What is Policing?

This post is long overdue. I started a new internship last month at a think tank called The Police Foundation, and I am still settling into my routine. I have also been struggling to decide what to write about. But I have finally mustered the motivation, and, given that I have been researching it for the past month, I have decided to write to write on the nature of policing. I know that policing is a contentious topic today, especially in the USA, and in this post I will highlight some of the factors that may contribute to the contentious nature of the profession. That being said, I am primarily familiar with policing in a UK context.

I entered into police research from a philosophical criminal justice background, and I have been surprised by the complexity and ambiguity of policing. Currently in the UK the police are facing dramatic challenges, having recently been put on an austerity budget and with changes to the prioritization model through the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners. In this post I aim to explicate some of policing’s core features, and then provide two competing definitions of policing.

What do the police do? If you are like me when I started at the Police Foundation, the first answer that probably comes to mind is crime fighting. In both the UK and in the USA political dialogue over
the police certainly focuses on the police as crime fighters, and this is certainly the aspect of
policing that we are presented with on television and in literature. 

I was therefore surprised to learn that the police spend the majority of their time dealing with non-criminal matters. This is not just to say that they just spend a lot of time patrolling, or doing paperwork, though those are certainly important factors. More startlingly, the majority of 999 calls are not crime related. Depending on the police force, 999 calls that result in an arrest only make up 20-50% of calls to the police. The rest of the calls have wide ranging content, from proverbial cats in trees, arguments between neighbors, defusing crowds, and numerous other scenarios. My favorite police theorist, Egon Bittner, provided the following description of why people call the police: there is ‘something-that-oughtnot-be-to-happening-and-about-which- someone-had-better-dosomethingnow’. The police are also a 24/7 service, in contrast to some others such as social services. This means that the police are often asked to pick up work from other organizations (e.g. a social worker may ask the police to check in on a family). This is especially notable in the UK because in the past decade the police were granted substantial resources (and it is part of why the new austerity budget is so problematic for the police, because they now are supporting numerous essential services and can’t put any of them down).

The other thing that needs to be noted about the police is their authority to use force. Any attempt to understand policing requires noting their ability to use force. This use of force is, as I understand it, only somewhat under the authority of the justice system. According to the material that I have read, certain acts (primarily detaining suspects) can only be done in compliance with legal regulations. In other words, if the police wish for an individual to be prosecuted in the legal system, they must comply with certain restrictions. This does not limit the police’s use of force per se. The police also cannot use force towards illegal ends. There is more nuance to be teased out, but I think the sketch I present is roughly accurate, and the point I am trying to make is that the police have considerable discretion over the use of force, for good or ill. This discretionary freedom is of great practical importance, but also leaves open substantial space for abuse.

The preceding account of police activity and power has generated two primary competing definitions of policing. The first, and most popular, definition is that the police are crime fighters. Other activities are auxiliary or tangential. The other definition seems to come out of a cluster of academics, and has been articulated in several ways. The definition that has most influenced my thinking is that of Egon Bittner, who proposes that police should be understood as professionals who are experts in applying proportional force when necessary in order to maintain peace and order. This definition places responsibility for crime fighting primarily on the police, but does not make it their only or even primary purpose.

I’ll be writing more on this topic. Let me know what you think!

Thank you,


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