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Definition: police from Philip's Encyclopedia

Body of people concerned with maintaining civil order and investigating breaches of the law. The first independent police force was established in Paris in 1667, becoming a uniformed force in 1829. Britain's first regular professional force was the Marine Police Establishment in 1800. The Metropolitan Police was created by Sir Robert Peel in 1829. The first police force to be established in the USA was the New York City Police Department, formed in 1844.


Summary Article: Police from International Encyclopedia of Political Science

The police is the institution in charge of protecting public order and repressing crime, and it is entitled to use physical force in order to meet these functions. Police institutions are the product of a long-term historical trend toward differentiation and specialization. Before the beginning of the 19th century, differentiation as a contemporary function of policing (e.g., keeping peace and combating crime and disorder) was in the hands of watchmen appointed from households or by family or tribal constables. This “private” policing occurred in several areas (e.g., China, main parts of Africa, and South America) before the Europeled colonization process. Autonomous, professional, permanent—and in most cases local—police forces arose in the wake of urban growth and urban disorders, industrial disputes and riots, and crime fears. This institutionalization process accompanies a specialization process in the countries of continental Europe, where police imposed an ensemble of norms, rules, and measures to regulate the entire urban existence, from public hygiene to passport control, from milk inspection to supervision of libraries, and so on. If not in the hands of watchmen or private forces, such as dock bosses' militia, the control of crime and disorder was only a small part of the duties of what then constituted the police. During the 19th century in continental Europe, police could specialize only in these functions because administrative law and jurisdiction regulated other aspects of social life at that time. This entry discusses the main distinctive features of police, especially in connection with the use of force; the trend toward specialization, especially with relation to efficiency; some of the most recent transformations; and the organizational differences between a central organization and a local organization.

Key Distinctive Features

From a more theoretical point of view, the police institution has two distinctive features. First, it is wholly instrumental: It is meant to perform a definite task, linked to crime and disorder, under civil supervision (i.e., the functional dimension of the police). Second, it is defined by its capacity to use physical force (i.e., the substantive dimension of the police). A crucial dimension of police relies therefore on its intimate relationship with the monopoly on physical force that Max Weber sees as the distinctive feature of the state. But this crucial dimension is at the same time oxymoronic, since (contrary to the military use of force), police force is expected to be legitimate (i.e., reasonable, proportionate, and based on consent). Robert Reiner (2000) asserts that, with respect to police action, the two terms consent and force are antagonists. The police can use force either in the context of a local breach of order (a contested arrest, an unlawful strike, or a riot) or in the context of a broader social or political breakdown resulting in great hostility against the regime in place. However, police legitimacy relies on consent from the public and/or the ruling regime.

On a more sociological level, the substantial affinity between force and the police has been questioned. Empirical evidence clearly shows that the actual use of force is rather rare. Some police officers never use physical force throughout their career. On the other hand, trying to list and rationalize all the tasks ever performed by police officers is nearly impossible. Therefore, some theorists like John-Paul Brodeur (2007) are inclined to define the police as the only public organization aimed at “doing everything.” To do so, they use means that are illegal or unlawful if taken by ordinary citizens (from driving the wrong way on a one-way street to bugging phone devices).

Nevertheless, use of physical force is a central issue in police organizations because cases of abuse of force weaken the political legitimacy of the police. The beating of the African American motorist Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 by White police officers (and their acquittal on charges of excessive force 1 year later) led to urban riots in the United States. The death of two minority youths in France in 2005, who allegedly fled from the police into a power substation, where they were accidentally electrocuted, led to a 3-week-long period of urban unrest. Abusive arrests and stops-and-searches in London, Birmingham, and Liverpool also led to urban riots in British cities from the end of the 1970s to the mid-1980s. It is difficult to assess if substantial changes occurred as a result of these episodes of scandal and protest. Nevertheless, police organizations faced a legitimation crisis in the course of the 1970s, due to the emergence of urban disorders and/or race riots (in the United States, England, and France), on the one hand, and to the rise of property crime, on the other.

Specialization Versus Efficiency?

Contemporary evolutions of police organizations contribute to the empirical and theoretical dispute over the accurate definition of police. First, from the initial wave of modernization and professionalization (from the early 1970s onward), police institutions have experienced both an increased specialization and a commodification of the services they are expected to deliver. Both phenomena are closely linked with a legitimation crisis that occurred during the 1970s. Overspecialization has been implemented to cope with different aspects of crime and delinquency, leading police organizations to become an archipelago of diverse and isolated occupations (from drug squads to environmental crime enforcement and from juvenile delinquency units to transnational police experts). The increased use of surveillance devices and technologies has played a major role in this process. This evolution toward more segmentation into specialized operations and the increased importance of surveillance and proactive activities tend to make physical force a secondary if not purely metaphorical aspect of police work. Some analysts have underlined this phenomenon in stating that police are not violence workers but “knowledge workers,” noting the massive amount of data and information police officers are expected to sort out and analyze in order to conduct their tasks.

This trend toward an overspecialization, specifically in the most diverse domains of crime fighting, has not prevented a decline of police efficiency. Therefore, police organizations have communalized a certain amount of tasks, the implementation of which may differ among nations. Since the 1990s, there has been a trend toward a kind of network policing in which diverse private and public institutions or agencies are brought together to combat and prevent crime and urban disorder. Police officers are now civil servants confronted with private and public agents in different kinds of negotiation arenas. Several labels have been employed to describe these evolutions. The notion of “problem-solving policing” was first introduced at the beginning of the 1980s to encourage the police to tackle daily local problems such as loitering or drinking in public spaces, domestic violence, noise disturbances, and so on. Thus, police institutions began to focus on broader social issues rather than solely on major crimes. Facing the difficulty of implementing internal police reforms, local or (more rarely) central governments developed programs such as community policing and neighborhood policing, aimed at integrating police organizations into larger institutional structures and, therefore, at resisting police organizations' tendency toward insularity and self-agenda. Moreover, the increasing pluralization of policing (the growth of private security forces, informal policing, vigilantism, the introduction of local police forces competing with state police forces, etc.) threatens the monopoly of the police in the prevention and repression of disorder. Network policing programs, such as community policing, provide an opportunity for the police to become an integral part of the larger institutional structures and to work collaboratively within these structures to combat crime.

Recent Transformations

Other transformations have cropped up in the course of these evolutions. The first has been the introduction of regulations and guidelines issued from the new public management perspective into police organizations during the 1990s, in the wake of the broader public policy reforms initiated by the Clinton administration in the United States and the government of Tony Blair in the United Kingdom. A major focus has been control over police officers, the stress of individual accountability, and the diffusion of “better with less” management policies. As a result, police chiefs and captains devote a major part of their time to crime and activity statistics to comply with political and public expectations. Such management systems, whose real ability to cope with crime and security has been widely discussed in the literature on policing, have been exported throughout the world and adopted by countries and cities in very different ways. As in other agencies, one effect of this management system is the development of strategies that may lead to an increase in the bureaucratic insularity of police organizations and to a further public concern with the ability of police organizations to cope with real crime.

The second trend is the rising importance of law-and-order policies in the political agenda of many Western countries. Proving one's ability to deal with crime and lead police forces tends to be a major personal asset in the political game. The fight against terrorism and international crime is vital to this trend. In combination with the gaming strategies developed within police organizations, this tendency sheds light on the fact that the police have a symbolic role that seems more and more important in today's political systems.

Central and Local Organization

Police are in fact a part of the political system, in which they help consolidate the political legitimacy and resources of the (local or national) government. One must distinguish here between regimes in which police organizations are centralized under the direct command of the government (as in France) and countries in which police forces are essentially municipal (as in United States) or regional forces (as in Germany and Great Britain), with some specialized forces devoted to federal issues (e.g., organized crime, terrorism, and intelligence). Contrary to a widespread assumption in political science, the degree of centralization of forces is not correlated to the degree of corruption of the police by political forces. The Napoleonic model in France offers a striking example of police organizations heading numerous and opulent political intelligence and antiriot sections under the immediate leadership of the Ministry of Interior, which is always devoted to the political tasks of repressing protests, preventing public disorder, and influencing or shaping the political landscape. Municipal police systems in the United States, on the other hand, are characterized by a high level of what the U.S. National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (the Wickersham Commission) in 1931 called “lawlessness in law enforcement,” because such police forces are considered to be part of the local political system and are under the direction of the mayor or supervisors of the municipality. The wave of reform of police forces during the 1950s resulted in a high level of “professionalism”—that is, quasi-military police departments with high standards of integrity. As it appears, the nature of the political involvement of police organizations is strongly linked to the organization of the political system.

See also

Bureaucracy, Street-Level, Governance, Urban, Institutionalization, Judiciary, Legitimacy, New Public Management, Performance Management, Rights, Violence

Further Readings
  • Brodeur, J.-P. An encounter with Egon Bittner. Crime, Law and Social Change, 48 : , 2007.
  • Manning, P. K., & Maanen, J. V. (Eds.). 1977 Policing: A view from the street. Santa Monica, CA: Goodyear.
  • Napoli, P.2003 Naissances de la police moderne: Pouvoirs, normes, société [Birth of modern policing: Powers, standards, company]. Paris: La Découverte.
  • Reiner, R.2000 The politics of the police. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Wakefield, A., & Fleming, J. (Eds.). 2009 The SAGE dictionary of policing. London: Sage.
  • Jobard, Fabien
    Centre de Recherche Sociologique sur le Droit et les Institutions Pénales, CNRS Guyancourt, France Centre de Recherche Sociologique sur le Droit et les Institutions Pénales, CNRS Guyancourt, France
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

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