A primary function of government is to provide for the security of its citizens. Related to this function is the perception of orderliness, constancy, and predictability. Without stable relationships among people and institutions, other values are jeopardized. For example, property rights are only protected if government can maintain a court system based on preserving these processes and rights. How governments perform this function is of critical importance. In both enforcing laws and maintaining order, governments employ non-negotiable coercive force inherent in the nature of sovereignty (Bittner 1970).
In many societies, order is maintained by an institutionalized police force that is separate from the military. Even in liberal democratic societies, however, the military is often called on if police authorities cannot control disorder. In democratic societies, the primary role for maintaining order is vested in the police function. Although most people associate police with their law enforcement or felony-chasing role, actual studies of police behavior reveal that they spend an overwhelming amount of their resources on order maintenance problems (Goldstein 1990). In other words, police officers spend most of their time dealing with incidents involving disturbances, political demonstrations, labor-management confrontations, neighborhood disputes, intoxicated persons, barking dogs, homeless persons, and a host of activities that involve ”keeping the peace.” In fact, the word ”peacekeeping” is often used to describe the order maintenance function (Goldstein 1977).
A more formal definition of order maintenance policing is the intervention and suppression of behavior that threatens to be offensive, that threatens to disturb the public peace, or that emanates from conflicts among individuals that are public in nature. Order maintenance situations tend to be ambiguous, and the police have broad discretion in what their response should be (Kelling 1996).
In maintaining order, the police engage in an activity that is both necessary and controversial at the same time. It is necessary because citizens demand protection from disorder as a governmental function. It is controversial because it involves the use of authorized coercive force in a discretionary manner. There are no clear guidelines for what police should do and how they should do it in ”keeping the peace” (Brown 1981). When the police enter a situation, they are empowered by their role to impose a solution to a problem, incident, or disturbance if, in their judgment, they deem it necessary. Using their authority in such situations is sometimes divisive in the community since they are acting against someone in using their powers to intervene in many disturbance or conflict situations (Bittner 1970).
In performing this role, the police engage in what some have called ”social regulation” (Muir 1977). Complaints about homeless people sleeping in doorways or teenagers congregating in a restaurant often bring a police response that prompts criticism of the police. On the community level, the use of police discretion to control disorder sometimes can be perceived as racially motivated and lead to political controversies such as racial profiling (Skolnick and Fyfe 1993). How the police perform this role, what groups are the objects of their attention, and the legal basis for their actions are inherently divisive and subject to public criticism.
Scientific studies of police discretion support the viewpoint that police decision making in order maintenance situations involves such issues as whether to intervene, whether to make an arrest or issue a citation, and whether or not to use force and how much force should be employed (National Research Council of the Academies 2004). Police decision making is influenced by both legal and extralegal factors (Sykes 1986). Extralegal factors can include the preferences of the complainant who called the police, the attitude of the suspect, the social status of the offender, the kind of neighborhood, the perceived seriousness of the offense, or the perceived threat to the officer. In short, policing on the street tends be a very human activity that calls for making judgments and acting in a discretionary manner (Klockars 1985a).
Holding police accountable for discretionary decisions has been difficult and is often a source of community praise and criticism. In a liberal democratic society the exercise of power by the government is subject to review through oversight, rules, checks and balances, courts, and limitations imposed through law. The difficulty with discretionary activities in order maintenance policing is that they often occur in individual incidents where there are no credible independent witnesses. As a matter of necessity, the police version of events is presumed unless there is clear contrary evidence. Police are given the benefit of the doubt (Skolnick 1966). In sum, the order maintenance police function is an anomaly in a political culture based on the ”rule of law” and the idea that power should be held accountable through administrative, procedural, or civil due process. Several police theorists suggest that order maintenance policing is ”beyond the law” and the practical reach of the institutionalized systems of accountability (Bittner 1970; Klockars 1983; Sykes 1986).
Since the primary function of government is to provide for security, including the maintenance of order, the police contribute by helping to create that sense of order. They help to define the boundaries of community norms by what kinds of behavior they sanction. For example, if minor disturbances such as loitering, vagrancy, or juvenile harassment of passers-by are tolerated by the police, the quality of life is diminished and the fear of crime increases (Wilson and Kelling 1982). On the other hand, if police confront many kinds of behavior that are simply annoying but not necessarily criminal, they can be accused of harassment, racism, or running a ”police state.” Where the line should be drawn is often defined by the community norms, and police tend to reflect these norms (Sykes 1986).
Historically, the police always were a community-based institution primarily focused on disorder. Alleged abuses of their power, problems of misconduct, and corruption scandals led to reforms as part of the Progressive movement in the early part of the twentieth century (Toch and Grant 2005). Consequently, police departments became more insulated from politics and became more organizationally structured to control officer misconduct. In addition, police organizations became more bureaucratic and focused on the enforcement model under the later reforms advocated by O. W. Wilson and his followers during the period of the 1930s to the 1960s. Leading police administrators during this era of reform proposed what was called the ”full enforcement paradigm” based on a paramilitary model of professionalism. This movement diminished the idea of order maintenance and peacekeeping policing in favor of an enforcement-oriented crime fighting model of policing (Goldstein 1990).
The turbulence of the 1960s with the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, and the explosion of violent street crime created a new challenge to police reformers. The paramilitary professional departments failed to deal effectively with these issues, and new research emerged to challenge the enforcement-oriented strategies of random preventive patrol, rapid response, and follow-up investigation. Some observers argued that the police lost effectiveness because they failed to focus on neighborhood problem solving and order maintenance activities (Sykes 1986).
In response to pressures for change, there emerged the community policing movement that emphasized police problem solving, neighborhood-based strategies, and order maintenance programs. This reform effort suggested that disorder and crime were linked and that effective reductions in the fear of crime and actual crime were the result of order maintenance activities (Wilson and Kelling 1982). This seminal article propounded a viewpoint that came to be known as the ”broken-window theory.” This theory, based on studies of police foot patrol, argued that if broken windows, graffiti, or abandoned cars are allowed to go unattended, their existence sends out a message that ”nobody seems to care,” or ”nobody is in charge,” and/or ”you can get away with anything.” In this kind of disordered environment, the researchers concluded, crime is likely to escalate from minor to more serious offenses. The obvious police response is to expand their role in addressing the problems of disorder and move away from the model of policing committed to a ”war on crime” enforcement approach with its strategies of rapid response, random preventive patrol, and criminal investigation (Goldstein 1979).
Critics of order maintenance policing pointed out that the paramilitary professional approach was never fully implemented, was effective in combating police corruption, and held police accountable through enhanced supervision, administrative policies, and regulations (Klockars 1985b). Others suggested that this approach would require a radical reorganization of police departments and the culture of their organizations. Further, critics pointed out that this expansion of the police role carries with it the potential for abuse of civil liberties, for racial and social regulation based on prejudice, and for actually creating the antecedents of disorder by singling out communities for widespread police surveillance (Manning 1978).
Despite the reservations of critics, order maintenance policing became a widespread movement in the 1990s and into the new millennium under various names— problem-oriented policing, zero-tolerance policing, neighborhood-oriented policing, and, broadly, community policing. Based on a comprehensive review of research related to this approach by the National Research Council of the National Academies (2004), recent studies do not provide strong support for the proposition that focusing on minor offenses results in major reductions of serious crime. In fact, many strategies based on this approach alienated some communities, especially minority communities. However, the research remains limited and incomplete, and they conclude (p. 243) that there is a ”. . . growing body of evidence that problem-oriented policing is an effective approach.”
Order maintenance is an essential function the police perform and will continue to be an enigma. How the police play this role depends on many individual, organizational, and political decisions that in a practical sense are difficult to hold accountable. Ultimately, officers and their agencies must be committed to the values of a democratic polity and, to some extent, police themselves in a trustworthy manner. Such an answer will not satisfy those who insist that the exercise of power be held strictly accountable to policies, rules, and laws. When it comes to police playing this role, it will always generate controversy.