3   The Police



We can begin this chapter by thinking about the role and function of the police within the criminal justice system. This will serve to introduce the themes covered later in this chapter. Following Barlow (1996), we highlight a number of reasons why the study of the police should be central to the study of criminal justice.

The police have the job of identifying and arresting offenders, discovering breaches of the law and maintaining public order. In effect, they have primary responsibility for enforcing the law. This means that they are the point of entry into the criminal justice system and the place where words on the statutes are converted into activity that maintains social order. Because of this we can think of the police as gatekeepers of the criminal justice system – people who decide which individuals or groups are investigated or arrested, given a fine or ticket, told to move on, pulled over or otherwise policed. Hence the police play a major role in determining who is officially defined or labelled as a ‘criminal’ and will be processed for action by the courts and prisons. Consequently, police discretion has emerged as a central theme in research. This concerns the decision of the individual officer whether to make an arrest and, thereby, start the formal criminal justice process in motion, or to take no action. The police also have considerable freedom in choosing which kinds of offences are targeted. Because police resources are finite, strategic priorities have to be made in enforcing the law. Along with discretion, this pattern of working hard at some issues and neglecting others means that the police have a significant impact in determining what the law means in practice. Such decisions are invariably influenced by input from the community, the political world, the media and legal codes as these collide with entrenched or innovative policing cultures and strategies. Paradoxically, the fact that the police make priorities also influences crime patterns by opening up or closing down criminal opportunities. Criminal activity will often flourish in fields of illegal endeavour where the police are unwilling or unable to expend resources. Likewise, a displacement effect will often see crime move from neighbourhoods that are heavily targeted to those nearby.

The police are also important as a symbol of the law. For many people the only contact they will have with the criminal justice system is with the police – perhaps through a traffic violation or in reporting a crime. These experiences can have a major impact upon subsequent perceptions of the law as a whole. Images of the police are also prevalent in the media. Television series on the police far outnumber those on other components of the criminal justice system. To obtain some idea of the cultural significance of policing, simply flick through a weekly television guide and count the number of shows. Although these media portrayals and direct personal experiences are plentiful, it is equally important to acknowledge that they are diverse. We can think of the police variously as a symbol of authority and social responsibility, as glamorous and exciting or as racist and oppressive. Which of these we choose might well depend on our social location, life experiences and outlook on life.

Finally, we need to think of the police as a political and economic force. The police are a vast bureaucracy that soaks up a large proportion of the total budget for the criminal justice system. They are important as a large employer (London’s Metropolitan Police, for example, has around 30,000 officers) and as a purchaser of goods and services. In most nations doctrines about the separation of powers suggest the police should be outside politics. Yet reality repeatedly shows them to be major players. The police will often lobby the government for resources or for changes to the law. In many cases the police have supported authoritarian and conservative regimes, especially when ‘get tough on crime’ policies promise more money and high-level support. In the United States there are exceptionally strong ties between police forces and the political parties in big cities, with the post of Police Chief almost as politicized as that of Mayor. The police are also political in a less obvious way as an ideological symbol. In other words, their political importance is tied up with their cultural meaning. For example, from 1850 to around 1950 the British police were generally seen in positive terms as bearers of legitimate authority. To most, if not all people, the ‘Bobby’ symbolized honesty, decency and the conservative possibilities of a society built upon peaceful coexistence. In the subsequent 50 years PC Plod became a ‘pig’. Scandals and corruption became widely reported, the policing of riots, strikes and racial minorities was seen as controversial, and the police were seen as a bureaucracy of outsiders (Reiner, 1985). In this new image, the police were a token of a divided society, with their policy and reputation taking on a manifest rather than latent political significance. In other words, the police were no longer seen as ‘above politics’, but were increasingly seen as a fundamental part of it.

To sum up, we should study the police because of the following:


  • They determine what the law means in practice through enforcement activity, discretion and priorities.
  • They are a key cultural symbol.
  • They have political and economic importance.

The History of Policing

Tracing the evolution of the contemporary police force provides a classic illustration of some of the major themes of social theory. Most notably we can see at work differentiation into a specialized role and a linked process of professionalization. The emergence of the police is commonly seen as a response to the social change in the West as an agrarian society shifted towards industrial modernity. During the Middle Ages policing was a largely voluntary and honorific activity. Within the feudal system members of the nobility and leaders in the community were responsible not only for maintaining peace, but also for collecting taxes. The titles of High Constable and Sheriff were often bestowed upon the aristocracy in recognition of this status. Hence in Robin Hood mythology the Sheriff of Nottingham is an over-lord who tries to bring to heel a bunch of brigands objecting to his tax-collecting policies! Petty Constables were members of the community appointed for a period of a year and were charged with ensuring good behaviour at the parish level. These men were of variable quality, largely untrained and often subject to the authority of aldermen and justices of the peace (Emsley, 1996). Law and order were also maintained by watchmen, especially in towns. Their most important job was to patrol the streets at night and look out for trouble. Responsibility for detecting, apprehending and investigating offenders belonged to a haphazard mix of these watchmen, along with magistrates, aldermen and the victims of crime themselves. The result was a system that was community driven, but also amateurish, often ineffective, prone to abuses and lacking in a healthy separation of powers.

By the eighteenth century such a system was in crisis. Cities were growing rapidly thanks to the rise of manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution. These urban settings lacked the customary social ties that had restrained crime in small-scale agrarian settings. Migration and poverty exacerbated the problems arising from anomie and anonymity. Elites came to believe there was a rapidly growing ‘criminal class’ that was in need of regulation and control – a problem evidenced by mobs and riots. Fear of crime was on the rise, with urban disorder, whether real or potential, understood as a major social problem (for a review, see Brogden, 1987: 5–9; Emsley, 1996). This was particularly the case in London, where in a publication of 1796 the reform advocate Patrick Colquhoun approximated 115,000 people (about 10 percent of the population) were profiting from crime. Big cities were seen as magnets for vice as malefactors flocked to them from outlying areas. Hence Colquhoun considered London to be ‘the general receptacle for the idle and depraved of almost every country, and certainly from every quarter of the dominions of the Crown’ (quoted in Emsley, 1996: 18).

In the United Kingdom citizens were reluctant to use the army to solve the crime problem. Bringing in the army would be like using the sledge-hammer of force to crack the nut of disorder. There was also fear that this practice might lead to anti-democratic outcomes such as martial law. A solution was found in the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. This provided for a full-time, salaried, uniformed professional police force that was under the control of government. Originally intended as a solution for London alone, the Metropolitan Police Act became a template for subsequent police forces. Thanks to support from the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, an unintended consequence of the Act was the emergence of ‘Bobby’ and ‘Peeler’ as nicknames for police in the UK. Less trivially, the Act clearly separated the police from the army and led to the formation of the doctrine of policing by consent. This is the notion that the police are a substantially unarmed body who rely upon community support and goodwill, rather than force, in the conduct of their duty. As such, the Metropolitan Police have become an important model for other settings, especially in the English-speaking world. In Boston, in 1837, for example, the first modern police force in the United States was established following the Metropolitan Police pattern.

From the perspective of social theory we should understand the origins of the police not only as a historically specific response to urbanization and disorder, but also as part of wider shifts tied to the emergence of modernity. They denote a move from a society where agricultural elites controlled criminal justice to one where the urban bourgeoisie were responsible (O’Malley, 1983). They are also an indicator of the growing power of the state as it mopped up the unruly fringes of society in the transition to modernity. As discussed earlier, Max Weber defined the modern state as an organization that held a monopoly on the legitimate use of force (see pp. 36–37). Because powers related to the administration of criminal justice and the use of force were taken away from the aristocracy, citizens and civil society we can understand the rise of a professional police force as strongly consistent with this model of centralizing political control. The Weberian perspective also stresses the strongly bureaucratic and rational organization of the modern world and the way that this replaced ad hoc systems of traditional government. These are qualities we find in policing organizations with their developed hierarchies, elaborate structures of power and written rules of procedure. Such attributes contrast markedly with the informal community administration of policing functions in pre-modern times. The rise of the Metropolitan Police model also shows changing understandings of the nature of social life. Egon Bittner (1990) argues that policing reflected the ethos that old ways of controlling disorder were no longer suitable. During the nineteenth century the belief was that the haphazard, repressive and violent control of dissent was no longer acceptable. Forms of social control should be peaceable or in some way ‘civilized’ and the police were a step towards this aim of a permanently peaceable society (note how this position is consistent with that of Elias, see pp. 37–39). As part of this social contract the police were given a monopoly over the use of force and the ability to compel people to obey. Many, including Bittner himself, have claimed this monopoly on force to be the defining feature of policing.

Although we have mapped out a core story in the paragraphs above, it is also important to remember that debate exists concerning how to most accurately narrate the rise of the police (Reiner, 1985). The traditional liberal perspective emphasizes shared problems caused by urbanization and focuses on the democratic and consensual origins of the police. During the 1970s, however, critical theories provided another narrative of the ties between modernity and the birth of the police. These saw the police as an instrument through which the ruling class controlled the dissent of a growing working class in the nineteenth-century city. The police imposed for the first time a routinized apparatus of bureaucratic surveillance over marginal populations in the interests of this dominant class, not the interests of the community as a whole. Ties have also been noted between policing and colonialism in the nineteenth century. The claim has been made that dominant histories of policing tend to be Eurocentric and ethnocentric. They neglect the fact that the evolution of early policing was linked with the maintenance of order in colonial settings (Brogden, 1987). The Royal Irish Constabulary, for example, pre-dated the Metropolitan Police and had some of the qualities of an army of occupation. Operations were supervised from Dublin Castle, officers lived barracks and conducted paramilitary policing activities aimed at the suppression of political dissent among the Irish and the maintenance of British rule (Tobias, 1972).

We have explored some of the ways that the emergence of the police can be tied to the transition to modernity. Some scholars argue that we are now moving beyond modernity towards a state known variously as postmodernity or late-modernity in which policing itself is undergoing change (e.g., de Lint, 1999; Reiner, 1992). We can briefly itemize themes in such arguments as follows:


Police Culture

So much for the history of policing. What are the police like today? Over the years sociological research has built up a picture of policing mentalities, world-views and cultures. Early ethnographic studies, many of them informed by symbolic interactionist perspectives (see pp. 26–28), showed ‘a layer of informal occupational norms and values operating under the apparently rigid hierarchical structure of police organisations’ (Chan 1997: 43). Studies from around the world are remarkably consistent in their findings of just what these are. They suggest that there are strong ties between the characteristics of the job and the ways that this is translated into individual personalities, collective beliefs and routine activities. Research has also pointed to processes of socialization in the police academy and on the beat. This ensures the reproduction of established ways of doing and thinking when new police officers are taught the ropes by old hands. In combination, such a mix of ideas and activities is called police culture.

Jerome Skolnick’s (1975) writings on police culture developed the distinctive concept of the ‘working personality’. This arose from occupational involvement in situations of danger and the need to present an image of authority to the public. More recent approaches have tended to argue that police culture inheres less in individual psychology and more in collective patterns of beliefs and values as these influence behaviours in everyday policing situations. Peter Manning (1989: 360), for example, speaks of ‘core skills, cognitions and affect’ and ‘accepted practices, rules and principles of conduct that are situationally applied, and generalized rationales and beliefs’. Simon Holdaway (1983: 2) locates police culture in ‘a residual core of beliefs and values, of associated strategies and tactics relevant to policing … a principal guide for the day-to-day work of the rank-and-file officer’. Robert Reiner (1985) speaks of a ‘cop-culture’ that ‘has developed as a patterned set of understandings which help to cope with and adjust to the pressures and tensions which confront the police’. Regardless of these definitional differences, there is not only strong agreement about the themes that are in hand, but also a broad consensus that police culture is a bad thing. Indeed, discussions of police culture are as full of negatives as a charge sheet. The following paragraphs review and synthesize the key attributes of police culture as described in the literature, with the main themes indicated in italics.

The Police World-view and Behaviour

The police see themselves as having a mission to protect decent people and maintain a decent society. In this mythology they are the thin blue line between order and anarchy. This heroic self-image does not preclude a deep cynicism about the social world, and their ability to control wrong-doing with limited resources, political interference and public indifference. Within this global vision police learn early on to be suspicious and defensive. Suspicion comes from viewing the public as potential or actual wrongdoers. The public themselves contribute to this mentality. In the course of their routine activities the police continually encounter individuals who lie or try to cover up crimes and misdemeanours. Having a day full of negative interactions leads to the belief that people are rarely honest or law-abiding and seldom tell the truth. Suspicion also arises from the inherent dangers of police work. The police need to be constantly on guard against the possibility of violence. A defensive mentality comes from the accountability of police work. Unlike most other occupations, the police are continually at risk of reprimands from superiors. Legal suits are also possible – some perhaps legitimate, but many simply vexatious. The police know that their work could be subject to intense scrutiny during cross-examination in a court of law and so justifications are always close to hand. The suppression of emotion is considered essential to good police work. The police are expected by the public and the law to be rational and objective – failure to present an appropriate mental state might look bad in court or on the street. Moreover, showing emotion or becoming too close to the public is seen as sign of weakness within police culture. The officer who cries or who shows fear is considered to be a liability to their colleagues and an embarrassment to the force. Because the police are an authoritarian and quasi-military organization characterized by bureaucracy, deference to authority frequently marks police work. Officers learn to follow orders rather than question them. A tendency towards hierarchy separates not only police ranks but also perspectives on diverse policing activities. Uniformed general duties (e.g. patrol) are seen as the lowest form of policing. Those in management positions tend to look down on those who have to interact with the public. Similarly, detectives see themselves as superior to the regular police officer. Hence being returned to uniform branch is often seen as a form of punishment within the service. Just like another hierarchical organization concerned with force, the army, the overall culture of the police is also marked by masculinity. Value is placed upon physical and mental toughness, the ability to perform well in a fight or drive fast. Police culture can also be quite racist, and shot through with assumptions about the criminal tendencies of certain groups or the competency of fellow officers from minority backgrounds. This situation leads to problems within the police force as well as in dealing with the public. Women and police from minorities report feelings of isolation and marginality alongside physical or verbal harassment. In terms of numbers, women are very under-represented. This problem is compounded at senior levels, where glass-ceiling effects have a dramatic impact upon gender ratios. Issues specifically confronting women include the following (Brown, 1998):


  • Selection and promotion panels tend to be stacked with older men who are unsympathetic to female candidates, and tests can be gender-biased.
  • Women are employed in policing activities that are less valued (e.g. social work roles, mediation) and this interferes with their career prospects.
  • Little concession is made for child care and other familial responsibilities.
  • Sexual harassment in the workplace.

From the traditional masculine perspective, women are a liability in dangerous situations, where they are allegedly unable to look after themselves. Policing research, by contrast, suggests that women are often better officers. They are able to defuse situations that might lead to violence, and tend to be more sensitive and supporting. These skills are particularly important given that – as we will see – a considerable proportion of policing is all about social work activities.

As with women, racial minorities tend to be under-represented – especially at senior ranks. This can be a major problem given the centrality of racial issues to much contemporary policing activity. In many communities the police are seen as a hostile and alien force. It is often suggested that increasing the proportion of minority police will help change perceptions and lead to more sensitive policing in multicultural settings. However, the situation is quite complex with minority officers experiencing hostile reactions from some members of their communities. They might be seen as traitors. The situation can be very stressful as officers are torn between their loyalty to their workmates and to their community, with the former pushing them to assimilate to the dominant police culture.

Researchers are in broad agreement that the aspects of police culture and police mentality discussed so far have a number of negative implications. Suspicion, defensiveness and hyper-masculinity make it difficult for the police to establish bonds with the wider community. The result can be a style of policing that does little to encourage good communication or trust and generates a ‘them-and-us’ world-view. This is compounded by public attitudes. The police have to enforce laws that may be unpopular even if necessary. Who likes to receive a speeding ticket? As the community wants little to do with the police, the police turn inwards and socialize with each other (Skolnick, 1975). The result is high levels of in-group solidarity and a tendency to erect barriers against outsiders. The suppression of emotion can lead to mental health problems arising from the stress levels of the job and the need to bottle up problems rather than seek formal or informal help. Deference to authority can undermine creative and critical thinking. Such qualities are reproduced over time by the fact that police officers self-select into a police career. Those who do not fit or who carry different values will often find themselves motivated (or pushed) to leave.

Routine Policing

Watching television provides the impression that policing is all about detecting and apprehending villains. This truth is rather more prosaic. Conklin (1992) cites data showing that only 45 percent of police on duty at any given moment are on patrol and that only 15 percent of police time is spent on crime-related activities. This is compounded by the so-called ‘rule of ten’. For every police officer actually on the beat there are ten others who are not. These inactive police might be off duty, undergoing training, on vacation or sick leave, in court or providing administrative and back-up duty at headquarters. In short, the fixed costs behind the small amount of time that some police officers spend dealing with crime are simply staggering. Research overwhelmingly shows that much police work simply has little to do with criminal justice. Egon Bittner (1990: 355) suggests that the police are best understood as an organization whose members deal with events where ‘something-is-happening-that-ought-not-to-be-happening-and-about-which-somebody-had-better-do-something-now’. In other words, they are the people who we want to fix things when the wheels fall off ordinary life. This model indicates that the police are concerned with a vast array of situations in addition to crimes. They might be called to road accidents, regulate crowds at demonstrations, take control in emergencies, be asked to look for missing persons or to sort out neighbourhood disputes. These are all situations in which order is threatened, business as usual cannot go on and the capacity to use force might have to be invoked to regain normality or to allow the repair of the fabric of everyday life. Several scholars have indicated that ‘social work’ or ‘social service’ activity seems more important than catching criminals. This might include helping a missing child find their family, checking up on the welfare of an elderly person who has not collected their mail, assisting motorists who have broken down, providing informal counselling to victims of crime, running a police youth club, providing a taxi service for people in trouble, advising people on crime-related issues, and so on. The police can also be required to provide protection to others as they go about their jobs. For example, they might escort a social worker as they make a dangerous house call. In addition, there are vast amounts of administration to be done back at the station, as well as training activities and briefings. The upshot of all this activity is that only a small percentage of police time is spent preventing crime or chasing criminals.

In thinking about what the police actually do, we should also remember that they are a large bureaucracy. Large numbers of trained police are also involved in routine tasks such as one might find in any such organization: as typists, archivists, computer systems operators, radio operators and accountants. This is increasingly seen as a waste of training and resources and many police forces are boosting the number of civilian employees (Bayley, 1994). Be this as it may, such people seem to replace sworn officers only in non-management positions. There is still the belief that only those who have worked in routine policing at some stage in their career are fit to be police managers.

The study of police culture spills over into the exploration of policing activity when we look at routine beat policing. The formal role of the police is to uphold the law. In practice, however, legal codes exert only a limited influence on what the police do. Ethnographic studies have long shown that officers tend to be less concerned with following the letter of the law than with maintaining public order – in a sense, keeping a lid on things. The police will often ignore or selectively enforce the law if such action makes the task of maintaining order too difficult. Research also suggests that the police deal in the stereotypes that form a core part of police culture. They generally work from appearances and assumptions. Drawing on their practical, day-to-day experience they view certain places and classes of people as dangerous or as law-breaking rather than law-abiding. Usually these are poor neighbourhoods and minority populations. They might also focus on those who appear ‘deviant’ thanks to long hair, tattoos or unorthodox clothing. These characteristics lead such persons to be subject to ‘the stop’ – stopped and questioned, perhaps searched. Through such routine activity a feedback loop is established. Stops lead to the discovery of crime (e.g. drug possession) and subsequent arrest. Hence police/civilian encounters tend to confirm stereotypes. Conversely more affluent and privileged groups tend to escape police surveillance. Thus, we have very little idea, for example, about the deviant activities of Mercedes and Rolls Royce drivers.

Central to the process of stereotyping is the tendency of the police to divide the world into those who are law-abiding and those who are likely cause trouble and who make the job of policing more difficult. Jerome Skolnick (1966) identified the ‘symbolic assailant’ – a person who the police think might be violent on the basis of cues such as appearance or the use of bad language. Other policing scholarship has subsequently expanded on this theme. Albert Reiss (1973) suggested that those who challenge police authority and who behave without respect are likely to be subject to hostile policing. He mentions drug addicts, alcoholics and juveniles as examples of this. Likewise, John van Maanen (1978) speaks of the ‘asshole’ – a person who answers back, refuses to answer questions and insults or provokes the police. Hence those who challenge police status and behave inappropriately (even if not illegally) are likely to be the targets of punitive policing activity. It has been argued that it is through stereotyping that the police become moral guardians of the social order and enforce mainstream standards of appropriate behaviour. The kinds of moral judgement that inform police stereotyping are clearly spelled out in the example given in Box 3.2.

Box 3.2 Robert Reiner: Stereotypes in the British Police

Drawing on several sources as well as his own work, leading British police researcher Robert Reiner (1985) has provided a detailed inventory of the stereotypical classifications held by the British police officer. These offer an insight into the conceptual universe and patterns of thinking of police culture. Many are tied to a distinction between those who ‘accept the middle-class values of decency which most police revere’ and those who challenge these values. Some go beyond simple offender stereotypes to look at other categories of person with whom the police come into regular contact.

Good class villains are worth dealing with. These are experienced and professional criminals who are worthy adversaries. Arresting them will bring prestige.

Police property are the refuse of society – drunks, drug addicts, prostitutes, vagrants, the poor and underclass. The police consider that the rest of society has dumped these people on them and their job is to keep them under control. Dealing with these people is usually frustrating and unpleasant and involves discretion rather than the rigid application of the law. According to Reiner, the police have to be careful not to mistakenly treat a member of a middle-class group as police property.

Rubbish are undeserving people who ask for service – typically members of ‘police property’ who feel they have been a victim. The police see little reason to help such people and tend to give them the brush off.

Challengers are a potential threat to police autonomy and information control. These are outsiders who get to see how policing works. Examples are doctors, journalists and social workers. The police need to engage in diverse strategies to ensure their version of reality is not challenged by the perspective of an educated outsider.

Disarmers are trouble. They are members of vulnerable groups (e.g. children, women) whose complaints against the police are likely to be taken seriously. The police need to be sure to do things by the book when dealing with them.

Do-gooders are usually critical of the police and are seen as unrealistic, bleeding heart liberals. They might talk about issues such as civil liberties, prisoners’ rights and police brutality. Sociologists and critical journalists might fall into this category. Politicians are possibly worse! According to the police they are idealistic, corrupt and weak.

How do the above stereotypes reflect a broader police culture?
How might these stereotypes shape police practice?

The reason that stereotyping can play such a key role in policing is police discretion. This refers to the fact that the police work with very little direct supervision once they are in the field and often have to make choices about which course of action (if any) is to be pursued. The police have considerable powers whether to arrest, caution or ignore problems. They can deal with them formally, informally or not at all (Goldstein, 1960). Critics suggest that this freedom permits police officers to be selective and unaccountable in their routine activity. Discretion, of course, exists at other levels of the criminal justice system – for example in sentencing or plea bargaining – and it has been criticized here too (Davis, 1969). However, it is arguably more important with the police thanks to their gatekeeper role. Some suggest, however, that discretion is a good thing in that it allows the police to be flexible and exercise autonomous judgement. Researching police discretion is difficult because it involves looking at negative cases – episodes where something did not happen. Information on these does not exist in official records and paper trails. Existing studies suggest the police can decide not to invoke the law act for a number of reasons:


  • Limitations of time and resources, for example, lack of holding cells in the police station or a surfeit of paperwork.
  • A belief that the particular offence is trivial or takes too much trouble to enforce.
  • Victims who are unwilling to press charges, making a conviction unlikely and an arrest ‘pointless’ (this can happen, for example, in the case of domestic violence).
  • Local community beliefs about which laws deserve priority or which are unpopular (e.g. laws about keeping dogs on leads might not be enforced).
  • Possible harm to the offender outweighing harm to the community, for example, a young person accused of shoplifting.

In the literature issues of discretion almost invariably lead to discussions of racism and the ways this influences policing activity. Tensions between the police and racial minorities have been perhaps the major challenge for the legitimacy of policing over the past few decades. The argument has repeatedly been made that racial minorities are disadvantaged by police discretion. We return to this theme later in the chapter (see pp. 104–106). Conversely, those who appear respectable or polite according to prevailing norms often benefit from police discretion (Piliavin and Briar, 1964).