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I am what I think that you think I am…. STRATEGIES FUNCTION and ROLE of POLICE and POLICING

April 10, 2012
Graph demonstrating the incarcerated populatio...

Graph demonstrating the incarcerated population relative to the general population. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This paper will look at the role functions and strategies of police and policing.  Of particular interest are some of the themes and symbolism that police and their advocates have employed in developing current public perceptions about police and policing as well as defining many internal cultural elements which police and policing use to validate their functions and relationships amid the citizenry.  Various examples include slogans like, the war on crime, the war on drugs, police professionalization and police militarization to name a few.

In addition, this paper will also examine police and policing in terms of their currently stated purposes missions and goals contrasting these with the broader nascent ideals and rationales for their inception.  Looking to see whether they have remained consistent with regard to these ideas and rationales moreover if not, how they have deviated from the ostensibly original intents and purposes they were instantiated to advance.

In sum, this paper seeks to shed some light on the ways and whys police and policing do and are as they are and do.  Is it for reasons explicit to how they must be or perhaps for other less comely reasons?

In Cooley’s words…”I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.”  (p. 152)

Strategies of Policing

Roughly, strategy can be defined as the plans of action or policies designed to achieve a major or overall aim.  One effect of organizations overall strategy is to define their culture, the shared set of formal and informal values, beliefs, behaviors, and customs, that determine how persons and groups in the organization interrelate with each other as well as how and what they communicate with those outside the organization.

According to Dr. Eugene Stevens (p. 4), “wars in American were fought in fields, forests and cities of the country, first by American colonials and later by citizens using their own guns.  From these two wars came a combination of citizen-soldier, characterized by self-reliance backed up thru the individual use of guns, shaping a unique lifestyle and approach to crime and justice”.

A variety of of the strategies and tactics used by modern policing organizations today reflect facets of this early citizen-soldier archetype.  Egon Bittner (2005 p. 165) states the police have a legal mandate to use force.  “The defining and distinctive attribute of the police is that: the police, and the police alone, [are] equipped, entitled and required to deal with every exigency in which force may have to be used, to meet it”.  The use of “force” as a means to an end is synonymous with both war and the soldiers in a war, such as the police in the “war on crime”.

Thus, it is no accident that politicians and law enforcement agencies make habitual use of the term “war” i.e. the war on crime, the war on drugs, or the war on terrorism in reference to their stated mission, goals, and activities (Cowper,  2000).  Nor, is the parade of horribles that follows, usually put it in terms of dire probabilities– that if something isn’t done, this or that will occur …and now you’ve been warned.  They and the media to whom they give data about these wars beat a nearly constant drumbeat of worst-case scenarios– especially on the condition they are not given sufficient resources to fight these wars on our behalf.

Richard Ericson and Kevin Haggerty, (2005 p. 550) make the point this way in their paper, The policing of risk, “Risk communication systems have their own logic and processes, producing in effect new risks to be calculated and acted upon by other organizations and individuals”.  Frightening possibilities ensue, such as the next 9-11 might a loved one or oneself become the victim of– violent crime, sex offenders, carjacking, child abduction, cyber terror, muggers, meth-labs, identity theft; the list is as terrible as it is endless.  Next consider the “outgroups” (Harris, 1973), as well as Kelling and Coles precursors list of “the disorderly” or “broken-windows” dynamic and its’ not so subtle doppelganger, zero tolerance of the [not] “decent folk”– that is, the vagrants, the homeless, prostitutes, panhandlers, loitering groups of teens, drunks, addicts, vandals, graffiti and so on and so on.  Until inevitably people begin to feel overwhelmed, (Dixon, 2005 p. 493-495).

In the development of opinion, perception is more important than reality.  Furthermore, just as certainly as the constant drip will fill a cup, so to the stream of half-truths and dark allusions penetrate all but unfiltered into the shared consciousness of the nation, a zeitgeist analogous to the flashing red lights on top of a squad car– alarm sounding.  The public becomes anxious, herd behavior takes over; people insist that more needs be done to protect them from all these dangers, and in their panic they rush straight back to the very politicians and law enforcement agencies whose policies and risk communication systems alarmed them in the first place.  Whether the stories about Lemmings are true or not they nonetheless come to mind here.  Begging the question, who surrenders in these types of wars, them or us?

But, for the moment we have to remember these so-called “wars” are not actual wars in the proper sense of the word that is each side having well-defined nations, armies, uniforms and symbols.  The term war is being used loosely here both as a strategy and a tactic to create an edifice upon which to build an ideology of cultural justification, functional control, and means to resource allocation by way of cant and fear of the hoary list of like-lees (Cowper,  2000).   In these “wars” only one of the “sides” is formally defined to be exact having forces, uniforms, and symbols while the other exists as only “a function of the resources available to know it” (Manning, 1972, p.  234).  In other words the “other” results as an artifact of the algorithmic fabrication of a propaganda machine whose aim is not really to win the “wars” per se, so much as it is to persuade enough “decent folk” that for their own sakes these wars must be won.  This is the real war– a war for the hearts minds and fears of sufficient numbers of the dominant class to achieve a critical mass or homage to those valiantly fighting the “enemy”.  This is how the formally defined group, that is to say– law enforcement and its advocates for a zero tolerance paradigm (Dixon, 2005 p.  497) have been able, by identifying the enemy as well as generating the information used to measure success in combating them, to advance the need for their continued existence and services in a society “divided by chasms of class and race” (p.  489), and it would appear they have accomplished all of this in terms trouble-free and acceptable to them (Moore, 2005 p.  534).

More from Moore, (P. 538-539) “The focus on crime as the primary if not exclusive objective of policing, and the use of crime statistics in evaluating performance, through aggressive “order maintenance policing” strategically meets their stated organizational goal of reducing crime, while tactically preserving their methods of doing so.  Bittner writes (2005 p. 153) “…the police along with many others cultivate and propagate the image of the police [officer] as the vanguard fighter in the war on crime”.  Per Kelling and Moore, (2005 p. 96) “the police and police reformers began a public relations campaign in which they used the media to shape the image of the police as “crime fighters” in an approach more like selling than marketing”, [that is to say, this is what we do now you buy it] mine.  Stevens (p. 5) puts it this way, “by the start of the 20th century, the image of U.S. policing had changed from a force of peacemakers and peacekeepers to a rough and ready group of “law enforcers”.  With this new focus came a change in mission, from preventing crime to catching criminals, from proactive to reactive”.

Function and Role of Policing

            The salient aims of the strategies outlined above might well be put in terms of ketchup economics, where a “two-quart bottles of ketchup invariably sell for twice as much as one quart bottles of ketchup.  So the price of ketchup must be right”– [right] mine, (krugman, 2009) (Summers, 1985 p.  633).  In terms of the functions and roles of police and policing the illustration of ketchup economics is simply referring to the rhetorical tautology put forth by numerous law enforcement agencies and their advocates which states, the ways in which police accomplish the tasks of policing are the right ways for police to accomplish the tasks of policing.  This applies as well too much of their stated case for the whys’ of policing, as in the raison d’être or basis for the existence of the police– thus the reason for police is that the police are needed for policing (Bratton, 2005).

Klockars (2005) disputes these circumlocutions repeating Bittner’s argument that, “for nearly two centuries the core cultural goal of Western society has been the establishment of peace– as a condition to everyday life” (p. 442).  He goes on, “While no one argues that modern society could do without the police, — [all] “are forced to accept the creation of a core institution whose special confidence and defining characteristic is its monopoly on a general right to use coercive force” [legitimized violence] (p. 443).  Therefore, any assertion put forth such that the whys and ways that police– police as they do– claiming simply that they must do it these ways for the reason– because of those whys– is a tautology that flies in the face of two hundred years of Western aspirations.

To achieve peace through peaceful means Western societies largely delegitimized the use of force by its citizens giving this right to the police (p. 442).  This exchange stipulated law enforcement and its agents be governed by statutes and rules designed to protect civilians not only from each other but also from the police as well (p. 443).  Klockars observes, police use of icons and symbols represent more than mere ideas objectives or processes; they are forms of disguise to veil, confuse, and legitimize what Bittner describes as the legalization, militarization as well as professionalization of the police, in essence inoculating them from civilian censure by authenticating their actions (p. 443).

The virtues of peace and justice, not governmental intrusion and coercive social control were the motivating values behind these efforts toward establishment of general peace.  The purpose was for citizens to live in modern societies absent violent relations amongst each other and the state– not that they end up at the mercy of the very agencies created to afford this peace and justice (p. 443).  According to Bittner, controlling crime is perceived as the top priority of most police organizations (Zhao, Jihong “Solomon”, He, Ni and Lovrich, Nicholas P. 2003, p. 704) while “Manning (1988) argued that crime control is universally perceived as the organizational mandate of police agencies” Solomon et al. (2003).

Carl Watner (2004) refers to Silver’s assertion as follows,

Alan Silver has pointed out that modern police personnel serve as “the agent [s] of legitimate coercion and as a personification of the values of the “political” government that they serve.  [56] The police were designed to penetrate civil society in a way impossible for military formations and by so doing to prevent crime and violence and to detect and apprehend criminals.  …The police penetration of civil society, however, lay not only in its narrow application to crime and violence.  In a broader sense, it represented the penetration and continual presence of political authority throughout daily life.  [57] — Alan Silver, “The Demand for Order in Civil Society (as cited in Watner, 2004).

Watner also points out that, “Modern nation building and police forces have gone hand-in-hand… the police are the state’s “prime instrument of power” and the most “obvious physical manifestation” of political governance and law-enforcement activities” (Emsley & Mosse, 2000, 1975) as quoted in (2004).  Thus, there is an implicit understanding amongst the police as well as the public in which “law enforcement”, is managed and controlled by the legal organs of government known as the courts.  As such, they have little civil accountability for the ways in which they behave and interact with general society or to whom they should have answer in such matters.  To question the police is akin to questioning the state and its moral authority to control ever-greater aspects of the lives of its citizens (Maanen 2005, p. 285).  Thus, the methods police use in their dealings with the public is revealing as to how they see themselves and define their relationship to civilian members of society.

Far from seeing themselves as equals and “responsible public servants” entrusted with powers of “legitimate coercion” embodiments to the ideals of the republic they serve, they are far more prone to imagine themselves as– heroic, morally superior autonomous administers of “street justice” (2004) (2005).

The fact that law enforcement sees crime control being their top priority as well as organizational mandate, plus their potential for coercive social control and nearly ubiquitous intrusion of civil life sets them apart as the [makers] of right and wrong (Klockars 2005, p. 447).  In all instances of police involvement with civilians, their mandate to use coercive force ensures their victory over the others’ and thus by fiat the states victory as well (Dixon, 2005 p.  496). Whether or not there was or is an actual crime occurring, once the police are involved their independent use of discretion and control of the post facto salient facts in the matter are all that [matter] (Maanen, 2005).  “In each and all of these, the police may use force to impose or compel obedience to its own transitory, ad hoc and prompt solution, brooking no delay, amendment or recourse whatsoever” (Bittner, 1974 p. 234).  …“police action results from an ad hoc assessment by an individual police officer of the opportunity of police action, including the use of force, regardless of any eventual a posteriori legal basis or judicial approval” (Bittner 1974, p. 251–5).

But the reality is the police are not court managed and controlled, nor according to Bittner are they actually “law enforcement” per se, “The mandate of the police is distinct from that of the enforcement of the law– and because the police will not act equally against all violations” (1974, p. 240–6).  As quoted in, (PROENÇA & MUNIZ, 2006).  Meaning that in an immediate sense, the police are more akin to judge and jury than to keepers of the peace or defenders of justice (Manning, 1972 p. 200).  Hence, their ability to exercise discretion suggests the motto, To Serve and Protect, can really stand for just about anything they want it to.

Who are the police, keepers of the peace, rarefied public servants, agents of law enforcement, or a quasi-military occupation force disguised as a class of elite civil warriors fighting the “wars on drugs and crime?”  (Cowper, 2000)  The answer depends on whom you ask.

Sir Robert Peel lay down a set of principles that to steer the organization.  (Stevens p. 7)  “Paramount in this was Peels belief that the police existed to “prevent crime” the police officer was simply a “citizen” who gained power via securing and maintaining the approval and respect of his fellow citizens.”  In other words, the officer was to be “a well-trained, responsible public servant” (p. 9).  It was also expected the officer demonstrate, a “perfect command of temper” and act in a “quiet, determined manner” without resorting to [violence]” emphases mine (p. 8).  In addition to this Peel, “established accountability for police saying their success ought to be evaluated by “the absence of crime”, not the number of arrests or cases cleared as in many U.S. departments today”  (p. 8).

Contrast the above with today’s police as well as the incursion of governmental authority into the social order which they represent and one quickly sees the some stark differences.  The police as well as the majority of the citizens they watch over are acutely aware of the imbalance of power existing between them.  With the exception of public outreach programs or political activities, the police rarely seem concerned with obtaining or preserving the approval or respect of those, they deal with; if anything, what is most discernible about these encounters is the level of anxiety and antagonism present between the participants (Maanen, 2005).  Although many police departments and organizations use the slogan To Serve and Protect, in an attempt to promote themselves as “responsible public servants”, the [who] together with the [when] they will serve is in many respects completely at their discretion.  As to their demeanor– police typically seem swift to draw conclusions, deportment themselves in accordance with these quickly resorting to the use force should they feel it warranted.  With regard to a standard of success for police, such as Peel’s absence of crime— current figures would indicate the police are either slowly losing the “war on crime” or have at best achieved a stalemate.  As expected however in light of the above, the absence of crime is a measure the police neither deem as relevant nor boast the general-public recount in rating their effectiveness.  Preferring instead to use the clearance rates of crimes that have already been committed as if preventing crimes beforehand was analogous to say, preventing an earthquake.

And just like earthquakes, they might have us suppose that all crimes are inevitable and therefore just to be expected– and no one can do anything about that… Right?

It’s a good thing then… we have the police.


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SOCIETY, New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 2000, p. 9-17 at p. 12. Also see George

Stevens, E. (n.d.). Fundamentals of policing. Informally published manuscript, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina.

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Zhao, Jihong “Solomon”, He, Ni and Lovrich, Nicholas P. (2003)  ‘Community policing: Did it change the basic functions of policing in the 1990s? A national follow-up study’, Justice Quarterly, 20:4, 697 – 724  To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/07418820300095671 URL:

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