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Function of the contemporary Police Force

Info: 4019 words (16 pages) Law Essay
Published: 6th Aug 2019

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Jurisdiction(s): UK Law

Critically Examine The Role And Function Of Policing With Direct Reference To Research Findings On What Police Actually Do And What The Public Would Like Them To Do.

The following essay proposes to look into the issue of the role and function of the contemporary police force, charting the actual business of early twenty first century policing and comparing this to the public’s perception of what the primary law enforcement agency of the state ought to be doing to maintain law and order at the present time. This, quite clearly, represents an especially complex undertaking, one that requires us to look in the first instance into the vast, unprecedented changes that have occurred to the concept of policing in the past twenty years. Thus, we should note from the outset the way in which analysing the role and function of the police invites us to look into the policy making landscape of the contemporary UK government in order to better understand the ideological imperatives behind the vast re-conceptualisation of the police force at the dawn of the twenty first century. In the final analysis, we cannot hope to understand the role and function of the police without first understanding the police force’s intrinsic relationship to the state and the fundamental changes that have occurred to this relationship over the course of the past two decades. As a result we have to acknowledge the political undercurrents coursing through the following essay. In addition we also have to take due note of the chasm between the impact of these changes upon the modern police force and the public’s interpretation of what the police actually do, which, in many ways, does not reflect the socio-political realties of the concept of the ‘new policing.’ As McLaughlin (2006) suggest that much of the focus with regards to the police force remains fixed upon “urban patrol work” with the concept of the front line police officer maintaining societal law and order remaining a dominant, traditional view with regards to the role and function of the contemporary police force. (McLaughlin, 2006).

For the purpose of perspective, we shall adopt a discernibly analytical approach to the problem of examining the role and function of the contemporary police force in the UK, charting the evolution of reform and change from a chronological standpoint. As a consequence, our conceptual starting point must begin with a brief yet concise overview of the traditional role, purpose and function of the police force in order to establish important ideological frameworks in which the remainder of the discussion can effectively take place.

Rawlings (2003) acknowledges us that the birth of the modern police force in Britain coincided with the triumph of representative democracy and the growth of the centralised state. Sir Robert Peel’s early Metropolitan Police Force was, therefore, an extension of the powers and the principles of the modern state apparatus with professional, trained police officers being charged with maintaining the law and the order established at a central governmental level. Thus, where, prior to the advent of the modern police force, maintenance of law and order was seen as being the responsibility of local authorities, after the ratification of the Metropolitan Police Act in 1829, the twin concepts of the police and policing were conceptualised in fixed terms incorporating “the maintenance of order, the control of disorder, and the prevention of crime and the detection of offenders.” (Rawlings, 2003:47)

As a result, it is important to note that the official creation of the modern police force was in many ways a continuation of the old ideals pertaining to the maintenance of law and order and the detection of criminality. The major changes that occurred after 1829 concerned, firstly, the professionalization of the police force as a single, cohesive organisation and, secondly, the intrinsic ideological link that bound the police force to the rise of the nation-state. Henceforth, the police force would always be thought of in terms of the law enforcing agency of the state – an institution charged with maintaining the civilised law and order characteristic of all liberal western democracies (Emsley, 2003). We should also be careful to underscore the important class issues which dominated the early debates on the role and function of the police force from the inception of the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829 through to the mid twentieth century. As Clive Emsley observes, the police force were interpreted as “an instrument for controlling and disciplining a burgeoning and increasingly self-confident and non-deferential working class.” (Emsley, 2003:72) The class issue pervading the birth and development of the modern British police force is an important point to note and one that ought to be borne in mind throughout the remainder of the discussion. As we shall see, the idea of maintaining law and order amongst the marginalised working classes remains a key feature of the general public’s idea of the role and function of the police force in early twenty first century society.

However, as Smith (1999) notes that since its inception, the police force has primarily been seen as an intrinsic part of the state apparatus whose fundamental role and function has to been to maintain the law and order of central government at both a local and national level. Author also argues that the police force has historically been seen as the only agency of central government charged with maintaining law and order at a local and national level; and there has, also, been no overlap between the police force’s powers and the authority of other non-state agencies (such as, for instance, private sector security and insurance organisations) with a deep-seated interest in the maintenance of law and order.

Smith (1999) suggest that the enormous significance of the subtle shift that occurred with regards to the role of the state and central government during the second half of the twentieth century and the impact that this had for the function of a wide variety of public sector agencies. Where, prior to the Thatcher reforms to central government initiated during the 1980s, there were clear and identifiable dividing lines between what constitutes public sector agencies and what constituted private sector organisations, after the reform to the core executive and the massive programme of privatisation initiated by the Thatcher regime, there has been an increasing blurring of the boundaries between the public and private sectors (Smith, 1999). As a result, where public sector work was once interpreted as being the sole responsibility of the state, in the modern era there has been a subtle yet powerful shift in the very concept of responsibility; consequently, private citizenry has been increasingly charged with maintaining the facade of health, education, local government and law enforcement of the modern welfare state. As far as the latter is concerned, there has been a wholesale revolution in the way in which the police force has been envisaged at a central governmental level brought about by the perceived crisis in British policing during the 1980s where, for instance, the Brixton riots, local communities openly rebelled against the police force as an institution of repression and state sponsored prejudice (Smith, 1999). As Josie Gregory and Bill Harding declare that “there is no doubt that these two aspects of policing; the general way the community approached the community particularly minority groups; and the issues raised in specific investigations which led them to being labelled miscarriages of justice; had a profound effect on the way the police as a professional organisation was viewed by critics and by the public. There is also little doubt that the events were a stimulus for a range of initiatives designed to bring about change” (Gregory and Harding 2001:103).

As a consequence, it is important to acknowledge that reform of the core executive branch of central government (which involved the privatisation of public assets and the outsourcing of public sector work to organisations in the private and voluntary sectors), coupled with a perceived crisis of the police fuelled by a belief that that the police was institutionally racist and prejudiced, resulted in inevitable changes to both the role and the function of the police force. Thus, the police force as it appears today is wholly removed from the police force as it appeared during its inception during the Victorian era or, indeed, as it appeared until the second half of the twentieth century (Newburn, 2003). To understand more about these deep-rooted ideological changes that have occurred to the fundamental concept of policing in the contemporary era we need to pause in order to analyse the reforms to the police force over the course of the past two decades, charting their impact upon the day to day work of law enforcement and crime prevention in the process.

The greatest reform to have been initiated in recent times concerns the ideological move from interpreting the police force as law enforcers to guardians of ‘community safety’ through ‘crime reduction’. The shift towards the concept of crime reduction is a decidedly paradoxical term to adopt. As Byrne and Pease argues (2003) the idea of crime reduction constituting a new and separate function of contemporary police work represents something of an ideological red herring. Reconceptualising the police force in terms of ‘crime reduction’ and ‘crime prevention’ as per the wording of the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act does little to enhance our understanding of the role and the function of the police as the organisation appears in the contemporary era compared to when it first appeared as part of the 1829 Metropolitan Police Act (Byrne and Pease 2003). Authors suggest that we need to think strictly in terms of theory and practice before contemplating ideology.

In theoretical terms, the move towards crime prevention and community safety involves adopting what policy makers refer to as the ‘partnership approach’ to public service provision. By this Tilley (2003) means that whereas, prior to the contemporary era, policing and the core aim of law enforcement that this entailed was envisaged as being the sole responsibility of the state, after the advent of the contemporary era, policing has become the responsibility of both the state and private citizenry. As a result, policing has increasingly involved the adoption of concepts such as community safety meted out in the guise of, for instance, neighbourhood watch schemes. At a practical level, this has involved a basic, fundamental change in the way in which policing occurs with the police force moving from an individual, ad hoc response to crime as and when it occurs towards initiating problem-orientated, intelligence-led programmes aimed at responding to crimes that matter to local communities (Tilley, 2003).

Long (2003) argue that by engaging with community leaders and local groups, regional police forces are perceived to be better able to respond to the needs of the local residents as opposed to merely responding to crime in a purely law enforcement capacity.

This, as authors suggest, constitutes the beginning of a new ‘managerial’ approach to crime prevention where police leaders and police managers are actively encouraged to instil a distinctly bureaucratic function into the police force so that officers on the beat are able to respond to targets and quotas in much the same way that private sector employees respond to targets set by their managers in the office place. This, then suggest that the ‘new public management’, which was a core feature of the New Labour government’s social policy in the 1990s with ‘policing by objectives’ becoming the central ideological, managerial tenet around which the role and the function of early twenty first century policing would be effectively remodelled (Long, 2003).

Lane (2000) wrote that it is important for us to note that the public sector reforms initiated in the UK, which began during the Thatcher era of the 1980s and continued with increased vigour during the Blair governments of the 1990s, constituted a radical overhaul of both the theory and the practice of public service provision instigating a fundamental shift from the concept of the welfare state to the realisation of the welfare society in the process As far as the police force has been concerned, as author suggest, this has involved a move away from the traditional model of the police as a law enforcing extension of the state towards a newly envisaged provider of community safety through the well managed implementation of contemporary, intelligence-led, problem-orientated crime prevention strategies based upon a partnership approach to public policy (Lane, 2000).

Therefore, rather than simply increasing the numbers of police officers visible ‘on the street’ or passing reforms to increase the police force’s investigative powers, the reforms signalled by the triumph of the new public management have yielded a police force capable of responding to the demands of a post-industrial, western, liberal capitalist society with its incumbent socio-economic and cultural problems. As Giddens (1998) underscores in his exposition of the much criticised ‘third way’ upon which the vast majority of Blair’s social reforms were based, “it [the new policing] does not mean increasing the powers of the police to sweep undesirables off the streets. Almost to the contrary, it means that the police should work closely with citizens to improve local community standards and civil behaviour, using education, persuasion and counselling instead of arraignment” (Giddens, 1998:87). In this way, we can understand that, in theory, the role and function of the police have been reconceptualised in order to provide a bridge between the twenty first century state and contemporary civil society in order to play a key part in the renewal of social democracy level.

However, there remains a considerable divide between theory and practice with regards to the implementation of policies centred upon the ideal of the ‘new public management.’ For example, as Giddens (1998) suggest that: firstly, social policy advisors to the government might envisage a new contemporary conception of the police force that is unconcerned with increasing powers in order to concentrate upon using new methods pertaining to education, persuasion and counselling, in reality the police force remains a vehicle through which law abiding citizens are able to sweep undesirables off the streets. Secondly, this is still very much the public perception of the role and function of the police at a local level – an idea which is given credence by the way in which many police forces deal with crime, lawlessness and disorder. When, for example, we pause to consider the advent of the anti-social behaviour order and the way in which these are predominantly handed out to young people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds hailing from marginalised communities, we can begin to understand the extent of the divide that exists between theory and practice as far as the reform of the role and the function of the police force is concerned. Thirdly, when we consider issues such as the meting out of the anti-social behaviour order we can see that, rather than there being a major shift in the way in which the police force is thought of in public terms, there has been a discernible continuation of the historical attitudes towards the police where the police force has been interpreted as an agent of civil society charged with maintaining law and order amongst the lower classes (Giddens, 1998).

Thus, as Young (1999) points out that we have to acknowledge the large level of hypocrisy which resides at the centre of the new policing debate where the old ideals of policing within communities have been perpetuated in spite of the public sector reforms of the last decade of the twentieth century and the opening decade of the twenty first century. Where the political and ideological landscape of the policy making process may have changed the actual reality of policing reflects the broad based divisions that continue to exist in contemporary societies. Young (1999) suggest inner city riots that have occurred in London and Birmingham were the result of anger over ‘citizenship’ issues where disenfranchised members of local communities have rebelled against the episodes of double standards evidenced in the way different communities are policed. As Young (1999) suggest the people who took part in these instances of rioting were “a section of people who were economically marginalised and subject, over time, to stereotypical suspicion and harassment by the police.” (Young, 1999:21).

The lack of change in the role and function of the police force with regards to the way in which minority classes and groups are policed highlights the underline of growth chasm with regards to what the public expects of the police in the era of post-modernity.

Today, police force increasingly envisaged in terms of a multi-agency, partnership approach to crime prevention (especially in local communities with high levels of delinquency and crime). However, there is a discernible limit to what the police can achieve within such a confined culture of managerialism and control. Garland (2002) notes that police are no longer seen as the sole enforcers of the state’s laws; today they are caught between an authoritative, punitive tradition and the managerial leanings that dominate the institutions of the new public management. Where, previously, the general public would have expected the police and the state to hand out punitive measures as a means of combating criminality, today – as a result of the new discourses surrounding the provision of police services – the police are encouraged to follow the lead of non-correctionalist rationales for crime control. This, according to Garland (2002) represents “a matter of patchwork repairs and interim solutions rather than well thought-out reconstruction” (Garland, 2002:103).

Therefore, while we are right to point to the essential grain of continuity coursing through any discussion relating to the role and function of the police force in the United Kingdom at the present time, we are also correct to highlight the discrepancy between public expectations and the realities of the new policing landscape of the contemporary era. We also have to note the importance of the media in failing to accurately portray the vast changes that have occurred to policing, government and society at the present time. Jewkes (2004) suggest that rather than relay the realities conspiring to bring about the challenges facing society at the dawn of the twenty first century, the media maintains a sensationalist interest in creating moral panics over the state of society and the impact of criminality that in many instances represents a picture that is far removed from the reality (Jewkes, 2004). For as long as the mass media continues to spread news that does not accurately reflect the new role and new function explained both to the police and to civil society, then there will remain a considerable divide with regards to what the police force actually does and what the general public would like them to do. Moreover, for as long as crime is reported in a sensational manner, the police will always fall a long way short of the public’s expectations of an organisation still conceived of as an enforcer of state law (Jewkes, 2004).

“A major body of research and many proponent commentators on policing have argued that the police are not an effective means of controlling crime; that, in any case, dealing with crime is not the major part of what the police actually do and, furthermore, it is neither solely nor distinctly the role of the police” (Neyroud and Beckley 2001:28). Neyroud and Beckley (2001) in this statement conclude that critical research in the role and function of the modern police force highlights a fundamental shift in the concepts of the law enforcement and crime prevention in contemporary British society. In line with an unprecedented overhaul of the provision of services across the public sector, the police force, also, has been subject to two consecutive decades of administrative change with the ideal of a multi-agency, partnership approach to policing being championed at a central governmental level. This move towards a partnership approach to crime prevention has telegraphed the end of the era of the police taking sole responsibility for community safety. As a result, policing is today a multi-faceted phenomenon where the responsibility of the state and the rights of private citizenry are able to effectively converge.

While there has been a deep-seated change to the way in which the police is conceptualised in contemporary British society, there has been a discernible sense of continuity in policing at a practical level. On the one hand, the way in which certain marginalised socio-economic and racial groups are policed has conspired to manufacture a picture of continuity that is entirely divorced from the actualities of the reform of the police force in the UK. On the other hand, the media sensational reporting of crime in the contemporary era has served to further distort the true nature of policing at the present time. As a cumulative result, it is clear that there is a considerable chasm between what the police do and what the public expects them to do with modern policing being in a state of limbo between its traditional role as a punitive law enforcer and its future function as a manager of the ill-effects of a post-industrial, western and liberal society.


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  • Emsley, C. (2003) “The Birth and Development of the Police”, pp.66-83 in Newburn, T. (eds.) Handbook of Policing. Cullompton; Willan.
  • Garland, D. (2002) The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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  • Tilley, N. (2003) “Community policing, Problem-orientated policing and Intelligence-led policing”, pp. 311-339 in Newburn, T. (eds.) Handbook of Policing. Cullompton; Willan.
  • Young, J. (1999) The Exclusive Society: Social Exclusion, Crime, and Difference in Late Modernity. London: Sage.

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