Policing | Section 2.1

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

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Police Functions

Movies and television have defined the role of the police in the popular imagination as that of “crime fighter.”  In reality, catching “bad guys” and investigating crimes is only a small fraction of what the police are called upon to do every day.  In reality, calls for social services order maintenance tasks are far more common.

A large fraction of the average police officer’s shift is spent helping people with problems that have nothing to do with apprehending felons.  People get hurt in automobile accidents, and police officers are there to render aid. People lose things ranging from cell phones to children, and expect the police to help find them.  Some authors estimate that well over fifty percent of calls for police services involve these kinds of social service tasks. By comparison, these same authors estimate that only about 20% of calls for police services relate to crime.

Many law enforcement activities have to do with keeping society running smoothly.  These things—such as traffic control, crowd control, and moving prostitutes off the streets—are frequently referred to as “order maintenance” activities.  A key difference between law enforcement and order maintenance is that order maintenance activities are not generally concerned with the letter of the law, but rather keeping the peace.  Arrest is always an option when an officer is trying to preserve the peace, but less formal solutions are far more commonly employed. For example, when the driver of a stopped car that is blocking traffic complies with an officer’s request to move along, no citation is issued.

The American Bar Association (1986), in a document called Standards Relating to the Urban Police Function, lists 11 responsibilities of the police:     

(a) identify criminal offenders and criminal activity and, where appropriate, to apprehend offenders and participate in subsequent court proceedings;

(b) reduce the opportunities for the commission of some crimes through preventive patrol and other measures;

(c) aid individuals who are in danger of physical harm;

(d) protect constitutional guarantees;

(e) facilitate the movement of people and vehicles;

(f) assist those who cannot care for themselves;

(g) resolve conflict;

(h) identify problems that are potentially serious law enforcement or governmental problems;

(i) create and maintain a feeling of security in the community;

(j); and

(k) provide other services on an emergency basis.

The last element in this list provides the primary reason why the police are called upon to deal with the “residual problems” of society:  There is no one else available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Another key factor that makes the police unique is what some authors have referred to as a “monopoly on the use of force.”  The authorization to use force means that the police hold a position of great power within our society, and this translates into a great responsibility to use that force ethically.

Despite all of that power, there is a trend among policing experts to call for broad discretion for police officers.  Officers who have their hands bound by excessive policies and procedures cannot solve community problems. Officers must have the authority to identify community problems, tailor solutions to those problems, and implement those solutions.  Even in departments where community policing is not the dominant paradigm, officers still have a great deal of discretion.

For example, officers decide who gets a warning and who gets a citation.  Officers decide who is arrested. Officers decide when force is necessary.  Of course, some obvious factors are used by officers when making a discretionary decision.  The seriousness of a crime and the strength of evidence, for example, are factors in the decision to make or not make an arrest.  Personal factors also come into play; researchers discovered long ago that the demeanor of the suspect plays an important role in the decision to arrest.  Respectful and deferential citizens are less likely to be arrested than rude or belligerent ones.

Key Terms

References and Further Reading


Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  02/21/2019

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

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