A police agency can be defined as a legitimate governmental body given the authority to maintain order, prevent crime, and enforce the laws of government. In other words, the police agency ensures that the government remains a stable and respectable entity within society. The job of the police does not exclude anyone from abiding by the law, in theory. In reality, political influence over the police has not allowed for the realization of this theory. Politics is the art of exerting one’s power over the government or public affairs. Political action can result in imposing one’s interests within the government, in leadership within the government, in control over resources, and in holding government office. Politics influences who will hold various criminal justice positions, such as sheriff, police chief, judge, prosecutor, and correctional executive.
County sheriffs are elected officials, whereas police chiefs are usually appointed by the highest political official, such as the mayor or city manager. As a result, the focus of these officials is to appease those who put them in office. As the preceding definitions imply, political control over the police necessarily leads to a redefinition of the police agency. That is, a police agency is a governmental body with the authority to maintain order over political enemies or other dangerous classes, to prevent the crimes of these people, and to enforce the laws of government over everyone, except those who politically influence the police. The by-product of political control over the police is corruption. This latter presentation of the police has been the focus of much reform effort throughout the history of the police organization.
The history of the police in the United States is the history of politics in this country and the attempts to remove political control over the police. Attempts to map out the history of policing reveal three commonly acknowledged eras of policing: (1) the political era; (2) the reform era, also known as the professional era; and (3) the community era. While the mapping of these eras has been debated, what has been acknowledged by scholars is the existence of a political era in the urban North. Between 1840 and the early 1900s, history has documented policing as being under tight control of political machines. In the urban North, police jobs were awarded to political patrons (party loyalists). Officers were hired, fired, and promoted based on their loyalty to the political bosses.
Those who remained loyal worked to increase the power of the political bosses through forcing votes or hindering votes; through enforcement of vice laws against political enemies, or at least, those who did not support the political bosses; and through lack of enforcement of vice laws against political bosses. The police did not hesitate to use brute force in furthering the interests of the political elite. It must be recognized that politicians saw the need not only to strong-arm the public but to please the voters as well. This resulted in an emphasis in social services for the community, under the charge of the police. Police often ran soup kitchens, aided in job location for the public, and worked with the homeless and wayward youth. Rooted in all of the good, however, was the vast corruption of the police that allowed them to enforce the laws in an arbitrary manner, at best, and to break the laws, at worst.
The controversy regarding the three eras of policing began with the criticism that the political era could only describe the urban North. In the South and West, for example, political machines were not a widespread social problem. In the South, however, the police organization was established as a slave patrol, whereas in the West county sheriff departments were the more common organization of law enforcement. The county sheriff’s department is a level of government that expands beyond local concerns, but because the sheriff’s position is an elected one, this form of law enforcement is highly influenced by politics just the same. Additionally, in the North and in the Reconstruction South it is well documented that free blacks as well as immigrants were defined as dangerous classes by capitalist elites, who also controlled government and politics. Often, the crimes of hate groups, such as the KKK, were ignored in order to keep these groups in place. Organized hate groups aside, much of the oppression experienced by these groups was allowed, if not perpetrated, by law enforcement. These tactics worked to control the labor power of these groups in order to further the economy within these regions. Therefore, while there has been debate over the so-called political era of policing, history reveals that politics have always determined police organization and policy.
Politicization of the Police
If a police agency operates within a corrupt political system, it is almost impossible to eliminate the corruption within the police agency. It has been recognized that since police departments are the enforcement arm of government, the relationship between the police department and the supervising executive branch of government must maintain a balance of political responsibility and operational independence. As a result, police reform has focused on eliminating, or at least minimizing the influence that politicians have over police agencies. However, the fragmented or decentralized model of policing in the United States emphasizes local concerns and local control of the police. While the reform era of policing replaced the political patronage system with the civil service and merit systems, the decentralized nature of policing does not allow for complete elimination of political influence over the police. Furthermore, crime fighting and the current community policing model have been popular exploits by politicians.
Politics—both informal (community groups, ethnic minorities, and special interests of the community) and formal (elected public officials and representatives of political groups)—continues to pressure police chiefs and managers to answer to the community. Police leadership has fought to maintain independence of action from politics based on the premise that politicians and community groups do not understand the responsibilities of good practical policing. On the other hand, mayors are given the right and responsibility of hiring, firing, and supervising police chiefs. To protect police chiefs from political interference, many states have legislated civil service protection for police chiefs, while simultaneously requiring that police chiefs be held accountable for the actions of their departments by developing service contracts (usually a specific term of appointment) rather than by legislating tenure. Other large cities have established a director of public safety position, which is accountable to the mayor, to manage the police department rather than a police chief.
Police Involvement in Politics
Along with being highly influenced by politics, police have become successful participants in politics, influencing local elections and policy. Police have been influential in legislation on pay increase and benefits, as well as the death penalty and gambling laws. An increasingly popular method of police political involvement has been through the use of political action committees (PACs). PACs have mustered support for political candidates through financial contributions to campaigns. It is believed that in certain large cities, such as New York City, a candidate running for mayor does not go far without the support of the New York Police Department. However, the concerns social scientists have posed regarding the involvement of police in politics is that the police have access to information that ordinary citizens and politicians do not have and that the police may discriminate in their enforcement of the law in their political battles.
The issue of politics and the police speaks to the integrity and legitimacy of the police as a law enforcement institution in society. The police institution possesses symbolic power that is taken for granted in a democratic society. This symbolic power gives the police institution a legitimacy that is often unquestioned. Furthermore, when there is a decrease of public trust and confidence in the police, during most eras in the history of the police in the United States this trust and confidence has remained relatively high. However, this symbolic power is not guaranteed to last when politics become too pronounced in the operations of the police organization. The police are required to appease the needs of the community while they engage in the powers legislated to them. In the wake of past political corruption, to ensure the civil rights of citizens and democratic government, police powers have been limited. The judiciary is the constitutional guardian and is often deferred to in order to provide guidance and direction when police action is questioned. The civilian review boards and the courts will continue to act as a venue for debating and establishing standards of police conduct and accountability. Interested parties on both sides of the argument will continue the debate on politics and the police.