The Nature of Police Work

The myth of police as crime‐fighters has been conveyed to the American people through television dramas, comic strips, and newspaper articles. It conjures up in one's mind an image of a police officer doing a dangerous job that requires him or her to outshoot, outpunch, and outwit dangerous criminals. For most American police, there is little correspondence between this image and reality. In a major metropolitan area (where crime rates are the highest), half of the officers in the local department will not make a felony arrest during a given year. The total annual rate of weapon discharges per hundred police officers is in the range of two to six.

What do the police really do?

Three functions

Even though we refer to the police as law enforcement officers, the enforcement of criminal law (in other words, investigating crime and apprehending criminals) is only one of several functions that the police perform. The functions of the American police include providing basic social services, maintaining order, and controlling crime.

  • In the area of social service, the police help people who need emergency assistance, whether it is giving first aid or finding lost children. Typically, over 50 percent of the telephone calls to the police requesting assistance involve social service as compared with less than 20 percent relating to crime.

  • Among the order‐maintenance activities are traffic control, crowd control, resolving domestic disputes, and moving prostitutes from the streets. The focus of order maintenance is on handling situations to preserve the peace rather than enforcing the letter of the law. The appropriate order‐maintenance solution may be making an arrest (for example, in case of domestic violence), but it often consists of some less formal action (for example, getting an illegal panhandler to move on).

  • In the area of crime control, the police engage in a range of activities, such as patrol and criminal investigation.

Major responsibilities

The American Bar Association's Standards Relating to the Urban Police Function lists these 11 responsibilities:

  • To identify criminal offenders and criminal activity and, when appropriate, to apprehend offenders and participate in later court proceedings.

  • To reduce the opportunities for the commission of some crimes through preventive patrol and other measures.

  • To aid individuals who are in danger of physical harm.

  • To protect constitutional guarantees.

  • To facilitate the movement of people and vehicles.

  • To assist those who cannot care for themselves.

  • To resolve conflict.

  • To identify problems that are potentially serious law enforcement or government problems.

  • To create and maintain a feeling of security in the community.

  • To promote and preserve civil order.

  • To provide other services on an emergency basis.

Factors shaping police work

Several factors shape what the police do. Twenty‐four hour availability broadens police contacts with the public. People call the police because there is no other agency available. A disadvantage is that such availability gives police a heavy workload. The authority to use force stamps police work with a uniqueness that sets it apart from other lines of work. Force includes the right to use deadly force, to arrest people, and to use physical force. Whatever aspect of the police mission is emphasized—whether it involves checking on suspicious persons who appear to be out of place or responding to reports of crime—the police have to be willing, in the last analysis, to threaten force and to back up the threat with action. Discretion leaves an imprint on all areas of policing. Police are often free to choose among alternative courses of action or inaction. They routinely rely on their own experience, training, common sense, and judgment to make decisions involving the life and liberty of citizens. Examples of discretionary decision making include decisions involving arrests, traffic tickets, deadly force, and domestic abuse. In each of these situations, officers determine whether or not to invoke the power of the law.

Factors influencing discretionary decisions

The seriousness of the crime and the strength of the evidence affect an officer's decision to arrest. The more serious the crime and the stronger the evidence, the more likely an officer is to make an arrest. A suspect's demeanor also makes a difference. The more disrespectful and the less deferent a suspect acts toward an officer, the more likely that officer is to use force.