Police in a Democracy

Chapter One focuses on the police and their role in a democracy. The form of government may dictate the activities and behaviors of the police. A democracy is concerned with the rights and freedoms granted to individuals. These rights and freedoms are outlined in constitutions. Also included in these constitutions are the duties and limitations of the government. The police, as representatives of the executive branch of the government, must abide by these limitations. This will act as system of checks and balances that prohibit those with power from abusing their power.

In order to be successful, a democratic government is based upon a consensus. However, it is the police that must respond when the consensus fails. In an odd way, the police exist because we realize that our democratic form of government is going to fail sometimes. If someone takes the property of another we rely upon the police to return our property and punish the individual that had taken it. The police also exist to remind us that, although we have freedom, it is not an absolute freedom. There are limitations on that freedom. Sometimes the police offer this reminder at a time when we would prefer not to be reminded (e.g., a traffic ticket or arrest).

In the United States, the laws may be categorized as civil law, criminal law, substantive law, and procedural law. Civil law addresses the interactions between individuals. Criminal law is concerned with the relationship between the individual and government. Substantive laws outline the behaviors that are required or prohibited from the individual. The procedural laws define how the police are to enforce the substantive laws. Some of the procedural laws are also found in the amendments to the United States Constitution. The amendments state what the police (government) can and cannot do. They exist to regulate the behavior of the police, not the citizen.

Because of the events of September 11, 2001, the priorities for American law enforcement changed. Counterterrorism and homeland security became top priorities. Federal agencies came to the forefront of law enforcement. State and local police have always had the primary responsibilities for law enforcement and crime control.

In the United States there are four basic types of policing. The citizen-police officer occurs when the common citizen makes an arrest for a felony. Vigilantism may be an example of the citizen-police officer. The private police are those individuals paid to serve a specific purpose. Examples of private police would include the bank guard, mall security, or department store security. Public police are those individuals paid by the government to serve the general interests of all citizens. The municipal police officer is an example of public police. The final type of policing in the United States is the public police that work in a private capacity. This would include a public police officer moonlighting at a club or store.

The police are generally organized along geographic and political boundaries. All levels of government may have some type of police agency. At the federal level there are agencies that are usually specific in their purpose. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the US Customs, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms are examples of federal agencies. State governments involve state police agencies or highway patrols. The sheriff’s office is present at the county level. The municipal police officer will handle situations at the city, town, or village level. Police departments across the country range from over 36,000 officers in New York City to one-officer departments in the smaller towns and villages. Tribal police, public safety, consolidation, special-jurisdiction police, contract law enforcement, and task-force arrangements are additional forms of policing.

In the performance of the police role there are expectations as to what the police should do and how they should do it. There are legal expectations that may include police discretion. The police cannot enforce all of the laws all of the time. Through exercising discretion, the police may decide what laws to enforce and how to enforce them. Second, there are community expectations concerning this role. Society has expectations of their police officers. But the diversity of the American society makes it difficult to form uniform expectations. Therefore, the police role may be seen differently by the different groups in a society. Third, police role expectations may come from within the police organization. The role expectations may be part of the formal expectations, derived from the administration of the organization, or part of the informal expectations. The informal expectations are derived from the fellow officers and their experiences. Fourth and finally, the individual police officers have their expectations. This would refer to the degree that their needs are met by the organization and the job.

Should the police emphasize law enforcement or politics? Law enforcement would be a legalistic approach to policing. Under this approach, the law is consistently enforced, free from bias, free from situational influence. The political approach allows for responsiveness and individualization. The uniqueness of the situation may be considered under the political approach.

Should the police focus only on crime fighting or also provide social service? The crime fighter officer is concerned with investigating crime. The social service officer believes that there are other activities beyond crime fighting that should be part of the police officer’s attention.

Should policing be proactive or reactive? To be proactive will mean that the police will be more aggressive and more intrusive. The police will initiate more activities. With being proactive comes the concern with entrapment. Being reactive may be more in line with a democracy.

Regardless of the debate, the police are involved in a variety of activities. Studies have shown that the police are involved in law enforcement, crime control, order maintenance, and service. This would include anything from investigating a murder to directing traffic and responding to calls about barking dogs.