He who saves a nation breaks no law” (Napoleon)

The idea of police role, function, purpose, or mission in society requires us to think beyond the technical and operational aspects of police work, and consider, if you will, the philosophy of policing, and/or more generally, the place of legitimate authority in society. Policing is one of those few lines of work, like teaching and medicine, which have intimate connections with social life, social progress, and social change. Too narrow a view of the police role is bad, and care must also be taken to avoid too broad a view.  To begin with, an ideal set of police functions were identified by Goldstein (1977) a long time ago:

To prevent and control conduct widely recognized as threatening to life and property

To aid individuals who are in danger of physical harm, such as the victims of violent attack

To facilitate the movement of people and vehicles

To assist those who cannot care for themselves, the intoxicated, the addicted, the mentally ill, the physically disables, the old, and the young

To resolve conflict, whether it be between individuals, groups or individuals, or individuals and their government

To identify problems that have the potential for becoming more serious problems

To create and maintain a feeling of security in communities .

However, in order to understand the ideals, one must understand how they are analyzed. Here are some basic analytical terms used by academics, sociologists mostly, when analyzing the role of police in society:

“Role” — this is a sociological term that allows us to talk about the characteristics of various people and things without reference to the actual people involved. An example of a role is the wheel that spins in the mouse cage. A status is the mouse. It doesn’t matter what kind of mouse you put in the cage; the fact it has a wheel means that spinning is the kind of behavior we would expect in that role. Police have accumulated several roles (“wheels”) over the years that they cannot shed or have extreme difficulty shedding. It’s hard to exit a role. Here’s some examples: (1) Unquestionable Use of Force – this role was first suggested by the criminal justice scholar Egon Bittner. It means somebody in society has to play the role of “bully” you can’t talk back to – it’s unquestionable or indisputable authority. Police don’t have to give you any explanation or take any guff off you when they’re using force or pretty much engaged in getting down to business; (2) Information Gathering – this role was envisioned and implemented by J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI. Although society has its national security agencies, nobody is better positioned in society, with the technology, with the know-how, and with the experience, to start collecting domestic intelligence information,if they wanted to. Police cannot help collecting more information on citizens than they have a right to know.  Information gathering has just been a natural part of their role.

The Role of Police in Society

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