Police Organization

The typical American police department is a bureaucracy, with a military style of operation.

The police bureaucracy

Police agencies have a bureaucratic structure. The systematic administration of police departments is characterized by specialization of tasks and duties, objective qualifications for positions, action according to rules and regulations, and a hierarchy of authority. Bureaucratization maximizes efficiency. The downside of bureaucracy for the police is that this form of organization is marked by lack of flexibility, indifference to human needs, and a pattern of allowing red tape (for example, excessive rules) to impede effective problem‐solving.

Quasi-military features

Most police departments are also quasi‐military organizations. Police officers wear uniforms, tote guns, carry ranks (for example, patrol officer, sergeant, lieutenant, and captain), and operate under an authoritarian command structure in which orders flow one‐way—from the top down. Borrowing from the military, police often refer to the “war on crime.” The military model creates problems. By subscribing to the idea that they are at war against crime, police can slip into embracing the notion that “anything goes in war.” This ends justifies the means mind set can lead to police perjury, violence, and other abuses of power.

Police management styles

James Wilson, a Harvard University political scientist, identified three police management styles.

  • Watchman style management focuses on keeping order. Officers ignore minor violations and settle disputes informally by meting out street justice.

  • Legalistic style management places a premium on handling matters formally, “according to the book.” Administrators try to reduce discretion to a minimum and emphasize uniform, impartial arrests for all crimes.

  • Service style management stresses community service above law enforcement. Instead of arresting all suspects, officers are encouraged to make referrals to social service agencies.