Section 4.2: The Nature of Policing

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One of the biggest misunderstandings about the police is their role in society. The portrayal of police officers in popular media, from older shows like Dragnet to current crime dramas, often shows them facing dangerous situations involving fugitives, serial killers, and other villains.

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While it’s true that police officers face danger as part of their job, it’s essential to know that this isn’t the only thing they do. Most of their work deals with what Herman Goldstein (1990) called “the residual problems of society.”

These residual problems can include responding to noise complaints, mediating domestic disputes, helping lost children, or aiding people in need. Police officers also play a crucial role in traffic control and accident response. While it’s not as glamorous as the portrayals in movies and TV shows, these tasks are essential for maintaining a safe and orderly society.

It’s important to understand that the police are not only focused on catching criminals. They are there to serve and protect the community, which means addressing a wide range of issues that affect people’s daily lives. By working to maintain public safety and order, police officers help to create a more peaceful and stable society.

Police Functions

The role of the police has been defined in movies and TV shows as “crime fighter,” but in reality, that’s only a tiny part of their job. Police officers spend most of their time helping people with a wide range of issues that have nothing to do with catching criminals. This can include responding to accidents, assisting people in finding lost items or loved ones and providing aid to those who need it.

More than half of calls for police services are related to these types of social service tasks, while only about 20% are related to crime. Additionally, police officers are responsible for what is known as order maintenance activities, such as traffic control and resolving conflicts to keep the peace. This doesn’t necessarily involve enforcing the law but ensuring that society runs smoothly.

The police have a unique position of power in our society, as they have the authorization to use force to maintain order. This means that they have a great responsibility to use that force ethically. Despite their power, there is a growing trend among policing experts to call for broad discretion for police officers. This allows them to identify community problems, tailor solutions, and implement them effectively.

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) promote and preserve civil order; and

(k) provide other services on an emergency basis.

Ultimately, the police are responsible for a wide range of duties, from protecting constitutional guarantees to resolving conflicts and providing other services on an emergency basis. They are available 24/7 because there is no one else to fill that role, and they hold a great responsibility to use their power ethically. While they have the authority to use force, they are expected to exercise discretion in making decisions about arrests, warnings, and the use of force based on factors such as the seriousness of the crime, strength of evidence, and the demeanor of the suspect.

🔍 Reflect

How does the broad range of police responsibilities beyond crime fighting impact public perception and trust, and why is it important for police officers to use their discretion and power ethically?

The Structure of Policing in America

In the United States, law enforcement agencies are responsible for maintaining law and order and ensuring public safety. These agencies can be classified into various types, including local police departments, state police departments, federal agencies, and sheriff’s offices. However, local police departments make up the largest number of law enforcement agencies (Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS], 2021).

A local police department is a general-purpose law enforcement agency that operates under the authority of a local government unit, such as a town, city, township, or county. These departments differ from sheriff’s offices, which are also responsible for law enforcement but operate at the county level.

Tribal police departments are also classified as local police by the BJS. These departments operate on tribal lands and are responsible for enforcing tribal laws.

Local police departments are staffed by both sworn and non-sworn personnel. Sworn officers are police officers sworn (they took an actual oath) to uphold the law and protect the community. Non-sworn personnel includes dispatchers, administrative staff, and support personnel.

As of 2016, local police departments employed more than 477,000 full-time employees, with over 368,000 sworn officers (BJS, 2021). This means that about 77% of all state and local sworn personnel were local police officers.

Local police departments are responsible for various duties, including responding to emergency calls, investigating crimes, making arrests, and maintaining public order. They work closely with other law enforcement agencies, such as state police and federal agencies, to ensure public safety.

In addition to their primary responsibilities, local police departments also engage in community policing efforts to build positive relationships with the community and prevent crime. This involves working with community members, businesses, and organizations to identify and address issues contributing to crime or public safety concerns.

Overall, local police departments play a critical role in maintaining law and order in communities across the United States. They are an essential component of the criminal justice system and work tirelessly to ensure the safety and security of all citizens.

🔍 Reflect

How do the various roles and responsibilities of local police departments contribute to maintaining public safety, and why is community policing important for building trust and preventing crime?

Federal Law Enforcement Agencies

Federal law enforcement agencies play a crucial role in maintaining public safety and upholding the rule of law in the United States. These agencies have a broad range of responsibilities, including investigating and prosecuting crimes, enforcing federal laws and regulations, protecting the nation’s borders and critical infrastructure, and providing security for government officials and other dignitaries.

The origins of federal law enforcement in the United States can be traced back to the late 18th century when the U.S. Marshals Service was established as the country’s first federal law enforcement agency. Since then, the number of federal law enforcement agencies has grown significantly, reflecting the changing needs and priorities of the country.

One of the most significant factors driving the expansion of federal law enforcement has been the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of crime in the United States. As criminal organizations and activities have become more sophisticated and transnational, federal law enforcement agencies have had to develop new tools and techniques to investigate and prosecute these crimes. These tools range from advanced forensic technologies to sophisticated data analysis and information-sharing systems.

Another important factor driving the growth of federal law enforcement has been the changing role of the federal government in areas such as immigration, drug enforcement, and homeland security. As these issues have become more prominent on the national agenda, federal law enforcement agencies have been called to play a more significant role in addressing them.

Despite their diversity in mission and function, all federal law enforcement agencies share a common goal of protecting the public and upholding the rule of law in the United States. This requires specialized expertise, advanced technology, and strong partnerships with other law enforcement agencies and the community. As the country’s challenges continue to evolve, federal law enforcement agencies must adapt and innovate to ensure they remain effective in protecting the public and upholding the rule of law.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI): The FBI is housed within the United States Department of Justice. The FBI is unique because it has law enforcement and national security concerns as part of its mission. As the FBI’s Mission Statement puts it, they are a “… national security organization with intelligence and law enforcement responsibilities….” The Mission Statement further explains, “The mission of the FBI is to protect and defend the United States against terrorist and foreign intelligence threats, to uphold and enforce the criminal laws of the United States, and to provide leadership and criminal justice services to federal, state, municipal, and international agencies and partners.”

The FBI employs 13,785 special agents and 22,117 support professionals, such as intelligence analysts, language specialists, scientists, information technology specialists, and others (FBI, 2013).

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF): The ATF has a reputation for dealing with illegal firearms. Its mission is somewhat broader in reality. Housed within the United States Department of Justice, the ATF protects American communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products (ATF, 2013).

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA): The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is tasked with enforcing the controlled substances laws and regulations in the United States. Their primary goal is to apprehend organizations and principal members involved in growing, manufacturing, or distributing controlled substances destined for illegal trafficking in the United States or any other jurisdiction. Additionally, they promote and support non-enforcement programs to decrease the availability of illicit controlled substances in domestic and international markets (DEA, 2013).

The U.S. Marshals Service: The U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) is the oldest and most versatile federal law enforcement agency in the United States. Founded in 1789, the USMS has a long and distinguished history of serving the country in critical but often unseen ways. As the enforcement arm of the federal courts, the USMS plays a central role in virtually every federal law enforcement initiative.

The USMS is divided into 94 districts, each corresponding to a federal judicial district. Presidentially appointed U.S. Marshals oversee each district’s operations, including a team of more than 5,000 Deputy Marshals and Criminal Investigators. These highly trained professionals form the backbone of the agency.

They are responsible for various duties, including apprehending federal fugitives, protecting the federal judiciary, operating the Witness Security Program, transporting federal prisoners, conducting body searches, enforcing court orders, and seizing property acquired through illegal activities.

The USMS has been highly effective in carrying out its mission in recent years. In 2021, the agency apprehended 83,268 fugitives and cleared over 88,000 federal warrants. The USMS also transported over 287,000 prisoners and conducted over 200,000 body searches. In addition, the agency played a critical role in responding to civil disturbances and acts of terrorism, executing civil and criminal processes, and seizing assets acquired through illegal activities.

As one of the nation’s premier law enforcement agencies, the USMS continues to adapt and innovate in response to emerging threats and challenges. The agency’s dedicated personnel, sophisticated technology, and strong partnerships with other law enforcement agencies and the community make it a vital component of the nation’s law enforcement infrastructure.

The Secret Service: The United States Secret Service began as an agency dedicated to investigating crimes related to the Treasury and then evolved into the United States’ most recognized protection agency. The Secret Service was a part of the Department of the Treasury until March 1, 2003, when it became a part of the Department of Homeland Security.

“The mission of the United States Secret Service is to safeguard the nation’s financial infrastructure and payment systems to preserve the integrity of the economy and to protect national leaders, visiting heads of state and government, designated sites and National Special Security Events.”

The Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS): U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is the government agency that oversees lawful immigration to the United States. “USCIS will secure America’s promise as a nation of immigrants by providing accurate and useful information to our customers, granting immigration and citizenship benefits, promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship, and ensuring the integrity of our immigration system. The agency comprises over 19,000 government employees and contractors of USCIS working at 223 offices worldwide.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The primary mission of the TSA is to protect travelers and interstate commerce. TSA uses a risk-based strategy and works closely with transportation, law enforcement, and intelligence communities to set the standard for excellence in transportation security.

Federal law enforcement agencies are essential for maintaining public safety and upholding the rule of law in the United States. These agencies have diverse and complex responsibilities, ranging from investigating and prosecuting crimes to protecting the country’s borders and critical infrastructure.

The agencies discussed in this section are among the most important and well-known federal law enforcement agencies in the United States, but this list only scratches the surface. They all play critical roles in maintaining public safety and upholding the rule of law in the United States.

These agencies are staffed by highly trained professionals who work tirelessly to ensure that the United States remains a safe and secure place to live and work. While each agency has its unique mission and responsibilities, they all aim to protect the public and uphold the rule of law.

Despite the country’s challenges, federal law enforcement agencies continue to adapt and innovate to ensure they remain effective in protecting the public and upholding the rule of law. As the United States continues to face new and evolving threats, federal law enforcement agencies will remain essential for maintaining public safety and upholding the rule of law in future years.

🔍 Reflect

How do the various federal law enforcement agencies in the United States, each with its unique mission and responsibilities, collaborate to ensure public safety and uphold the rule of law, and why is this collaboration crucial in addressing complex and evolving threats?

State Law Enforcement Agencies

In the United States, each state has its own police force, except for Hawaii. These police forces are responsible for keeping the public safe and maintaining law and order within their respective states. The California Highway Patrol is the largest state-level police agency in the country.

One of the primary responsibilities of state police is to provide patrol services. This means they are responsible for patrolling and monitoring highways and other areas within their state to ensure everything is running smoothly. These patrol services are critical in remote areas, where there may be fewer people and local law enforcement is sparse.

State police can also assist local law enforcement agencies in complex criminal investigations that may cross different cities or towns. This is because state police have jurisdiction over the entire state and can support local police departments when needed. Additionally, state police are responsible for maintaining centralized criminal records for their state. This means they keep track of all the illegal activity within their state, including arrests, convictions, and other important details related to criminal investigations.

Crime labs are another vital function sometimes housed within state police departments. Crime labs are facilities where scientists and other experts can analyze and process physical evidence collected from crime scenes. This evidence can include anything from DNA samples to fingerprints to bullet casings. By examining this evidence, crime lab experts can help investigators build a stronger case against suspects and bring them to justice.

Finally, state police departments may be responsible for training local police officers. This means that they provide education and training to local police departments to be better prepared to handle various situations that may arise in the line of duty. By working together, state and local law enforcement agencies can keep the public safe and maintain law and order within their respective states.

🔍 Reflect

How do state police agencies complement local law enforcement in maintaining public safety, and why is their role especially crucial in areas with fewer local law enforcement resources?

Local Law Enforcement Agencies

In the United States, local law enforcement agencies, such as sheriff’s departments and local police departments, play a crucial role in maintaining law and order within their respective communities. While there is a misconception that the federal government handles most criminal cases, this is far from the truth. Most criminal cases are generated and managed by these local agencies.

These agencies are responsible for various duties, including responding to emergency calls, conducting investigations, making arrests, and providing security for events and public gatherings. They also work closely with the community to prevent crime, build trust, and address any concerns or issues that may arise.

Elected officials or appointed administrators typically lead local law enforcement agencies and operate within their own jurisdictions. These agencies may have different sizes, structures, and resources, depending on the needs of their community. For example, a small rural town may have a small police department with only a few officers. In contrast, a larger city may have a more complex and specialized department with a larger budget and more personnel.

Despite their differences, all local law enforcement agencies share a common goal: to protect and serve their communities. This involves working closely with residents, businesses, and other organizations to prevent crime, solve problems, and promote public safety. By doing so, these agencies help to build stronger and safer communities for everyone.

Sheriffs’ Offices

In the United States, there were an estimated 3,076 sheriff’s offices performing law enforcement functions as of 2016, employing a total of 369,935 sworn and civilian personnel (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2020). Sheriff’s offices represented approximately 18% of the 17,985 general-purpose law enforcement agencies operating in the country. While sheriff’s offices may have countywide responsibilities related to jail operation, process serving, and court security, their law enforcement jurisdictions typically exclude county areas served by a local police department. However, in certain counties, municipalities contract with the sheriff’s office for law enforcement services.

Large agencies, which employ 100 or more sworn personnel, represent about 10% of all sheriff’s offices but employ nearly two-thirds (63%) of all full-time sworn personnel (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2020). This means that most sheriff’s offices are smaller and have fewer resources but still play a vital role in maintaining law and order in their communities.

Overall, sheriff’s offices are a vital part of the law enforcement landscape in the United States, providing a range of services to their communities and working closely with other agencies to prevent crime and promote public safety.

Local Police Departments

Local police departments play a vital role in maintaining law and order in communities throughout the United States. These departments vary in size and serve different population sizes. As of 2016, about 50% of local police departments employed fewer than 10 sworn personnel, and about 75% served a population of less than 10,000 (Reaves, 2020). This indicates that most police departments in the U.S. are small and serve rural or suburban areas.

The demographic makeup of local police departments has undergone some changes over the years. In 2016, approximately 13% of local police officers were women, compared to only 7% in 1987 (Reaves, 2020). While this is an increase, it also highlights the fact that police departments remain primarily male-dominated. Additionally, approximately one-quarter of officers in 2016 were members of a racial or ethnic minority, compared to one-sixth of officers in 1987 (Reaves, 2020). This indicates that police departments are becoming more diverse, but there is still work to be done to achieve a true representation of the communities they serve.

Police departments use various methods to screen and hire candidates. As of 2016, more than 80% of local police officers were employed by departments that used physical agility tests in the hiring, while more than 80% used written aptitude tests (Reaves, 2020). Additionally, approximately two-thirds of departments used personality inventories (Reaves, 2020). These tests help departments identify physically fit, mentally capable, and emotionally stable candidates to serve as police officers.

Local police departments are essential in maintaining public safety and order in communities throughout the United States. As the demographics of the U.S. continue to evolve, police departments must reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. Additionally, police departments must continue refining their hiring processes to select the most qualified and capable candidates for the job.

🔍 Reflect

How do local law enforcement agencies, including sheriff’s offices and police departments, contribute to public safety and community trust, and why is it important for these agencies to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve?

Wilson’s Police Management Styles

James Wilson (1968), a renowned expert in police management, has identified three different styles of managing police forces. Each style reflects different priorities, values, and approaches to policing.

The first style, the watchman style, focuses on maintaining order (Wilson, 1968). In this approach, police officers tend to overlook minor violations of the law unless they are related to public safety. Minor violations and disputes between citizens are often handled informally, so police officers may use their discretion in resolving issues without resorting to formal procedures. This style is often seen in areas with a high concentration of crime or social disorder and where the primary goal of the police force is to maintain order.

The second style, known as the legalistic style, emphasizes a more formal approach to policing (Wilson, 1968). In this style, policing is done “by the book,” focusing on following established procedures and protocols. The main goal is to reduce officer discretion and ensure that arrests are made impartially for all violations. Police officers who use this style tend to have less flexibility in dealing with minor infractions, as they must follow formal procedures for all offenses. This approach is often seen in areas with a high emphasis on following the law to the letter.

The third style, called the service style, prioritizes community service over enforcing the law (Wilson, 1968). Police officers who use this style view themselves as social workers, and their primary goal is to connect citizens with social service organizations and agencies that can help them. In this style, an arrest is often seen as a last resort, and police officers only use it when other efforts to connect people with social service organizations and agencies have failed. This style is often seen in areas with a high level of poverty, homelessness, and other social issues that require a more nuanced and compassionate approach to policing.

Overall, these three management styles represent different approaches to policing and reflect different priorities and values in law enforcement (Wilson, 1968). Understanding these different styles can help individuals to comprehend the nuances of policing better and to appreciate the challenges and complexities of this vital profession.

🔍 Reflect

How do Wilson’s three police management styles (watchman, legalistic, and service) influence the way police officers interact with the community and address crime, and why is it important for law enforcement agencies to adopt the style best suited to their community’s needs?

Quasi-military Features 

Sir Robert Peel, a former British Home Secretary, is often called the father of modern policing. One of Peel’s significant innovations in policing was organizing police agencies along military lines (Kappeler, Sluder, & Alpert, 1998).

This approach has endured over time, and police officers in most jurisdictions still wear uniforms, carry weapons, and have military ranks (Kelling, 1988). These ranks suggest a military-style, authoritarian command structure where orders come from the top. This structure is designed to promote efficiency and discipline in police organizations, allowing officers to respond quickly and effectively to emergency situations.

The quasi-military organization of police forces is often reinforced by political rhetoric such as the “war on crime” and the “war on drugs” (Manning, 2007). This rhetoric is intended to signal a strong commitment to fighting crime and to mobilize public support for law enforcement.

However, some argue that such language creates a “warfare mentality” among police officers, encouraging them to view themselves as soldiers engaged in a battle against an enemy rather than as public servants committed to protecting and serving their communities (Fyfe, 1988).

Critics of the quasi-military organization of America’s police forces suggest that by viewing policing as a “war,” police officers may be more likely to adopt a “whatever it takes” mentality (Balko, 2013). This could lead to unethical police conduct, such as perjury, brutality, and other abuses of power.

They argue that this approach is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy and human rights, which require that law enforcement officers operate within a framework of rules and ethical standards.

Other critics have also raised concerns about the militaristic look of police uniforms, particularly BDUs (battle dress uniforms) and SWAT (special weapons and tactics) gear (Kraska, 2007). They argue that these uniforms convey a message of intimidation and aggression to the public, creating unnecessary fear and anxiety in communities. They suggest that the use of such uniforms may also contribute to a sense of militarization within police organizations, further reinforcing a warfare mentality.

While the military-style organization of police forces has been in use for a long time and is still widely accepted, some critics believe it encourages a warfare mentality and can lead to unethical conduct by police officers. The debate around this issue underscores the importance of balancing maintaining law and order and respecting the rights and dignity of citizens. It also highlights the need for ongoing reflection and reform in law enforcement as police organizations evolve in response to changing societal needs and expectations.

🔍 Reflect

How do the quasi-military features of police organizations, such as uniforms, ranks, and command structures, impact the relationship between law enforcement and the community, and what are the potential benefits and drawbacks of this approach?

The Police Bureaucracy 

In modern America, police agencies are characterized by a bureaucratic structure. This approach emphasizes competence and clarity in organizing police forces. Tasks and duties are carefully divided and assigned to specialized units, and each position has clearly defined qualifications. Everyone operates according to established rules and regulations, and authority exists within a clearly defined hierarchy. The main goal of this bureaucratic structure is to improve efficiency and effectiveness in policing.

While bureaucracy has some positive aspects, such as ensuring consistency and reducing errors, it also has limitations. One downside is the lack of flexibility. In highly bureaucratic organizations, decisions often have to go through layers of approval, which can be time-consuming and inefficient. Another downside is the tendency to get bogged down in “red tape” or excessive bureaucratic procedures, leading to delays in responding to emergencies.

Moreover, some critics argue that a highly bureaucratic approach can ignore the human element of policing, such as the need for empathy and community engagement. Police officers are not just enforcers of the law but also members of the community who have a responsibility to protect and serve all citizens. A highly bureaucratic approach can sometimes make it difficult for police officers to connect with their communities, leading to a breakdown in trust and communication.

In conclusion, while the bureaucratic structure of police agencies in America has some advantages regarding efficiency and clarity, it can also have limitations, including inflexibility, excessive bureaucracy, and a lack of emphasis on the human element of policing. It is essential for police agencies to balance the benefits of a bureaucratic approach with the need to maintain a connection with the communities they serve. This requires ongoing reflection, reform, and dialogue between police agencies and the public they serve.

🔍 Reflect

How do the bureaucratic structures of police agencies enhance or hinder their ability to serve the community effectively, and why is it important to balance efficiency with community engagement in policing?

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Last Updated:  06/07/2024


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McKee, A. J. (2024). The structure and nature of policing. In Criminal justice: An overview of the system (Section 4.2). Retrieved July 18, 2024, from

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