Policing | Section 5.5

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

This content is released as a draft version for comment by the scholarly community.  Please do not distribute as is. 

The Crisis of Legitimacy

The role of policing has been dynamic since it became a profession in 1829 under Sir Robert Peel in London, England. The relationship between police and citizens in American society is generally understood as a progression from the political era, when police were introduced in American cities in the 1840s to the early 1900s; to the reform era, stretching across the middle part of the 20th century from the 1930s to the 1970s; and then to the community era of modern policing since the 1970s. Williams and Murphy point out the lack of involvement of minorities in policing throughout these different eras. Communities of color were largely powerless during the political era and thus not able to influence police strategy. During the reform era, police strategy was determined largely on the basis of law, although communities of color were generally unprotected. In today’s community era of policing, one of the tenets is the requirement for a cohesive community working in partnership with a responsive police department. Sadly, this precondition does not thrive in many minority neighborhoods.

Failure to Innovate

Close observers have seen a number of changes in policing. Many changes have come in the form of programs developed to address a specific issue or problem and supported with funding from outside of police departments. These programs include community-oriented policing, school resource officers, police-community programs such as Midnight Basketball, and drug and gang reduction programs. While most of these contemporary programs made positive contributions to the police organization or the community, they often did not survive after outside funding stopped because they were implemented alongside what the police department was already doing and were never integrated into day-to-day operations.

Moreover, many of these programs were implemented without full understanding of the factors involved in the issue or problem they were designed to address. The exponential growth of public and private funding created a whole new profession of grant writing for local government and law enforcement. Interest and competition for the grants were keen; in fact, in many cases, the success of some law enforcement executives was measured by local officials on their success in competing for outside funding.

And while many organizations became proficient at writing successful grant proposals and some positive results were achieved through programs such as McGruff and D.A.R.E. which became very popular in the community, there were other problems that did not lend themselves so easily to specially funded programs: officer recruitment and selection, community demographic and diversity changes, immigration-related policing problems, cross-cultural communication, and bias-based policing, and counter-terrorism.  The problem of police-citizen violence, although it receives considerable media and community attention and generates genuine community tension, is one that does not readily lend itself to solution through a specially funded program.

Police management software can now be obtained to track individual officer activity including tickets written, complaints, accidents, incidents, assignments, and other custom factors to help alert the law enforcement executive to problem officers. However, the solution does not lie in technology alone. Encouraging positive values and an enlightened philosophy of policing hold some of the greatest promise for addressing many contemporary issues in policing.

When violence occurs between police and citizens, the situation may be complex.  Violence often occurs in a setting where the police officer or citizen may receive considerable support for a violent act. From the law enforcement standpoint, there may be a solid legal basis for the police officer’s use of force, including deadly force. Attempts to minimize violent encounters between the police and community must focus on the police, since their likelihood of exercising control over potentially violent interactions is much greater. But even when the effort to control violence focuses on the police, the complexity of the situation brings a wide range of issues and situations to consider which confront law enforcement officers every day.

Changing Demographics

Delivery of policing services in multicultural communities is now common. Immigration has been the major driver of growth in many areas of the country. Asian immigrants have accounted for percent of this growth since 1970, greatly increasing the presence of languages, cultural values, experiences, and lifestyles with which many other Americans have had little contact. Hispanic immigration and migration has reached every State in the country, resulting in new cross-cultural exchanges in many communities. The social fabric of many communities is in transition.

Multiculturalism is already a reality in many communities and institutions. The extraordinary infusion of newcomers can heighten risk factors for conflict because of the underdevelopment of social organization within the newly arrived population and the inexperience of existing governmental and community resources working with them. The movement of existing American-born racial and ethnic populations towards an increasingly suburban and rural pattern includes heightened vulnerability to racial incidents and conflict between police and citizens. Organized racial or ethnic gangs or gang-like groups may form to prey upon newer residents of other races and ethnic groups in an attempt to force them to move and to prevent others from moving to suburban or rural communities.

For these reasons understanding and recognizing changing community cultural and ethnic diversity is important to contemporary law enforcement efforts. Cultural characteristics such as language, customs and traditions are key elements which affect the relationship between immigrant populations and police. The challenge for the law enforcement executive is to recognize community and cultural diversity by effectively responding to the law enforcement and community needs of culturally diverse groups. In trying to accomplish this mission law enforcement executives have successfully utilized such strategies as recruiting officers from the immigrant community, cultural diversity training, community involvement, establishing community advisory committees, and educating the immigrant population on the fundamentals of the U.S. criminal justice system. Expanding or establishing community organizations to bridge relationships between racial and ethnic groups and between law enforcement and the community may be an important step towards improving community relations. Law enforcement executives and police officers would be well served by a high degree of involvement with community organizations, so that members of the police department are clearly seen as members of the community.

Competing Forces

“The combination of danger and authority found in the task of the policeman unavoidably combine to frustrate procedural regularity. If it were possible to structure social roles with specific qualities, it would be wise to propose that these two should never, for the sake of the rule of law, be permitted to coexist. Danger typically yields self-defensive conduct, conduct that must strain to be impulsive because danger arouses fear and anxiety so easily. Authority under such conditions becomes a resource to reduce perceived threats rather than a series of reflective judgments arrived at calmly. The ability to be discreet, in the sense discussed above, is also affected. As a result, procedural requirements take on a “frilly” character, or at least tend to be reduced to a secondary position in the face of circumstances seen as threatening.”

Skolnick, J. H.  (1966). Justice Without Trial: Law Enforcement in Democratic Society New York: Wiley (p. 67).

Skolnik’s description of this aspect of the police officer’s role provides some measure of understanding of how violence might occur in encounters with citizens. It also provides a basis for the formation of “police culture” or the police society. While most occupational groups develop their own identity, the police identity seems to be much stronger because of the nature of the work. There is a belief that one cannot understand the difficulty of the work without having done it.

As a result, when a community questions the actions of the police—as can be expected when a police officer uses a firearm—the law enforcement profession has a tendency to close ranks and defend the officer at all costs. The development of this “police society” begins with academy training (or even before in the recruiting and selection process) and continues until the individual becomes an accepted part of the fraternity.

The Contemporary Problem

The history of policing in the United States teaches us that race relations have never been particularly good between communities and police departments.  The establishment of the Presidential Commission by President Obama as recently as 2015 suggests that confidence in police by citizens of color is not much improved.  As the commission observed, “people are more likely to obey the law when they believe that those who are enforcing it have the legitimate authority to tell them what to do.”  But the public confers legitimacy only on those they believe are acting in procedurally just ways. Procedurally just behavior is based on four central principles:

      1. Treating people with dignity and respect
      2. Giving individuals “voice” during encounters
      3. Being neutral and transparent in decision making
      4. Conveying trustworthy motives

Research demonstrates that these principles lead to relationships in which the community trusts
that officers are honest, unbiased, benevolent, and lawful. The community therefore feels obligated to follow the law and the dictates of legal authorities and is more willing to cooperate with and engage those authorities because it believes that it shares a common set of interests and values with the police.

There are both internal and external aspects to procedural justice in policing agencies. Internal procedural justice refers to practices within an agency and the relationships officers have with their colleagues and leaders. Research on internal procedural justice tells us that officers who feel respected by their supervisors and peers are more likely to accept departmental policies, understand decisions, and comply with them voluntarily.  It follows that officers who feel respected by their organizations are more likely to bring this respect into their interactions with the people they serve.

External procedural justice focuses on the ways officers and other legal authorities interact with the public and how the characteristics of those interactions shape the public’s trust of the police. It is important to understand that a key component of external procedural justice—the practice of fair and impartial policing—is built on understanding and acknowledging human biases, both explicit and implicit.

All human beings have biases or prejudices as a result of their experiences, and these biases influence how they might react when dealing with unfamiliar people or situations. An explicit bias is a conscious bias about certain populations based upon race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or other attributes. Common sense shows that explicit bias is incredibly damaging to police-community relations, and there is a growing body of research evidence that shows that implicit bias—the biases people are not even aware they have—is harmful as well.

To achieve legitimacy, mitigating implicit bias should be a part of training at all levels of a law enforcement organization to increase awareness and ensure respectful encounters both inside the organization and with communities.

Police Culture and Perceptions of Bias

“The first witnesses at the task force sessions on the first pillar also directly addressed the need for a change in the culture in which police do their work: the use of disrespectful language and the implicit biases that lead officers to rely upon race in the context of stop and frisk. They addressed the need for police officers to find how much they have in common with the people they serve—not the lines of authority they may perceive to separate them—and to continue with enduring programs proven successful over many years.”

Source: President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. 2015. Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.  Available: https://ric-zai-inc.com/Publications/cops-p311-pub.pdf


Key Terms

References and Further Reading




Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  06/14/2019

[ Back | Content | Next]

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

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Doc's Things and Stuff uses Accessibility Checker to monitor our website's accessibility.