What is the Place of Police within the Criminal Justice System?

Written by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.

In the United States, crime control and the administration of justice are handled by the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system is composed of three primary and discernible components: police, courts, and corrections. These components are sometimes referred to as subsystems . From this perspective, the components of the criminal justice system are seen as interrelated, interdependent, and striving to achieve a unified goal. This view of criminal justice often focuses on how cases flow through the system, causing ripple effects as cases move from one component to the next. The actions of police officers on the streets, for example, affect the workload of courts, and the decisions of judges in courtrooms affect the operation of jails and prisons.

Police hold a special place in the criminal justice system. Not only do the activities of law enforcement officers affect the operations of the entire criminal justice system, but police are said to be the “gate keepers” of the system: “They are usually the first to make contact with accused offenders and are in a position to make some very important decisions about what will happen to those individuals. Perhaps the most frequent decision that a police officer makes is . . . to initiate an alleged offender's journey through the maze of American criminal justice” ( Alpert and Dunham, 1997:11 ).

Although most citizens are never arrested or even experience a face-to-face encounter with the police in any given year, police are the most likely component of the criminal justice system to have an influence on their day-to-day lives. More often than not this influence is largely symbolic. People usually see the police while they are carrying out their day-to-day activities or when they are exposed to media depictions of the police. Police far outnumber members of other occupational groups in criminal justice.

There are about 1.8 million public employees in the justice system; more than 1.1 million serve in a law enforcement capacity. The police are not only the most numerous but also the most visible component of the criminal justice system. The vast majority of commissioned personnel in police agencies are uniformed, making them readily identifiable to the public. In addition, the majority of commissioned personnel in police agencies are assigned to patrol duties, and most work out of marked patrol vehicles and visibility has been a major element in police crime control strategies and practices.

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
School of Justice Studies


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Published on October 15, 2012