Section 2.5: Styles of Policing

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

Policing isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Officers across the United States employ different styles to tackle the complex challenges of maintaining public safety. Understanding these styles is crucial to fostering trust and legitimacy within communities.

Imagine a spectrum of policing philosophies. At one end, the Watchman Style emphasizes community engagement and visible presence, often patrolling neighborhoods and building relationships with residents. Think of it as a proactive approach, focused on preventing crime before it happens.

In contrast, the Legalistic Style prioritizes strict adherence to the law and established procedures. Officers adhering to this style meticulously follow protocols and focus on enforcing regulations, ensuring fairness and consistency in their actions.

Finally, the Service Style centers on building trust and partnerships with communities. Officers who adopt this style actively engage with residents, address social issues, and seek collaborative solutions to problems. It’s a service-oriented approach, aiming to empower and involve the community in its own safety.

These are just three major styles, and countless variations exist in practice. Each approach has its own strengths and weaknesses, and the most effective style often depends on the specific context and needs of the community.

Over the next few pages, we’ll delve deeper into each style, exploring their historical roots, practical applications, and potential challenges. By understanding the diverse landscape of policing, we can engage in informed conversations and work towards building safer, more just communities.

James Q. Wilson’s Policing Styles

In the 1960s, a prominent political scientist named James Q. Wilson embarked on a groundbreaking study of American police departments. He observed their approaches to law enforcement and identified three distinct styles that continue to shape the landscape of policing today.

1. The Watchman Style:

Imagine a friendly neighborhood cop, walking the beat and getting to know the residents. This is the essence of the Watchman Style, which emphasizes community engagement and visible presence. Officers prioritize building relationships with residents, acting as a trusted resource and mediating conflicts before they escalate. This style often thrives in smaller communities with strong social ties.

2. The Legalistic Style:

Think of a detective meticulously following protocol, ensuring every procedure is followed to the letter. The Legalistic Style focuses on strict adherence to the law and established police procedures. Officers prioritize enforcing all regulations fairly and consistently, aiming to maintain order and deter crime through a “by-the-book” approach. This style often finds favor in larger urban environments with diverse populations.

3. The Service Style:

Picture a police officer volunteering at a community center, working alongside residents to address social issues. The Service Style emphasizes building trust and partnerships with the community. Officers become active problem-solvers, working collaboratively with residents to identify and address the root causes of crime and social disorder. This style can be particularly effective in communities facing complex social challenges.

Wilson’s work wasn’t just about labeling different styles. He highlighted how these styles emerged from historical and cultural contexts, shaped by local politics, community expectations, and even police department structures. Understanding this connection is crucial for appreciating the complexities of police work and engaging in nuanced discussions about the best ways to ensure public safety.

In the following sections, we’ll delve deeper into each style, exploring their historical roots, practical applications, and potential challenges. We’ll also examine the ongoing debate about the most effective approach to policing in a diverse and ever-changing world.


Do you think James Q. Wilson’s categorization of policing styles accurately reflects the realities of modern police work? If you were to add a fourth style, what would it be and why? How do you think the different styles might impact community perceptions of and interactions with the police?

The Watchman Style of Policing

Definition and Historical Context

Imagine a friendly neighborhood cop, walking the beat and getting to know the residents. This is the essence of the Watchman Style, the oldest and arguably most traditional approach to policing. Dating back to early colonial times, it emphasizes community engagement and visible presence. Think of the iconic image of a Bobby on his rounds in London or a sheriff patrolling a small town on horseback. Officers prioritize building relationships with residents, acting as a trusted resource, and mediating conflicts before they escalate. This style often thrives in smaller communities with strong social ties, where informal interactions and familiarity are valued.

Application in Different Types of Communities

The Watchman Style can be effective in rural areas, suburbs, and even certain urban neighborhoods with close-knit communities. It works best where residents share a sense of trust with the police and feel comfortable approaching officers for help. Some examples include:

  • Campus police: patrolling college grounds and dorms, and interacting with students and faculty.
  • Park rangers:¬†interacting with visitors,¬†enforcing park regulations,¬†and mediating conflicts between users.
  • Community policing officers:¬†assigned to specific neighborhoods to build relationships and address local concerns.

Interaction with Quasi-military Features

While the Watchman Style traditionally relies on informal interactions and community trust, some modern police departments incorporate quasi-military features like uniforms, equipment, and tactics. This can create a disconnect between the “friendly cop” image and the reality of officers equipped with body armor and high-powered weaponry. It’s important to consider the potential impact of such features on community perceptions and trust, ensuring they don’t overshadow the core principles of the Watchman Style.

Advantages, Disadvantages, and Examples


  • Strong community relationships and trust
  • Proactive approach to crime prevention
  • Emphasis on informal conflict resolution
  • Increased visibility and community engagement


  • Potential for bias and discrimination in smaller communities
  • Lack of resources and training for complex issues
  • Difficulty responding to serious crimes or emergencies
  • Potential for overreliance on informal interventions


  • The Neighborhood Policing Program in Chicago,¬†which assigns officers to specific neighborhoods to build relationships and address local concerns.
  • The Foot Patrol Initiative in New York City,¬†which increased the number of officers patrolling on foot to improve visibility and community engagement.
  • The Rural Community Policing Program in Vermont,¬†which focuses on developing partnerships with local residents and organizations to address crime and safety concerns.


Do you think the Watchman Style is still relevant in today’s world? How can it be adapted to address the challenges of modern policing? What are your concerns or questions about this style of policing?

The Legalistic Style of Policing

Definition and Development

Imagine a meticulous detective, meticulously following every procedure and ensuring every regulation is enforced. This is the essence of the Legalistic Style, characterized by its strict adherence to the law and established police procedures. Emerging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this style was a response to concerns about corruption and lack of professionalism in police work. It emphasizes neutrality, fairness, and consistency in enforcing laws and regulations, aiming to deter crime through predictability and swift consequences.

Emphasis on the “By-the-Book” Approach

Officers adopting the Legalistic Style prioritize enforcing all laws impartially, regardless of personal opinions or relationships. They meticulously document procedures, follow protocols to the letter, and prioritize collecting evidence to build strong legal cases. This focus on rules and regulations can be seen in:

  • Traffic enforcement:¬†issuing citations for even minor violations to ensure consistent application of the law.
  • Search and seizure procedures:¬†adhering to strict protocols to ensure the admissibility of evidence in court.
  • Use of force:¬†following established guidelines to minimize risk and ensure legal justification for interventions.

Relationship with Police Bureaucracy

The Legalistic Style thrives in bureaucratic structures with clear hierarchies and standardized procedures. Police departments adopting this style often have extensive training programs in law and procedure, and officers are expected to strictly follow department policies and protocols. This emphasis on order and control can lead to:

  • Increased efficiency and accountability:¬†standardized procedures can streamline operations and reduce the risk of error.
  • Potential for inflexibility and rigidity:¬†strict adherence to rules can sometimes hinder officer discretion and limit their ability to adapt to unique situations.
  • Tension with community relations:¬†a focus on enforcement and legal procedures can sometimes create a barrier between officers and the communities they serve.

Impact on Community Relations and Challenges

The Legalistic Style can be effective in deterring crime and ensuring public safety. However, its emphasis on enforcement and procedures can sometimes lead to strained relationships with communities, particularly marginalized groups who may feel unfairly targeted or overpoliced. Additionally, the focus on individual violations can sometimes overshadow the underlying social and economic factors contributing to crime.


  • Balancing enforcement with community engagement:¬†building trust and legitimacy requires officers to go beyond simply enforcing the law.
  • Addressing systemic issues:¬†legalistic approaches may not adequately address the root causes of crime,¬†such as poverty,¬†inequality,¬†and social injustice.
  • Ensuring fairness and equity in enforcement:¬†strict adherence to the law without considering context can lead to disproportionate impacts on certain communities.


  • The “Broken Windows” policing strategy,¬†which emphasizes enforcing minor offenses to prevent more serious crimes.
  • Zero-tolerance policies for drug possession or prostitution,¬†which aim to deter these activities through swift and consistent enforcement.
  • Drug courts and diversion programs,¬†which offer alternatives to incarceration for certain offenders while still upholding the law.


Do you think the Legalistic Style can be effective in building trust and legitimacy with communities? How can this style be adapted to address concerns about fairness and equity in policing? What are your concerns or questions about this approach to law enforcement?

The Service Style of Policing

Definition and Evolution

Imagine a police officer sitting at a community center table, collaborating with residents on a neighborhood improvement project. This is the essence of the Service Style, a relatively new approach that emphasizes building trust and partnerships with communities. Emerging in the late 20th century as a response to criticisms of traditional policing methods, this style focuses on addressing the root causes of crime and social disorder through collaboration and problem-solving.

Community Service Focus and Engagement

Officers adopting the Service Style actively engage with their community members, going beyond simply responding to calls. They:

  • Partner with residents:¬†collaborate on initiatives like community patrols,¬†youth programs,¬†and crime prevention strategies.
  • Address social issues:¬†work with social service agencies to address issues like homelessness,¬†mental health,¬†and poverty.
  • Seek community input:¬†actively involve residents in decision-making processes regarding policing priorities and strategies.

This approach aims to:

  • Empower communities:¬†by fostering ownership and involvement,¬†communities become active participants in their own safety.
  • Break down barriers:¬†collaboration and trust-building can bridge the gap between police and the community.
  • Address the root causes of crime:¬†tackling underlying social issues can prevent crime before it occurs.

Contrasts with Quasi-military Features

The Service Style often stands in stark contrast to the quasi-military features sometimes associated with modern policing. Instead of focusing on equipment and weaponry, officers prioritize building rapport, communication, and cultural understanding. This can involve:

  • De-escalation tactics:¬†prioritizing verbal communication and conflict resolution techniques over force.
  • Cultural competency training:¬†understanding and respecting diverse cultures and backgrounds within the community.
  • Community-based policing initiatives:¬†establishing liaisons and partnerships with local organizations and residents.

Effectiveness in Various Contexts

The Service Style has shown promising results in diverse communities, particularly those facing complex social challenges. However, its success depends on several factors:

  • Strong community engagement:¬†a genuine commitment from both police and residents is crucial for building trust and cooperation.
  • Sufficient resources and training:¬†officers require extensive training in community engagement,¬†conflict resolution,¬†and social service issues.
  • Organizational support:¬†police departments must be committed to providing resources and adapting structures to facilitate this approach.


  • The Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement, a city-wide effort to implement community policing principles and address racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
  • The Boston Police Department’s “Cops and Kids” program,¬†which pairs officers with at-risk youth to build positive relationships and mentorship opportunities.
  • The Richmond Police Department’s “Gun Violence Reduction Initiative,” which focuses on addressing the root causes of gun violence through community partnerships and outreach.


Do you think the Service Style can be implemented effectively on a large scale? What are the potential challenges and limitations of this approach? How can community members engage with their police departments to promote a service-oriented approach to policing?

Quasi-military Features in Policing

Historical Background and Peel’s Innovations

The image of police in crisp uniforms, wielding advanced equipment, and utilizing rigid tactics might seem inherently modern. However, the roots of these “quasi-military” features stretch back to the 19th century, with Sir Robert Peel’s reforms in London. Peel envisioned a professional, disciplined police force, replacing the haphazard system of watchmen and constables. This included standardized uniforms, centralized training, and a focus on order and control. While these reforms improved professionalism and efficiency, they also laid the groundwork for a more militaristic approach to policing.

Influence on Policing Styles and Community Perceptions

Today, quasi-military features manifest in various ways, including:

  • Uniforms and equipment:¬†SWAT teams,¬†riot gear,¬†and high-powered weaponry can evoke a sense of intimidation and distance between police and the community.
  • Tactics and procedures:¬†Paramilitary training and deployment formations can prioritize control and force over de-escalation and community engagement.
  • Language and rhetoric:¬†Framing crime as “war” and officers as “soldiers” can further reinforce a militaristic mindset,¬†potentially fueling tension and mistrust.

These features can have a significant impact on community perceptions:

  • Fear and alienation:¬†Communities,¬†particularly marginalized groups,¬†may feel targeted and unsafe when faced with a heavily militarized police presence.
  • Erosion of trust:¬†The emphasis on force and control can undermine the essential element of trust between police and the people they serve.
  • Limited problem-solving:¬†A focus on immediate response and suppression may overshadow long-term solutions for addressing the root causes of crime and social issues.

Criticisms and Ethical Concerns

The widespread adoption of quasi-military features in policing has drawn criticism for:

  • Escalation of violence:¬†Critics argue that militaristic tactics can exacerbate conflict and lead to unnecessary use of force.
  • Dehumanization of both officers and communities:¬†The “warrior” mentality can dehumanize both police and the people they interact with,¬†hindering empathy and understanding.
  • Misallocation of resources:¬†Focusing on expensive equipment and specialized training can divert resources from crucial community services and social programs.

Ethical concerns surrounding quasi-military features include:

  • The potential for militarization of domestic policing:¬†Concerns exist about the blurring of lines between police and military,¬†with potential for increased surveillance and erosion of civil liberties.
  • The impact on officer well-being:¬†The constant stress and potential for violence associated with a militaristic approach can negatively impact officer mental health and well-being.


Do you think the use of quasi-military features is justified in certain situations? How can we balance the need for effective law enforcement with the ethical concerns surrounding a militarized approach to policing? What alternative approaches can be considered to ensure public safety without alienating or endangering communities?


The Police Bureaucracy

Imagine a police department as a vast machine, its gears turning with every investigation, patrol, and community interaction. This intricate mechanism, known as the police bureaucracy, plays a crucial role in shaping how policing styles are implemented and how effectively they serve their communities.

Characteristics of Bureaucratic Police Structures

Police bureaucracies are typically characterized by:

  • Formal hierarchies:¬†Rank and chain of command dictate decision-making and resource allocation,¬†ensuring order and accountability.
  • Standardized procedures:¬†Policies and protocols guide officers’ actions,¬†aiming for consistency and fairness in law enforcement.
  • Division of labor:¬†Specialized units handle specific tasks,¬†from traffic enforcement to community engagement,¬†maximizing efficiency.

 Benefits and Challenges in Different Policing Styles

These bureaucratic structures can benefit and hinder different policing styles:

  • Watchman Style:¬†Clear hierarchies and standardized procedures can support community engagement and resource allocation within this style.¬†However,¬†rigid structures can also limit officer discretion and flexibility,¬†hindering their ability to build personal relationships within the community.
  • Legalistic Style:¬†The emphasis on protocols and procedures aligns well with the bureaucratic structure,¬†ensuring consistency and accountability in law enforcement.¬†However,¬†excessive bureaucracy can stifle innovation and adaptability,¬†potentially hindering officers’ ability to respond effectively to nuanced situations.
  • Service Style:¬†The collaborative nature of the Service Style can benefit from bureaucratic structures when it comes to mobilizing resources and coordinating initiatives.¬†However,¬†navigating bureaucratic channels can sometimes impede the agility and responsiveness needed for effective community partnerships.

Impact on Efficiency, Effectiveness, and Community Relations

A well-managed police bureaucracy can:

  • Increase efficiency:¬†Standardized procedures and resource allocation can streamline operations and maximize resource utilization.
  • Enhance effectiveness:¬†Clear protocols and training can improve officer performance and ensure consistent application of the law.
  • Foster trust and legitimacy:¬†Transparency and accountability within the bureaucracy can strengthen community relations and build trust.

However, a cumbersome or inflexible bureaucracy can have the opposite effect:

  • Decrease efficiency:¬†Excessive paperwork and red tape can hinder operational speed and officer responsiveness.
  • Limit effectiveness:¬†Rigid procedures can impede officers’ ability to adapt to unique situations and tailor their approach to specific communities.
  • Strain community relations:¬†Lack of transparency and accountability can foster mistrust and alienation between police and the public.


  • Do you think the current police bureaucracy effectively supports the different policing styles discussed?
  • How can we ensure that the bureaucratic structure enhances,¬†rather than hinders,¬†effective and community-oriented policing?
  • What are some potential reforms or innovations that could improve the relationship between police bureaucracy and the communities it serves?

Comparing and Contrasting the Three Styles

Suitability of Each Style in Different Contexts

  • Watchman Style:¬†Thrives in smaller communities with strong social ties,¬†emphasizes informal interactions and community engagement.¬†Effective in rural areas,¬†suburbs,¬†and certain urban neighborhoods.¬†Less effective in larger cities with diverse populations or complex social challenges.
  • Legalistic Style:¬†Best suited for environments with a high emphasis on fairness,¬†consistency,¬†and clear legal frameworks.¬†Effective in large urban areas with diverse populations and complex legal systems.¬†Less effective in smaller communities where personal relationships and trust are key.
  • Service Style:¬†Most effective in communities facing complex social issues and seeking collaborative solutions.¬†Requires strong community engagement and trust.¬†Less effective in situations requiring immediate response or strict enforcement of laws.

Influence of Community Needs and Expectations

  • Community involvement and trust:¬†Watchman and Service Styles rely heavily on community engagement and trust,¬†while the Legalistic Style prioritizes impartiality and consistency.
  • Nature of crime and social issues:¬†The Legalistic Style focuses on individual violations and enforcement,¬†while the Watchman and Service Styles consider the underlying social and environmental factors contributing to crime.
  • Cultural and historical context:¬†Understanding a community’s historical experiences and cultural norms is crucial in choosing an appropriate policing style.

Integration of Elements from Different Styles

  • Hybrid approaches:¬†Combining elements from different styles can create a more adaptable and effective approach to policing.¬†For example,¬†a Watchman Style officer might use legalistic procedures when documenting interactions or a Service Style officer might employ certain enforcement tactics in high-crime areas.
  • Situational adaptation:¬†Officers should be able to adapt their approach based on the specific situation and community needs.¬†This requires flexibility and training in different policing styles.
  • Community partnerships:¬†Collaboration between police and community organizations can leverage the strengths of different styles to address complex issues and build trust.


  • Do you think the future of policing lies in a single dominant style or a hybrid approach?
  • How can we ensure that police adapt their styles to meet the specific needs and expectations of different communities?
  • What are some potential challenges and benefits of integrating elements from different policing styles?


Policing isn’t one-size-fits-all. Across America, officers employ different styles to tackle the complex task of maintaining public safety. Understanding these styles is crucial for building trust and legitimacy within diverse communities.

Imagine a spectrum of approaches. At one end, the Watchman Style emphasizes community engagement and visible presence. Think friendly cops walking the beat, building relationships with residents, and preventing crime before it happens. This style thrives in smaller, close-knit communities where trust and informal interactions are valued.

In contrast, the Legalistic Style prioritizes strict adherence to the law and established procedures. Picture meticulous detectives following protocols, ensuring fairness and consistency in enforcing regulations. This approach works well in large, diverse cities where clear legal frameworks and impartial enforcement are paramount.

Finally, the Service Style seeks collaborative solutions, actively engaging with communities to address social issues and prevent crime. Imagine officers partnering with residents, working on youth programs, and addressing the root causes of social disorder. This style flourishes in communities facing complex challenges where trust and collaboration are key.

Each style has its strengths and weaknesses, and the most effective approach often depends on the specific context and community needs. Rural areas might benefit from the Watchman Style’s familiarity, while urban centers might find the Legalistic Style’s consistency appealing. Communities grappling with complex issues may find the Service Style’s collaborative approach most helpful.

However, a crucial factor to consider is the impact of quasi-military features on these styles. SWAT teams, high-powered weaponry, and rigid tactics can create a sense of fear and distance between police and the communities they serve. Balancing the need for effective law enforcement with community trust requires careful consideration of these features and how they align with each style.

Furthermore, the police bureaucracy plays a significant role in shaping how these styles are implemented. Clear hierarchies and standardized procedures can support efficient operations and accountability, but they can also stifle flexibility and hinder adaptation to specific communities’ needs.

Ultimately, the future of policing likely lies in a hybrid approach that incorporates elements from different styles and adapts to the unique needs of each community. This requires flexibility, training, and most importantly, genuine partnerships between police and the people they serve. Building trust, addressing underlying social issues, and adapting to diverse contexts will be key in creating safer and more just communities for all.

Key Terms

References and Further Reading



Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  12/13/2023

[ 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.