Section 2.1: Police Functions

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

Contrary to the popular image of police officers as primarily “crime fighters,” as often depicted in movies and television, the reality of policing is much more diverse. The daily responsibilities of a police officer extend far beyond chasing criminals and solving crimes. In fact, a significant portion of their duties involves tasks that are not directly related to law enforcement.

The Role of Police in Social Services

Broadening the Scope of Policing Beyond Crime

Police officers play a crucial role that goes way beyond just dealing with crime. They’re often the first ones to respond in many situations that aren’t about breaking the law. This part of their job shows how diverse and multifaceted policing really is. Officers find themselves in all sorts of scenarios, from being the first to arrive at accident scenes to helping people who are having a tough time.

Responding to Emergencies and Providing Aid

A big part of what police officers do is respond to emergencies, like car accidents. Here, they’re not just enforcing the law; they’re also the first to offer help. They secure the area, work with other emergency services, and give support to those involved. This shows the more compassionate side of law enforcement, which is really important in these stressful situations.

Assisting the Community in Everyday Challenges

Police officers also help out with everyday issues. They might help find lost items, search for missing people, or point you in the right direction if you need specific assistance. These tasks might not be the ones you hear about in the news, but they’re vital in keeping our community safe and maintaining public trust in the police. It’s these interactions that really shape how we see our local police.

The Prevalence of Social Service Tasks in Policing

Research tells us that more than half of the calls to police are for non-criminal issues. This fact highlights that a lot of what police officers do every day is helping people in ways that aren’t directly related to crime. It’s a big shift from the usual idea of policing and shows that officers need a wide range of skills, including crisis management and community support.

The Impact on Police Work and Community Relations

This significant part of police work in social services changes how we view and practice policing. It requires officers to have a broad set of skills and focus on community-oriented policing strategies. By handling these tasks effectively, police officers build stronger, more positive relationships with the communities they serve. This approach is key to creating a public safety environment where police are seen not just as law enforcers but as vital, caring members of the community.

🔍 Reflect

How do you think the role of police in handling non-criminal issues affects your view of what policing is all about? Do you think these aspects of their job are as important as fighting crime?

Understanding Order Maintenance in Policing

Keeping Peace and Order: More Than Enforcing Laws

Order maintenance is a huge part of what police officers do. It’s not just about catching criminals; it’s also about keeping things running smoothly and peacefully in our communities. This involves tasks like managing traffic, controlling big crowds at events, and handling issues that disrupt public peace. These duties might not be as dramatic as chasing down a criminal, but they’re super important for making sure our neighborhoods are nice places to live.

Traffic Control: Keeping Roads Safe

A big job for police officers in order maintenance is managing traffic. They help keep cars moving safely, especially during rush hour, after accidents, or in busy areas. Their job is to direct traffic, respond to accidents, and make sure roads are clear for emergency vehicles. This work is essential for preventing traffic jams, reducing accidents, and making sure ambulances and fire trucks can get where they need to go quickly.

Managing Crowds: Safety at Public Events

When there’s a big event like a concert or parade, police officers are there to manage the crowds. They make sure everyone is safe and stop any problems before they start. Their presence helps keep things orderly and peaceful, ensuring that everyone can enjoy the event without any trouble.

Tackling Public Nuisances

Police officers also deal with public nuisances. These could be noise complaints or other disturbances that, while not necessarily criminal, can really affect how enjoyable a neighborhood is. Officers often handle these situations with informal methods like talking to people and mediating disputes. This approach builds trust in the community, showing that police officers are there to help, not just enforce laws.

The Power of Informal Policing

In keeping order, police officers often use informal methods instead of strict legal actions. They might give a warning or offer advice. This more flexible, community-friendly approach helps build a good relationship between the police and the public. It shows that not every problem needs a legal solution; sometimes, just talking things out or giving a helping hand can maintain peace and order more effectively.

Building Strong Community Relations

The work police officers do in order maintenance really affects how people see them. By managing traffic, crowds, and nuisances well, they help create a safe and orderly environment. This part of their job is crucial for making people feel good about their local police. It shows that police officers are committed to protecting and serving the community in more ways than just law enforcement. Good order maintenance is key to public safety and building trust and security in our neighborhoods.

🔍 Reflect

How do you think the role of police in order maintenance, like managing traffic and crowds, influences your view of their overall responsibilities? Do you see these tasks as essential for community safety and trust in the police?

Eleven Responsibilities Defined by the ABA

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 Police as Key Problem Solvers in Society

Beyond Law Enforcement: A Broader Impact

The police are often the first ones we turn to when something goes wrong, dealing with everything from small disturbances to big crises. They’re always there, ready to help, which makes them super important problem solvers in our society. Their job isn’t just about catching lawbreakers; it’s also about jumping into all sorts of emergencies and helping people sort out their problems.

A Wide Range of Responsibilities

Police officers handle lots of different situations. They might be helping someone going through a mental health crisis, calming down a family argument, or responding to an emergency. In these moments, they’re not just enforcing the law. They’re also giving support, advice, and connecting people to other services they might need, like social workers or medical professionals. This shows how their role is really varied – they’re part mediators, part protectors, and sometimes even like counselors.

Connecting People to Other Services

Often, the police are the first people to show up and then pass the situation over to other experts. They’re great at figuring out what kind of help is needed and getting people connected to the right services. This is especially important in places where it’s hard to get other kinds of help. Their role in making these connections is key to making sure everyone gets the support they need.

The Challenge of Being First on Scene

Being the first to respond to so many different kinds of problems is a big challenge. Police officers need a wide set of skills to handle all these situations well. This means they have to keep learning new things – like how to manage crises, solve conflicts, and even some basic medical skills. To do all this effectively, they also need to really understand the communities they work in.

Building Strong Ties with the Community

The problem-solving role of the police shows just how important it is for them to have a good relationship with the community. Knowing what’s going on in the neighborhood and earning people’s trust helps them solve problems better. Working closely with the community helps the police understand the deeper issues behind different problems. This approach is super important for making sure the police can do their job well, keeping everyone safe and healthy.

🔍 Reflect

Think about the different roles police officers play in your community, especially when they’re helping solve problems that aren’t about crime. How does this make you feel about the police? Do you think it’s important for them to have a strong connection with the community to be effective in these roles?

The Role of Officer Discretion in Policing

Making Judgement Calls: A Vital Skill for Officers

Discretion is a big part of what police officers do. It means they use their own judgment to decide how to handle different situations. This is super important because every situation is unique, and a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t always work. Police officers have to be able to look at what’s happening, think about what’s best, and make a call – maybe it’s just a warning this time, or maybe something more serious is needed.

Decision-Making in Real-Life Situations

When police officers are out in the field, they make all kinds of decisions. It could be something small, like deciding whether to give a traffic ticket, or something really serious, like how much force to use in a dangerous situation. They think about a lot of things, like how serious the problem is, what evidence they have, and how the people involved are behaving. They’re trained to make these decisions quickly, balancing the law with the rights and safety of everyone involved.

How Interactions with the Public Affect Decisions

The way people act during a police encounter can really affect what the officer decides to do. Studies show that if someone is respectful and cooperative, they’re more likely to get a warning than a ticket. This shows how important it is for both police and citizens to treat each other with respect and understanding.

Discretion in Community Policing

Discretion is especially key in community policing. This approach is all about police building good relationships with the community and understanding what each neighborhood needs. By using their discretion, officers can make choices that are not just legal but also right for the community. This helps build trust and cooperation, which is super important for stopping and solving crimes.

The Need for Balance: Discretion and Accountability

While it’s important for officers to have discretion, they also need to be accountable for their choices. Police departments have to make sure officers are using their discretion in the right way. This means good training, clear rules, and ways to check that officers are making fair and transparent decisions. Getting this balance right is crucial for keeping the public’s trust and making sure that discretion is used in the best way for everyone’s safety and justice.

🔍 Reflect

How do you think the ability of police officers to use their own judgment in different situations affects the way we see them? Is it important for them to have the freedom to make these decisions, and how should they be held accountable for them?

Discretion and the Ethical Use of Force

The Weight of Responsibility in Using Force

Using force is a part of police work that really sets it apart from other jobs. It’s a big responsibility and comes with lots of ethical considerations. Police officers are taught that deciding to use force isn’t just about tactics; it’s a moral choice too. They have to think about not just the immediate threat but also the bigger picture, like how it affects the person involved, the community, and how people view the police.

Making Wise Choices When Using Force

Police training emphasizes that force should only be used when absolutely necessary and only as much as needed to control a situation. Officers are encouraged to try every other option first. Every time they use force, it gets looked at really closely, both by people inside the police department and by the public and the legal system. They need to be able to explain why their actions were legal, reasonable, and needed.

Training to Make Tough Calls

Training for these high-pressure situations is super important. Officers practice with simulations that mimic real life, focusing on how to calm things down, talk effectively, and use alternatives to force. The aim is to give them lots of options and the judgment to pick the best one. Making decisions about using force is complex and involves understanding the law, human rights, mental health, and cultural differences.

Being Accountable for Using Force

Accountability is key when it comes to using force. Police departments are doing more and more to make sure officers’ actions are transparent and responsible, like using body cameras and having independent groups review what happened. These tools help look at incidents where force was used and can prevent unnecessary force. They also provide evidence for training, evaluating what happened, and, if needed, taking action against officers.

How the Community Sees the Use of Force

The way the police use force really affects how much the community trusts them. People expect to be protected by the police but also to be treated with respect and have their rights upheld. If force is used too much or seems unfair, it can make people lose trust in the police and harm the relationship between the community and the police. It’s important for police departments to talk to the community, listen to their concerns, and find ways to keep everyone safe while respecting everyone’s rights. Keeping this trust is essential for good community policing and public safety.

🔍 Reflect

Consider how the use of force by police can influence your trust in them. Why is it important for police to be careful and accountable when deciding to use force? How do you think this impacts the relationship between the police and the community?


In conclusion, the role of police officers is multi-faceted, extending well beyond the conventional view of crime fighting. Their responsibilities encompass a wide range of social service tasks, order maintenance activities, and discretionary decision-making, all of which are crucial for maintaining public safety and order. Understanding these varied functions is essential for a comprehensive view of modern policing.


Policing extends far beyond the stereotypical portrayal of crime fighting seen in media. The multifaceted role of police officers encompasses a wide range of responsibilities that play a crucial part in maintaining public safety and community well-being.

Social Services and Policing: Officers frequently respond to non-criminal situations, making their role in social services prominent. They are often first responders in emergencies like accidents, offering aid and support. Their involvement in everyday issues, such as helping find lost items or assisting those in distress, is vital in building public trust and ensuring community safety. Surprisingly, over half of police calls are for non-criminal matters, underscoring the importance of their role in social services and necessitating skills in crisis management and community support.

Order Maintenance: A significant part of police work is maintaining order, which includes managing traffic, controlling crowds at public events, and addressing public nuisances. These tasks, though less dramatic than crime fighting, are essential for community peace and safety. Officers often use informal methods, such as verbal warnings or advice, to resolve minor issues, promoting a community-friendly approach and strengthening community relations.

Problem-Solving in Communities: Police officers are key problem solvers, handling a variety of situations from mental health crises to domestic conflicts. They often act as a bridge to specialized services, ensuring individuals receive necessary support. Their role demands a broad skill set, continuous learning, and a deep understanding of community dynamics.

Discretion in Policing: Officer discretion is crucial in decision-making, allowing police to tailor responses to individual situations. This flexibility requires a balance between freedom and accountability, with ongoing training and clear guidelines ensuring fairness and transparency.

Use of Force: The ethical use of force is a significant aspect of policing, involving careful judgment and accountability. Training in use-of-force scenarios focuses on de-escalation and alternatives, with accountability measures like body-worn cameras ensuring responsible use. Community perceptions of police use of force greatly influence trust and relations.

Understanding the diverse roles and responsibilities of police officers is essential for a comprehensive view of modern policing. Their work in social services, order maintenance, community problem-solving, discretionary decision-making, and the ethical use of force reflects a complex and critical role in society, far beyond the traditional notion of law enforcement.

Key Terms

References and Further Reading


Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  12/12/2023

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

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