The Organization of Policing

Written by Dr. Gary Potter

In many, if not most countries, the police are organized on a national basis. But in the United States policing is fragmented into federal, state and local levels of organization. The rationale for this fragmentation can be found in two beliefs. First, in the early days of the Republic citizens were afraid of a federally controlled police force. Second, there is a uniquely American belief that local problems are best handled at a local level, whether those problems involve education, policing, waste management, or the like. However, this fragmentation causes three unique problems which interfere with mission of law enforcement. First, there are no uniform standards for recruitment, management or policies across police departments. Second, there is a wasteful duplication of efforts across jurisdictions. And finally, communication and information sharing between and among agencies is cumbersome and not very effectively conducted.

Local Law Enforcement

90% of all police departments in the United States are local police and sheriff’s departments. In large cities of 250,000 people or more, police department are extremely complex organizations, highly structured and subdivided into numerous divisions. Only five cities have police departments composed of 5,000 or more sworn officers. About three out of every four police departments are 25 officers or less and about 60% of all local police agencies are made up of less than 10 full-time officers.

In addition over 40,000 officers who are employed by special police forces work in transportation systems, airports, public housing, colleges, etc.

State Law Enforcement

There are 66 state-level law enforcement agencies in the United States designated as state police, highway patrol, or state investigative departments. Most state police organizations were created between 1900 and 1930 and were primarily deigned to suppress the organization of labor unions. Hawaii is the only state that does not have a state-wide police organization. Most of these statewide agencies have both traffic and criminal investigation responsibilities.

Federal Law Enforcement Organizations

At the Federal level there about 100,000 full-time law enforcement personnel. 60 percent full time law enforcement personnel at the federal level work for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the U.S. Customs Service.

In 1908 Teddy Roosevelt created the Bureau of Investigation which became the FBI in 1935. In the 1930s and 1940s the FBI became famous for its capture of nationally recognized bank robbers, an image the agency worked with Hollywood to enhance. During World War II the FBI became more concerned with intelligence gathering and counter-intelligence activities. Those intelligence gathering functions became controversial when the FBI began to gather information on politicians, those political dissenters perceived to be anti-American and civil rights leaders. These political abuses tarnished the FBI’s reputation as a preeminent crime fighting organization.

Large city police departments are highly bureaucratized. The bureaucratic model, while common, actually inhibits the effective operation of police organizations in a number of ways. First, it retards both personal growth and development among police personnel. Second, it fosters a kind of group-think mentality that restricts innovation and creativity. Third, it fails to recognize the potential and power of forms of informal organization. Fourth, it fails to provide a functional system of due process. And finally it both restricts and discourages effective communication.

Another problem in the organization of policing is that the police are becoming more and more militarized. 90% of those departments in jurisdictions with populations exceeding 50,000 people have established paramilitary police units.

Military Model of Policing

The military model is attractive to police planners for a number of reasons. First, they believe it allows for a more effective control of the use of force through a militarized system of discipline. This is seen as important because police officers must be prepared to use force in a disciplined manner at almost any time. Second, they believe that the military model provides professionalization and that it reduces the impact of corruption, political favoritism and political influence. Finally, they think it is an effective model of organization.

There are many problems with the military model of policing. First there is a major difference in who exercises discretion in the military and the police. In the military discretion is most commonly exercised at the top of the bureaucratic hierarchy. Individual soldiers, in the field, make very few discretionary decisions. But, in police agencies the greatest discretion resides with individual police officers.

Paramilitary police unit officers are almost always heavily armed, dressed in battle fatigues and trained by active duty military personnel. They have been criticized because of the danger that military style operations pose to the public. They have also been criticized because paramilitary units tend to attract officers less interested in service and more interested in sophisticated weapons and the excitement of combat.

Community Policing

On the other hand, some police departments have become increasingly interested in less formal modes of organization such as community policing and foot patrols. In community policing strategies involving the use of foot patrols police officers, it is believed, can form closer relationships with citizens and can become more sensitive to cultural issues in the community. This greater understanding should lead to more police-citizen cooperation. The problem is that community policing is more closely related to community social status than it is with crime or service to the community. Community policing is generally more successful in affluent or more socially organized communities that can organize activities such as a Neighborhood Watch. Community policing can be said to work best in the communities that need it least.

Diversity in Law Enforcement

The composition of police forces is also a key element in understanding police organization. The inclusion of women and minorities in police work is much more than a matter of politics. Diverse criminal justice personnel provide a broader array of tools to control crime and develop meaningful communities.

African-American officers were in uniform as early as 1861, but they were not allowed to arrest white people. Discrimination against black officers was prevalent in all parts of the United States (segregated patrol cars, not allowed to arrest whites, etc.). Today, the number of African-America officers is increasing but not the number of black supervisors. There are two reasons blacks are not attracted to policing. First there are institutional barriers. Formal and informal barriers, such as limited recruitment and complicated job applications, work against blacks selecting policing as a profession. And second there is a matter of personal preference. In minority communities police are often perceived as an occupying army and there is reluctance to join the enemy. African-American officers are exposed to “double marginality.” They are considered outsiders by white police officers because they are black and considered outsiders by the black community because they are police officers.

Hispanic officers have made inroads in policing. However, they have experienced individual and institutional discrimination. Information on Asian American officers is sparse. However, the numbers have increased in the past 10 to 15 years. Policing is considered a low position in the Asian community and police work has a negative connotation in those communities.

Women Police Officers

Women in policing have faced a long history of discrimination which has both restricted their duties and held down their numbers. The first woman police officer was Lola Baldwin who was hired in Portland, Oregon in 1905. When Alice Wells was hired by the LAPD in 1910 the hiring of woman began to become more common. But, those women were hired to perform specialized functions, such as patrolling areas where juveniles hung out. The emerging philosophy of “crime prevention” made recruiting women more acceptable. Women were perceived as more nurturing and it was thought that would serve as an aide in crime prevention. But, nonetheless female officers faced several barriers: higher entrance standards, admission quotas, and a separate promotion track. Women were perceived as being physically and emotionally unsuitable for policing. The Great Depression made the retention of "women's bureaus" too expensive. As a result female officers were assigned to juveniles, prisoners, or secretarial duties. The Equal Rights Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 outlawed discrimination by government agencies and by 2000, 13% of all sworn officers were women. Court cases have addressed sex discrimination by police departments (e.g.: Brace v O’Neill).

Female officers have encountered sexual harassment for the past 150 years and still do with a far too great a frequency. Forms of harassment are:

  • Sexual—fondling and rubbing by other officers;
  • Organizational—silent treatment, punitive supervision and paternalistic overprotection; and,
  • Environmental—language such as being called "ladies" or "girls" at one extreme or "bitch" and "lesbian" at the other.

Sexual Orientation

It is difficult to estimate the number of gay and lesbian police officers because many gay and lesbian officers hide their sexual orientation. Anecdotal evidence indicates that gay officers face more prejudice than lesbian officers. They pose a threat to the macho mystique of policing. Gay and lesbian officers perceive themselves as supporting a more humane approach to policing and see themselves as particularly qualified to work with marginal communities.

Published on May 28, 2013