The enforcement of the law is one of the most influential mechanisms for social control. In fact, there exists no governmental function that controls or directs the activities of the public as much as law enforcement. Law enforcement is a government service with which the public has frequent contact. Such contact and control is constant and, if it is not experienced directly through personal contact, it is at least felt indirectly through the visible or implied presence of police personnel.

To most people the phrase law enforcement relates directly to the responsibility of uniformed police officers or to police activities in the community. This relationship is correct since the police are most surely involved in the enforcement of the law and, by definition, police officers are persons employed by municipal, county, or state governments and charged with the responsibility of enforcing the law and maintaining order. Typically, they are referred to as city police, county sheriffs and deputies, and state police or highway patrol officers.

Not valid, however, is the tendency to think of crime control and the maintenance of order as the exclusive responsibility of the police. This misconception is easily understood, however, when we consider the visible activities of the police. The police have the responsibility for dealing with crime and traffic on a twenty-four-hour basis, are usually conspicuously visible to the public, and are the agents that immediately respond when violations of the law occur. The police, however, are just one segment of the mechanism our society uses to maintain the standards of conduct necessary to protect individuals in the community. This system has four generalized and separately organized units: police, prosecution, courts, and corrections. Generally speaking, the police are charged with the detection, identification, and apprehension of law violators. The prosecutor’s office will determine whether to charge or not charge the offender; if a charge is filed, what to charge; if appropriate, to plea bargain; and if a charge is filed, to prosecute. Courts hear cases, weigh evidence, interpret law, and determine guilt or innocence. When guilt is the finding, the sentence may be suspended or, if a sentence is imposed, it may be probation, a fine, incarceration, or some combination of these. Corrections is charged with detention and rehabilitation of the offender. This is obviously an oversimplification of the process, but it does place in perspective the special generalized role of the police in conjunction with the other segments of the system.

Types of Police

City police derive their authority from the state constitution, and their administrative operations are defined by each municipal government. Municipal police are granted full police powers.

In addition to municipal police, there are county sheriffs’ departments, which in large parts of the United States constitute full-fledged police organizations. In some states, however, they are restricted to the administration of the county correctional facility, the serving of court orders and documents, and provision of security for courts.

State police units exist in all but a few of the states. They may be called state police, public safety departments, or highway patrols. In some states they practice full police activities, but typically they limit their function to highway traffic control, enforcement, and accident investigation.

Although the U.S. Constitution did not specifically establish federal police agencies, Congress created them for the enforcement of specific legislative acts. For example, the Constitution stipulates that Congress has the power to coin money and punish counterfeiters (Article I, Section 8). Concurrently, Congress has the authority to establish the Secret Service to detect and arrest counterfeiters. Other examples of federal police agencies include the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Service, and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The Police Responsibility

The municipal, county, and state police of the United States are charged with responsibilities that rank second to none in importance in our democratic society. The police service is that branch of government that is assigned the awesome task of securing compliance to the multitude of laws and regulations deemed beneficial to society. Because law is society’s means of achieving conformance to desired norms, the police are society’s agents for the maintenance of harmony within the community.

Within this broad context the police are charged with (1) safeguarding of lives and property, (2) preservation of the peace, (3) prevention of crime, (4) suppression of crime through detection and arrest of violators of the law, (5) enforcement of the law, (6) prevention of delinquency, (7) safeguarding the constitutional rights of individuals, (8) control of vehicular traffic, (9) suppression of vice, and (10) provision of public services.

The police have not always had these broad responsibilities. For years the police, and even the public, generally believed the police were fulfilling their responsibility by investigating crime and attempting to apprehend criminals. No thought was given to the concept of prevention, and most certainly citizens did not expect the police to intervene in domestic disputes or problems related to their youngsters. Police officers saw themselves as ”crime fighters” and in fact many officers still hold to such provincial thinking. Role conflict is unavoidable as the police oscillate between competing traditions such as control of the public versus social service to the public. So strong is the influence of the past that typical police officers show deep resentment when an outsider attempts to confront them with evidence of the change.

Although the police function is old, it has begun, of necessity, to change in order to meet changing needs. The process of law enforcement has gone through a gradual development along with the country’s urbanization, which has enlarged the police role significantly.

Even though the police of this country are changing, certain of society’s expectations are beyond their capability. For example, even under the most favorable conditions the police cannot eliminate crime. The police do not create the social conditions conducive to crime nor can they resolve them. The police do not enact the legislation that they must enforce. They do not adjudicate the offenders they arrest, and they are only one of the agencies of criminal justice.

Most certainly the police role still involves their being ”crime fighters,” but in a much broader context. In addition to the suppression of crime and enforcement of the law, the police are becoming increasingly involved with crime prevention and public service. Theirs is an expanding role and now includes such activities as family crisis intervention, juvenile diversion, social agency referral services, youth programs, rape victim assistance, and other public service functions. Since Miranda v. Arizona, which required police officers to inform suspects of their constitutional rights before questioning, the police have come to recognize their role in safeguarding the constitutional rights of individuals.

It is even being suggested by some criminologists and a few police administrators that police organizations should become known as ”departments of police services” rather than police departments or, worse yet, police forces. They suggest that law enforcement is a ”police service” rather than a ”police force.” By definition, the word force denotes coercion, power, compulsion, brawn, might, and generally refers to troops of an army. Service on the other hand denotes help, duty, and aid, which is a more appropriate description of the police function. In support of this view, some police organizations have recognized law enforcement as a community responsibility, with the police assuming a leadership profile rather than an autocratic role.

Police Power/Authority

The concept of ”police service” must not, however, infer erosion of the authority of the police officer in terms of the legal definition of his or her responsibility for enforcement. Unfortunately people have demonstrated their inability to live in harmony with their neighbors, thus the need for exercising police authority and the legal power of arrest. In conjunction with the ”power to arrest,” the police do have the authority to use force in securing compliance with the law and this authority is in fact basic to their role in maintaining public order. This awesome but essential authority carries with it the responsibility of using only that force absolutely necessary in any given situation in order to achieve a legal objective. The possible consequences of the use of force demand that it be exercised with the greatest degree of discretion. The police officer should always try for voluntary surrender in any arrest situation, but need not retreat or desist from his or her efforts by reason of the resistance or threatened resistance of the person being arrested.

To really understand the role of the police in achieving their objectives, it is necessary to review operational line functions. Line functions are police activities directly related to the achievement of objectives. They are, typically, patrol and criminal investigation.


Patrol refers to moving on foot or by vehicle around and within an assigned area for the purpose of providing police services. Police officers are usually in uniform, and when a vehicle is used, it is usually conspicuously marked. The purpose of patrol is to distribute police officers in a manner that will eliminate or reduce the opportunity for citizen misconduct, increase the probability of apprehension if a criminal commits a crime, and provide a quick response when a citizen requests police assistance. The patrol unit is the backbone of police operations and operates twenty-four hours each day.

The patrol function is so basic to fulfilling the police responsibility that its goals are essentially synonymous with the total police objective. As such, the patrol officer is the most important position of the police organization. The patrol officer is responsible for all activities within his or her geographical assignment and will respond to all situations related to police service. He or she will institute constant surveillance techniques, arrest violators when he or she observes the commission of a crime, respond to radio-dispatched calls as requested by citizens, control vehicular and pedestrian traffic, direct traffic, enforce traffic regulations, investigate traffic accidents, conduct preliminary investigations following the commission of a crime, investigate public accidents involving personal injury, mediate family disputes, search for lost children, refer people to social agencies able to offer specialized assistance outside the realm of police services, give directions to motorists, and provide a wide variety of other public services.

Criminal Investigation

The investigation of crime becomes necessary when patrol has failed as a deterrent or has been unable to apprehend the criminal immediately after the commission of a crime. The initial purpose of investigation is to identify, locate, and arrest the perpetrator of the crime. The secondary but equally important purpose is to prepare the case for court and assist in the prosecution of the offender.

The police officer who investigates such crimes is usually referred to as a detective. Generally the detective goes to work after the fact and must rely on such things as physical evidence, witnesses, and information obtained from various sources. As a general rule, the detective works in civilian clothing so that he or she is inconspicuous when moving about the community in pursuance of the investigative task.

Unlike patrol officers, detectives are not usually involved in crime prevention but with the repression of crime through the subsequent arrest of offenders. Briefly stated, the detective becomes involved in such activities as searching the crime scenes, securing physical evidence, interviewing witnesses, interrogating suspects, obtaining warrants of arrest, taking suspects into custody, preparing written reports for prosecution, and testifying in court.

Crime Prevention

As stated previously, in recent years the police have become more involved with crime prevention. Crime prevention is primarily an additional responsibility of uniformed patrol officers and personnel assigned to a specialized crime prevention organizational unit.

The primary means by which patrol prevents crime is through being conspicuous and available. The obvious presence of the police discourages the criminal from committing a crime for fear of being caught. This indicates the importance of the conspicuously marked vehicle. Not only does this show their presence, but it also gives the impression of police saturation. Patrol officers also prevent crime by becoming familiar with juveniles within their patrol area or beat. A healthy relationship built on mutual respect between the patrol officers and juveniles will do more toward the prevention of delinquency than any other police activity. The patrol officer is the person the juveniles see and identify as the authority symbol. Respect for the officer promotes respect for the law, and such respect will discourage unlawful conduct.

A very important, but often overlooked, role of patrol in crime prevention is the securing of information that can be passed to other units of the police department. With such information the specialized units can work on a potential problem prior to its actually becoming a problem. The patrol officer is on the street and is in the best possible position to obtain information on such things as the formation of a juvenile gang, the underlying frustrations of the community, and the use of narcotics.

A specialized unit for crime prevention may become involved with such things as coordination of neighborhood watch programs, diversion programs for juveniles, public education, improving community relations, involvement with community organizations, youth programs, and working with other public agencies.

Support Services

Other police officers work within organizational units that exist to assist the line activities of the police organization. These men and women may be assigned to the crime laboratory, communications center, records, equipment maintenance, research and planning, inspections, jail, identification center, property management, personnel recruitment and selection, and training.

Police Role in the Protection of Individual Freedom

In effect, people of the community realize their civil rights through the interpretive actions of the police. In other words, police procedures and policies are in a sense telling the public what they can or cannot do. There are, of course, many controls from the federal level relative to civil rights, but implementation is the major responsibility of the local police departments, and they must be totally cognizant of the ramifications and importance of these rights.

In addition to interpretive actions defining civil rights, the police have the role of instructing citizens with regard to their duties, obligations, rights, and privileges in terms of the law. They should, for example, publish pamphlets that describe the citizens’ rights under the Constitution of the United States, the state, and the municipality within which they live. The police might also stress the public’s responsibility in relation to those protective privileges that they have under the law.

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