Police officers typically have a large amount of discretion when deciding what situations to become involved in and how to handle them. While a few situations demand specific and well-defined responses (for example, mandatory arrests in domestic violence cases), the vast majority allow for a variety of possible responses that are neither correct nor incorrect. As with any job that allows discretion, police departments and police officers develop ”working personalities” or ”styles” that guide their general decision making.

Police personalities and policing styles are informal approaches to police work and represent ways that police officers ”do their jobs.” They tend to be unique for each police department and police officer and can change from situation to situation. Departmental policing styles are influenced by the mission and goals of the department, the needs of the town or jurisdiction, and residents’ views of the role of the police in their community. In addition, individual policing styles are influenced by an officer’s personal belief system, moral character, and outlook on police work.

A department’s policing style greatly influences individual policing styles through hiring decisions (hiring those officers whose personal belief system mirrors that of the department), recruit training (selecting trainers who best represent the mission and philosophy of the department), and rewards and disciplinary action (promoting officers whose performance is most in line with the departmental style while punishing officers whose behavior deviates from it).

Departmental Policing Styles

Police departments have their own styles that reflect the organizational culture of the department. The departmental style influences every aspect of police work in that jurisdiction, ranging from hiring and promotional decisions, everyday police-community interactions, and budget decisions and resource allocation to police strategies and identification of crime problems within the jurisdiction.

The most widely cited study on police departmental styles was conducted by James Q. Wilson (1968). He found three distinct departmental styles: watchman, legalistic, and service. The watchman style is based mostly on order maintenance. With this style, police officers judge the seriousness of violations by examining the immediate and personal consequences of the offense rather than the legal status of the offense. A watchman style department focuses its law enforcement activities on keeping the peace in the community. A police officer in a watchman department typically has the most discretion.

In contrast, legalistic style departments have one standard: strict enforcement of the law. This type of department produces large numbers of arrests and traffic citations. Most calls for service are resolved in a formal manner in which an arrest or a formal complaint is made. The third type, the service style department, prioritizes all requests for assistance without differentiating between order maintenance or law enforcement functions. Police officers in these departments are not likely to make an arrest unless the situation renders it absolutely necessary.

For example, in handling a situation where a group of youths is out past the town’s curfew, police officers in a watchman style department may not intervene at all, speak with the group without taking any further action, or simply tell them to go home, whereas police officers in a legalistic department would more likely write them a citation or arrest them. If the community or department deems the juvenile curfew as important, police officers operating in a service style would not be as likely to make an arrest as officers from a legalistic department but would intervene in some way, perhaps by taking the youths home or calling their parents to pick them up.

State police and state highway patrol agencies more closely follow a paramilitary structure than other police departments and are most likely to have a legalistic style. These departments view themselves as law enforcers and require every officer to handle every situation in a similar manner. Suburban police departments usually follow service-oriented styles, since their role is defined by the community in which they serve. Suburban communities want the police to maintain public order and intervene whenever possible but tend to prefer informal outcomes to arrests. By their nature, rural and small-town police departments afford their officers the most discretion and are most likely to fit the watchman style. In these departments, police officers are asked to perform an array of nontra-ditional police functions and often have little outside assistance to complete them (Weisheit, Falcone, and Wells 1999).

Individual Styles of Policing

While departmental policing styles do influence individual performance and behavior, police officers have their own unique policing styles. These individual styles are based on predispositions that provide police officers with an array of responses to various situations. They reflect the officers’ attitudes, personal beliefs, morals and values, professional aspirations, and views of police work.

William Muir (1977) believed that officers developed distinctive styles and that their selection of an operational style was premised on whether officers possessed two specific attitudes. The first attitude, which Muir termed passion, pertained to whether officers recognized the need to use coercion and were willing to employ it to attain job-related goals and objectives. The second attitude, perspective, involved the willingness of officers to empathize with the circumstances of citizens with whom officers interacted. Muir developed a typology based on these attitudes. The typology consists of four policing styles: professionals (officers possessing both passion and perspective), enforcers (officers possessing passion but not perspective), reciprocators (officers possessing perspective but lacking passion), and avoiders (officers who had neither passion nor perspective).

Some officers will be able to justify their use of force and will not feel guilt or remorse for their actions (an integrated morality of coercion), while other officers may hesitate to use force and will be unable to justify its use even when necessary (conflicted morality of coercion). Muir’s professional policing style has both the tragic perspective and the integrated morality of coercion. Police officers with a professional style will carefully evaluate each situation before taking actions and will use force only when necessary, using only the amount of force appropriate to the situation. These police officers view their roles as being both difficult and complex. The professional understands and accepts the limits of the police. Professionals tend to have high levels of job satisfaction.

In contrast, enforcers have a more cynical perspective that results in ”us versus them” and ”good guy versus bad guy” attitudes. Enforcers see police work as strictly enforcing the law and can become too task oriented to understand or care about offenders’ motivations or mitigating circumstances. These police officers have a higher likelihood of becoming frustrated with the limited amount of time they can be crime fighters.

The reciprocator is similar to the professional in that these officers have a more tragic perspective. They are oriented to helping people in ways that will have a lasting effect. Unlike the professional, reciprocators have a conflicted morality of coercion. They are uncomfortable with using force as part of their law enforcement responsibilities. Reciprocators tend to believe that every citizen has a good side and should be given second chances. These police officers are more likely to suffer from job dissatisfaction and burnout due to their frustration and disappointment.

The avoider style is the exact opposite of the professional style. Avoiders have a cynical perspective and a conflicted morality of coercion. Assuming that most social and crime-related problems are beyond their control, avoiders approach law enforcement as if they only want employment and minimally perform their duties. Since avoiders have little motivation to be police officers, they have a high level of job dissatisfaction.

John Broderick’s ”working personalities” (1977) consisted of four individual policing styles (realists, optimists, enforcers, and idealists) that were based on two dimensions (emphasis on due process of law and emphasis on the need for social order). The emphasis on due process of law calls for the protection of one’s constitutional rights through strict enforcement of the law, while the emphasis on the need for social order reflects order maintenance duties. Broderick believed that while some officers viewed law enforcement as their most important function, other officers viewed themselves as public servants.

Like Muir’s enforcers, Broderick’s enforcers view policing as the means to protect society and place low value on individual rights. Enforcers see their role as strictly performing police work and tend to become frustrated when required to perform non-crime fighting activities. Idealists place a high value on both due process and the need for social order. Like Muir’s reciprocators, idealists believe that every person has a good side, and they try to bring it out while enforcing the law. It is common for idealists to become frustrated and dissatisfied.

Broderick’s optimist mirrors Muir’s professional. Optimists are oriented toward helping people but realize the limits of trying to enforce the law and can avoid becoming frustrated when their goals are not met. Their emphasis on due process is high, while their emphasis on the need for social order is low. These police officers acknowledge that they will not be spending most of their time fighting crime. The fourth type of Broderick’s styles is the realist. These police officers are low in both dimensions and, like Muir’s avoiders, see many problems with no solutions. A typical response to any problem is that it is not police business and there is little the police can do to resolve the matter.

Michael Brown (1981) also created a theory of four individual policing styles using two different underlying dimensions: ”selectivity of enforcement” and ”aggressiveness on the street.” His four styles were old style crime fighter, clean beat crime fighter, service style I and II, and professional style. The old style crime fighter and the clean beat crime fighter are similar to Muir’s enforcers. They are very aggressive when enforcing the law but are also very selective. The old style crime fighter will solve problems using all available means, legal or illegal, while the clean beat crime fighter will only use legal means. These police officers are very selective, choosing to enforce all serious crime while not wasting time looking for minor violations. Like Muir’s enforcers, they become frustrated when forced to perform duties other than enforcing the law.

The service style I is related to Muir’s reciprocator. This type of officer is sensitive to community values and needs while not being overly concerned with the suppression of crime. These police officers are not aggressive and tend to be selective in enforcing those laws that are deemed important by community standards. The service style II type is very selective in enforcement and not very aggressive. As in the case of Muir’s avoiders, this type of police officer does not want to be involved and may even have chosen police work simply as an alternative to unemployment. The professional style is nonselective as well as nonaggressive. Enforcing the law is very important but should not be the sole aim of police work. The professional style is directly in line with Muir’s professional and Broderick’s idealist police officers. This type of police officer uses the greatest amount of discretion in choosing what will be enforced and how it will be enforced.

Table 1 compares the underlying dimensions of the three types of individual policing styles. Muir’s passion, Broderick’s due process of law, and Brown’s selection of enforcement center on police officers’ decisions to strictly enforce the law. In contrast, the other dimensions are based on the amount of compassion police officers undertake when carrying out their duties. The differences are that Brown concentrated on use of force, Muir on the lack of use of force, and Broderick on officers’ emphasis on the need for social order.

One way to compare the actual individual policing styles of Muir, Broderick, and Brown is to place these types into Wilson’s departmental styles. It is likely that Muir’s and Broderick’s enforcers and Brown’s old style crime fighters would be found in legalistic police departments (with their heavy emphasis on a paramilitary structure). Professionals and optimists as well as reciprocators, idealists, and service style I police officers would more commonly be found in departments that emphasize the service aspects of police work. Finally, avoiders, realists, and service style II police officers would best fit into Wilson’s watchman style department.

Table 1 Dimensions of Individual Policing Styles

Decision to Enforce the Law

Level of Compassion

Muir (1977)



Broderick (1977)

Due process of law

Emphasis on need for social order

Brown (1981)

Selection of enforcement

Aggressiveness on the street

Table 2. Types of Individual Policing Styles

Wilson’s Department Styles

Individual Policing Styles

Muir (1977)

Broderick (1977)

Brown (1981)




Old style crime









Service style I




Service style II

Influences of Policing Styles

It is popular to stereotype police officers and compartmentalize their behavior, and it is commonly done so that future behaviors can be predicted based on prior typologies. However, police work entails a variety of activities that may call for behaviors that cannot be placed in a single category (Cox and Frank 1992). While research has supported the notion that police officers have general styles that influence their behavior, consensus on styles dissipates when other issues are examined. These factors can be personal (age, race/ethnicity, gender, education, experience), situational (reactive call for service or proactive police-initiated contacts, demeanor of involved parties, seriousness of the offense, mental state of the citizens involved), environmental (socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, amount of crime, presence of social disorganization, racial or ethnic composition, and racial or ethnic homogeneity), and organizational (departmental style, work shift, and supervisory support for certain police actions) (Roberg, Novak, Cordner 2005; Brooks 1997).

Two factors appear to have significant influences on policing styles. First, situa-tional factors have been found to influence behavior to a far greater degree than other factors. One such situational factor is the manner in which the officer enters the situation (proactive versus reactive). In the proactive situation a police officer takes the initiative to get involved. As such, the police officer will first make a decision whether police intervention is even necessary. In contrast, reactive situations typically require some type of police response to a citizen complaint. The behavioral decision focuses on how to intervene, not whether to intervene.

Second, the contextual characteristics of the neighborhood in which the behavior occurs can have a large influence on the behavior of police officers. Several researchers have found that police in high-crime areas adopted a style that presumably differed from the style utilized in other types of communities (Roberg, Novak, Cordner 2005; Brooks 1997). For instance, police officers tend to be more aggressive in high-crime neighborhoods but rely more on informal dispositions in low-crime neighborhoods.

Policing styles, whether departmental or individual, play an important role in understanding police attitudes and behaviors. Many police departments make hiring and promotional decisions based on a police personality that is closely aligned with the goals and mission of the department. In addition, assignments to specialized units are made with policing styles in mind (for example, youth bureau, detective bureau, community police officers, school resource officers, SWAT teams, and so forth).

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