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

  • Introduction
  • The History and Development of Policing
  • The Social Function of Police
  • The Occupational Role of Police
  • Police Culture
  • Police Discretion and Decision-Making
  • Use of Force
  • Use of Lethal Force
  • Police Misconduct and Its Control
  • Police Effectiveness
  • Police Legitimacy, Procedural Justice, and Legal Cynicism
  • Contemporary Issues in Policing

Sociology Policing
Michael Sierra-Arévalo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0213


Policing refers to the profession and practice of maintaining social order and enforcing the law through the street-level prevention, detection, and investigation of crime. As society’s most visible and contacted legal agents, police officers are empowered by a governmental body with authority to enforce laws and distribute coercive force to achieve their goals. Today, research on policing covers the practices and effects of police in countries across the globe, though academic research predominantly focuses on policing in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other Western nations. Though this entry focuses on policing research in the United States, insights from this literature can be and are frequently applied to the study of police in other contexts. Following an overview of resources that cover the historical development of modern policing, this entry moves to discuss foundational research that investigates the social function of the police (what role do police serve in society?) and is followed by a section on their occupational role (what do police do in the course of their work?). Closely linked to this research on the function and environment of the police, the next section covers research that describes the norms, values, and attitudes that make up police culture. The following section covers research on police decision-making in the context of stops, searches, and arrest, with special attention to the factors that influence those behaviors. Given the centrality of force to the police role, two sections attend to the highly consequential decision to use of force; the first of these looks at force writ large, while the second focuses specifically on the use of lethal force. Following these section on police force, the section on police misconduct and its control provides readings that describe various facets of police misconduct and strategies for reducing its prevalence. Turning from research that seeks to explain police behavior, the following section discusses research on the effectiveness of police activities in reducing crime, disorder, and the fear of crime, followed by a section dedicated to procedural justice and its effects on police legitimacy and legal cynicism. The final sections of this overview provides a primer for research on contemporary issues in policing, including police and immigration, police militarization, and Big Data technology in policing.

The History and Development of Policing

These references provide a variety of perspectives on the history of policing, varying in the scope and focus of their analysis. Uchida 2011 is a broad historical overview that extends from before the 1st century through the 1990s, covering both the path to modern police and changes since. Though the author does not extend his historical analysis as far back as Uchida, Silver 1967 contextualizes changes in US policing with an account of changes in English police and English society more broadly, and Monkkonen 1992 attends to the role of urbanization and economic change in the development of police forces in the United States. Kelling and Moore 1988 provides a concise and highly accessible summary of major changes in the structure and strategies of police organizations in the United States throughout the 20th century. Walker 1977 provides a thorough discussion of the police professionalization movement between the late 19th and mid-20th century, and Walker and Archbold 2013 extends this analysis in its description of changes in the regulation and supervision of police since the mid-20th century. Willis 2014 provides a wonderful distillation of changes to policing strategy and accountability from the 1960s to today, paying particular attention to changes aimed at enhancing police legitimacy and addressing challenges posed by terrorism in the wake of September 11, 2001. For a more complete reading list, see the Oxford Bibliographies article “History of Policing.”

  • Kelling, G. L., & Moore, M. H. (1988). The evolving strategy of policing. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice.

    The authors provide a historical perspective on the development of US policing through what they term the political, reform, and community problem solving eras that span the time period between the late-19th century and the 1980s. For each era they detail the state of police legitimacy and authorization, the police function, organizational design, external relationships with the public, management practices, prevailing programs and technologies, and measured outcomes used by police.

  • Monkkonen, E. H. 1992. History of urban police. Crime and Justice 15:547–580.

    DOI: 10.1086/449201

    This piece begins with a summary of Monkkonen’s book-length study of the development of police between 1860 and 1920 and their role in the provision of “urban services” and then covers the historical development of police as employers, police and organized labor, police reform, and federal–local policy issues.

  • Silver, A. 1967. The demand for order in a civil society. In The police: Six sociological essays. Edited by D. J. Bordua, 1–24. New York: Wiley.

    Silver discusses the advent of the modern, uniformed police department as a new answer to public unrest and the changing economic and social relations of the 19th and 20th centuries. As opposed to the military, modern police are a diffuse, daily, and specialized instantiation of political authority that contribute to social cohesion.

  • Uchida, C. D. 2011. The development of the American police: An historical overview. In Critical issues in policing: Contemporary readings. Edited by R. G. Dunham and G. P. Alpert, 14–30. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.

    This sweeping historical summary provides a broad overview of the historical roots and subsequent development of US policing from 900 BCE to the end of the 20th century. Its breadth prevents it from diving too deeply on any particular historical period, but its careful citation of major works throughout this expansive period provides a good resource for guiding further reading.

  • Walker, S. 1977. A critical history of police reform: The emergence of professionalism. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

    This text focuses specifically on the intertwined histories of police reform and professionalization. Walker’s account begins with a description of the role and function of police in the 19th century, moves to the rise of professionalization in the early 20th century and the new role of police in social welfare, and finishes with discussion of policing of reform movement, race riots, and the “war on crime” between 1919 and 1940.

  • Walker, S. E., and C. A. Archbold. 2013. The new world of police accountability. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    In Chapter 2, Walker and Archibold give an overview of what Walker 1977 covers in great detail, then move on to describe new changes in regulation and police accountability, including critical incident policies (e.g., lethal force incidents, pursuits), citizen complaints and complaint investigation, early intervention systems, external and internal departmental reviews, and new surveillance technologies.

  • Willis, J. J. 2014. A recent history of the police. In The Oxford handbook of police and policing. Edited by M. D. Reisig and R. J. Kane, 3–14. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Willis summarizes major changes to the policing profession and the social context in which policing happens over the past thirty years. The chapter discusses major strategic innovations (e.g., broken windows policing, hot-spots policing, community policing), efforts to enhance police accountability and legitimacy, and how US policing has changed in response to the terror attacks of September 11.

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