Policing Research Paper

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Public police are a bureaucracy created by political and legislative processes to enforce the statutory or common law of crimes, and to maintain public order and safety. Police in democratic states are accountable to the law and to democratically elected legislatures and executives. A ‘social science’ understanding of police draws upon theory and research in sociology, urban anthropology, law, criminology, history, and political science.



Social science research on policing scarcely existed before the 1960s. Moreover, observational and survey research on policing has largely been restricted to democratic regimes. Even in those, social science research may be constrained by police officials who limit access to investigators. Since the 1960s—a decade of rising crime rates, riot, and social protest—sociolegal research on police has flourished. An it has spread to democratic states around the world, including Canada, Eastern and Western Europe, Israel, Japan, Australia, India, Brazil, and South Africa. While earlier social science primarily sought to analyze police organization, role, and culture, later social science attempted to apply these insights to policing strategies and accountability.

1. Police Organization

Police structures vary. Some nations, like France, Italy, and Israel employ centralized police systems. The police in Japan, Australia, Great Britain, and Brazil are moderately decentralized. Police in the United States are decentralized, and include federal, state, county, urban, suburban, and rural forces. Nevertheless, like other bureaucracies, the police are everywhere shaped by social and economic conditions, by the interests and values of those who exercise or have access to state power, and a concern—or lack of it—for civil liberties and rights. Thus, police can differ significantly depending upon language, politics, tradition, and ideology.

1.1 Police Organization In Totalitarian States

In the first half of the twentieth century, aside from the militarized and centralized German police of the Nazi era, Soviet policing supplied a formidable model for policing a security state. From the beginning of the Bolshevik regime, the Cheka, the Soviet secret police, were given extraordinary powers to arrest, imprison, even to execute, in the interest of defending ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ The detection and prevention of crime to provide public safety was secondary to the task of preserving the dominance of the political system. In contemporary China, although the police are striving for some independence, they have been regarded as a coercive instrument to serve the Communist party’s needs. Nations in transition from dictatorship to democracy have struggled to transform the police from their formerly authoritarian responsibilities to what would be acceptable in a democratic nation, where police are accountable to the political authority of elected officials.

2. Democratic Policing

Historians generally credit Sir Robert Peel’s London Metropolitan police to be the original, remarkable, and sustaining model for democratic policing. Yet the passage of The London Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 followed three-quarters of a century of deep suspicion and failed attempts to create a police force. Peel’s achievement was to coordinate London’s need for public order with democratic concerns and values. In 1826, before submitting the police bill, he abolished the death penalty for over 100 offenses, and removed numerous criminal penalties entirely. To win the support of the Whigs for his police bill, he temporarily excluded the City of London from the authority of the new police. To quell the fears of an emerging working class, he designed blue uniforms for the police to distinguish them from the army’s red coats; and, what in retrospect must be seen as a brilliant and radical move, the men in blue did not carry guns while patrolling.

Furthermore, Peel and Colonel Charles Rowan, whom Peel appointed commissioner of the new police, strongly urged moderation in the actions of the police to gain public support. Although the purpose of the police was to protect private property and to maintain public order, it was understood that police power would be restrained by the rule of law, minimum use of force, and public opinion. As time advanced, and as class conflict diminished, English police were perceived to be efficient, incorruptible, accountable, and nonpartisan.

All this was to change after 1960. Urban riots, rising crime, and police scandals combined to undermine the warm confidence the public had shown the British police for more than a century. ‘From almost complete invisibility as a political issue, policing has become a babble of scandalous revelation, controversy and competing agendas for reform’ (Reiner 1992, pp. 73–4).

British historians have offered revisionist, theoretically Marxist, interpretations of the origins of the English police, emphasizing their role in diminishing class conflict in the development of Great Britain’s industrial capitalism. Like their American counterparts, British sociologists have observed the power of subculture and political belief to mediate the influence of law on police behavior. Others, especially McBarnet, have implicated the legal structure— judges, senior officers, vague laws, case law, including those purporting to protect civil liberty—as the basic source of police deviance (McBarnet 1983).

2.1 The Police In The United States

No police department in America was so carefully planned and organized as the London Metropolitan Police. ‘The employment of police in municipal administration was governed not by theory but by convenience’ (Lane 1967, p. 221). Public order and rioting posed a more serious problem than crime in early nineteenth-century Boston, when the city established its first full-time police department in 1837. The precipitating event for the creation of the Boston police department was akin to a race riot, as roving bands of Protestants destroyed nearly every Irish Catholic home on Broad Street. Similarly, the creation of New York City’s police force reflected a growing intolerance for riots and disorder rather than a response to an increase in crime (Monkkennen 1981, p. 553). Nevertheless like their eighteenth-century London contemporaries, New Yorkers thought themselves engulfed in a rising tide of crime and disorder. Negro slaves made up one-fifth of New York City’s population and were ‘an unstable and unruly element often treated with great brutality’ (Richardson 1970, pp. 4–5).

Interracial and interethnic hostility have always posed a problem for policing in democratic nations as well as totalitarian ones. In the United States, the combination of immigration, expansion, and slavery stand behind contradictory images of America as a land of promise and of oppression. The themes of brutality against blacks, of discrimination against immigrants, of immigrant hostility toward blacks—all set against a turbulent background of social and class conflict—arise time and again in American history.

Over time, American cities witnessed a progressive exchange of functions between the citizenry and the police. Initially, the citizenry were responsible for guarding themselves against criminals through a watch system. As other agencies assumed responsibility for other areas of municipal administration, the police began to be increasingly concerned with crime. Not until the turn of the twentieth century did the American police fully resemble the blue coated forces of the present.

Twentieth-century changes in the American police reflected population growth and diversity in cities, changing social and political organization of communities and neighborhoods, and in technology available to police. During the first reform wave, from the late nineteenth century to the Prohibition-inspired ‘roaring twenties,’ progressive elites (such as Theodore Roosevelt and his political associates) attempted to wrest control of the police from corrupt and powerful political machines (such as Tammany Hall in New York City). They also instituted civil service examinations and other measures intended to insulate officers and commanders from political influence.

The second wave, in the 1920s and 1930s, reacted to police scandals associated with national Prohibition. The 1931 Wickersham Commission report (1931) documented shocking corruption and brutality in the criminal justice system and motivated police professionals, such as August Vollmer, to introduce reforms. The efficient, seemingly incorruptible, semi-military Los Angeles Police Department, of the 1950s and 1960s, headed by William H. Parker was hailed as a model of such ‘legalistic’ professionalism, although the police behavior in the Los Angeles (Watts) riots of 1965 was to suggest otherwise. That riot was not as hurtful as the 1992 riot following the Simi Valley acquittal, in a California court, of the police who beat Rodney King. But at the time it took the largest toll of any riot in American history and was followed by significant riots across the nation, most prominently in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Newark, and Detroit.

The Civil Disorder (Kerner) Commission (1968) found that, in the first nine months of 1967 alone, there were 164 disorders of varying intensity, of which 41, in 39 cities, were considered ‘major.’ The report singled out the police as the activating cause of the urban riots that had shocked and mystified the American public. The 1960s was also a period of anti-Vietnam war protest, generating hostility between police and protesters.

A third reform wave followed, continuing into the twenty-first century. Social science theory and research was, and remains, implicated in this project. Two main subjects dominate: sociological theories of police role, culture, and discretion, based mainly on participant observation; and theories of police administration, especially community-oriented, problem-oriented, and quality-of-life policing, sometimes grounded in participant observation, but also based on theory and experimentation.

3. Reorienting Police

Historically, the police emerge as a significant, and sometimes controversial, agency of social control in periods of social and economic transition accompanied by crime and social unrest. In democratic societies, policing generates issues of how police should best be organized to deal with crime, and to be accountable to the communities they serve. Police researchers who had studied the ‘professional’ reactive model of policing in the 1960s and 1970s became increasingly skeptical of the capacity of police to satisfy community demands for public safety and dignity. Two decades of research suggested that motorized patrol scarcely deters crime, that detectives can solve only a small percentage of crime, that rapid response doesn’t solve crimes, since by the time police are told of the crime, the offender has gone. Moreover, four US Presidential Commission reports (as well as Great Britain’s Scarman Report) showed how supposedly neutral and detached policing styles could generate deep mistrust of police and estrangement from the communities they policed.

Three new approaches to police organization, values and purpose were articulated and eventually studied by social scientists in the attempt to reduce crime, increase public safety, and renew some degree of confidence in urban police: community oriented policing (Skolnick and Bayley 1986, Moore 1992), problem oriented policing (Goldstein 1990), and quality of life policing (Kelling and Coles 1996, Livingston 1997). Most social scientists agree that policing is only one of a number of causes affecting crime rates, and even then demands considerable organizational rethinking and practice (Blumstein and Wallman 2000).

3.1 Community-Oriented And Problem-Oriented Policing

By the 1980s, police relations with the communities they served had become a major issue for industrial democracies in Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and in the United States. James Q. Wilson had demonstrated that American police departments of the 1960s had adopted ‘styles’ of policing—‘legalistic,’ ‘watchman,’ ‘service’—that greatly influenced their performance. ‘Community oriented’ (COP) and ‘problem-oriented’ policing (POP) are best understood as styles of policing which, although widely discussed and praised, have not generated a consensus as to their meaning or effectiveness. Nevertheless, although there is no standardized set of precepts of COP, three elements are generally regarded as central: (a) that police and citizens are ‘co-producers’ of crime prevention; (b) that policing be decentralized, with focus on neighborhood groups cooperating with police; and (c) that patrol be reoriented, from vehicles to streets. In addition, COP seems especially sensitive to the police need for racial, linguistic, and gender diversity.

PO Policing is frequently associated, and sometimes confused, with COP and for good reason. Each stresses community involvement. Each is critical of traditional ‘incident oriented’ policing. POP suggests that police managers review ‘incidents’ in consultation with community members to focus on underlying causes. Furthermore, POP envisions the police executive as a skilled politician able to mobilize the larger community—the media, and organizations within and outside of government—in the service of addressing underlying problems.

3.2 Quality Of Life Policing

In an influential essay, James Q Wilson and George Kelling (1982) maintained that disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Just as a broken window, if neglected, leads to more broken windows, minor disorders (such as littering, loitering, public drinking, panhandling, and prostitution), if ignored, invite more serious criminality. Applying the theory as chief of New York City’s Transit Police, William Bratton and his associates scrupulously removed graffiti, and cracked down on turnstile jumpers, panhandlers, and others violating subway regulations. The result was an astonishing reduction of subway crime and a comparably successful rise in ridership.

With the election of Rudolph Giuliani as New York City’s mayor, Bratton became Commissioner of the New York City Police Department (NYPD). He merged the Transit Police into the NYPD and introduced many of its precepts. In addition, he set up a sophisticated computer mapping system (COMPSTAT) to assist police commanders in allocating resources, and to hold them responsible for crime reduction. New York City crime rates subsequently declined sharply. Although proving cause and effect is difficult, since other factors might have contributed (improved economy, higher incarceration rates, changes in drug preference, demographic shifts) close observers of the police acknowledge that these police strategies reduced crime. Bratton’s successor, Howard Safir, employed the strategies more aggressively. The aggressive policing, plus highly publicized instances of excessive force, led to hostile relations between the police and the communities they serve.

4. Discretion, Culture, And Deviance

Wherever social scientists have observed police in action, as patrol officers or detectives, in Amsterdam, London, Los Angeles, New York, Sydney, or Toronto, their orientation to the job appears to be influenced by a profusion of unwritten rules and understandings significantly influencing conduct and misconduct. Sociologists and criminal law trained observers of the 1960s were impressed by the vast amounts of discretion that police enjoyed. Police on patrol were seen ignoring minor thefts, drunkenness, disturbances, assaults, and malicious mischief in the interest of maintaining public order. These discretionary practices rendered a significant part of the criminal justice process invisible and unreviewable.

William Westley’s pioneering study of the Gary, Indiana police examined how the strains of the occupation—dealing with criminals, the insane, the intoxicated, often in an adversarial relationship to the public—influenced police conduct—and misconduct—on the job (Westley 1970), Skolnick (1996) built on Westley’s insights to develop a theoretical role construct, the policeman’s ‘working personality.’ Skolnick asserted that significant features of the police role—danger, authority, and accountability to superiors—were a precursor to understanding how police perceived and acted upon the world around them.

Bittner (1970) contended that the core of the police role is their capacity to employ force. Although police often aid sick and troubled people, Bittner asserted, their main involvement is to provide coercion where needed. By now social scientists have produced a substantial literature documenting the role strains, ordinary practices, and cultural understandings of urban police.

4.1 Code Of Silence

Although subcultural understandings vary, the legendary silence code seems to be the one powerful norm uniting police across departments and nations. Maurice Punch, who studied police deviance and corruption in New York, London, and Amsterdam, writes that police operate by a code of silence which ‘dictates that you do not ‘rat on your mates,’ (Punch 1985). In Los Angeles, more than 20 police officers witnessed Rodney King’s beating. Those who administered it must have assumed that those watching would not come forward and would back up any stories they would tell; and that departmental superiors would believe them. Officers in the New York City Police Department’s 70th Precinct did not protest when they saw Officer Justin Volpe marching around the station house, waving a broken broomstick stained with blood and feces, the residue of his sadistic anal attack on Abner Louima.

Testifying before the 1933 Mollen Commission in New York, which was investigating a pattern of corruption that had grown into vicious criminality, Officer Bernard Cawley affirmed the silence code, and the reason behind it: ‘Just say if a cop decided to tell on me, his career’s ruined. He’s going to be labeled as a rat.’ The code of silence may be that of aspect of police culture most frustrating to the general public and to officials responsible for police oversight, including prosecutors, judges, legislators, and high ranking police officials.

4.2 Excessive Force

Following his study of police violence in American, Caribbean, and South American cities, Chevigny concluded that police organized on a highly military model, in socially stratified societies which have slight regard for rights, and a tradition of private vengeance are more likely to permit police to use arbitrary violence (Chevigny 1995). ‘Police brutality’ is an evocative media term, but it has no legal referent. To ask someone to move on, to employ physical coercion, or to shoot to kill, are all appropriate police conduct, depending on circumstances. Nevertheless, since every arrest, every handcuffing, involves an imposition of force on an essentially unwilling person, departments develop subcultural understandings about how to deal with people who challenge police authority. The widely televised beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department officers revealed a use of force so brutal it shocked viewers around the world. Yet a suburban, predominantly white jury found that the force was not ‘excessive’ since King was allegedly resisting arrest. (In a second, federal trial, held in Los Angeles, the officers were found guilty of violating King’s civil rights.)

A blue ribbon commission (headed by Warren Christopher to investigate the complicity of the LAPD in the beating found that the LAPD reflected a counter-productive organizational culture. Officers were rewarded for the number of calls they handled and arrests they made as well as for being ‘hard nosed.’ Based on its time-honored notion of ‘professionalism,’ the department, the Christopher Commission concluded, ‘emphasized crime control over crime prevention and isolated the police, from the communities and the people they serve,’ and evidenced a ‘seige mentality’ (Christopher 1991).

In New York City, a particularly sadistic assault on a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima, followed by two shootings of innocent African-American men (Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond) led to angry protests against police use of force, especially deadly force. As in Los Angeles, critics pointed to the police culture and organizational strategies—especially ‘zero tolerance’ for street infractions—to explain the use of excessive force.

4.3 Culture And Corruption

Although researchers have distinguished among levels of police culture in management and street cops, usually, students of police culture have focused on street cops. Subcultures of police departments generate understandings about low-level deviance, such as when it is permissible to accept a favor, a free meal, a discount on purchased goods, or an outright money bribe. Corruption scandals have tainted the police in London, Amsterdam, and Brussels, as well as in the United States. Low level corruption can all too easily slide into a higher level, diluting the distinction sometimes made between ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ money. That distinction was to break down in New York when the Knapp Commission found that officers had extorted money or narcotics from drug dealers, had failed to take enforcement action against narcotics criminals, and had given false testimony. Around a quarter of a century later, the Mollen Commission found that lying under oath was so routine the New York police had a word for it—‘testilying.’ A 2000 corruption scandal in the Los Angeles Police Department—which includes allegations of police shooting and killing drug dealers, beating them, stealing and selling drugs, evidence planting, false arrests, and perjury, has given the LAPD the unwelcome distinction of being the first major US police department to be monitored by the federal government.

5. Private Policing

With the development of mass private property in the United States—e.g., gated communities, malls, industrial and amusement parks—more than double is spent annually on commercial private security ($90 billion) than on public policing ($40 billion). Other countries, like South Africa, maintain an even higher ratio of private to public police. In light of this growth, private policing has come to have significant implications for theories of social control in democratic societies.

Although private policing sometimes resembles, overlaps, and is confused with public policing, private policing is distinctive in one major respect. Unlike public police, private police are primarily accountable to their employers, not to the citizenry. Thus, private policing is ultimately grounded in different interests, in turn influencing its understanding of its role and practices.

While public police may act as ‘peacekeepers’ they are nevertheless authorized and expected to enforce the criminal law, which, at least in theory, imposes punishments based on just desert. Private police, by contrast, primarily enforce norms instituted by their employer. Thus, private police usually address violations of institutional standards of comportment (dress codes, noise levels): try to prevent material damage to property (through theft, vandalism, or terrorism); and seek to avoid disruption of routines (disorderliness) of the sites for which they are responsible—such as universities, hospitals, offices, industrial parks, or airports. To achieve these goals, security firms typically adopt a preventive approach to misconduct—which community and the problem oriented police do as well—thus blurring the distinction. Indeed, Ericson and Haggerty (1997) have argued that, like private police, modern police have largely become risk managers rather than crime controllers.

In the United States, laws protecting ownership of property permit private clients to define the meaning of security and order within their property boundaries more narrowly than public police, modified only by constitutional and legislative limits protecting free speech, minorities, and women. For example, behavior acceptable in a public park, e.g., walking barefooted, may be unacceptable in a restaurant or private place of amusement, such as Disneyland. The typical sanction for violating private property rules in exclusion or ejection. Low-level criminal behavior, such as smoking a marijuana cigarette, may also result in ejection or the threat of ejection, rather than the punishments embedded in criminal statutes.

Private police in the United States are not constrained by constitutional protections (e.g., the Fourth Amendment), nor are they limited by the same kinds of civil liabilities (e.g., §1983 civil rights claims) to which public police are subjected. Private security typically derives its powers from, and to an extent is controlled by, the laws of property, contract, and labor. Nevertheless, though many states do regulate the licensing of guards and their ability to use firearms, private policing in the USA remains largely self-regulating.

6. Controlling Police Misconduct

Procedural law, especially under the US Constitution’s Fourth (search and seizure) and Fifth (self-incrimination) Amendments, sets boundaries for police who are investigating crime by excluding evidence obtained in violation of these safeguards. Nevertheless, such protections have been narrowed by the US Supreme Court, especially in connection with drug enforcement.

Since street law enforcement involves stopping, questioning, sometimes searching and arresting, as well as ordinary peacekeeping, complaining citizens usually report one or more of the following: excessive force (hitting, pushing, tight handcuffs); abuse of authority (ordering change of location); rudeness; and ethnic slurs. Citizen Review Boards have become increasingly relied upon to address such issues and are found in Canada, Australia, Northern Ireland, and the United States. In the USA more than 80 percent of major cities have introduced such organizations. Walker (2001) concludes that policy review and change is more important than officer punishment to raise departmental performance, particularly since it is difficult to resolve cases where an officer and a complainant offer conflicting accounts.

External monitors, Walker believes, should prove more effective than citizen complaint review in elevating police performance. Civil liability suits, and most recently, federal and state oversight, have also been initiated to control police departments which appear to have deviated from their mission, either through corruption, excessive force, racial discrimination, or all three. There are no perfect models for policing or for controlling police. There is more agreement by social scientists and the public on what should not happen—corruption, brutality, racism—than on the mechanisms for controlling police. Nevertheless, certain themes related to police accountability are evident in the social science literature. First, police organizations are influenced by ideology, the most significant being a commitment to political democracy. Yet even within democracies, policing is influenced on a daily and regional basis by politics and power relationships. Second, policing is strongly influenced by the subcultural norms of policing. Third, courts possess only slight capacity to constrain police discretion on streets, neighborhoods, or management offices. Fourth, victimless crime enforcement breeds corruption, brutality, and even racism, as when minorities are racially profiled to enforce drug laws. Finally, police are more effective and accepted to the degree that they involve communities in developing their policies and practices.


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