Policing | Section 1.5

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

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The Reform Era and Its Aftermath

Political involvement in American policing was viewed as a problem by both the public and police reformers in the mid- to late 19th century. Early attempts (in the 19th century) at police reform in the United States were unsuccessful, as citizens tried to pressure police agencies to make changes. Later on in the early 20th century (with help from the Progressives), reform efforts began to take hold and made significant changes to policing in the United States.

A goal of police reform included the removal of politics from American policing. This effort included the creation of standards for recruiting and hiring police officers and administrators instead of allowing politicians to appoint these individuals to help them carry out their political agendas. Another goal of police reform during the early 1900s was to professionalize the police. This could be achieved by setting standards for the quality of police officers hired, implementing better police training, and adopting various types of technology to aid police officers in their daily operations (including motorized patrol and the use of two-way radios).

The Wickersham Commission

The professionalization movement of the police in America resulted in police agencies becoming centralized bureaucracies focused primarily on crime control. The importance of the role of “crime fighter” was highlighted in the Wickersham Commission report (1931), which examined rising crime rates in the United States and the inability of the police to manage this problem. It was proposed in this report that police officers could more effectively deal with rising crime by focusing their police duties primarily on crime control instead of the social services that they had once provided in the political era.

In an article published in 1933, August Vollmer outlined some of the significant changes that he believed had taken place in American policing from 1900 to 1930. The use of the civil service system in the hiring and promotion of police officers was one way to help remove politics from policing and to set standards for police recruits. The implementation of effective police training programs was also an important change during this time. The ability of police administrators to strategically distribute police force according to the needs of each area or neighborhood was another change made to move toward a professional model of policing.

There was also an improved means of communication at this time, which included the adoption of two-way radio systems. Many agencies also began to adopt more reliable record-keeping systems, improved methods for identifying criminals (including the use of fingerprinting systems), and more advanced technologies used in criminal investigations (such as lie detectors and science-based crime labs).

Despite the heavy emphasis on crime control that began to emerge in the mid-1930s, some agencies began to use crime-prevention techniques. And finally, this era saw the emergence of state highway police to aid in the control of traffic, which had increased after the automobile was introduced in the United States. Vollmer stated that all of these changes contributed to the professionalization of the police in America. O. W. Wilson was the protégé of August Vollmer.

His work essentially picked up where Vollmer’s left off in the late 1930s. He started out as police chief in Wichita, Kansas, and then moved on to establish the School of Criminology at the University of California.76 Wilson’s greatest contribution to American policing lies within police administration. Specifically, his vision involved the centralization of police agencies; this includes both the organizational structure and management of personnel.  Wilson is also credited with creating a strategy for distributing patrol officers within a community based on reported crimes and calls for service. His book, Police Administration, published in 1950, became the “bible of police management” and ultimately defined how professional police agencies would be managed for many decades that followed. It is clear that the work of Vollmer and Wilson helped American policing advance.


The end of the 19th century saw progressive thinkers attempt to reform the police.  Progressivism was a broadly focused political and social movement of the day, and the police were swept up in this wave of progress, improvement, and reform.  The status quo of policing would not withstand its momentum. A primary objective of the police reformers of this era was to substantially reduce the power of local politicians over the police.

As president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Chief Richard Sylvester was a major advocate of police professionalism.  He began a movement toward a social work perspective of policing that sought to help rehabilitate offenders.

An important reform was the institution of civil service.  The aim of civil service was to make selection and promotion decisions based on merit and testing rather than by the corrupt system of political patronage of the previous era.  Within police circles, the progressive movement spawned an interest in the professionalization of policing. Model professional police departments would be highly efficient, separated from political influence, and staffed by experts.

One of the most notable police reformers and champions of police professionalism was the Chief of police in Berkeley, California from 1909 to 1932.  August Vollmer defined police professionalism in terms of effective crime control, educated officers, and nonpolitical public service.  Like Peel a generation before, Vollmer is known for many firsts in policing. He was the first to develop an academic degree program in law enforcement in an era long before the establishment of criminal justice as a field of study in American universities.  His agency was among the first to use forensic science to aid investigations, and among the first to use automobiles. His agency was among the first to establish a code of ethics, which prohibited the acceptance of gratuities and favors by officers.

One of Vollmer’s students, O. W. Wilson is known for introducing the concepts of scientific management into policing and increasing efficiency.  Wilson was one of the first police administrators to advocate single-officer patrols. Later in his career, he became a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and was known as America’s foremost expert on police administration.

Against this backdrop of political and philosophical change, there were major technological changes going on.  The decades of the 1930s and 1940s saw the development of technological innovations such as the automobile, the telephone, and the two-way radio.  

Unintended Consequences of Professionalism

Many police writers have suggested that the reform era in government, which began in the early 1900’s, coupled with a nationwide move toward professionalization, resulted in the separation of the police from the community. Police managers assigned officers to rotating shifts and moved them frequently from one geographical location to another to eliminate corruption. Management also instituted a policy of centralized control, designed to ensure compliance with standard operating procedures and to encourage a professional aura of impartiality.

This social distancing was also reinforced by technological developments. The expanding role of automobiles replaced the era of the friendly foot patrol officer. By the 1970’s, rapid telephone contact with police through 911 systems allowed them to respond quickly to crimes. Answering the overwhelming number of calls for service, however, left police little time to prevent crimes from occurring. As increasingly sophisticated communications technology made it possible for calls to be transmitted almost instantaneously, officers had to respond to demands for assistance regardless of the urgency of the situation.

Answering calls severely limited a broad police interaction with the community. The advent of the computer also contributed to the decrease in police contact with the community. Statistics, rather than the type of service provided or the service recipients, became the focus for officers and managers. As computers generated data on crime patterns and trends, counted the incidence of crimes, increased the efficiency of dispatch, and calculated the rapidity and outcome of police response, the rapid response became an end in itself.

Random patrolling also served to further break the link between communities and police. Police were instructed to change routes constantly, in an effort to thwart criminals. However, community members also lost the ability to predict when they might be able to interact with their local police. The height of police isolation came in an era of growing professionalization when the prevailing ideology was that the professional knew best and when community involvement in crime control was seen by almost everyone as unnecessary. The movement to end police corruption, the emphasis on professionalization, and the development of new technology occurred in an era of growing crime and massive social change.

Police had trouble communicating with all members of the socially and culturally diverse communities they served. The police and the public had become so separated from one another that in some communities an attitude of “us versus them” prevailed between the police and community members. Social activist and writer Michael Harrington explained the degradation of the police-community relationship in this way: “For the urban poor, the police are those who arrest you.”

The Age of Social Discord

The burst of ideas, arguments, and protests during the 1960’s and 1970’s mushroomed into a full-scale social movement. Anti-war protesters, civil rights activists, and other groups began to demonstrate in order to be heard. Overburdened and poorly prepared police came to symbolize what these groups sought to change in their government and society. Focusing attention on police policies and practices became an effective way to draw attention to the need for wider change. Police became the targets of hostility, which ultimately led police leaders to concerned reflection and analysis. In this era of protest, citizens began to take a stronger hand in the development of policies and practices that affected their lives.

The police force’s inability to handle urban unrest in an effective and appropriate manner brought demands by civic leaders and politicians for a reexamination of police practices. Between 1968 and 1973, three Presidential Commissions made numerous recommendations for changes in policing—recommendations that were initially responded to by outside organizations. Agencies of the U.S. Department of Justice, in collaboration with countless police departments throughout the country who were open to research and innovation, played a major role in stimulating, supporting, and disseminating research and technical assistance.

Millions of dollars were spent to foster and support criminal justice education. In addition, these Federal agencies supported a wide variety of police training, conferences, research, and technology upgrading. A number of organizations within the policing field also became committed to improving policing methods in the 1970’s. Among those on the forefront of this movement for constructive change were the Police Foundation, the Police Executive Research Forum, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Urban Sheriffs’ Group of the National Sheriffs’ Association, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. These organizations conducted much of the basic research that led police to reevaluate traditional policing methods.

A Science is Born

Increases in federal funding and the growth of criminal justice education resulted in the rapid development of research on policing. Many of the research findings challenged prevailing police practices and beliefs. Federally funded victimization surveys documented the existence of unreported crime. Practitioners had to acknowledge that only a fraction of crimes were being reported, and, therefore, began seeking ways to improve their image and to interact more effectively with the communities they served. An early research study was the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment. This field experiment found that randomized patrolling had a limited impact on crime or citizens’ attitudes and caused police leaders to begin thinking about alternative ways to use their patrol personnel. Another study by the Kansas City Police Department assessed the value of rapid response by police and concluded that in most cases rapid response did not help solve crimes.

Academic Studies

The Kansas City Experiment revealed that a large portion of serious crimes is not deterred by a rapid response. The crime sample that was analyzed indicated that almost two-thirds of these crimes were not reported quickly enough for rapid response to be effective. While a prompt police response can increase the chance of making an arrest at the scene of the crime, the time it takes a citizen to report a crime largely predetermines the effect that police response time will have on the outcome.

This study revealed a need for formal call-screening procedures to differentiate between emergency and non-emergency calls. More efficient dispatching of calls could make additional time available for patrol officers to interact with the community. This study led to further research that also demonstrated the value of response strategies that ensured that the most urgent calls received the highest priority and the most expeditious dispatch. Studies of alternative responses to calls for service found that community residents would accept responses other than the presence of police immediately on the scene if they were well informed about the types of alternatives used.

Differential police response strategies were also examined by the Birmingham, Alabama, Police Department. The objectives of the project were to increase the efficiency with which calls for service were managed and to improve citizen satisfaction with police service. The study included the use of call-prioritization codes, call-stacking procedures, both police and nonpolice delayed-response strategies, and teleservice. The alternate strategies were found to be successful in diverting calls from mobilized field units without a loss in citizen satisfaction.

The Directed Patrol study assessed how to use most effectively the time made available by more efficient call-response measures. The study suggested that, rather than performing randomized patrols when not handling calls, the officers’ time could be more profitably spent addressing specific criminal activities. To direct officers’ attention and to help them secure time, the department instituted support steps that included crime analysis, teleservice, and walk-in report-handling capabilities.

The San Diego Police Department conducted several significant research studies during the 1970’s. These included an evaluation of one-officer versus two-officer patrol cars, an assessment of the relationship between field interrogations of suspicious persons and criminal deterrence, and a community-oriented policing (COP) project, which was the first empirical study of community policing. The COP project required patrol officers to become knowledgeable about their beats through “beat-profiling” activities, in which officers studied the topographics, demographics, and call histories of their beats. Officers were also expected to develop “tailored patrol” strategies to address the types of crime and citizen concerns revealed by their profiling activities. Officers participating in the COP project concluded that random patrolling was not as important as previously thought. They also concluded that developing stronger ties with members of the community was more important than once believed.

In addition, the project demonstrated that interaction with the community could improve the attitudes of officers toward their jobs and toward the communities they served and could encourage the officers to develop creative solutions to complex problems. Many of the findings from this study have a direct bearing on contemporary community policing efforts. First, by getting to know members of the community, the officers were able to obtain valuable information about criminal activity and perpetrators. They were also able to obtain realistic assessments of the needs of community members and their expectations of police services.

The study also exposed the need to reevaluate the issue of shift rotation. Officers must be assigned to permanent shifts and beats if they are to participate in community activities. Finally, the COP project demonstrated the critical role that shift lieutenants and sergeants play in program planning and implementation. The exclusion of supervisors in training and development efforts ultimately led to the demise of the COP program in San Diego.

While much of the policing research conducted in the 1970’s dealt with patrol issues, the Rand Corporation examined the role of detectives. This study concluded that detectives solved only a small percentage of the crimes analyzed and that the bulk of the cases solved hinged on information obtained by patrol officers. This dramatically challenged traditional thinking about the roles of detectives and patrol officers in the handling of investigative functions. The implication was that patrol officers should become more actively involved in criminal investigations.

The implementation of appropriate training would allow patrol officers to perform some early investigating that could help in obtaining timely case closures, thereby reducing the tremendous case loads of detectives and allowing them to devote more time to complex investigations. The Newark Foot Patrol Experiment suggested that police could develop more positive attitudes toward community members and could promote positive attitudes toward police if they spent time on foot in their neighborhoods. Foot patrol also eased citizen fear of crime, “persons living in areas where foot patrol was created perceived a notable decrease in the severity of crime-related problems.”  Experimental foot patrols in Flint, Michigan, also elicited citizen approval. Residents said foot patrols made them feel safer and residents “felt especially safe when the foot patrol officer was well known and highly visible.” In addition, it is worth noting that in both cities the use of foot patrols increased officer satisfaction with police work.

In 1979, Herman Goldstein developed and advanced the concept of “problem-oriented policing” (POP), which encouraged police to begin thinking differently about their purpose. Goldstein suggested that problem resolution constituted the true, substantive work of policing and advocated that police identify and address root causes of problems that lead to repeat calls for service. POP required a move from a reactive, incident-oriented stance to one that actively addressed the problems that continually drained police resources.

In a study of POP implementation in Newport News, Virginia, POP was found to be an effective approach to addressing many community problems, and important data about POP design and implementation was gathered. Other research indicated that police could identify the “hot spots” contacts, neighborhood mini-stations, and intensified enforcement coupled with community involvement) in reducing fear among residents, improving community conditions, and enhancing the image of the police. Driving this study was the notion that if fear could be reduced, community residents would be more inclined to take an active role in preserving safety and tranquility within their neighborhoods.

The Police Response

A number of dynamic police leaders participated in various Presidential Commissions during the 1960’s and 1970’s. They also contributed their time and expertise to the newly created police organizations that were working to bring about improvements in policing policies. However, many of these police leaders found themselves alone when they tried to infuse their own departments with this spirit of change. Community policing implementation was impeded by centralized management practices and traditional operating assumptions. Many experienced police managers and officers found it difficult to accept this challenge to the practices and procedures that had always guided their actions. Thus, it was not surprising that these innovations were often overwhelmed by traditional policies and that the innovators were frequently suspected of being manipulated by outsiders or of pursuing their personal career agendas at the expense of the organization. Many of today’s police managers have supplemented their professional education by studying literature developed since the 1970’s.

Once considered radical, many of the strategies that evolved from this research on policing are now considered necessary for improving performance. Ideas that were raised 20 years ago have been modified and expanded to fit current conditions. Progressive police executives realize that it is no longer sufficient to think in terms of making only minor alterations to traditional management and operational practices. Management’s current challenge is to meet the escalating and varied demands for service with more effective delivery strategies to optimize staff and resources, to encourage innovative thinking, and to involve the community in policing efforts. Following the lead of corporate America, police managers are beginning to adopt the principles associated with total quality or participatory management.

There is growing recognition in policing that employees should have input into decisions about their work. Management practices that restrict the flow of communication and stifle innovation are giving way to the belief that those actually working in the community can best understand its needs and develop ways to meet them. Police also realize that not only the service providers but also the service recipients must define priorities and join forces with others to find inventive, long-term solutions to deepening problems of crime and violence. Today the movement for change within policing is led aggressively by policing practitioners themselves. The current shift to community policing reflects the conscious effort of a profession to reexamine its policies and procedures. Incorporating the core components of community policing delineated in the next chapter with existing policing methods is the first step in this ongoing process.

Key Terms

References and Further Reading

Goldstein, H. (1979). Improving Policing: A Problem-Oriented Approach. Crime and Delinquency 25.

Eck, John E., and Spelman, W.  (1987).  Problem Solving: Problem-Oriented Policing in Newport News. Washington, D.C.: Police Executive Research Forum.

Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  08/15/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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