The acquisition of professional standing is a universal theme permeating the fabric of all occupations. The tangible essence of professionalism continues to be elusive, though, as a multitude of characteristics are espoused to define its existence. From the more noble portraits as ”men of wisdom” (Socrates) and ”philosopher kings” (Plato) to the attributes of ethics, intelligence, and competence, adjectives abound when describing professionals. Further complicating the professionalism concept is the ambiguity associated with what actually constitutes a ”profession,” for it is a common proposition that one can be professional only within the context of a profession.

Professionalism Qualities and Challenges

Professionalism in policing is of extraordinary importance because of the authority vested in law enforcement officers. It reflects an implicit guarantee that the experience, education, and training of officers uniquely qualify them to meet the challenges present in a changing and dynamic society. Police officers are expected to successfully operate within many demanding and conflicting roles, and along these lines, are presumed to possess ethical qualities and competence far superior to those of the nonprofessional whose attitudes are misaligned with the goals of high standards. Oversight of standards has historically been within the exclusive jurisdiction of internal professional bodies; however, outside forces propelled by citizenry and governmental entities now exert considerable regulatory influence.

Although every profession suffers at some point from institutional indiscretions, most outside observers do not measure the total worthiness of the profession by the singular incidents of its members. Unprofessional acts of police officers, however, do not receive such equitable treatment. Since its inception in the mid-1800s, policing has operated under close political and societal scrutiny, quite often in the glare of media exposure that consistently indicts the whole of policing from the sum of a few renegade rogues. It is equally true that policing has not achieved the same degree of community respect as the traditional professions of law, medicine, education, and theology. Professional recognition is often contingent on being within a profession, and a profession requires commitment to educational attainment. Esteem for the police will surface only when specialized schools for police education are commonplace, and at this point, those kinds of facilities are still in the growth and development stage.

The Police Professionalism Movement

Appointed a magistrate in 1748 England, Fielding argued that the perpetual ineffectiveness of the police to curb crime was a by-product of inadequate selection criteria and substandard pay. Based on his philosophies, Fielding organized what came to be known as the Bow Street Runners, ultimately heralded as the first professional police force in England.

As the architect of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829, Robert Peel set into motion the modern practice of community policing. His premise purports that successful policing depends on both public trust and the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action as the primary means of crime control. Dedicated to the selection and training of men with emotional balance, good appearance, and community admiration, his reforms are highly revered among the many contributions to American professional policing.

Having a limited education, the accomplishments of August Vollmer to the professionalism movement were unprecedented and remain unparalleled. As Berkeley’s town marshal and police chief, he was determined to transform the image of policing from illiterate cops to ”truly exceptional men.” In pursuit of that vision, Vollmer made numerous instrumental reforms. First, he instituted intelligence and psychological tests to screen new recruits. He then trained the recruits in scientific principles at his Berkeley Police School (created in 1908) and began offering police administration classes in 1916 at the University of California to ensure an ample pool of educated men from which to build a professional force. These contributions and many others as well have resulted in his being widely regarded as the father of modern police professionalism.

Two presidential commissions have made substantial contributions to the police professionalization movement. The Wickersham Commission, in 1931, and the 1967 President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended a baccalaureate degree as an entry-level requirement for policing. Change has been slow at best, but continual progress remains as a remnant of their visionary spirit.

One criterion for receiving a professional designation is the presence of an organization or association charged with the representation of its membership. Unlike the traditional professions, no law enforcement group wholly functions in this capacity, but the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) best fits the role. The most recognizable of all police organizations, the IACP is committed to professionalism and training. In furtherance of that mission, the IACP publishes a monthly journal, Police Chief, that has long been regarded as the professional voice of law enforcement and training.

Academics have also played a vital role in the police professionalization movement. In 1941, one of many educational contributions of August Vollmer surfaced with the formation of the American Society of Criminology (ASC). Then, in 1970, a number of academicians collaborated to create the International Association of Police Professors (now called the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, or ACJS). Collectively, these academic organizations continue to forge ahead with the educational advancement of the police profession.

Created in 1979, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) offers accreditation opportunities to all police agencies. Accreditation enhances professionalism efforts within organizations, while simultaneously communicating to the public a commitment to integrity and efficiency. Although not widely used to date (fewer than 5% of police agencies nationally), the accreditation opportunity is essential to the growth of professional policing.

Measuring Police Professionalism

Notwithstanding the complexity of meanings associated with the term professionalism, Richard Hall’s (1968) construction of a professionalism scale to measure the ambiguous concept has been well accepted in research circles. The scale’s ability to capture the true behavioral dimensions of professionalism is questionable, but its capacity to reflect identification with professionalism attributes is well established. The revised scale measures five theoretical dimensions.

Dimensions Consistent with Police Professionalism

Professionalism studies indicate that police rise to the level of three standards. First, most police officers exhibit a visible commitment to the mission of law enforcement and regard that mission as indispensable to society (referred to as a belief in public service). Second, the overwhelming majority of officers seem to philosophically ascribe to the mentality that their occupational endeavors are so technical that only colleagues possess the competence to judge the work product (called a belief in self-regulation). The third and final component is a sense of calling that exudes total devotion to the profession. The fundamental tenet of this expectation is that the professional goes about his or her job for the satisfaction inherent in a job well done, not monetary incentives, as the primary objective. Police seem to embody this mental attitude as well.

Dimensions Inconsistent with Police Professionalism

One problematic component of police professionalism is the use of an organization as a major referent, meaning the degree to which occupational associations exert influence on the values and belief systems of law enforcement. To gain professional status, it is essential that the police be committed to and practice the standards of the profession. Many advocates claim that the numerous advancements in policing are implicit of the establishment of police professionalism. Meanwhile, the findings of Miller and Fry (1976) and Crank (1990) reflect little police commitment to the activities of professional organizations. Inasmuch as these findings cast doubt on the professionalism definition used across most disciplines, Crank contends that the basic orientation of the police still remains one of professionalism when compared to craftsmanship levels. Consistent with this optimistic bent is the finding that low levels of organizational commitment among police chiefs primarily exist in small departments. It appears, then, that commitment to police organizations as a major referent does exist in larger departments, and the concerns exist on just one level of policing.

A second professionalism component of questionable merit is autonomy, or the desire to make decisions free from administrative or outside constraints. Miller and Fry’s findings (1976) uncovered a strong propensity against the perceived necessity for autonomy on two of five assessments. Using an altered version of autonomous measurement, however, Crank’s autonomy results in 1990 were more favorable. Many suggest that the real issue is whether autonomy is an appropriate measure of police professionalism. Given that police authority was allocated with the understanding of accountability to the public first and foremost, one could argue that a strong commitment to autonomy may well reflect an unprofessional bent.


In light of its fluid definition, it seems that professionalism’s multifaceted composition may well be its most prominent feature as it creates an all-encompassing receptacle for that which is good about mankind. To that end, many purport that absolute professionalism is unattainable, though the pursuit is admirable and essential to the construction and maintenance of a force of individuals faithful to public needs. Essentially, then, the quest for professionalism is best summarized from the perspective of August Vollmer—a search for the perfect man.

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