Theories of policing, largely comparative in nature, seek to explain why policing systems differ widely in their organization, the powers and authority granted them, the roles and tasks they are entrusted with, the occupational cultures that characterize their work, their interactions with civic society and the state, the quality and effectiveness of their work, the extent of entanglements in the political life of their societies, and their capacity to shape the dominant ideologies of policing that, in turn, define for themselves and for society what constitutes good policing. In addition, as an underlying subtext, theories include a normative element by linking the basic purposes and historical developments of policing to hegemonic notions of social control and social order and ideologies of justice in a society. Do the police provide a service that seeks to benefit all or are the police a repressive force protecting the interests of the few at the expense of the many?

The police are crucial elements in systems of social control that protect the valued dominant distributions of material and symbolic goods in a society against challenges by crime, subversion, or riotous disorders through the threat or the exercise of coercive force and the collection and analysis of information. Since all social orders are divided by class, cultures, value systems, and gender and ethnic identities, the impacts of policing are never experienced equally by or imposed equally on all members of society. The work of policing is inherently political and conflict generating.

Developments in policing are seen as closely linked to and influenced by the same factors that drive developments in the societies in which they exist. The social ordering functions of policing are similar in any society, but the manner and ways in which these are carried out will reflect contextual societal changes, including fluctuations of criminal activity, disorder, and political instabilities. Some societies have developed patterns of policing that are extensive in their reach and activities and that reflect the original conception, at least in Western societies, that policing is the government of local communities, while other societies have over time arrived at quite restricted notions of what the police should be doing.

Answers to the question of why policing varies over time and place fall into three general theoretical perspectives. Each perspective links diverse forms of policing to specific histories, dynamics, and changes in societies but stresses particular causes and processes of change: political, cultural, and ideological modernization; the growth and decline of the nation-state; and the rise of a neoliberal domestic and international order exemplified in the emergence of risk-based calculations of security and threats and the multiple policing responses to the changing security conditions of the world that have emerged since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.


The most commonly used framework links changes in policing to changes in societal contexts. The police change because the societies in which they operate change. For example, changes in the ideologies and practices of policing throughout American history (the political, progressive/professional, and community policing models) resulted from factors such as public and intellectual disillusionment with the performance of prior models, leading to the delegitimation of policing by large segments of society and the rise of reform advocacy in policing circles; the emergence of new politically influential civic society interest groups demanding change and greater accountability; changes in crime and disorder perceived as warranting a different formal and more effective control response; shifts in legal norms and conceptions of justice as these are applied to the police; and technological innovations in information processing and communication. Police cannot remain aloof from the changing societal contexts within which they work if they wish to remain legitimate.

State Creation and Decline

Another framework links patterns of policing to the rise and decline of nation-states. As the emergent nation-state sought to entrench its power and rule, it was confronted by and had to overcome resistance to its expansion, which required an internal army (the first form of domestic policing, which continues to this day in Continental Europe in the form of constabulary and ”gendarmerie” forces) and later a coercive force that could do its work without having to resort to outright repression.

As nation-states grew stronger and notions of democratic politics began to take hold, existing forms of informal control withered, were suppressed, and subsequently were replaced by formal systems of control centered in the state. The police became defined as the agency of the state that enjoys the monopoly of legitimate force within a territory in order to impose social control. To have that monopoly legitimated, the state and the police had to engage in work that was effective (protecting people and society) and needed to represent themselves symbolically as protecting a stable consensus of values and interests in society—that is, as apolitical experts in the provision of social control services.

This pattern of creating police systems was most visibly repeated in colonies. Colonizers routinely created and imposed policing systems based on the constabulary model in order to protect their economic interests and political authority against persistent and pervasive local resistance. As a result, the police forces of most former colonies, which most nations of the world are, originated as repressive functionaries of the colonial state and continue to suffer from that history, in terms of public image, effectiveness, and lack of community support.

A critical or neo-Marxist variant derives the explanation for what the police do in and for society from underlying conceptions of the nature of social formations and the state and notions of historical progress. As social formations progress through their historical stages, the tasks of policing will reflect the (increasingly declining) hegemony of dominating classes who use their control of the police to further their own interests and historical progress.

The Rise of a New Global Order

Since the prominence and capacity of the state to provide services to its populations has declined in recent years, the responsibility for policing has drifted away from the state toward subnational private, corporate, and communitarian forms of social control and has migrated to supranational levels. The decline of the state reflects domestic developments but more clearly the increasing permeability of international borders and the increasing connectedness of societies through technological improvements in communications, transportation, and industry.

The legitimate monopoly of coercive force by the state has given way to a field of action on which a multitude of policing actors pursue the goals of safety and security through resources and strategies that the state can no longer supply. At best, the state and formal policing maintain a market share of the provision of social control, with informal, non-state-based control mechanisms serving as fluctuating and contingent partners in the overall system of control.

The emergence of transnational security threats—mainly transnational terrorism— may have slowed the decline of the state and the state control of policing, since non-state security providers lack the necessary resources to effectively confront this old and new threat. The disappearance of the state and the shrinking domain of state policing may have been overstated.

There are three strands of thinking on how globalization has changed policing: the notion of a risk society, the com-modification of security, and the concept of a security sector and security sector reform.

The Rise of the “Risk Society”

The perceived ineffectiveness and inefficiencies of social control tactics used by the police have led to a rethinking of the nature of threats within societies in which social bonds and communal cohesion have broken down under the onslaught of economic, cultural, and technological factors. Threats have become conceptualized as risk factors associated with categories of people who threaten the security of a society and, ultimately, the global system. The goal of policing, hence, is to accumulate the information necessary to detect and control those categories of people who are seen as posing the greatest risks—that is, those deemed the marginal, dangerous, criminal, and deviant classes.

Risk-based security thinking leads to efforts at surveillance, detection, and prevention that will neutralize categories of threats even if no specific acts have been committed. The police, responding to demands to make society and the state be and feel safer, shift their working priorities toward policies that focus on the security of the state and on the collection, analysis, and organizational control of information. The police have become information specialists, a trend that is strengthened by the increasingly technologized form in which information flows within and between societies.

The Commodification of Security

Interpreting societal changes through a broader lens, some scholars have argued that postmodern society, characterized by a neocapitalist, neoliberal domestic and global system in which states, multinational corporations, nonstate political actors, private security agencies, and civic society groups share the policing field and compete for the authority to define the ideologies, control the resources, and legitimize the strategies that will best protect their interests and normative goals, necessarily alters the status, legitimacy, and power of the formal police.

The provision of security is offered by numerous actors and is sold and bought, as are other commodities, in the global and domestic markets on the basis of man-agerialist notions of effectiveness, efficiency, profits, and costs regarding how to best provide the needed security services. The monopoly of security is decentered from the state system, a development supported by ideological justifications for the market as an efficient allocator of valued resources within society.

The ongoing expansion of nonstate security providers is furthered by the dominance of the globalized production and market system by multinational corporations. Corporations have personnel and properties and conduct activities in numerous sovereign territories; their security needs are not met by the distribution of formal, sovereign state-based policing, and the cooperation of state police across national borders is not developed enough or sufficient to offer protection against domestic and transnational threats. Cor-porations—and one can add nongovernmental organizations and even tourists— turn to nonstate security providers or develop their own security methods.

The outcome is a system of policing in which nonstate security services and providers have gained an increasingly larger share, with state policing left to the roles of protecting those segments of their populations that cannot afford to buy their own security in the market and repressing risk-defined categories of threats, events, and people. It is the legitimacy of not only the police that is undermined but that of the state itself as nonstate actors devise new models for the provision and governance of security that fit their needs, values, and resources.

Security Sector Reforms

A theoretical approach that seeks to tie many of the themes that have achieved salience in thinking about the police— why they do what they do and how progress can be institutionalized—is security sector reform (SSR). SSR arose within the international economic, political, and security advocacy and reform community and points to the fundamental political nature and importance of the policing systems, which include all state security providers as well as domestic and international nonstate security providers.

Security, provided effectively and with a view toward promoting human rights and democratic norms, is seen as an essential precondition for achieving and sustaining democracy, free markets, and progress— values one assumes are desired by all who live within the dominant neoliberal global order (with some reluctant but ultimately futile holdouts). SSR takes a holistic view of how security is achieved and the consequences of the methods whereby it is achieved. The activities and status of formal state police, and their organizational and policy linkages to other security agencies and civic society, can only be understood and theorized as part of ongoing responses by societies and states to changing global security threats and conditions that create domestic insecurities.

A Critical and Unresolved Issue

Theories of the police and policing continually reconceptualize and retheorize changing patterns of policing as the real world and work of policing and social ordering flow into different organizational channels. One issue on which theories differ dramatically is the role of the police themselves in processes of change—that is, whether the police are objects of historical changes or agents of change in their own right.

Following an old maxim that people create their destinies, albeit within the constraints imposed upon them by history, one needs to see the police as being both subjects and objects of history. They participate in their own creation but only within the limits constrained by societal and global contexts. Their capacity and desire to be agents of change within the social networks of other actors equally desirous to promote or delay societal changes means that theories of policing systems will remain as complex and fluid as they are. Policing actors shape their histories, and theories will follow once patterns of change and new forms of social ordering have become noticed and categorized.

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