The Police: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

Geoffrey P Alpert & Roger G Dunham. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009. Sage Publications.

The police have been a common feature in American society for more than a century. Today, police officers are seen patrolling streets, directing traffic, and serving the public in a multitude of ways. It has not always been so. Historically, the police were political assets for the power elites and had no pretence of treating everyone equally. The purpose of this chapter is to review briefly the history of the police, discuss the modern-day reality of police work, and assess the future of policing.

British Tradition

A great deal of U.S. policing heritage can be linked directly to its British roots. Policing in the community, crime prevention, and elected sheriffs all have origins in English law enforcement. The history of policing in England includes a variety of stories and scenarios that involve radically conservative interpretations of law enforcement and a liberal view of governmental intervention (Reith, 1938). Originally, all security in England was private. Those who could afford the luxury lived in wellbuilt houses that were guarded by servants who acted as bodyguards. The remainder of the population merely hoped that their neighbors and those chosen as “watchmen” would protect them and chase away the criminal element. This system of shared and informal policing was referred to as “kin” policing (Reith, 1956) and the

“frankpledge system.” It was established to encourage citizens to act as the “eyes and ears” of the authorities, to protect their family and neighbors, and to deliver to the court any member of the group who committed a crime.

The pledge to protect others created a sense of security based on being protected by one’s family and neighbors. Communities were organized into tythings, or groups of 100 citizens, which were part of larger units called shires (similar to counties today). Shires were headed by shire reeves (later called “sheriffs”). Shire reeves were appointed by the king, and were primarily responsible for civil duties, such as collecting taxes and ensuring obedience to the authority of the king. From the frankpledge system came the parish constable system. In the 13th century, the position of the constable was formalized, thus permitting the appointment of watchmen to assist in their duties (Bayley, 1999). Watchmen had numerous responsibilities, from guarding the gates of town at night to watching for fires, crimes, and suspicious persons. This system of law enforcement continued without much change until the 18th century.

During the 18th century, there was unprecedented population growth and the population of London more than doubled. Accompanying the growth was a more complex and specialized society, resulting in law enforcement problems that challenged the control systems in existence. Rioting in the cities, which the existing system could not control, is one such example. As a result of the changing social climate, a more formal and organized method of law enforcement became necessary. It was around this time that Henry Fielding (author of Tom Jones) and his brother, Sir John Fielding, helped improve policing in London and all over England by suggesting changes to the existing system of control that developed into what is known as the modern police department.

The First Modern Police: London

It was Sir Robert Peel, the British Home Secretary, who created a 3,000-strong police force. Peel drafted and then guided through Parliament the “Act for Improving the Police in and Near the Metropolis,” which is better known as the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. Under the direction of Peel, the police were organized for crime prevention. By 1829, the entire city was patrolled by men assigned specific territories, or beats, on a 24-hour-a-day basis (Reith, 1956). The officers, or “bobbies,” wore blue uniforms so that they could be easily recognizable as public servants whose purpose was to deter crime. The leaders of the London police force provided a central administration, strict discipline, and close supervision of the officers. They eventually decided to introduce a military structure to what had been a rather loose organization. Peel and his bobbies were so successful that requests for help from outside areas were received and assistance was sent. This movement set the stage for modern police departments, which were developed according to the principles of what has become known as “the London model of policing.” Thus, the structure and function of current police agencies, as well as their overall mission, are heavily influenced by Sir Robert Peel.

The Modern Era

In fundamental ways, modern police departments remain slaves to their history. In the 1970s, Jonathan Rubinstein (1973) commented that understanding what police do is difficult because they have such a wide variety of tasks. Thirty-six years later, this statement remains as true as it did then. Citizens are split between viewing the police in positive terms, calling them brave “crime fighters” and heroes, and referring to them negatively, as corrupt, heartless, and brutal. Often, these different views are influenced by a citizen’s experiences with the police and whether it was a positive or a negative one. Partly because of severe criticisms of the police by citizens, policing has been forced to change and develop into what it is today.

Although much of policing has changed drastically since its initiation into American government, changes in the selection and training of officers have been among the most important. There were few standards when hiring officers during the early years of policing, and practically no training. In fact, positions on the police force often were viewed as a reward for loyalty to political parties who were in power. Newly elected officials often fired existing officers and hired their political supporters. As a result, citizens thought of the police as nothing more than political “hacks,” enforcing the interests of those in power. This corrupt system of hiring officers has developed into the very elaborate and professional civil service hiring systems present in most departments today. Further, the practice of virtually no training of officers that existed earlier has progressed into the long and arduous training programs found in most departments today.

Recruitment and Selection of Officers

The importance of recruitment and selection cannot be emphasized enough. As police work is labor-intensive, and a large percentage of an agency’s budget is devoted to personnel issues, the officer is the most significant investment a police department can make. Police agencies are always looking for innovative ways to attract and retain good officers. Once an individual decides he or she wants to enter police work, the agency must screen the person for characteristics that make a good police officer. This is known as “selecting in,” a strategy that identifies those individuals best suited for police work. The agency must also eliminate or “screen out” those applicants who are unfit for police work. Many tests are available to evaluate someone’s psychological and physical characteristics to determine if success in police work is likely. There are multiple hurdles for recruits to pass. Unfortunately, there are no clear and accepted criteria to determine which candidates will make the best police officers. One reason for this uncertainty was suggested by Brenner (1989), who noted that an officer must be able to adapt to various situations and use a variety of styles and approaches, depending on the circumstances. He points out that officers must interact with violent criminals and distressed victims, perhaps during the same interaction, and it is unlikely that an officer’s behavior will satisfy all of the stakeholders all of the time. As it is extremely difficult to determine an applicant’s fitness for duty, officers must pass the many hurdles. Each decade or era has its own problems associated with the recruitment of police officers. The overall economy plays a role, as does the country’s involvement in war and the use of the military. In fact, these and other issues also impact trained police officers when they return from a leave or other assignment. There is enormous variance in the selection procedures and training among agencies, so the following discussion illustrate the options agencies have at their disposal to review and assess candidates.

Traditionally, police departments use standardized written tests to assess basic skills and attitudes. The use of traditional pen-and-pencil tests has been criticized for its lack of predictive ability, which has led many agencies to supplement these tests with a more comprehensive assessment procedure. Departments using this method process applicants through a series of assessments, including simulated and role-play activities. The activities are developed to force a person to respond to situations and individuals who “test” the person’s character and ability to negotiate in a specific situation. Common examples of simulations used in assessment centers include a domestic altercation, a routine traffic stop, or a bar fight.

In addition, officers are given medical exams and physical agility tests that involve job task simulations, such as lifting weights through windows, carrying heavy objects, and other tasks that might confront a police officer on the job. Officer candidates are often given a polygraph test to determine if they have told the truth about their backgrounds or past experiences on their application forms and in their interviews. One area that is investigated is prior drug use history.

Further, applicants are often interviewed by an individual or a group of commanders. These interviews are designed to determine a candidate’s ability to communicate and to respond to difficult questions. Once an applicant has passed these initial hurdles, he or she is sent to training. This training varies from state to state and agency to agency, but all have some common elements, including preservice, field, and in-service training.

Academy Training

Police academies can be run by the department or by the state, and they can be independent or connected to community colleges or universities. The average length of academy training is approximately 600 hours, but varies from state to state. Regardless of the total number of hours required at the academy, the training and education is an experience that plays a significant role in shaping the officer’s attitudes about policing in general, including ways to address specific tasks, and the role of the police in society.

The building blocks of a good law enforcement training program are anchored to two issues: First, the programs should incorporate the proper statement of mission and ethical considerations, which should be taught in the context of what an officer will do on a daily basis. Second, there must be a balance of time spent on “high-frequency” versus “high-risk” activities in the required training. In the 21st century, it is also necessary to prepare police officers to think, make good decisions, and to respond to a variety of difficult situations.

Recruits must pass the requirements of the academy to graduate. Many academies insist that the recruit pass all courses the first time to graduate, while other academies have built-in provisions for remedial training to help marginal students pass. Academies use a variety of methods to evaluate and grade the progress of their recruits, such as multiple-choice tests, role-play exercises, written answer tests, and oral tests. Once graduated, with newly acquired attitudes and skills, the young officer is often required to enroll in departmental training or could be assigned street work with a field training officer. Unfortunately, others are sent directly to the street, with gun, badge, and vehicle, with no further training.

Field Training

Most departments provide training after completion of the academy through a field training officer (FTO) model. Although recruits should have been exposed to a number of real-life experiences during academy training, those were created for training or role-play scenarios and are conducted in an artificial atmosphere. Field training is meant to bridge the gap between the protected environment of the academy and the isolated, open danger of the street. The new officer, or “rookie,” is paired with a more experienced police officer(s) for a period of time, usually several months.

It is the field training officer’s job to teach the young rookie how to survive and how to become a good police officer. Field training programs are often divided into several phases. Although agencies vary the length and scope of their field training, all programs should include introductory, training, and evaluation phases. The introductory phase is structured to teach the rookie officer about the agency’s policies, procedures, and local laws and ordinances. Departmental customs and practices are also communicated at this time. During the training and evaluation phases, the young officer is gradually introduced to complex tasks that require involved and complicated decisions. The young officer will have to interpret and translate into action what was learned in the academy and the field. The field training officer then evaluates the decisions and actions made by the recruit. Eventually, the successful trainee will be able to handle calls without assistance from the field training officer.

There exists a long-standing concern in policing that each rookie is told by an experienced officer to forget what was learned at the academy and to just watch and learn how things are done right. As Van Maanen (1978) described, “The newcomer is quickly bombarded with ‘street wise’ patrolmen assuring him that the police academy was simply an experience that all officers endure and has little, if anything, to do with real police work” (p. 300). This unfortunate message is that the formal training received at the academy is irrelevant or unrealistic. It is hoped that field training officers are selected and trained to make sure these types of counterproductive messages do not occur. After an officer has passed the probationary period, he or she may think training is over. However, most states and many departments require refresher courses, training on new issues, and other sorts of in-service training.

In-Service Training

Many states have now mandated in-service training for police in the same way lawyers and teachers must continue their education. In-service training is designed to provide officers with new skills and changes in laws, policies, or procedures. Also, since many skills learned at the academy or while in field training are perishable, in-service training can restore an officer’s skills. Some agencies send officers to lengthy management schools or specialized trainings. It is hard to believe that some agencies still do not train veteran officers aggressively. Police work is constantly changing, and remaining a good police officer is different from the process of becoming one.

If conducted properly, in-service training can provide a critical component to the agency’s training scheme. There must be training for supervisors and managers, communication specialists and investigators, as well as street officers. In other words, patrol officers need certain skills and those on specialized assignments need others. Some skills, such as those used in the control of persons, emergency vehicle operations, and other high-risk activities, need more frequent and in-depth training than those engaged in more routine tasks. Officers must not only be provided with proper information, but they must also be given the opportunity to ask “What if” questions of the instructor. Further, officers must pass an examination before it can be assumed that they know the information and are competent to put it into practice in real-world situations.

The Internet is providing a new forum for training police officers. Many departments are creating home pages that provide information about the agency and the community served. There are also many police “chat rooms,” which allow officers to share information and have discussions about many topics and issues. Innovative trainers can take advantage of these technological advancements for the improvement of their officers’ knowledge and experience.

The expense of training is one of the important issues many departments must consider. Not only is it costly to evaluate needs, to plan and to provide for training, but it is also very expensive to remove officers from the streets to be trained. In the short term, the expenses are great, but in the long term, the training and its related costs will pay off.

Once selected and trained, there are many recruits who enter into police work only to realize that the work, schedule, and rewards are not what they anticipated. In addition, administrators will learn that some of the citizens they recruit and even train are not able to perform the required task appropriately. Other reasons officers do not make careers in policing include family influences, “burn out,” and better-paying job offers.

After officers have negotiated successfully their initial training, most are assigned to the patrol function and, as a result, have the most contact with the public. There are multiple methods of patrol, including automobile, foot, horse, motorcycle, bicycle, and boat. Each type serves a different function, promotes different relationships, and creates different problems. In any case, these officers are now prepared to police independently and to interact with citizens on their own.

Police Operations

Police Patrol

Patrol has long been considered the “backbone” of policing, as this is where almost every police officer gets his or her “street experience.” This experience on the street with citizens is vital in shaping the outlooks and views of the police officer. While many patrol officers will go on to supervisory or investigative positions, this starting point creates shared experiences and facilitates socialization with fellow officers. An important question is, what are the major factors that influence a patrol officer’s behavior?

Although officers experience similar situations, their responses may differ due to the complexities and special circumstances of interactions. They soon learn that they cannot enforce all laws, and as Kenneth Culp Davis (1975) observed, the police must use discretion and selective enforcement.

Written guidelines or policies direct police officers’ activities, reactions, and behavior. Policies are based on relevant laws and presumably best practices. They are directives that provide members of the organization with sufficient information so that they can successfully perform their day-to-day operations. Some agencies provide their officers with very detailed policies, while others have promulgated more general policies but have supplemented those with detailed in-service training. While officers are allowed discretion with specified boundaries, it is an important research question to determine what factors explain why police officers respond differently to the same conditions.

For example, the process of forming suspicion has been a topic that has received relatively little attention in the research literature. Jonathan Rubinstein (1973) was one of the first scholars to thoroughly discuss the formation of suspicion. He notes the following:

Many of the things the officer is looking for are a product of prior situations, a consequence of events about which he knows nothing, although he often makes assumptions about some of them … While the patrolman is looking for substantive cues indicating flight, fear, concealment, and illegal possession, he is also making judgments based on his perception of the people and places he polices. (pp. 255, 257)

After an exhaustive review of the literature, the National Research Council (2003) concluded that a suspect’s social class, gender, as well as other social factors do not explain variance in behavior in police–citizen interactions.

An important area of police behavior to address is the foot pursuit. Similar to vehicular pursuits, these activities were not regulated until the 1990s. Around that time, it became apparent that officers and suspects were unnecessarily injured or put in situations that resulted in unnecessary force and deadly force because they abandoned proper practices and went on foot pursuits alone, or were separated from other officers in an attempt to corner or head off a fleeing suspect. Without proper communication, or a plan, officers put themselves in dangerous situations, which can result in crossfires and unnecessary force.

It appears that officers’ beliefs and prior experiences strongly influence their responses to citizens. Perhaps the cognitive theorists are correct in arguing that officers learn by experience, and that the relative power of that learning is influenced by one’s degree of familiarity and repeated associations in a fashion similar to the theory of differential association. In other words, these developed schemas form a mental model and illusory correlation that strongly influence a person’s responses to people and places in future encounters (Alpert, MacDonald, & Dunham, 2005). This is all extremely important because officers’ behavior creates an image for a police department, and supervisors must manage how the officers act and respond to situations. While the patrol function forms what has been called the backbone of policing, perhaps it is the first-line supervisors who form the nervous system of the agency. The patrol officers are the ones closest to the community and know the most about the people and places they police. It is they who are crime fighters, community policing officers, and problem solvers—all at the same time. It is the supervisor who directs and manages their activities.

The Crime Control Function

What are the major operations by which the police set out to control crime? The crime control function of the police relies on four primary tactics: (1) randomized and directed patrol (preventative patrol), (2) problem identification and solving, (3) response to calls for service by citizens, and (4) criminal investigation.

Preventive patrol is largely based on the assumption that it serves as a deterrent effect on crime. Although this assumption was questioned in the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment, other studies have indicated that citizens’ attitudes and beliefs are impacted by seeing officers on motorized and foot patrols. Problem identification involves the identification of specific locations and times wherein crime is most likely to occur or that are otherwise deemed most problematic.

The effectiveness of rapid responses to calls has been examined over the years. The initial rationale behind a speedy response is that it will improve the likelihood that police will apprehend a suspect. Unfortunately, citizens often report crimes after the fact, and a few seconds shaved by the police responding at breakneck speeds to a call for service does not make much difference in the officer’s likelihood of affecting an arrest. Interestingly, whether or not the initial officer responding to a scene can identify a suspect may make a difference in whether the case is resolved, but the time differential is measured in minutes, not seconds.

Finally, the work of detectives and the criminal investigation process have been studied in a variety of ways. The RAND Corporation study provides an important benchmark for establishing what is known about the effectiveness of retrospective investigation of crimes (Greenwood & Petersilia, 1975). There are several important findings in this report that merit discussion. First, detectives spend very little of their time (less than 10%) on activities that directly lead to solving crime. A large proportion of the time they do spend on casework is often used on cases after they have been solved (e.g., preparing a case for court). Second, solving crimes has little to do with any special activities performed by investigators. Instead, the most important factor affecting case clearance (e.g., whether a suspect can be identified) is the behavior of the initial responding officer and members of the public. As noted above, clearance rates are related to whether either the initial responding officer (or a victim or witness on the scene) was able to identify a suspect. It is usually a civilian and not the officer who can make an identification, thereby reducing the need for officers to risk the safety of civilians on the streets by driving at high speeds to get to a call.

While patrol is an important aspect of policing, police departments and their officers perform functions other than crime fighting. Order maintenance, rather than law enforcement, may be a better approach in certain places and with certain people. As police officers are available 24/7, they are called on to provide emergency aid, information, and animal control and to make referrals to other human welfare agencies, among other responsibilities. The time spent on these services can be significant and can be seen as taking away from routine crime-fighting activities. Even some terrorist threats that require attention can be seen as taking away resources from immediate community-level crimes and problems.

Several issues that require time and effort are gangs and weapons. Although these concerns are neither new nor novel, the police response must change continually to be effective. Taking guns off the street and reducing gang violence must be goals of every police department. As new strategies are developed, new techniques by gang members are discovered.

Important Influences on Officers’ Behavior

A considerable amount of research has been conducted on the influences on officers’ behavior while on the job. Policing is an occupation for which the behavior of the incumbent can have very serious implications for those they police. Few occupations give individuals as much power over others as the police position. In exercising their discretionary power over others, officers may severely injure citizens; end their lives; destroy their reputations; or send them to jail or prison, among many other very severe penalties. Thus, it is important to monitor how officers make such decisions and try to understand which factors influence them.

The Culture of the Police

The nature of police work is different from that of work performed in most other occupations. As has been noted, the police are among the few professionals that are required to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. Furthermore, the police deal with social problems and societal ills that extend beyond simply fighting crime. The police are also unique in terms of the persons with whom they most routinely interact. While police officers deal with the entire spectrum of humanity, they spend the majority of their time dealing with the seamier side of society. The central features of the police culture may be categorized according to the way officers relate to the unique nature of the job, the special category of persons with whom they come into contact, and the environment in which they work. In other words, the unique aspects of the police role, such as being given tremendous authority, and the corresponding right to use force on citizens; morality issues related to the police being the enforcers of right over wrong; and danger, or the threat of danger, shape the nature of the police and their work.

Research indicates that the environment in which police do their work is shaped by their isolation from citizens, their solidarity within the police subculture, their loyalty to each other, and their desire for autonomy in carrying out policing duties. These conditions all contribute to the character of the police subculture, which has been characterized by extreme loyalty to one’s coworkers, particularly one’s partner. However, the police operate in a bureaucracy that is based on a paramilitary model with many guidelines or policies, rigid lines of authority, and communication that is authoritative and clear. These also make important contributions to the police culture and have an important impact on how the police do their work.

Police Bureaucracy

Police departments are organized in a manner similar to the military, using ranks to designate authority (captain, lieutenant, sergeant, etc.). True to the bureaucratic form of organization, the larger police departments are divided into special divisions and units with lines of authority leading from the chief to the line officers. Police department hierarchies of authority vary in respect to how tasks are divided and which divisions report to which supervisors.

The traditional hierarchy is represented by a pyramidtype structure. On the top, to set and enforce policies and to provide overall leadership, is the chief. Other divisions include at least internal affairs, communication, and patrol. Smaller agencies may combine different elements into one division, but all agencies must perform the same basic duties.

For example, internal affairs or professional compliance bureaus investigate all allegations of police misconduct. These concerns can be initiated by civilian complaints or by fellow police officers. This division or section is of paramount importance to the operations of any law enforcement agency and must receive support from the chief administrators. Most Internal Affairs Division managers report directly to the chief of police to avoid any question of prominence or importance.

One of the most critical elements of police work is its system of communication. It is this “heart line” that receives calls for service and forwards information to officers in the field. The communication process forms the link between the community and the police. The information provided to officers is the basis on which they prepare and respond. In other words, if the police department is told about a particular situation, officers and supervisors must recognize how many officers are needed, how quickly they need to respond, and where they need to be sent.

The degree of centralization in the organization is one of the most critical decisions an administrator must make. A centralized structure, with a dominant supervisor, will have strong controls and may be cost effective. A decentralized structure will have flexibility and will be cost efficient as it emphasizes team building as a mode of problem solving. As each structure has positive and negative characteristics, the goals of the organization, with input from the community, should serve to design the structure. Certainly, large departments can centralize administrative and certain investigative functions while they decentralize patrol and other activities. The trend has been to decentralize many police functions and to be more responsive to the unique characteristics of communities. Regardless of the type of organization, there are always going to be critical concerns and high-risk activities performed by the police. The next section looks at these activities and places them in their proper perspective.

Critical Issues and High-Risk Activities

Given the large number of issues that exist in policing today, this discussion must be limited to the most important ones. The approach here is therefore selective and focuses on a limited number of critical issues: minority hiring and promotion, women in policing, the use of force, and pursuit driving.

Minorities in Policing

Tremendous strides have been made in hiring minorities in recent years. Since the mid-1990s, police agencies have increased significantly the hiring and promoting of minority officers.

Advocates for the hiring and promoting of minorities argue that if minorities are adequately represented in police departments, departments become representative of the communities they serve. Police departments that reflect the racial and ethnic characteristics of the communities they serve may increase the respect of community residents and thereby increase the flow of information concerning crime and the identification of criminals. Similar to ethnic minorities, females have not played an important role in law enforcement until relatively recently.

Until the early 1980s, the few females who were involved in police work were often assigned to clerical duties or restricted to work with either female or juvenile offenders. The reasons for this exclusion were many: First, male officers did not want to put up with the social inhibitions placed on them by the presence of women; second, they did not want to be overshadowed by or even to take orders from women; finally, most men did not want to be supported by a female in the performance of potentially dangerous work (Caiden, 1977; Martin, 2001). The common belief was that females would not function to the level of their male counterparts—specifically, that they would react improperly and would not be able to apprehend suspects in violent or dangerous situations. Recently, the myths about women in the police world have been debunked, and benefits connected with recruiting more female officers have been stressed. For example, female officers are often better than male officers at avoiding violence and de-escalating potentially violent situations. Moreover, while women currently represent approximately 13% of all sworn personnel, they are responsible for only 5% of citizen complaints, 2% of sustained allegations of excessive use of force, and 6% of the dollars paid out in judgments and settlements for excessive use of force (National Center for Women in Policing, 2002).

The next issue is the use of force by police officers, which often is handled more appropriately by female officers than by their male counterparts. The use of force is a highly controversial issue, and this examination will look at both the problems connected to it and some of the potential solutions that can prevent the abuse of this most necessary of police powers.

Use of Non-Deadly Force

The use of force, particularly deadly force, has traditionally been one of the most controversial aspects of police work. Clearly, a distinction must be made between appropriate police use of force and excessive force. While some level of force is legitimate and necessary to control suspects and protect innocent citizens, the use of excessive force is unacceptable and is one of the most troubling forms of police misconduct. New technologies, such as the Electronic Control Device or the Conducted Energy Device, provide police officers with alternatives to traditional batons, fists, and fights. While these technologies can lead to fewer injuries than traditional uses of force, they also create their own issues, such as device malfunctions that have been linked to several deaths. Although a disproportionate amount of media attention is given to the use of force by the police, it is a rare event considering the numerous times police officers have encounters with citizens.

To understand police use of force, it is important to examine the sequence of events as they unfold in police – citizen interactions. The way to accomplish this task is to understand how the levels of force and resistance, and the sequence in which they take place, affect the outcome of the encounter. This effort requires using detailed information on the sequence of actions and reactions to make sense of the interaction process of the encounter (Alpert & Dunham, 2004).

Alpert and Dunham (2004) have formulated an interaction theory to help understand police use of force and the overall interaction processes between officers and citizens that lead to using force. The authority maintenance theory depicts the police–citizen encounter as an interaction process that is somewhat unique because authority dominates the process and it is more asymmetrical than in most other interactions. Another aspect of police–citizen interactions, according to the theory, is that the expectations and behaviors of these actors are more likely to violate the principle of reciprocity, an important function of human interactions. Officers are more likely to resort to using force when suspects block the officers from reaching their goals concerning the outcome of the encounter. Likewise, citizens respond to the blockage of their goals with varying degrees of resistance. The resistance/force sequence typically escalates until one party changes the other’s expected goals voluntarily or involuntarily.

Use of Deadly Force

Since police use of force is often measured by its severity, deadly force is often analyzed as a separate category. It is estimated that each year, approximately 400 persons are killed by the police, and the issue becomes particularly problematic due to the widespread perception that minorities are more likely than white subjects to be killed by the police. Regardless of the research evidence that shows the threatening behavior of the suspect is the strongest indicator of police use of deadly force, the perception of racially biased or motivated killings by the police remains.

The authority to use deadly force can be traced to English common law, when police officers had the authority to use deadly force to apprehend any suspected fleeing felon (the “fleeing felon” doctrine). During this time period, the fleeing-felon doctrine was considered reasonable. First, all felonies were punishable by death in England, and second, defendants did not possess the rights or the presumption of innocence that they enjoy today. In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court modified the fleeing-felon doctrine in the Tennessee v. Garner (1985) decision.

The landmark case of Tennessee v. Garner (1985) involved the use of deadly force against a fleeing felon: At approximately 10:45 on the night of October 3, 1974, a slightly built eighth grader, Edward Garner, unarmed and alone, broke a window and entered an unoccupied house in suburban Memphis with the intent of stealing money and property. Two police officers, Elton Hymon and Leslie Wright, responded to a call from a neighbor concerning a prowler. While Wright radioed dispatch, Hymon intercepted the youth as he ran from the back of the house to a 6-foot cyclone fence. After shining a flashlight on the youth who was crouched by the fence, Hymon identified himself and yelled at Garner to stop. Hymon observed that the youth was unarmed. As the boy jumped to get over the fence, the officer fired his service revolver at the youth, as he was trained to do. Edward Garner was shot because the police officers had been trained under Tennessee law that it was proper to kill a fleeing felon rather than run the risk of allowing him to escape.

A lawsuit filed by the family ended up reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. The underlying issue being decided by the Court was when and under what circumstances police officers can use deadly force. The Court held that the Tennessee statute was “unconstitutional insofar as it authorizes the use of deadly force against … unarmed, nondangerous suspect[s]” (Tennessee v. Garner, 1985, p. 11). The Court cited with approval the Model Penal Code:

The use of deadly force is not justifiable … unless (i) the arrest is for a felony; and (ii) the person effecting the arrest is authorized to act as a police officer …; and (iii) the actor believes that the force employed creates no substantial risk of injury to innocent persons; and (iv) the actor believes that (1) the crime for which the arrest is made involved conduct including the use or threatened use of deadly force; or (2) there is a substantial risk that a person to be arrested will cause death or serious bodily harm if his apprehension is delayed. (cited in Tennessee v. Garner, 1985, pp. 6–7, note 7)

In the final analysis, the Court ruled that “where the suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others, the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not justify the use of deadly force to do so” (Tennessee v. Garner, 1985, p. 11). The nature of this threat is also clear: “a significant threat of death or serious physical injury” (p. 11). In other words, the Garner decision created a modified “defense of life” standard. It is significant that this pronouncement can be reduced to a moral judgment. This was made clear when the Court noted, “It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape” (p. 11).

Police Pursuits

The use of deadly force by the police, involving the use and abuse of firearms, has been under scrutiny for a long time by police administrators, by the public, as well as by the courts. Another use of potentially deadly force that has only recently attracted significant attention is the police pursuit (see Alpert, Kenney, Dunham, & Smith, 2000). The purpose of a pursuit is to apprehend a suspect following a refusal to stop. When an officer engages in a chase in a high-powered motor vehicle, that vehicle becomes a potentially dangerous weapon. As the training guide for the California Peace Officer Standards and Training (CPOST) explains, firearms and vehicles are instruments of deadly force and the kinetic energy or kill power of a vehicle is far greater than that of a firearm.

Considered in this light, it is not surprising that there is such great concern over police pursuits. Each year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) collects data on police-pursuit-related fatalities. The data are collected as part of the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS); however, they do not capture all of the pursuit-related deaths. For example, many law enforcement officers are not trained to check the “pursuit related” box when a fatality occurs. Similarly, if the police vehicle is not involved in the crash, officers don’t always report a death on the form. Nonetheless, the NHTSA data show that at least one person will die every day of the year in a police pursuit, with approximately one third of those deaths being innocent bystanders.

While the costs of pursuits are high, the benefits should not be discounted. On the one hand, it is the mission of the police to protect lives and, clearly, pursuits are inherently dangerous to all involved. On the other hand, there is an ongoing need to immediately apprehend some law violators. Determining how to balance these two competing goals will shape the future of police pursuits. Depending on the reason for the chase and the risk factor to the public, abandonment or termination of a pursuit may be the best choice in the interests of public safety. The critical question in a pursuit is what benefit will be derived from a chase compared to the risk of a crash, injury, or death, whether to officers, suspects, or the public. In other words, a pursuit must be evaluated by weighing the risk to the public against the need to immediately apprehend a suspect.

There are two myths that are commonly stated by proponents of aggressive pursuit policies. The first myth is that suspects who do not stop for the police “have a dead body in the trunk.” The thinking behind this statement is that people who flee from the police are serious criminals who have something to hide. While the empirical truth is that many who flee from the police are “guilty” of offenses other than the known reason for their flight, the offense is most often minor, such as a suspended driver’s license (Alpert et al., 2000). The second myth is that if the police restrict their pursuits, crime will increase and a significantly greater number of citizens will flee from the police. While this myth helps justify aggressive pursuit policies, it is not substantiated by empirical data. In fact, agencies that have restricted pursuits do not report any increase in fleeing suspects.

Police pursuits are dangerous activities involving risk to all persons involved, and even to those innocent bystanders who might be in harm’s way. Research shows that approximately 40% of pursuits result in a crash, 20% result in an injury, and 1% result in a death (Alpert & Dunham, 2004). It is very difficult to force a vehicle to stop without the use of a deadly force tactic, such as ramming or shooting at a vehicle. As these tactics are also very dangerous, it becomes important to develop technologies to get vehicles to stop without risking lives. These technologies are being developed, and military technology is being declassified and used to assist law enforcement officers in stopping vehicles and avoiding unnecessary high-speed pursuits.

The Future of Policing

Although this chapter has presented only a snapshot of policing issues and research, a number of areas have had an increasing influence on policing and will guide policing in the future: (a) continued and concerted attempts by the police to be more attentive to the needs of citizens and solving the underlying problems that contribute to crime (e.g., community policing and problem-oriented policing); (b) responses by the police to demands for greater accountability from citizens, policymakers, and police administrators (e.g., Early Warning or Identification Systems, COMPSTAT, and citizen review boards); and (c) the application of new technologies to help officers and administrators accomplish these goals, including face recognition software and other computer applications.

Community and Problem-Solving Policing

One of the most important factors that moved policing strategies in new directions was the body of research indicating that traditional methods of policing (e.g., rapid response to citizen calls for service, preventive patrol, and the criminal investigation process) were not as efficient as expected in combating crime. The results of this research, and anecdotal information, highlighted the central role that the community played in the detection and prevention of crime. It is clear that without the cooperation of the community, very little crime would be solved at all, and public attitudes concerning the police would be very unfavorable. The argument that traditional policing is reactive rather than preventative, and treats the symptoms of crime rather than broaching the fundamental problems themselves, forced policing specialists to become proactive and to solve problems rather than simply respond to them after the fact. As these techniques improve and sufficient resources are allocated to proactive strategies, there may be a reduction in crime and a corresponding improvement in public perceptions of the police.

Responding to Demands for Greater Accountability

An integral part of community policing is greater accountability on the part of the police for their actions. In recent years, departments have adopted several strategies to facilitate an increase in officer accountability, both internally to superiors and externally to the citizens they serve. In order to promote accountability within police departments, police organizations across the United States are experimenting with COMPSTAT and other programs that develop, gather, and disseminate information on crime problems and hold police managers accountable to reduce the problems. Another innovation in accountability is the early identification of potentially problem officers. The Early Identification System (EIS) includes three basic elements: identification and selection of officers, intervention, and post-intervention monitoring. Each element selects a variety of performance indicators that capture officers’ behavior or compare officers in similar situations. The goal is to identify and intervene with officers whose behavior may be problematic.

New Technology

The improvement and application of technology is perhaps most likely to influence policing in the future. Implicit in this discussion of the implementation of community or problem-oriented policing and the concomitant and innovative methods of enhancing police accountability has been the advent of technology. Perhaps the most important technological advancements inside a police department are crime analysis, computerized reports, GPS systems and car locators, and crime mapping. In the community, the use of cameras may result in crime deterrence or displacement and the enhanced ability to solve crimes.

Crime analysis has three primary functions. These include assessing the nature, extent, and distribution of crime for the purpose of allocating resources. The second primary function is to identify suspects to assist in investigations. The final function of crime analysis is to identify the conditions that facilitate crime and incivility and to direct approaches to crime prevention. The ability of law enforcement agencies to engage in crime analysis and fulfill these three primary functions has been greatly enhanced by advancements in information technology (IT). For example, computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems have had a tremendous impact on the ability of the police to analyze and prioritize calls for service. CAD systems automatically collect and organize certain information from every call including the type of call, the location, the time, and the date. When these data sources are linked to others, crime analysts are capable of identifying “hot spots” of crime, detecting patterns of crime and disorder, and identifying factors or conditions that may be contributing to crime.

Most police officers complete handwritten reports on paper. New technology now permits many functions to be completed on computers in vehicles and automatically uploaded to agency computers as the vehicles drive by radio towers. Computerized reports can also permit key words, names, and specific information to be searched among all reports, and similarities can be flagged for further investigation of people and places.

New technologies installed in vehicles allow officers to access maps and allow managers to see where officers are located, at what speed they are driving, and where they have been. These new systems can assist the police function, protect officers, and serve as an accountability feature at the same time. In addition, experiments with license plate and face recognition software are taking place that allow officers while driving to be notified when a person or vehicle license of interest is observed.

The origin of crime mapping goes back to crude statistical analysis: a series of color-coded “push pins” in maps displayed on precinct station walls. Today, the police are able to use geographic information systems (GIS) technology to create maps that show the type of crime, victim information, location, time, and a variety of other criteria, all of which can be compared to census information or other databases containing what would otherwise be unconnected information. These data can be analyzed over time and space for trends or similarities, which can subsequently assist a department with crime detection, crime prediction, and resource analysis, among other things.


Increased interaction with the community, greater accountability within the police force and to the public, as well as technological advances will all increase and will ultimately have an effect on the police function and how it is carried out. As officers are provided with more time and resources, allowing them to interact more positively with citizens, the police will likely recognize the constructive results of these contacts. Innovative approaches to community mobilization should be designed to empower citizens and build trust in the government. Clearly, the application of technology will provide unique and innovative means of identifying, creating, and updating blueprints for resolving the many problems faced by the police.