In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Policing and Law Enforcement

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Organization
  • Subculture
  • Effectiveness
  • Legitimacy
  • Discretion
  • Corruption
  • Use of Force

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

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Criminology Policing and Law Enforcement
James J. Willis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0034


Because modern law enforcement agencies do many different things, it is impossible to define policing in terms of its ends. While it is true that one of the purposes of the police is to enforce the law, frequently they do not. Moreover, the police are expected to perform a wide variety of tasks, such as preventing crime, providing services, and maintaining order, which are not accurately described as law enforcement. Unlike in many other industrialized countries, the organization of American law enforcement is fragmented among different agencies at the local, state, and federal levels of government. This has several general implications: (1) there is no such thing as a “typical” police department; (2) interagency coordination is possible but not a structural feature of law enforcement organization; and (3) it is possible only to estimate the number of law enforcement agencies and personnel in the United States. According to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), in 2004 there were over seventeen thousand public law enforcement agencies in the United States. The majority (12,766) were local police departments operating at the municipal level, employing 731,903 full-time sworn law enforcement officers. Because these general-purpose law enforcement agencies are the most visible to the public and the source of the majority of police-citizen contacts, they are the focus of this online entry. Other public law enforcement agencies include sheriff’s departments organized at the local county level, state police, federal law enforcement agencies, and special law enforcement organizations with specialized jurisdictions (most importantly tribal police). This does not include the private security industry, which is another essential component of American law enforcement.

General Overviews

Most, but not all, police scholars favor Egon Bittner’s means-based definition of the police, which defines the police in terms of their capacity to use nonnegotiable coercive force in any situation that appears to require a prompt and decisive response (Bittner 1970). Bittner’s definition can be criticized for overlooking similarities between the police and other organizations (Reiss 1992) and for excluding other core functions of the police, such as processing and distributing information (Ericson and Haggerty 2002). Still, Bittner’s definition is superior to ends-based definitions, and helps capture the complexity of the police role and the breadth of the police mandate. Policing is a popular course in criminal justice programs, and there is a host of general texts available. Walker and Katz 2007 is a succinct and well-organized introduction to policing, and the material it covers is the basis for raising analytical questions about the role and function of the police. If an anthology is preferred, Brandl and Barlow 2004 is timely and includes a fairly extensive list of articles on police theory and practice. Klockars and Mastrofski 1991 is somewhat dated, but its organization of readings around core themes and the editors’ comments are excellent tools for encouraging undergraduate students to think critically about the complexities of policing. Any of these books could be an anchor text in a specialized course on policing. For graduate students and new researchers to the area, Newburn 2005 is probably the most comprehensive anthology, with forty-five articles. The final report of the National Research Council’s Committee to Review Research on Police Policy and Practices (National Research Council 2004) provides an indispensable review of the current state of empirical research on police and identifies important gaps in existing knowledge. Lastly, a useful source for assessing the size and scope of law enforcement in the United States is the Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, conducted regularly by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (see Reaves and Hickman 2007 for the most recent bulletin).

  • Bittner, Egon. 1970. The functions of the police in modern society. Chevy Chase, MD: U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, Center for Studies of Crime and Delinquency.

    Foundational text examining the role and function of the police in modern society. Provides a frank critique of popular conceptions of police work, including public ambivalence toward police power, and uses a sociological and historical framework to explain the police capacity to use coercive force.

  • Brandl, Steven G., and David E. Barlow, eds. 2004. The police in America: Classic and contemporary readings. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

    Collection of major theoretical and empirical works designed to provide upper-level undergraduate students with a strong scholarly foundation in police research, theory, and practice. One strength of this collection is its juxtaposition of classic and contemporary readings in police history, discretion, and strategies to demonstrate developments in the field and to promote an informed dialogue on police policies and their empirical bases.

  • Ericson, Richard V., and Kevin D. Haggerty. 2002. The policing of risk. In Embracing risk: The changing culture of insurance and responsibility. Edited by Tom Baker and Jonathan Simon, 238–272. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Problematizes the conventional definition of the police as a mechanism for the distribution of nonnegotiable coercive force. The authors define the role of the police in modern society as that of information broker. As such, the police produce and distribute knowledge as a part of a larger risk-communication system.

  • Klockars, Carl B., and Stephen D. Mastrofski, eds. 1991. Thinking about police: Contemporary readings. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    Challenging ensemble of articles suitable for upper-level undergraduate courses. Topics covered include images and expectations, police discretion, the police and serious crime, policing everyday life, the moral hazards of police work, and prospects for change. Still relevant, but should be supplemented with more recent scholarship.

  • National Research Council. 2004. Fairness and effectiveness in policing: The evidence. Committee to Review Research on Police Policy and Practices. Edited by Wesley Skogan and Kathleen Frydl. Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

    Authoritative review by an expert panel of research on the nature of policing in the United States. Excellent use of key themes and developments to organize a great deal of information.

  • Newburn, Tim, ed. 2005. Policing: Key readings. Cullompton, UK and Portland, OR: Willan.

    Large number of articles covering a wide range of topics. Suitable for graduate courses on policing. Readings are on: emergence and development of police; role and function of the police; police culture; policing strategies; deviance, ethics, and control; and the emerging pattern of policing. The last of these provides a useful introduction to policing in the context of postmodernity.

  • Reaves, Brian and Matthew Hickman. 2007. Census of state and local law enforcement agencies, 2004. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

    Summary statistics of a national survey of U.S. local and state police agencies conducted in 2004. Topics covered include number of police agencies and agency size.

  • Reiss, Albert J. Jr. 1992. Police organization in the twentieth century. In Crime and justice: An annual review of research. Vol. 14, Modern policing. Edited by Michael Tonry and Norval Morris, 51–97. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Sophisticated article that grounds its understanding of police work, organizations, and reform within broader theories of social organization and formal organizations.

  • Walker, Samuel, and Charles M. Katz. 2007. The police in America: An introduction. 6th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill.

    This textbook is well organized, easy to read, and excellent for identifying important issues in policing. Recommended for undergraduates enrolled in introductory policing courses.

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