Policing | Section 2.5

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

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Styles of Policing

Police departments are not uniform across the nation.  Police departments have a unique “personality” that differentiates them from other departments.  These differences are often reflected in the communities that the department serves. Different groups of people collectively want different services from their police departments, and those public demands are often reflected in police philosophy and practice.  The prolific police researcher James Q. Wilson described these differences in broad strokes in terms of policing styles.

Wilson’s Police Management Styles

James Wilson (not to be confused with O. W. Wilson), identified three police management styles:

The watchman style of management focuses on order maintenance.  Officers often ignore minor violations of the law, unless the violation constitutes a breach of the peace.  Minor violations and disputes between citizens are largely handled in an informal way. This style of policing reflects a department that identifies more with order maintenance than with law enforcement.   

The legalistic style tends to handle matters formally.  In other words, policing is done “by the book.”  The administrative emphasis is on reducing line officer discretion and effecting unvarying, impartial arrests for all violations.

The service style emphasizes community service above enforcing the law.  Arrest is often seen as a last resort, used only when referrals to social service organizations and agencies will be ineffectual.

Quasi-military Features

As one of Peel’s major innovations, the organization of police agencies along military lines has withstood the test of time.  Police officers in most jurisdictions still wear uniforms, carry weapons, and have military ranks. These ranks suggest a military style, authoritarian command structure where orders come down from the top.  This militaristic view of the police is encouraged by political rhetoric such as the “war on crime” and the “war on drugs.” While most American citizens take this quasi-military organization for granted, there are those that see it as a problem.

Detractors of the quasi-military organization of America’s police forces suggest that by subscribing to the idea that they are engaged in a war, police officers will be tempted to slip into the mentality that “all is fair in war.”  They fear that a warfare mentality will lead to an “ends justify the means” mentality that results in unethical police conduct such as perjury, brutality, and other abuses of power. Other critics feel that the militaristic look of police uniforms, especially BDUs and SWAT gear, serve to intimidate the public.  

The Police Bureaucracy

Modern American Police agencies are characterized by a bureaucratic structure.  The positive aspects of bureaucratic organizations revolve around competence and clarity.  Tasks and duties are specialized, qualifications for different positions are carefully and clearly defined, everyone acts according to rules and regulations, and authority exists within a clearly defined hierarchy.  The idea of bureaucracy is to improve efficiency and effectiveness. The downside to this is often a lack of flexibility, being bogged down in “red tape,” and ignoring the human element of serving the community.

Key Terms

References and Further Reading


Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  08/27/2018

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

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