Criminal Justice

Role of Police in America

January 18, 2019

Law enforcement in the United States has changed drastically since its founding. During colonial times and the initial forming of the country, law enforcement’s role in local communities was carried out by volunteer groups and part-time officers who were privately funded by local community members.

The first centralized, municipal police department was created by the city of Boston in 1838. This was quickly followed by the creation of similar agencies in New York City, Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. By the late 1800s, almost every major city in the country had created some manner of formal police force.

Today, there are more than 18,000 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies who employ more than 420,000 officers. There is an average of 2.2 law enforcement officers for every 1,000 individuals living in the United States, and the size of police departments varies largely by location and population. For example, New York City, New York has 36,228 law enforcement officers while towns like Amherst, Virginia or Hot Springs, North Carolina have less than five officers each.

The rise of formal law enforcement agencies has also created a demand for formal police training and increased professionalism among members of the law enforcement community. Each year over 660 law enforcement academies provide basic, entry-level training for future law enforcement officers. Many institutions of higher education also provide programs for law enforcement careers. Between 2006 and 2013, the amount of time individuals spent participating in basic law enforcement training programs increased by two weeks  and more than a third of these programs now require some form of mandatory field training.

Law enforcement officials play an important role in our communities. They undertake efforts to ensure justice for the approximately 8.25 million criminal offenses each year. They also conduct over 10 million arrests a year in an effort to ensure public safety and hold individuals accountable for violating the law.

The American public respect their local law enforcement agencies but have increasingly come to view police as warriors and enforcers, not guardians. In fact, almost a third of the public now view their local police as serving an enforcer role instead of a protector role. Public confidence and trust in law enforcement has also decreased since the early 2000s. Public perceptions of police will only continue to erode as departments increasingly assume roles more akin to an occupying military force or tax collectors rather than supporters of peace and safety in the community. There is a better way and some police departments are implementing best practices to ensure public safety in their local communities.

In the early 1800s, the founder of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel is believed to have said: “The police are the public and the public are the police.” This statement reflects the dual role that members of law enforcement hold in our society. Police officers are both part of the community they serve and the government protecting that community.

The purpose of law enforcement in a free society is to promote public safety and uphold the rule of law so that individual liberty may flourish. Trust and accountability between law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect is essential to advancing these goals. The government holds the power to exercise force in achieving its ends, but must do so in a way that protects the rights of community members and upholds the rule of law. Proper policing practices require that law enforcement build positive relationships with their community, respect civil liberties, and avoid tactics that encourage the use of excessive force against citizens.

The most effective way to achieve public safety in local communities results from police and community members working collaboratively to create public safety. “Community policing” is defined as a police strategy that utilizes local partnerships and greater decision-making authority among street-level officers in an effort to solve community problems. This tactic arose during the 1980s and, by 1997, 85 percent of police departments had implemented some form of community policing.

Over the past forty years, research has made attempts to identify the impact of this new policing tactic. As it turns out, community policing reduces crime and fears of crime as well as perceptions of policing discrimination. At the same time, it increases public satisfaction of police and increases positive attitudes toward officers. A recent analysis of the scholarship around community policing confirms its positive impact on community satisfaction and perceptions of legitimacy for police. However, it presents mixed results when discussing its impact on crime and feelings of safety in the same communities.

These mixed results could be the product of something community policing research discovered in recent years: most departments disappoint in their implementation of community policing. Studies show that the adoption of a community policing model frequently fails to result in a department-wide shift in core policing functions and tactics. Most departments have utilized these policing tactics as a method of “strategic buffering” between the department and community through specialized units, programs, or short-term initiatives.

The philosophy of community policing is meant to be a strategic mindset permeating the entire department, encouraging community collaboration and input into departmental decision-making. In practice, many departments have instead treated this model of policing as a one-sided transaction carried out by a few officers in a special unit or through sporadic events or meetings.

Collaboration between police and communities is essential to ensuring local public safety. Though many jurisdictions have failed to properly implement comprehensive community policing, there are three significant steps that can be taken by local police departments to ensure a community policing philosophy permeates their entire department.

Effective community policing requires departments to transition from simple community interaction to holistic community engagement. A recent report finds that departments are interacting with their communities but are not doing so in a manner that results in community members being able to provide feedback on departmental policies and tactics that will be considered by decision makers. Community policing requires departments to go beyond specialized units and leadership periodically attending community events.

To implement the core principles of this model of policing, every leader and officer should hold a duty to work alongside community leaders and organizations to solve local problems through collaboration. By modeling departmental culture on the principles of community policing, chiefs and other leaders can ensure that necessary changes are made in order to create significant community collaboration.

Proper implementation of community policing requires that officers receive sufficient training on community engagement and collaboration. The most recent data available reveals that police academies spend, on average, 228 percent more time training new officers on firearm skills and defensive tactics than community policing. Police academies and departments across the country seeking to adopt community policing should ensure that officers are equipped to be effective collaborators with their local communities. They can begin by ensuring that new officers are equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to effectively engage community members.

New Haven, Connecticut sought to achieve this by requiring all police academy recruits to complete community service and a community project while attending the city’s police academy. A Police Foundation study found that this program increased recruit’s familiarity with the city and changed their perceptions of the served neighborhoods.

Once police leadership is leading by example and agencies are providing sufficient training to their officers, they must create departmental policies that strike a proper balance between discretion and accountability for all officers. Collaboration with community members and organizations requires that patrol officers are empowered to make decisions and have discretion while also providing them with clear standards by which they will be held accountable. This balance of discretion and accountability has generally manifested itself as a less hierarchical reporting structure and increased access to diversionary alternatives combined with clear departmental policies that empower officers to act in the most effective way for their community and public safety.