gary Marx's Undercover (1988), Maurice Punch's Conduct Unbecoming: The Social Construction of Police Deviance and Control (1985), and Lawrence W. Sherman's Policing Domestic Violence (1992), as well as two collections, Modern Policing, edited by Michael Tonrey and Norval Morris (1992), Police Violence: Understanding and Controlling Police Abuse of Force, edited by William A. Geller and Hans Toch (1996). The third track is, of course, the enormous literature on community policing. The collection edited by Jack Greene and Stephen Mastrofski and entitled Community Policing: Rhetoric or Reality (1988) is a good guide to the early literature. Herman Goldstein's Problem-Oriented Policing (1990) is, of course, essential. Malcolm Sparrow, Mark Moore, and David Kennedy's Beyond 911 (1995), and George Kelling and C. Coles's Fixing Broken Windows (1996) are two works of some influence in contemporary discussions of the promise of community policing.

(see also: Criminal Sanctions; Criminology; Social Control)


Alpert, Geoffrey, and Laurie Fridell 1992 Police Vehicles and Firearms: Instruments of Deadly Force. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland.

Bayley, David 1976 Forces of Order: Police Behavior in Japan and the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bercal, T. E. 1970 "Calls for Police Assistance: Consumer Demand for Governmental Service." American Behavioral Scientist 13, no. 2 (May–August):221–238.

Bittner, E. 1967a "Police Discretion in Apprehension of Mentally Ill Persons." Social Problems 14 (Winter):278–292.

——1967b "The Police on Skid Row: A Study of Peace Keeping." American Sociological Review 32 (October):699–715.

——1970 The Functions of Police in Modern Society. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

——1974 "Florence Nightingale in Pursuit of Willie Sutton: A Theory of Police." In H. Jacob, ed., The Potential for Reform of Criminal Justice. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage.

Black, D. 1971 "The Social Organization of Arrest." Stanford Law Review 23 (June):1087–1111.

——1980 Manners and Customs of the Police. New York: Academic.

Brown, R. M. 1975 Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cumming, E., I. Cumming, and L. Edell 1965 "Policeman as Philosopher, Guide, and Friend." Social Forces 12(3):276–286.

Dunford, F. W., D. Huizinga, and D. S. Elliott 1990 "The Role of Arrest in Domestic Assault: The Omaha Police Experiment." Criminology 28(2):183–206.

Ericson, Richard 1982 Making Crime. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

——, and Kevin Haggarty 1997 Policing the Risk Society. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Fogelson, R. 1977 Big City Police. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Geller, William, and Hans Toch 1996 Police Violence: Understanding and Controlling Police Abuse of Force. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Goldstein, H. 1979 "Improving Policing: A Problem-Oriented Approach." Crime and Delinquency 25 (April):236–258.

——1990 Problem-Oriented Policing. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Greene, J., and S. Mastrofski 1988 Community Policing: Rhetoric or Reality. New York: Praeger.

Kelling, George, and C. Coles 1996 Fixing Broken Windows. New York: Free Press.

Klockars, C. B. 1985 The Idea of Police. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage.

Lee, M. 1971 A History of Police in England. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith.

Manning, Peter 1977 Police Work: The Social Organization of Policing. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland.

Mastrofski, S., R. R. Ritti, and D. Hoffmaster 1988 "Organizational Determinants of Police Discretion: The Case of Drunk Driving." Journal of Criminal Justice 15:387–402.

Morris, W. A. 1910 The Frankpledge System. New York: Longmans, Green.

Muir, William, Jr. 1977 Police: Streetcorner Politicians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Packer, Herbert 1968 The Limits of the Criminal Sanction. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Punch, Maurice 1985 Conduct Unbecoming: The Social Construction of Police Deviance and Control. London: Tavistock.

Reiner, Robert 1985 The Politics of the Police. Brighton: Weatsheaf.

Reiss, A. J., Jr. 1971 Police and the Public. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Rubinstein Jonathan 1973 City Police. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Sherman, L. W., P. Gartin, and M. E. Buerger 1989 "Hot Spots of Predatory Crime: Routine Activities and the Criminology of Place." Criminology 27:27–55.

Sherman, Lawrence 1992 Policing Modern Violence. New York: Free Press.

Skolnick, J. K. 1966 Justice Without Trial. New York: John Wiley.

——, and D. Bayley 1986 The New Blue Line. New York: Free Press.

Sparrow, Malcolm, Mark Moore, and David Kennedy 1995 Beyond 911. New York: Basic.

Tonrey, Michael, and Norval Morris (eds.) 1992 Modern Policing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Webb, S., and B. Webb 1906 English Local Government from the Revolution to the Municipal Corporations Act: The Parish and the County. New York: Longmans, Green.

Westley, William 1970 Violence and the Police. Combridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Wilson, J. Q. 1968 Varieties of Police Behavior: The Management of Law and Order in Eight Communities. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Carl B. Klockars


views updated May 23 2018


Police bureaucratization

Problems of modern police organization

Organizational discipline


Until World War II, the larger continental European countries had centrally controlled police organizations, usually divided into a division for policing the capital and other large cities and a national service for policing smaller towns and rural areas. These were often supplemented by more heavily armed security police units that were essentially military in nature. The combination of central control, rigid selection of recruits (often through the army), special recruitment and training of command personnel, and rotation of command personnel produced highly efficient police systems whose personnel were generally free of the influence of the local politics and corruption that have plagued many departments in the United States. However, such police systems have also been associated with successful suppression of political dissidence and have traditionally developed in societies where the state has been confronted with serious problems of organized, armed political unrest.

The constitutional preference in the United States has been for a police under local control that would be available neither to the duly constituted central government nor to any organized group that might seize control of the federal apparatus. This constitutional situation has been accompanied in the United States by special problems of securing efficiency and honesty in police operation. However, recent very rapid improvements in the quality of police practice, especially in the larger cities, indicates that local control per se need not be incompatible with high-quality police.

In addition to municipal police, there are county sheriffs’ departments which in large parts of the United States constitute full-fledged police units. State police units exist in all but a few of the states. These concentrate on highway patrol but may perform general police functions in rural areas and are also important forces available for suppressing disorder. At the federal level in the United States, the tendency has been to create specialized police units to deal with specific problems, such as counterfeiting, narcotics, customs, and immigration. The specialized units are in addition to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has much more general functions in enforcing federal law.

The English police system stands in many ways intermediate between that of the United States and the more centralized pattern of some Continental countries. The London Metropolitan Police are responsible directly to the central government, while other departments are under a loose inspectorial control which is coupled with a system of monetary grants-in-aid from the central treasury (Cramer 1964).

When the Allies occupied Germany and Japan at the end of World War II, they introduced police systems patterned after the Anglo-American constitutional structure. In Japan the change from a completely decentralized police introduced by Occupation authorities in 1947 to a much more centralized one in 1954 illustrates the difficulties involved in adapting the police systems of one country to the conditions of another. Decentralization resulted in underfinancing of local units; police reliance on large private donations, including some from organized gangster groups; and near helplessness of local units in the face of organized gang violence and later in the face of a systematic and disciplined campaign of political rioting directed against the central government (Nakahara 1955). In contrast, the disorders and riots that confront the police in the United States are rarely led by disciplined cadres, nor have they been directed at overthrow of the constituted government.

Police organization and social control. The establishment of uniformed, armed, and organized police as a response to the problems of social control in modern societies creates a number of problems, such as the political neutralization of the police, organizational creation and maintenance of discipline and commitment to legality in behavior toward the citizen, and development of efficient and impartial enforcement of the law. The means evolved to solve some of these problems may have negative results on others. Moreover, the control, organization, and behavior of the police will reflect the differences in civic culture between countries: for example, differences in the degree of consensus about the values represented in law and in the institutional supports for police authority, on the one hand, and traditions of police restraint on the other. The civic culture will, in turn, reflect differences in the nature and degree of heterogeneity of different societies, the degree to which laws representing minority viewpoints are passed, and the way in which law enforcement through the police relates to other forms of authoritative control in the particular society.

Location of governmental centers. Of obvious though often overlooked importance is the relationship between patterns of urbanization and the location and nature of governmental centers. In many countries—for example, England, France, Germany, and Argentina—the capital city is also the metropolis or at least one of the largest cities. The location of national government physically in a large city means that problems of civil disorder can become very serious from the point of view of the governing regime. When such disorder is politicized, the government is accessible physically, and even relatively minor disorders can seem to pose fundamental threats to the regime. Where the regime is represented in the person of a king domiciled in the metropolis, sensitivity to disorder will be even greater (Chapman 1953).

One of the major differences between the United States and many other industrialized, urbanized countries lies in the simple fact that the national capital is not a major metropolis and until recently was not even a large city. Furthermore, the capitals of the states, which under the federal constitutional system share sovereignty, are often not the largest cities in each state. Since it is the large cities that have been the major sources of politically relevant disorder, the United States has thus had less need of the highly disciplined riot police of other countries. This geographical isolation of governmental elites from the mass of the population has helped maintain the stability of democratic institutions, despite the volatile history and extreme heterogeneity of the United States; while there have been many riots, the mob has not been a prominent actor on the political stage. Thus simple geography has partially performed the function of insulating elites from the mass—a precondition of modern democracy, according to theorists of mass society (Kornhauser 1959). From this point of view, distance can be a partial substitute for force.

Police bureaucratization

Bureaucratization—an organizational technique whereby major centers of civic power become neutralized from the point of view of the governing regime—has been of great significance in the development of modern police. Bureaucratization is a device whereby commitment to the occupational organization or occupational community and to its norms of subordination and service takes precedence over extraoccupational social commitments. Thus, in modern societies the political neutrality and legal reliability of the police is less a matter of the social sources of recruitment than of internal organization, training, and control. This, of course, is no less true of the organization of, for example, tax-collecting services or public education. In this sense, then, the police do not differ from the other large-scale civil services. Nevertheless, the situation is particularly crucial with respect to the police, because they are commonly called upon to enforce unpopular laws and, of course, because they are armed and organized. Perhaps this fundamental significance of police bureaucratization can be seen by attending to the fact that given well-organized, well-disciplined, and internally well-regulated police, it is necessary for civil authorities to assure themselves only of the political loyalty and dedication to legal process of the controlling police elites.

Such problems are not confined simply to the unstable governments of some developing societies or to the often conflict-ridden regimes of continental Europe. A major device whereby American Negroes have been able to secure better police protection as well as relief from police suppression has been the political capturing of city governments, or at least the development of sufficient political influence to be able to persuade city officials to appoint top police officials, chiefs, commissioners, etc., who are more sympathetic to the civic aspirations of the Negro population. Of course, the successful translation of elite perspectives toward minority groups throughout police rank and file is not to be taken for granted; nevertheless, it is true that wherever a determined top police administration backed by a city government which has been under pressure from powerful Negro groups has seriously attempted change of racial law enforcement, the efforts have generally been successful. To a very considerable extent, American minority groups have been able to secure civic respect from the police to the degree that they have been able to generate political influence.

Negroes represent the last American minority group still undergoing this process. The development is particularly slow in parts of the southern United States, where law enforcement and maintenance of caste relations have traditionally been partly synonymous. Although police professionalization and bureaucratization are often strongly resisted by the white political structure, they have begun to appear as one of the major gains of the so-called Negro revolution (McMillan 1960). Perhaps in the long run, however, the most significant feature of police bureaucratization is that it tends to prevent the police from substituting their private attitudes or private occupational cultures for legal norms in law enforcement. One ha’s only to cite examples of county sheriffs and sheriffs’ deputies in parts of the rural South, where not only personal animosities but also racial attitudes have played a part in law enforcement, to show that recruitment of amateurs from among the local populace involves serious dangers.

Very broadly speaking, it may be pointed out that the process of internal bureaucratization of the police tends to make recruitment a less significant factor in the reliability and neutrality of the police. However, when a particular governmental regime is highly unpopular with some particular segment of the population, and when the political reliability of the police has not been achieved by bureaucratization, it may be particularly important to recruit from specialized segments of the population whose loyalty arises from extraorganizational, social commitments as well as from adherence to the police occupation. Thus, during the early stages of political development in some modern multitribal states, the police may be recruited almost entirely from one particular tribe. In this way, the regime counts on intertribal tensions and frictions of the community as a device for assuring that the police will enforce the law against members of other tribes.

Many of the most significant problems of modern police, however, lie precisely in the balance between bureaucratic isolation, on the one hand, and integration into the local community, on the other. Among the most significant consequences of this dilemma that have been pointed out by American researchers is the fact that isolation from the community without careful bureaucratic organization can result in police occupational cultures which can become private subcommunities heavily involved in illegally determining the distribution of law enforcement and the use of violence (Westley 1953). Isolation to a degree is obviously necessary. However, isolation may be accompanied by public contempt, which has been so frequent in the United States, with its generally low regard for public service. Thus, when isolation is not accompanied by organizational control, training, and indoctrination, it can, on occasion, result in a situation where the police are, to be sure, apolitical but where their conceptions of appropriate conduct and appropriate relations between police and populace can become an autonomous and disturbing element, even in a predominantly civil and legal social structure (Banton 1964).

Problems of modern police organization

The organization of the police into disciplined bureaucracies is dependent upon certain social conditions. However, if such organization is successful, it can, in turn, create problems related to the linkages between police and community, the nature of policing in modern urban societies, and the problems of decentralized decision making peculiar to police work (Wilson 1963). Most detailed research on these matters has been done in the United States and England, especially the United States. Developments in the United States are especially useful for illustrating the general conditions which make for both successful police organization and newer problems in policing.

Professionalization of the police

Bureaucratization of the police, is, of course, importantly facilitated where public employment is highly regarded and well paid, and where police service can provide prestigeful lifetime careers. It is under these circumstances that the necessary personal commitment to the service and the necessary occupational morale are most likely to develop. The United States has had particular difficulty in this regard. The state as an abstract entity has not been regarded with the special mystique of some countries, nor has it been invested with the special symbolic aura of the English crown. In addition, the public service occupations in general have not been of the highest prestige; this is generally the case in market-oriented societies which are traditionally devoted to the pursuit of private fortune. Judging from recent research, however, there has been considerable improvement in this respect since the early 1900s, and this trend can be expected to continue (Janowitz et al. 1958). In addition, the increasing concentration of population in large cities has allowed the development of larger departments with the possibility of more rigorous selection of personnel, better training, and the development of a more self-consciously professional administrative corps among police commanders.

Until recently it has been difficult for police commanders in the United States to secure sufficient independence from local politics to develop systems of recruitment, promotion, and assignment based upon merit rather than political preferment. These difficulties in securing professional autonomy have been especially pronounced in the older and more heterogeneous cities of the North and East, where the combination of unpopular laws and ethnic minority involvement in both machine politics and municipal services has often led to complex linkages between organized crime, the police, and ethnically based political machines. The major cities in the South, Southwest, and West have had fewer of these problems. During a period of rapid social change, underdeveloped public services in general, great heterogeneity of population, and legislatures dominated by rural interests who often wrote their own sectional and class norms into formal law, such connections between police, politics, and community were inevitable. Indeed, they served to ease social change and the urbanization and civic assimilation of the large immigrant populations, who were able to acquire relatively quick access not only to local politics but also to the police arm of government.

Patterns of police authority

Under conditions of increased professionalization of municipal police, the problems of internal discipline, efficiency, honesty, and respect for formal legality are increasingly being solved. Their solution, however, raises other difficulties related to police-community relations, on the one hand, and new determinants of discretionary decision making, on the other. Where the police, as in England, have been able to rely on long-standing patterns of deference to the symbols of legitimate authority, coupled with a longestablished cultural homogeneity and crowned symbolically by the monarchy, relations between police and populace reflect the gradual development of customary forms of behavior as well as formal legal restrictions on police and populace alike. Under such circumstances, police authority is supported by the institutional environment, such as the law courts, as well as by popular attitude and social custom. On the other hand, where patterns of deference are not well developed, as in the United States, and the police are seen as simply doing a job rather than as representing an institutional order, the legal system in general receives less support from custom and other institutions of society; in turn, the legal system is likely to represent the deep ambivalence toward authority which characterizes the larger culture. Thus, in the United States police powers are severely limited as compared with those of the Continent, and police authority is not buttressed by developed custom within the bounds of formal law, as has been the case in England (International Conference … 1962; Banton 1964).

This combination of lack of supportive deferential custom, the relatively unprivileged position of the state, severe legal restrictions on police powers, and high crime rates—especially high rates of violent crime, on the one hand, and organized crime, on the other—has posed especially difficult problems for the police in large American cities. As a consequence, certain informal practices that are illegal or of doubtful legality, which are probably found to one degree or another among police everywhere, have received special attention from American social researchers. Among these are the widespread use of discretionary powers that are poorly based in formal law and the noticeably declining problems of corruption (LaFave 1965; Skolnick 1966).

Increased concern with these practices, together with the rapidly growing political and civic awareness and influence of Negroes, the increasing bureaucratization and professionalization of the police, and the increasing necessity to regulate an affluent and mobile citizenry (especially in traffic control, which cannot always be identified with traditional categories of criminal conduct) have led to an awareness that older patterns of police practice and older patterns of contact between police and community must give way to rationally calculated and organizationally inculcated forms of conduct. Rather than seeking to share communal sentiments and reflect them in their behavior, the police must try to develop ways of managing interpersonal contact so as to minimize challenge to police authority as well as degradation of the citizen.

Symptomatic of this change is the increasing amount of social research, including public opinion surveys, with implications not only for general understanding of police but also for police practice (Great Britain … 1962a; 1962b; Clark 1965; Preiss & Ehrlich 1966; Bordua 1967). This replacement of custom by rule and management has often been described by sociologists as characteristic of modern mass societies. It seems likely that as deference patterns decline in other societies, many features of recent American experience will develop there.

Discretionary decision making

In democratic societies the problem of assuring that the police are organized so as to be a reliable instrument for the maintenance of order and the suppression and prevention of crime, while at the same time assuring that they exhibit restraint and sensitivity to citizen rights, means that organization of the police cannot be like that of an assault battalion which on command can be relied upon to do its duty regardless of cost to itself, its enemies, or the surrounding social fabric. Nor can it be organized to respond purely to external stimulation in an automatic and “programmed” fashion. Police organization involves elements of military command from the center, as well as elements of automatic response to stimuli at the periphery; however, the peculiar conditions of modern policing require above all that discretionary judgment within a framework of rules be widespread.

Because rules cannot specify all eventualities, the decision making of police in a democracy is determined by morale, on the one hand, and by the relationship to the local community culture, on the other. The problem of morale is essentially one of assuring a commitment to central organizational and legal purpose as a basis for discretionary decision. The problem of relation to the local community is essentially one of maintaining a sensitivity to the culture of the community as it involves questions such as modes of exercising authority and kinds of offenses which can be proceeded against only at great social cost; it also involves a sharing by the police of the general society’s sense of the significance of individual dignity.

Involvement in the community

The balances between discretion and command and between isolation from and involvement in the general culture are, in some ways, the same problem, since it is participation in the general life of the community that helps the police fill in the ambiguities of formal law and departmental regulation. Integration into the community also prevents the police from substituting their own occupational and organizational culture for the law or for the moral sentiments of the local populace. Such community integration is facilitated by cultural homogeneity and by the absence of wide disparity between the formal law and social custom.

The involvement of police in the community can, however, be overdone, as evidenced by many of the difficulties of developing restrained law enforcement in racially mixed communities in the United States. Where dominant community sentiment in the segments of the population holding power dictates denial of legal rights and protections to Negroes, integration of the police into local culture may defeat the specific aims of legal policy as well as the general aim of equal dignity for all citizens. In general, the use of law as an instrument of social change requires sufficient isolation of the police from local involvements that they can act in accordance with new legal directives that are likely to meet resistance.

In stable and homogeneous societies, there is likely to grow up a body of customary practice linking police and citizenry which serves to supplement and refine the formal law and the use of police authority. Where such custom has been of long standing, thus making both citizen and police behavior predictable and mutually tolerable, the basic trust of the citizenry in the police is likely to make demand for more elaborate formal control of the police unlikely. However, where social change is rapid and the conditions for such customary adaptation are not present, demands for more control are likely to be prominent. The recent movement for civilian police review boards in the United States is an example of one such demand deriving from such a lack of stabilized trust.

Deployment of police resources

Police operations vary greatly, depending on a number of factors in addition to those already mentioned. Among these factors are the kind and amount of illegal behavior, as well as its social organization; the degree to which uniformed police are expected to carry out the general functions of public protection and regulation in areas other than dealing with crime and disorder; the nature and distribution of communication facilities in the population; and the relative use of mechanical and electronic aids in crime detection and law enforcement.

In some societies the police have many duties and become a general administrative arm of government. This may be true either because of a general conception of the role of central government or because of the relative scarcity of other trained administrative services. In the United States, where crime rates are high and where traffic regulation consumes an important share of police resources, police commanders have attempted to limit police operations to the central ones of protection of life and property through the suppression of crime and disorder. In addition, in their attempts to develop a more prestigeful and professional service, leading police spokesmen in the United States have tended to look to the traditional professions, such as law and medicine, where specialization and the ability to limit functions have been accompanied by high prestige. This effort is especially significant in the United States, where autonomously developed performance standards and specialized technical competence have been sources of occupational prestige, whereas performance of generalized service to the state has not. Performance of functions outside the areas of crime control and the maintenance of public order is not necessarily incompatible with a high standard of police service, however. Indeed, the public image of the police may be more favorable where police service includes considerable supportive activity in addition to more repressive services.

Problems of organization and deployment of police are closely related to the nature of illegal behavior, its social organization, and the social channels whereby information on illegal activity is made available to the police. In modern, urbanized societies much routine information concerning crime comes from the citizen complainant, who is usually the victim of the crime. The spread of telephones in the population, coupled with the use of two-way-radio-equipped patrol cars in the larger cities of the United States, Canada, and Scandinavia, has made possible very rapid reaction to citizen calls. This reaction is usually mediated through a central radio dispatch center, which also enables considerable control over the activities of policemen by superiors.

In the United States the high incidence of crime —especially crimes against the person—plus the lack of tribal or other means for dealing with crime results in a very large volume of work for urban police departments. This large volume is partially due to the lack of private security arrangements of a nonpolice nature; homesteads are not walled, and there is nothing like the famous concierge arrangement of France. Thus there is a need for the police to react very rapidly in a very decentralized fashion, as well as a need for centralization of police communication. For this kind of police work, deployment and allocation of police resources are determined largely by the willingness of the citizenry to request police protection.

Other police operations, such as vice control, are less reactive in nature and, indeed, may have no victim or complainant in the ordinary sense. Under these conditions, police work involves a more initiatory strategy, and decisions as to deployment and resource allocation are much more under the control of police authorities themselves. Such “service” crimes as gambling, prostitution, and liquor or narcotics sales involve considerable organization on the part of criminals; moreover, they have no victims willing to complain and act as prosecuting witnesses, and they can take place in premises protected by legal guarantees of privacy (Stinchcombe 1963). It is also characteristic of these offenses that they are likely to involve violation of laws which do not necessarily represent a high degree of social consensus. This combination of circumstances, coupled with the large amounts of money which result, makes corruption of the police more likely than in the case of other types of crime, and corruption can function much like a private tax. It also means that removal of police from politics is more difficult, since the social differences which underlie the law will make themselves felt in political demands for more strict or more lenient enforcement.

Among new techniques being used by the more highly mechanized police systems of large United States cities, and to a lesser degree in Canada and Scandinavia, are elaborate electronic computer installations used to search records, sort through modus operandi files, and provide very rapid responses to inquiries from field officers concerning suspicious automobiles. These new techniques of communication, information retrieval, and dispatching are significant not only with respect to the speed and effectiveness with which police respond but also with respect to the effectiveness of command and control within departments (Bordua & Reiss 1966).

Organizational discipline

Over and above control through the usual techniques of rule making and supervision, many departments in the United States have been led to maintain undercover units designed to monitor the efficiency and honesty of the police themselves. Such internal investigation units have been effective when combined with firm control in reducing corruption and greatly increasing citizen respect for the police. Internal investigation units and central communications audits allow organizational control of dispersed field officers, but they may also create problems of morale, since they bypass subordinate command levels and imply mistrust. Such extreme measures for internal control are likely to become less necessary as conditions change in the United States, especially as police recruitment, training practices, and overt supervision practices improve. These organizational improvements, coupled with improving public respect for police, should help increase the sense of occupational honor among the police, which is crucial in the long-run assurance of competence and honesty (McMullan 1961).

The internal control problems of large city departments have been greatly complicated in the United States by the long history of local political interference in internal police affairs. As a response to this problem, civil service tenure for police has become very widespread in an attempt to protect individual policemen from threats to their livelihood by political influence. In the process, however, it has become quite common for the ultimate power that imposes severe disciplinary measures, such as demotion or dismissal, to be lodged outside the police department. Dismissal for cause may require highly formal hearings, and appeal may lie to the regular courts. While this system helps eliminate unfair, arbitrary, or politically motivated decisions by police command personnel, it simultaneously weakens internal control exercised along more acceptable lines. This security of tenure for the rank and file and the necessity for quasi-judicially presented evidence is one reason why reforming departments stress the need for undercover internal investigation. Through such investigations it is possible to secure appropriate evidence of wrongdoing and, in most cases, induce resignation rather than initiate formal proceedings.

Given the widespread willingness of the populace to corrupt the police—usually in petty ways —and the widespread ambivalence toward authority exercised in the name of the state, it is necessary in the United States to place the police under a far more severe discipline than would be acceptable to the general population. Police everywhere are, of course, subject to close discipline, yet in many societies this is accompanied by either a complementary restraint and respect on the part of the citizenry or by a definition of the police as having a special elite position which helps in maintaining their morale. In the United States, in a well-run police unit, the rank-and-file officer is likely to experience a subordination less stringent than that experienced by his counterparts in other countries; however, the discipline that he experiences is far more severe, relative to the patterns of authority in the surrounding civil society.

The organizational discipline—more apparent in large or rapidly improving departments than in small or static ones—not only sets police apart from the general populace but, perhaps more importantly, makes for a great contrast between the values of the police occupation and those of other segments of the system for the administration of criminal justice. The increasing emphasis on rehabilitation, reform, and resocialization of offenders has been accompanied by a decline in the use of legal coercion and a de-emphasis, at least in ideology, of ideas of punishment and rigid restriction. It thus sometimes seems to the police that modern ideas of treatment of criminals require relaxation of restraint on offenders and an increase in restraint on officers. Despite the increasing similarity of education and the decreasing intellectual isolation of police administrators in the United States, the differing conditions of organizational control will probably make for continuing conflict between police and other aspects of the criminal justice system.

Moreover, it may be anticipated that some of the difficulties faced by police in the United States will appear or increase in other countries. As wealth and education are more widely distributed, traditional patterns of citizen deference break down and the traditional supports for police authority weaken. These changes produce difficulties not only in relating police to populace but also in the internal control of police themselves.

David J. Bordua

[See alsoCriminal law; Gambling; Penology; Punishment; Social control.]


Banton, Michael P. 1964 The Policeman in the Community. London: Tavistock.

Bordua, David J. (editor) 1967 The Police: Six Sociological Essays. New York: Wiley.

Bordua, David J.; and Reiss, Albert J. Jr. 1966 Command, Control and Charisma: Reflections on Police Bureaucracy. American Journal of Sociology 72:68–76.

Buisson, Henry 1958 La police: Son histoire. Paris: Nouvelles Editions Latines.

Chapman, Brian 1953 The Prefecture of Police. Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 44:505–521.

Clark, John P. 1965 The Isolation of the Police: A Comparison of the British and American Situations. Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 56:307–319.

Cramer, James 1964 The World’s Police. London: Cassell.

Great Britain, Royal Commission on the Police 1962a Final Report. Papers by Command, Cmnd. 1728. London: H.M. Stationery Office.

Great Britain, Royal Commission on the Police 1962b The Relations Between the Police and the Public. Appendix Iv to the Minutes of Evidence. London: H.M. Stationery Office.

International Conference on Criminal Law Administration, Chicago, 1960 1962 Police Power and Individual Freedom: The Quest for Balance. Edited by Claude R. Sowle. Chicago: Aldine.

Janowitz, Morris; Wright, Deil; and Delany, William 1958 Public Administration and the Public: Perspectives Toward Government in a Metropolitan Community. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan, Institute of Public Administration.

Kornhauser, William 1959 The Politics of Mass So ciety. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Lafave, Wayne R. 1965 Arrest: The Decision to Take a Suspect Into Custody. Boston: Little.

Mcmillan, George 1960 Racial Violence and Law Enforcement. Atlanta, Ga.: Southern Regional Council.

Mcmullan, M. 1961 A Theory of Corruption. Sociological Review New Series 9:181–201.

Nakahara, Hidenori 1955 The Japanese Police. Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 46:583–594.

Preiss, Jack J.; and Ehrlich, Howard J. 1966 An Examination of Role Theory: The Case of the State Police. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

Skolnick, Jerome 1966 Justice Without Trial: Law Enforcement in Democratic Society. New York: Wiley.

Stinchcombe, Arthur L. 1963 Institutions of Privacy in the Determination of Police Administrative Practice. American Journal of Sociology 69:150–160.

Ulmann, AndrÉ 1935 Le quatrième pouvoir: Police. Paris: Aubier.

Westley, William A. 1953 Violence and the Police. American Journal of Sociology 59:34–41.

Wilson, James Q. 1963 The Police and Their Problems: A Theory. Public Policy 12:189–216.

Wilson, Orlando W. (1950) 1963 Police Administration. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.


views updated May 14 2018


As members of a social institution which, like the military, is a legitimate employer of force in the service of the state, the police must adhere to strict standards of ethical conduct. The rapid pace of scientific and technological change has affected this ethically guided police work in two ways: The detective resources and enforcement powers at their disposal are altered by changes in science and technology; the powers available to illegitimate users of force, those whom the police are charged with opposing, are also altered. At several different levels, the law enforcement institution has adapted to these changes, which have brought both increased opportunity for improved service as well as challenges and controversies.

Police Ethics

Law enforcement officers represent the epitome of society insofar as they daily risk their lives to protect and serve the public and uphold the laws of the state. Their position of authority and their ability to legitimately use force in various contingencies, however, means that they must uphold the strictest of ethical standards in order not to abuse their power. Although it is unrealistic to hold law enforcement officers (or any human being) to standards of perfection, both citizens and the state expect the police to uphold certain values and norms. Although constitutional and other laws (for example, the U.S. Miranda rights of persons accused of crimes established in 1966) play a role in ensuring the ethical conduct of police, these measures are also supplemented by various codes of ethics drafted by professional law enforcement associations.

Two of the most important overarching codes are the Code of Ethics adopted in 1966 by the American Federation of Police and the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics adopted in 1957 (revised in 1989) by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP 1992). The latter is often used as a model by individual police departments in crafting their own codes of conduct and ethics, which then serve as oaths taken by new officers. Another important document on the international level is the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, adopted by the General Assembly in 1979. A key distinguishing feature of this code is the broad directive for police to protect human dignity and uphold human rights. Criminal Justice Ethics, a semiannual journal published by the Institute of Criminal Justice Ethics, and Ethics Roll Call, a quarterly journal published by the Center for Law Enforcement Ethics, serve as key resources for facilitating ongoing discussions in the field of law enforcement ethics, especially as changes in science and technology raise new questions about proper conduct.

Most codes of conduct and codes of ethics for police uphold certain general principles in order to prevent misconduct and abuse of power. These principles include: the duty to uphold the law and loyalty to the constitution; personal integrity, honesty, and honor; responsibility to know the law and understand the limits of one's power; and responsibility to use the least amount of force necessary to achieve the proper end. These principles (in addition to laws) are designed to guard against police deviance, or behavior inconsistent with norms and values. This can include misconduct (e.g., excessive or discriminatory use/non-use of force), corruption (forbidden acts involving misuse of office for gain), and favoritism (unfair treatment of friends or relatives).

One noteworthy point is the scarcity of references to the proper use of science and technology in most codes of ethics. As new technologies emerge and become available for both police and criminals (for example, improved surveillance mechanisms or more deadly weapons), so too do new ethical dilemmas that may or may not be adequately resolved by interpreting the general principles found in police codes of ethics.

Various forms of police deviance often have been exacerbated by inadequate accountability mechanisms. During the last half of the twentieth century, however, this was improved thanks in part to developments in communications and surveillance technologies that allow watchdog groups to monitor police behavior and record and share their findings. For the most part, the increased public scrutiny of police activities has helped to reinforce ethical conduct, but it can also interfere with police operations and unfairly stigmatize officers. One source of deviance is an incentive structure that attaches promotions to number and rate of arrests. This can distract officers from their principle duties of protecting and serving the public. Another common ethical problem is the tribal system of values that can evolve within such tight-knit communities as police departments. The "blue code of silence" sometimes leads to the cover-up of corruption and abuses of power.

Science and Technology in Police Work

Advances in science and technology have both improved the capabilities of law enforcement officers to perform their duties and raised several challenges and controversies. Transportation provides one example of how radically these developments have altered police work. Although foot and horseback patrols still play key roles in law enforcement, the introduction of police cars (first used in Akron, Ohio, in 1899 and popularized in the 1930s) has dramatically increased officer mobility. Now helicopters and motorboats complement ever more powerful police cars equipped with video cameras, laptop computers capable of accessing information systems, and global positioning systems (GPS). In addition to transportation, other areas of major scientific and technological change include identification and crime solving, computers and communication, monitoring and surveillance, and protection and control.

The discovery and utilization of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) has greatly improved the science of identifying people, which involves determining where they have been, what they did, and how they did it. With only a strand of hair, flake of dandruff, or drop of saliva, police laboratories are now able to positively identify individuals. Despite some debate on this issue, in 1996 the National Academy of Sciences determined there is no reason to question the reliability of DNA evidence. The creation of crime laboratories and advances in forensic science (e.g., the microscopic comparison of fibers, bullets, and other tangible evidence) has made identification of hard evidence a powerful means of detection. Fingerprinting, first widely used in the 1920s, is another technique that has vastly improved the ability of police to identify criminals.

In 1967, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) created the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), the first nation-wide computer filing system. This helped spark the large-scale computerization of police departments in the United States in the 1970s. Integrated networks of computer databases allow different police departments and different sectors of law enforcement to rapidly share information. Improvements in information and communications technologies can enhance the effectiveness of identification technologies by building national databases of license plates, fingerprints, and even DNA. The 911 system, two-way radios, cell phones, and satellite phones have also increased the ability of police to respond to the public's needs.

Advances in computer and information technology have also improved police monitoring and surveillance. For example, police in the City of London utilize an information technology scheme called Police Informant Management System (PIMS), which allows them to target specific criminal activities and manage informants more effectively. Other monitoring technologies used by the police include camera systems and GPS. Police surveillance work focuses on specific individuals, places, or vehicles deemed suspicious. This more covert work can involve the recording and monitoring of telephone or in-person conversations as well as electronic correspondence. Three notable technologies are the Echelon surveillance program (used to monitor electronic correspondence), the FaceTrac system that "reads" faces, and the Digital Angel tracking chip, which—disguised as jewelry or implanted under the skin—can track the wearer anywhere in the world. For all the advantages these techniques confer on police, there is still no replacement for the proper training of officers to infiltrate criminal groups.

Finally, advances in protective equipment (such as bulletproof vests and helmets) and less-than-lethal technologies have greatly improved police work. Especially during the 1960s, there were many attempts to develop riot control technologies and use-of-force alternatives to guns and the standard side-handle baton. Tried and largely abandoned technologies included rubber, plastic, and wooden bullets, dart and tranquilizer guns, an electrified water jet, and strobe lights (Seaskate 1998). Taser guns, which shoot two wire-controlled darts into the victim and deliver a 50,000-volt shock, bean bag rounds for crowd control, and pepper spray have been more widely employed. Another major development is the RoadSpike, a strip of remote-controlled retractable spikes that allows police to more safely and effectively stop fleeing vehicles while minimizing unintended damage to others.

Police departments have often been slow in reaping the advantages made possible through progress in science and technology (Seaskate 1998). For example, even with massive federal funding, computerization happened slowly and unevenly, since it took a long time for many departments to figure out how information technologies like records management systems and computerized crime mapping could be usefully implemented. Furthermore, many technologies have been adopted from the private sector, but the police also have needs for specialized technologies, which are more difficult to develop and apply. In the United States, the Office of Science and Technology of the National Institute of Justice is responsible for determining and supplying the special technology needs of the nation's police force and for fostering technology research and development.

The use of emerging science and technology by the police can also raise controversies. Cyrille Fijnaut and Gary T. Marx (1995) have argued that the increased use of technical means by the police is one manifestation of the growing technicization of social control (enforcing norms by preventing violations). They suggest that the increased use of technology in social control can cause more problems than it solves. Other controversies stem primarily from specific technologies. Enhanced monitoring and surveillance abilities have raised privacy issues. The reliability of fingerprinting has been questioned (see Cho 2002), especially following one case of wrongful arrest and one of wrongful conviction in 2004 based on faulty interpretation of the fingerprint evidence. Taser guns have also sparked controversy as many concede that they can save lives but that officers may use them too early or too often. More than forty deaths have been linked to Taser guns.

Another important impact of science and technology has been the increasing specialization of law enforcement. Police negotiators, special weapons experts, and tactics teams are often relied on in various circumstances. Deferring to experts is usually the best way of handling a critical situation, but only when time allows. In moments of urgency that require quick judgment and action, this strategy can turn into passive policing possibly to the extent of cowardice. The most horrific example is the Columbine High School tragedy (April 20, 1999), where the first responding police officers, knowing there were children being killed inside, failed to enter the school building. These duty-bound officers, supplied with firearms, body armor, and the color of law, chose to wait for the SWAT team rather than risk their own lives in an attempt to save the students. In the aftermath and on nationwide news, the Jefferson County sheriff stated he did not order his men into the school building because he did not want them hurt.

Criminal Adoption of New Technologies

Much of the same technology used by the police to counteract crime has also been adopted by criminals. Computerization and wireless communications are radically altering some forms of crime. For example, drug trafficking organizations often surpass the communications abilities of law enforcement, and even street-level dealers have access to state-of-the-art communications technologies. Electronic correspondence, the Internet, and cellular communications have made illegal transactions of all kinds more difficult to trace (Seaskate 1998). These technologies also allow terrorist cells to be extremely mobile and highly networked. The development of police technology in the future will be largely set within the context of this evolving technology race with criminals.

Police are forced to deal with new and more sophisticated criminal acts while maintaining their traditional roles of handling traffic, mediating domestic disputes, and providing a range of public services. In order to do so, they must devote a substantial portion of their time to continuing education. Law enforcement officers must attend refresher courses, mandated use-of-force training sessions, and other compendious schools just to keep up with court decisions and novel tricks and tactics being created by the criminal mind. This is in addition to the constant development of hardware, software, and scientific means of detecting criminal activity, which criminals in turn work hard to elude, often through the use of technology.

Unlike the police, however, criminals seldom invest in scientific research or are able to use science to develop new technologies. They are more limited to the creative adaptation of existing technologies, after the manner of the creative consumer analyzed by Michel de Certeau (1984).


It is important that the increased reliance on science and technology does not compromise the ethical standards of law enforcement officers. In order to avoid such a possibility, police departments and professional law enforcement societies should make any necessary updates to their codes of ethics. For example, given increased surveillance capabilities and powers (like those under the USA Patriot Act of 2001), police need to ensure that their conduct strikes the right balance between protection of civil rights (like the right to privacy) and the physical protection of citizens from harm. All such changes in science and technology are rapidly altering the context of police work, and law enforcement officers are continually challenged to find the proper use of new technologies to achieve the goals of protecting the public and upholding the law. The rational use of technology and force by the police requires active democratic involvement and citizen partnerships with the police in order to avoid the rise of a modern police state (see Stevens 2000, Wolfe and Zelman 2001).

Technology also plays a role in globalizing criminal activities. Transportation and communication technologies especially enable criminal and terrorist networks to operate and coordinate actions that span the globe. One possible response to this trend is a more central role for Interpol. Created in 1923, Interpol is the world's largest police organization with 182 member countries. It supports all organizations that combat international crime, and it facilitates and coordinates cross-border police cooperation. In this latter function, Interpol is dependent on communication and information technologies that allow multiple agencies to track criminal activities that cross political boundaries. Given the vital importance of technology for Interpol's mission, it may need to strengthen its budget to support research and development specifically targeted to its needs.

In fact, as science and technology become integral parts of police work, it is important that all governments establish rational bureaucratic structures capable of securing the necessary resources to develop and disseminate novel technologies and improved scientific practices. Furthermore, given the increased technological capabilities of criminals and terrorists, it is essential that police and other first responders are adequately trained and equipped to handle contingencies from hostage situations to attacks using weapons of mass destruction. These requirements became especially apparent for the United Sates in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. One of the responses was the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002. A central element of the DHS is the Science and Technology Directorate, which works to counter terrorist threats by improving current technological capabilities and developing new technologies. This marks another step in the effort to coordinate and fund federal efforts and encourage industry in the task of providing police with the proper technologies to fulfill their vital mission. However, and in contrast, all of the science, technology and/or modern, crime-detecting gee-whiz gizmos are of no value if police conduct condones anything other than strict compliance to the highest of ethical standards.


SEE ALSO Forensic Science;Science, Technology, and Law;Security.


Barker, Thomas and Carter, David L. (1994). Police Deviance, 3rd edition. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson. Describes and analyzes many issues of police deviance and misconduct and offers recommendations for mitigation.

Cho, Adrian. (2002). "Fingerprinting Doesn't Hold Up as a Science in Court." Science 295(5554): 418. Reports that the U.S. Supreme Court found that fingerprinting does not uphold three of the four standards for federal rules of scientific evidence established in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals.

de Certeau, Michel. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall. Berkley: University of California Press. Marks a turning point in the study of culture from a focus on products and producers to consumers and their creative uses of products.

Fijnaut, Cyrille, and Gary T. Marx, eds. (1995). Undercover: Police Surveillance in Comparative Perspective. The Hague: Kluwer Law International. Argues from police surveillance to the larger thesis that social control is changing worldwide due to the functional needs of the modern state and common cultural beliefs.

Hansen, David A. (1973). Police Ethics. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Heffernan, William C., and Timothy Stroup, eds. (1985). Police Ethics: Hard Choices in Law Enforcement. New York: John Jay Press.

International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). (1992). "The Evolution of the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics." Police Chief 59(January): 14–17.

Stevens, Richard W. (2000). "What is a Police State?" In Police State Polices Alert Newsletter (Winter) Hartford, WI: Concerned Citizens Opposed to Police States.

Toffler, Alvin, and Heidi Toffler. (1993). War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Little, Brown. Shows how technology alters the nature of conflict and argues that technology and innovation can be the wellsprings of a lasting peace.

Wolfe, Claire, and Aaron Zelman. (2001). The State vs. The People. Hartford, WI: Mazel Freedom Press. Defines and differentiates three different types of police-states (traditional, totalitarian, and modern authoritarian) and argues that the United States may be moving toward a form of modern authoritarian police state that grows organically out of fear about crime and terrorism.


Seaskate, Inc. (1988). The Evolution and Development of Police Technology. A technical report prepared for The National Committee on Criminal Justice Technology at the National Institute of Justice. Available from http://inventors.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http://www.nlectc.org/txtfiles/policetech.html. Contains a timeline of police technology and recommendations for federal decision makers on how to improve the technological capabilities of U.S. police.


views updated May 23 2018


POLICE agencies in the United States are oriented toward local control. Their counterparts in other industrialized countries, by contrast, are usually part of a centralized national police force. As a result of the focus on independent local control, there are some 20,000 different police agencies in the U.S. (not including the wide variety of specialized federal forces), financed and managed by states, counties, and municipalities. The lack of a centralized national system has led to problems of jurisdiction, information sharing, and even basic ideology. But the overriding fear of a national force and the abuse of its power has long been a hallmark of the American system of law.

Police Organization

Metropolitan police agencies in the U.S. were originally organized on a military model, and their development in the second half of the nineteenth century was strongly influenced by Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police Force of London, founded in 1829. The British system used an organization of constables and watchmen who patrolled the streets and often charged fees for their services. Early law enforcement efforts in the U.S. were loosely organized, as there was no perceived need for full-time, professional forces, and watchmen were usually volunteers. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, large metropolitan areas such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago had created permanent fulltime police forces. Professional, fulltime state police forces were not commonplace in the U.S. until the twentieth century.

Because most U.S. police agencies have been created and funded by the local communities, and because they were created at different times, there are many variations in how the agencies are organized and financed. In general, city police are funded by the municipality and headed by a police chief, either appointed by the mayor or elected. Counties employ patrolmen and sheriffs, who usually answer to an elected county official. State police agencies, which have broader jurisdiction, assist in statewide investigations and are responsible for traffic law enforcement in areas outside municipalities. Local law enforcement agencies also have a variety of specialized units, including those for transit, parks, ports, housing, and schools.

Federal police agencies mostly developed later, although the United States Treasury established the U.S.

Mint Police in 1792. The Treasury Department oversees other specialized police agencies as well, including the U.S. Customs Service, the Internal Revenue Service; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; and the Secret Service. The Justice Department law enforcement agency was established in 1870 and includes the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the U.S. Marshals (in charge of guarding and transporting federal prisoners, among other duties). In addition, other federal agencies have been established for specific law enforcement. These include the U.S. Park Police, the Border Patrol, the National Security Agency, and the Federal Trade Commission. The executive branch directs most federal agencies, with oversight by the legislative and judicial branches.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1996 there were 922,200 full-time, local police personnel, of whom 663,535 had arrest powers. Steady increases for the last two decades indicate a 2001 estimate of around 1,000,000 local law enforcement employees across the country, about a quarter of them women and minorities. Statistics from 1997 show that, on average, local police officers were required to have 1,100 hours of training (sheriffs averaged 900 hours), and, by 2000, more than thirty-seven percent of local police agencies were required to have some college education. In 2000, there were 88,496 federal officers, about thirty-one for every 100,000 people (in Washington, D.C., the ratio was 1,397 federal officers for every 100,000 residents). The majority of federal officers are in Texas; California; Washington, D.C.; New York; and Florida.

History of Police Forces

Permanent police forces were created in metropolitan areas such as New York (1853) and Philadelphia (1856) to handle the increase of population and the social problems that came with urban industrialization. Police officers were uniformed, making them easily identifiable on the street, which in turn expanded their duties beyond mere law enforcement; policemen gave directions, took in lost children, assisted the indigent, enforced health codes, and, with the emergence of the automobile, directed traffic and enforced the rules of the road. Police reform in the late nineteenth century made police officers civil servants, providing a salary and doing away with the earlier system of fees for services. As a result, police officers were more inclined to help all victims of crime, not just those who could afford the fees. In 1906, in an effort to end nepotism and favoritism, San Francisco established a system of hiring based on scores from civil service tests, a practice that became the national standard.

The twentieth century brought scientific research and technology to the world of policing. New techniques in identifying physical characteristics (such as fingerprints, first used in the early 1900s) meant police agencies spent more energy on criminal investigations, crime prevention, and other specialized tasks. Between the 1920s and 1940s, most large cities had special juvenile crime divisions; in the 1920s and 1930s, there was an expansion of traffic divisions; in the 1940s and 1950s, police agencies created public relations positions; the 1950s brought the first telephoto transmissions of documents, photographs, and fingerprints; and since the 1970s, police agencies have worked toward computerized data collecting, sharing, and analysis. By the end of the twentieth century, metropolitan police forces had specialized units for dealing with exigencies such as bombs, hostage situations, crowd control, underwater rescue, and terrorism.

Forensic science advanced evidence gathering and analysis in the last decades of the twentieth century, but smaller, rural police forces seldom had the resources or training to take advantage of scientific advancements. Whereas the results of DNA testing were usually considered reliable, such tests could take months without the necessary resources or trained personnel to conduct them. As of 2001 there were still several states with no uniform system of preserving crime scenes and gathering evidence.

Issues in Policing

Because police officers are authorized to use physical force, including deadly force, concerns over the abuse of power have long been a central and justified concern. The ethnic and racial makeup of early police agencies usually mirrored those who held political power, with nonwhites and women generally barred from employment as regular officers. Not until the 1960s did women and minorities became visible as police officers. By 2000, the Justice Department estimated that women and minorities represent around twenty-two percent of the nation's local police force.

Historically, the minority populations of urban areas have experienced strained relations with the police. In the 1850s, so-called nativist movements fought the inclusion of immigrants on police forces in Chicago and New York. Although police squads protected black residents from white mobs during the 1940s and 1950s, the 1960s brought race riots, including those in Chicago after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which left nine people dead, and the 1965 riots in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, which left four dead. Riots broke out in Los Angeles in 1992 after the not-guilty verdict in the case against four white police officers who had been videotaped beating Rodney King, an African American. New York had also notorious abuse scandals in the late 1990s, including the police torture of the Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in 1997 and the shooting death in 1999 of the West African immigrant Amadou Diallo. Such high-profile cases have spurred a reexamination of police policies and the way internal investigations are conducted.

Although abuse of power by police officers is a legitimate concern, according to a 1999 review of police agency statistics, police officers use force in only 0.2 percent of

their interactions with the public, the majority involving physical force without the use of a weapon.

Police Agencies in the Future

Social science has aided police work just as forensic science has. Most modern metropolitan police forces have adapted to the diverse needs of their communities, with specialized units and creative alternatives to traditional police methods. One of the strongest trends has been toward community policing, an attempt to make police officers more familiar to the residents and merchants of a neighborhood. Community involvement in policing has also influenced the investigation and rectification of police abuse and corruption, with the public demanding a greater role. Fears of "racial profiling," the alleged tendency of police officers to target minority groups, has spawned efforts to educate police about the cultural differences between ethnic and racial groups.

Police reform has been slow, because discussions generally take place at the national level, whereas new policies are drafted by local departments. This situation will almost certainly evolve as the need for interagency cooperation increases, and as federal police agencies work in concert with local agencies to form a national computer database for gathering information and sharing intelligence.


Dulaney, W. Marvin. Black Police in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Riley, Gail Blasser. Miranda v. Arizona: Rights of the Accused. Hillside, N.J.: Enslow, 1994.

U.S. Department of Justice. Home Page available from http://www.usdoj.gov/.

Vila, Brian, ed. The Role of Police in American Society: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Woods, Gerald. The Police in Los Angeles: Reform and Professionalization. New York: Garland, 1993.


See alsoBoston Police Strike ; Los Angeles Riots ; Miranda v. Arizona ; Police Brutality ; Police Power .


views updated May 14 2018


A body sanctioned by local, state, or national government to enforce laws and apprehend those who break them.

The police force as we know it came into being in England in the 1820s when Sir Robert Peel established London's first municipal force. Before that, policing had either been done by volunteers or by soldiers. Police officers in the twenty-first century have technological advantages at their disposal to help them solve crimes, but most rely primarily on training and instinct to do their work.

In the United States, policing was originally done by the "watch system" in which local citizens would go on patrol and look for criminal activity. As cities grew, so did the amount of crime, and it became impossible to control it through volunteers. In the mid-1840s, New York City established the first paid professional police force in the United States. By the end of the nineteenth century, major cities across the nation had their own police forces. Regional police organizations were also established. Federal policing agencies such as the U.S. Park Police (who patrolled national parks), the Postal Inspectors (who helped ensure safe mail delivery) and the Border Patrol (which kept criminals from sneaking into or out of the country) were introduced. In 1905, Pennsylvania established the nation's first state police; other states quickly followed suit.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, police forces were established in smaller municipalities, and police officers took a more active role in fighting crime and protecting citizens. The widespread introduction of telephones and automobiles made it easier for police to respond quickly to emergencies.

Over the ensuing years, many of the techniques and tools commonly associated with police work—mug shots, fingerprint analysis, centralized records, crime labs—were introduced and constantly improved. Although the scenarios commonly created by television police shows are exaggerations of how much technology can actually do, such innovations as DNA testing have made it easier for the police to positively identify criminals.

The average duties of the modern police officer can vary widely from community to community. In a large city whose police force has dozens of divisions and neighborhood precincts, an officer's duties may be quite specialized. In a small town with a police force of only a few people, each officer will likely have to know how to do several jobs to be able to fill in for their colleagues as needed.

The duties of a police officer on the New York City police force provide an example of what the police do. New York officers are expected to patrol their assigned area, either by car or on foot. They apprehend criminals or crime suspects, stop crimes in progress, and assist people who are in trouble (such as complainants in domestic disputes or emotionally disturbed homeless individuals). They investigate crimes and crime scenes, collect evidence, and interview victims and witnesses. They help find missing persons and handle cases of alleged child abuse. They help identify and recover stolen property, and they testify in court as necessary. They also keep detailed records of their activity by filing reports and filling out various forms.

Police officers are expected to be in good physical condition. They may have to run after a suspect, carry injured individuals, subdue suspects (who may be armed or physically strong), and carry heavy equipment. They may have periods of extreme physical activity, followed by hours of no activity at all (perhaps just sitting in a patrol car for several hours). They must also be mentally alert and emotionally able to withstand the strain of their work. Although officers in large cities or dangerous neighborhoods may have a statistically higher chance of being injured on killed on the job, all police officers know that life-and-death situations can happen anywhere.

Not accidentally, police departments, especially those in large cities, are compared to military institutions. In fact, the police and the military have a number of goals in common, including discipline, endurance, teamwork, and clearly established procedures for all operations. Even the ranks given police officers are similar to those in the military.

Not surprisingly, police officers are required to undergo often rigorous training before being sworn in. The movement for formalized training began early in the twentieth century. August Vollmer, chief of police in Berkeley, California, from 1905 to 1932, believed that police officers needed professional training at the college level. He helped found a police training academy at the University of California's Berkeley campus, and Berkeley later established the nation's first college-level criminology department. Today, many colleges and universities have criminology departments and offer degrees in criminal justice. Many police departments will provide tuition reimbursement or scholarships to officers who want to continue their education after they have joined the force. Some officers get their law degrees; others get advanced degrees in criminology and become college instructors.

One of the major goals of many police departments is getting cooperation from within the community. Many officers receive training in communications, and most police departments have public affairs divisions that provide information for citizens who wish to organize neighborhood watch programs or who want to get information on avoiding crime. Some police departments, for example, have increased their foot patrols, believing that the officer "walking the beat" makes people feel safer and also builds rapport with local individuals. Police also work with each other as well as with other law enforcement agencies. State, county, and local police will often come together to solve a crime that falls within their jurisdiction. Agencies such as the federal bureau of investigation, the secret service, the Coast Guard, and others also work with the police to help solve crimes. The emergence of computerized records and databases make it easy for police organizations across the country and even overseas to exchange information about suspects and criminals. In emergency situations (fires, explosions, or natural disasters), police officers work in tandem with fire fighters, medical professionals, or emergency service workers.

further readings

Bittner, Egon. 1990. Aspects of Police Work. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

Das, Dilip K., and Arvind Verma. 2000. Police Mission: Challenges and Responses. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press.

Kelling, George L., and Catherine Coles. 1996. Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities. New York: Free Press.

Wadman, Robert C. 2004. To Protect and to Serve: A History of Police in America. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.


Federal Bureau of Investigation; Police Power.


views updated May 18 2018


Brosseau v. Haugen

Police officers are sometimes accused of using excessive force in carrying out their duties. A person who has been injured by a police officer may sue the officer for damages using the federal civil rights statute 42 U.S.C.A. §1983, alleging that the excessive force violated the person's Fourth Amendment rights. The U.S. Supreme Court, aware that police officers must make quick decisions, has crafted a qualified immunity test that frees officers from liability under certain circumstances. The Court, in Brosseau v. Haugen, __U.S. __, 125 S.Ct. 596, __ L.Ed.2d __ (2004), ruled that a police officer's use of deadly force did not violate the Fourth Amendment and that the case must be dismissed.

Rochelle Brosseau, an officer with the Puyallup, Washington Police Department, was told by Glen Tamburello that Kenneth Haugen, his former partner in crime, had stolen some of his tools. Brosseau determined that a warrant was out for Haugen on a drug offense. The following day, Tamburello and an acquaintance tracked Haugen down at his mother's house. A fight ensued, and a neighbor called the police. Brosseau heard the call, arrived at the scene, and found Haugen running through the neighborhood. She called for backup, and for the next 30 minutes, pursued Haugen. He returned to his mother's yard and jumped into a vehicle. Brosseau pointed her gun at Haugen and demanded he get out of the vehicle. He ignored her commands, leading Haugen to break the driver's side window with her gun. She struck Haugen on the head with the butt of her gun, but Haugen started the vehicle and began to drive off. Brosseau fired one shot and hit Haugen in the back. He stopped the car a block later, suffering from a collapsed lung. He pleaded guilty to eluding police but then filed a §1983 lawsuit against Brosseau, alleging that the use of deadly force was excessive under the Fourth Amendment.

A federal district court dismissed the lawsuit after finding that Brosseau was entitled to qualified immunity. To assess whether an officer qualifies for immunity, a court must ask whether the facts alleged by the plaintiff show that the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right. When deadly force is alleged, the Supreme Court has mandated that an "objective reasonableness standard" be used. Under this standard, the reasonableness of the officer's conduct must be judged according to the law at the time of the conduct. If the law did not clearly establish that the officer's conduct violated the Constitution, the officer should be granted immunity. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the grant of immunity, finding that the use of deadly force violated Haugen's Fourth Amendment rights and that the violation had been clearly established.

The Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, overturned the Ninth Circuit's decision. In a per curiam opinion (i.e., an opinion not signed by any of the justices), the Court concluded that the law was not clearly established. The Court emphasized that the inquiry "must be undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition." The "contours of the right" must be so clear that a reasonable officer would understand that "what he is doing violates that right" in the particular situation. The Ninth Circuit had erred by applying previous case precedents that were "cast at a high level of generality."

In this case, the Court found that the law was not clearly established. Examining a number of cases where an officer had shot a fleeing suspect who presented a risk to others, the Court noted that none of the courts found these to be Fourth Amendment violations. Haugen had shown that he was determined to avoid capture and that he posed a danger to police officers who were on the street a short distance away. In a similar case, a court found the officer's use of deadly force to have been reasonable. Although this case favored Brosseau's immunity claim, the Court also ruled that the circumstances in this and two other deadly-force cases were different enough to ensure that the law was not clearly established. Therefore, Brosseau was entitled to immunity.

Justice John Paul Stevens, in a dissenting opinion, argued that it was had been objectively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment to use deadly force against Haugen. He believed that immunity should not have been given and that the reasonableness of the officer's actions should have been determined by a jury. In this case, the suspect had not threatened anyone with a weapon, had not committed a violent crime, and had not demonstrated that he intended to hurt anyone. Without these traditional justifications for using deadly force, it seemed necessary for a jury to assess whether Brosseau's split-second decision had been justified.


views updated May 17 2018

police. For years Britons resisted having a proper police force, because they associated it with repression, especially of the French kind. They also feared it would raise their rates. This was despite rampant crime in the 18th cent., which in the absence of police was dealt with by draconian penalties, especially death, designed to deter. In the more humane 19th cent., however, the sight of poor folk being strangulated for minor offences became less acceptable, and other methods of crime prevention were sought. The middle classes also worried about public order, in an era (c.1790–1820) of serious riot and rebellion. Their only recourse was the army, backed up by even tougher sanctions. That could be counter-productive. Peterloo, for example, and the Cato Street executions set people against the government. A gentler means of public control was required.

Sir Robert Peel devised his first police bill while chief secretary for Ireland, leading to the creation of the Irish Constabulary in 1822. In 1829 he persuaded Parliament to accept something similar (though not so militaristic) for London, to be called the Metropolitan Police. For its first years it was clearly on trial. Its commissioners, therefore, proceeded cautiously. All policemen were put in a distinctive uniform, so that they could not be taken for ‘spies’. They were unarmed, except for short batons. Rules of conduct were demanding. Of its first 2,800 recruits, 2,238 were dismissed from the force, sometimes for simply taking a drink or a nap. But it worked. The police became accepted by a suspicious middle class, and eventually by large numbers of the working classes too. They may have deterred crime (though figures are unreliable; and other factors, like rising prosperity, were active). They developed methods of dealing with public demonstrations which were subtle but effective. Other areas of the country called the ‘Met’ in to help. After 1833 they were permitted to set up their own forces, on the London model. Most did. Those which did not were finally made to by Acts of 1856 (England and Wales) and 1857 (Scotland).

Another later development was the growth of a plain clothes detective branch. That began in London in 1842, but consisted initially of only eight men. They tended to be distrusted. In 1877 a scandal implicated three of the detective branch's four inspectors in a turf fraud they were supposed to be investigating. That provoked a shake-up, out of which the present-day Criminal Investigation Department was born in 1878. In the 1880s the latter spawned the police's first political arm: a ‘Special Branch’ formed initially to look after Irish-American Fenian bombers, but later extended to anarchists, suffragettes, and other sources of irritation to the government. The same period saw the police taking on other duties: regulating vice, drink, and gambling, for example, and watching out for foreign spies.

The police's most controversial role has always been its public order one. Its problem was that keeping order in times of civil unrest could be interpreted as acting for the state against the democracy. Strikes were the most difficult case. The 1890s, 1920s, and 1980s saw the police brought into the political arena in this way. In 1918 they had a strike of their own, which created another kind of concern. In general, the British police have maintained their image of being ‘consensual’, though periodically accused of racism.

Bernard Porter


views updated Jun 11 2018

po·lice / pəˈlēs/ • n. [treated as pl.] (usu. the police) the civil force of a national or local government, responsible for the prevention and detection of crime and the maintenance of public order. ∎  members of a police force: there are fewer women police than men. ∎  an organization engaged in the enforcement of official regulations in a specified domain: transit police | fig., humorous the fashion police.• v. [tr.] [often as n.] (policing) (of a police force) have the duty of maintaining law and order in or for (an area or event). ∎  enforce regulations or an agreement in (a particular area or domain): a UN resolution to use military force to police the no-fly zone. ∎  enforce the provisions of (a law, agreement, or treaty): the regulations will be policed by factory inspectors. ∎  maintain order and neatness in (an area, as a military camp).

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