Policing in the United States

Policing in the United States


Policing is and has been an extremely important part of American society. Along with the court and correctional systems, it is part of the triad that constitutes the criminal justice system in the United States. Since it is the “front-end” component of the system, it involves much interaction between the police and the members of the “thin blue line” that exists in part to hold the line between chaos and order in the society.As a profession, policing conjures up visions of old-fashioned, hard-bitten police worker and officers walking the beat, G-men chasing gangsters, and, more recently, forensic investigators and criminal profilers tracking down criminals using scientific innovations.

This essay presents an analysis of the traditional and contemporary approaches to fighting crime as well as presents future trends of policing as conceived by various scholars in the field of criminal justice. The essay also presents an interpretation of how changes in the United States demographics has influenced policing strategies to accommodate the changes in the structure and composition of the population. It concludes by presenting an assessment of how the United States intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been forced to cooperate with each other even the face of political differences so as to curb the rise and threat of international terrorism.

Traditional and Contemporary Criminological Approaches to Crime Fighting and Prevention

Policing has been traditionally perceived to be resistant to change; however, the modern policing situation is one of almost constant adaptation to pressures both internal and external. The pressures includedmanaging internal risk, organized and transnational crime, limitations of the standard model of policing, complexity in policing and the performance culture and changes in technology (Ratcliffe, 2008). Many changes have come in the form of programs developed to address specific issuesand problems. Programs have included community-oriented policing, school resource officers, and police-community programs such as midnight basketball, and drug and gang reduction programs. However, while these programs made positive contributions to the police organization or the community, they did not survive asthey were implanted alongside what the police departments were already doing and never integrated into day-to-day operations

TraditionalApproaches to Crime Fighting and Prevention

The American police are perceived as crime fighters. This concept of American police is traced to the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. August Vollmer, an early advocate for the professionalism of policing established this crime fighting image of the police. As administrator of the Berkeley police department, Vollmer created several techniques for the police’s fight on crime. Vollmer’s traditional model of policing centered upon a police officer who was a skilled and dedicated fighter, trained to perform a complex job and this involved crime solving.Areactive form of policing which concentrated more on solving crime rather than preventing crime(Worrall & Siegel, 2013).The police were intent on traditional responsibilities such as calls for service and crime investigation. The 1930s had a profound effect on American policing. This era was associated with a crime wave which became a major concern of the national government, and as a result the FBI emerged as a major factor in policing. The era also marked the acceptance of the American police in their crime-fighting role and image. The 1940s were the decades of the World War, and the 1950s were the decades of America ‘getting back to normal’. It was not until 1965 that President Johnson reemphasized the war on crime. Federal legislations were passed that provided equipment and training for local law enforcement agencies.

In the traditional approaches to fighting crime, the police officer was the epitome of the Hobbesian ideal.That is, the thin blue line that represented societal order and governmental legitimacy in the face of crime and anarchy(Ratcliffe, 2008). However, since the 1960s, many aspect of the policing world changed. Society transformed rapidly, criminals developed new ways to commit crime, public expectations changed, and the police adjusted in response. Radio-directed rapid response, criminal investigations and crime fighting became the dominant model of law enforcement. Public attitudes to the police changed, as did their attitude towards the role of the police. With rising crime rates and greater information availability regarding police performance, the job of a police officer became one of managing risk, trying to keep the public happy, and responding instantly to crime threats once they emerged. Crime fighting and making arrests came to define the role of the police, while crime prevention was relegated to an occasional hobby.

Reactive, investigative policing became the order of the day. This strategy was founded on the assumption that more detections will reduce the number of offenders and act as a deterrent to the criminal still at large; thus having a preventive role. To the public and many within policing it seemed a simple argument: increased crime detection would lead to increased crime prevention, and therefore increasing the number of arrests would prevent crime.

Contemporary Criminological Approaches to Crime Fighting and Prevention

Contemporary Police departments are far more complex than they were a generation or two ago. This is to a large extent as a result of the changing trends in criminal activities and the evolving approaches that criminals adopted to perpetrating crime. Though present day police personnel still remain answerable for traditional policing responsibilities such as crime investigation andcalls for service,law enforcement agencies have developed their mission, assuming the goals of crime prevention and crime rates minimization. As opposed tocentering exclusively on acting in response to crimes after they are perpetrated, twenty-first century best law enforcement agencies are in quest of approaches to be hands-on and pre-emptive.

The 1960s were the birth place of contemporary policing (Steverson, 2008). It was a decade of turmoil, violence, and chaos that resulted in changes in society and reemphasized the war on crime. Violent crime was increasing at a rate that concerned law enforcement. Aggravated assault, forcible rape, and robbery doubled. The increase on crime, beginning in the 1960s, continued to escalate until the mid-1990s. The decade had numerous assassinations, including those of PresidentJohn Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin LutherKing, Jr. the civil rights movement that advocated violence against white American society, and urban riots. To add to the high crime rate, assassinations, violence against civil rights supporters, and urban riots, America was involved in a war which was very unpopular and led to students unrest. The police, as defenders of the status quo, became enemy of the public. The peace movement confronted the police, and often resulted in violence. The more militant groups disliked the police because they felt that the police were defending a corrupt and aggressive government(Unnithan & Palmiotto, 2010). Many groups held the police in disdain. In response, President Lyndon Johnson launched his war on crime when he formed the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice which formed the basis for the modern approaches to fighting crime. The commission resulted in the formation of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) which was tasked with developing new techniques, devices, and approaches in law enforcement, and award grants to policing programs. The emphasis of the LEAA was to fight the war on crime using a proactive approach.

Another innovative strategy that many police departments have adopted in the twenty-first century was the establishment of specialized police squads (Steverson, 2008). These squads took the form of vice squads.The officers were trained in the enforcement of the vice laws at a time when evolving twenty-first century crimes such international terrorism, human trafficking and cybercrime were becoming worrisome to many citizens. Other contemporary approaches to fighting crime focused more on an approach that more and more involved the inclusion of the community in policing. A concept referred to as community policing.

Future Trends in Policing

According to Brown(2013), the future of policing is likely to be increasingly pluralized and multifaceted. The process of pluralization is to be found occurring both inside and outside the police organization.Inside the police organization in terms of changes to the workforce, the fracturing of the notion of the Omni-competent police constable and the essential role played by civilians, not least Designated Officers.Outside the police among the diverse providers of specialist policing functions, private security and novel kinds of formalized secondary social control.Brown(2013), further adds that the role of the private sector will continue to enlarge both in size but also, fundamentally, in terms of its pervasiveness and place within the policing division of labor. Changes in land use and property relations will provide private management companies with ample incentives and opportunities to deliver and, or direct their own policing and security services.

However, according to a study conducted by the U.S Department of Justice and the Police Executive Research Forum(2014), the future of policing lies in predictive policing and intelligence-led policing. The study defined predictive policing as the collection of data from despairing and forlorn sources, analyzing them, and using the findings to antedate, anticipate, prevent and retort more meritoriously to prospective crime. Predictive policing begins with older traditional strategies such as hot-spots policing but goes beyond it because it involves data mining from other sources. On the other hand, Intelligence-Led policing has been termed as a business paradigm and managerial philosophy in which crime intelligence and data analysis are central to a goal, decision making framework that facilitates crime and problem reduction, disruption and prevention. It targets prolific targets prolific and serious criminal offenders in an organized, thoughtful manner.The study also identified partnerships with universities and other researchers as a potential growth area for the future of policing. This involved a collaborationsbetween law enforcement agencies and researchers, where police agencies provided the data while universities harness the information in a useful way by analyzing the data so that it may be more productively utilized.

Another key area that holds a place for future policy is the use of social media. Whereas some law enforcing agencies have adopted this form as part of its policing strategy, it has mainly involved interaction with the public through their official websites.Brown(2013), stated that future trends in policing practices would involve police agencies embracing various social media platforms to assist them in fighting crime.

How Changes in Federal, State and Local Laws and Policing Trends are the Results of U.S. Societal Demographic Changes

Delivery of policing services in multicultural communities has become a common practice in present day American policing practices. The United States demographic characteristics has taken two broad forms. The first has taken the form of a population that is varied in terms of cultural diversity which is expressed in terms of people from various ethnic and racial backgrounds. The second takes the form of a population whose age is structured between various age groupings. These differential characteristics have necessitated the adoption of policing stratagems and practices that accommodate the individual characteristics and beliefs of these groups while at the same time ensuring that law and order is maintained.

Immigrants Influence on Policing Trends

In the United States, immigration has been akey driver of growth in many areas of the country.Various government programs such as green card, and asylum grants have ensured a constant inflow of immigrants into the country. Immigrants have accounted for 43 percent of growth, significantly augmenting the presence of cultural values, languages, lifestyles and experiences with which many American societies had had little interaction.Multiculturalism has become a reality in many communities and institutions. The extraordinary infusion of migrants heightened risk factors for conflict because of the underdevelopment of social organizationswithin the newly arrived communities and the inexperience and greenness of existing community and governmental channels working with them. The movement of ethnic and present American-born racial populationstowards a more and more suburban and rural patterns raises heightened susceptibility to racial confrontations and engagements between citizens and the police. Additionally, organizedethnic or racial gangs or gang-like groupingestablish to target newer populations of other ethnic and racial groups in an endeavor to compel them to relocate and to preclude others from relocating to rural or suburban communities.For these reasons recognizing and acknowledging the changing community ethnic and cultural diversity became important to contemporary law enforcement efforts.Cultural characteristics such as language, customs and traditional have become key elements which affect the relationship between immigrant populations and the police. The challenge for law enforcement executive has been to recognize and appreciate community diversity as well as cultural and ethnic diversity by effectively responding to the law enforcement needs of culturally and ethnically diverse communities. In an attempt torealize this goal, changes in federal, state and local laws and policing trends have been implemented to ensure that law enforcement agencies are insynch with the U.S. societal demographic changes(Unnithan & Palmiotto, 2010).

As a result of the changes in the United States demographic characteristics, law enforcement agencies have adopted strategies that are meant to address the concerns of the various population groups. To accomplish this various strategies have been adopted. These include recruiting officers from the immigrant community, cultural diversity training, community involvement, establishment of community advisory committees, and educating the immigrant population on the fundamentals of the united states criminal justice system. These strategies have the overall goal of expanding and establishing community organizations to bridge the relationships between racial and ethnic groups and between law enforcement and the community, which is an important step towards improving community relations.

Population composition and Age Structure Influence on Policing Trends

With regards to the changing structure and composition of the American population, according to Unnithan and Palmiotto(2010), crime is largely a young man’s sport. For most offenses, crime and arrests peak in the late teen years and early twenties, declining quickly thereafter. The 1960s and 1970 crime rates were high as a result of the baby boom which resulted in the composition of the American population being predominantly the young. By reason of these life course developments, the gender and age structure of a society is amotivating and triggering factor that structures the rate of crime in that society. In the present United States the society is aging and there are fewer young men who make up the majority of criminal offenders and victims.Law enforcement agencies have concentrated more in crimes that are more universal and spread out, crimes that are committed across the board regardless of age and the composition of the population. However, a major concern for law enforcement agencies has been the rise in borderless crimessuch as identity theft and cybercrime, and international terrorism, which can be executed by any individual irrespective of the age or racial or ethnic background.

The Rise of International Terrorism and its Effect on U.S. Law Enforcement and Intelligence Agencies

Beginning September 2001, security laws and regulations have significantly changed. The failure of the U.S intelligence community to provide better warning of the September 11, 2001 attacks was attributed to the existence of “walls” between intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The walls arguably kept analysts from talking to each other and from sharing intelligencewhich if had been examined in meticulous relationship, would have resulted inanintelligible embodiment of the emerging scheme. According to Worrall & Siegel(2013), assessments of 7/11concluded that law enforcement and intelligence agencies did not share information that could have prepared the security agencies for the plot. This led congress to endorse stipulations in the USA PATRIOT Act (USAPA) and succeeding legislationswhich minimized obstructions to sharing of information between law enforcement and intelligence agenciesand mandated exchanges of information relating to terrorist threats. USAPA also resulted in the establishment of an Information Sharing Executive (ISE) in the office of the Director of National Intelligencecharged withthe designand implementation ofprocedures for information sharing.

Pre-September 11th Law Enforcement

During the 1990 the threat of international terrorism was becoming apparent. Terrorists from the Middle East were operating against U.S. forces both overseas and intermittently within the U.Sas was the case with the 1993 attacks on the World Trade Center. This obliged congress to begin seekingstatutory and administrative changes that would expedite sharing of intelligence between various intelligence and law enforcement agencies. This resulted in the passing of the Supplemental Appropriations Act in 1998, and The National Commission on Terrorism was set up to review the laws, regulations, directives, policies and practices for preventing and punishing international terrorism.  However, no solid legislation was legislated as fears about unnecessary encroachment of private information by empowered law enforcement agencies was rife and widespread. This resulted in the empowerment of only particular agencies and walls were erected that ensured information exchange between the various law enforcement agencies was limited. This was despite the recommendations of the National Commission on Terrorism report that recommended the elimination of barriers to the aggressive collection of information on terrorists.

Post 9/11 Policing

Subsequently to the 9/11 terror attacks, there ensued extensive debate over how law enforcement agencies could better exploit intelligence to combat terrorism and more local crime problems. A review of the September 11, 2001, attacks revealed that various U.S government agencies had had evidence of a major attack. However, the information was scattered among different organizations and was never put together in such a way as to present a clear essence of the danger. Law enforcement and intelligence information was not customarily disclosed and information collectors and intelligenceanalysts were walled off from one another through a convoluted composition of constitutional statutes, principles, policies, and practice. These regulations had their origin in longstanding divisions of labor that reached back into pre-World War II practices and in the provisions of the National Security Act of 1947 that required the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)have no police, subpoena, or law enforcement powers or internal security functions.The barriers that existed prior to September 11 had a long history based on a determination to prevent government from spying on US citizens. This resulted in the establishment of high statutory barriers to the sharing of law enforcement and intelligence information. The statutes laid the foundation of thebarricade between law enforcement and intelligence that was bolstered by policies by the Justice Department, government regulations, and judicial branch guidance.

Congress Legislations to Deter Terrorism

Following the attacks, there was an overhaul of security and intelligence services. This included the creation of the Department of Homeland Security tasked to put many functions in one organization, and the Director of National Intelligence to coordinate the 16 different intelligence service organizations. These changes in structure were intended to create changes in process. Additionally, various laws were legislated to create a legal framework through which the fight against terrorism could be won. The United States government enacted several laws that focused on preventing further acts of violence against the United States and creating greater flexibility in the fight to control terror activity. Most importantly, congress passed the foreign intelligence surveillance act (FISA) and the USA Patriot Act (USAPA). The bill created new laws, and made changes to over 15 different existing statutes. The aim of the act was to give sweeping new powers to domestic law enforcement and international intelligence agencies in an effort to fight terrorism, expand the definition of terrorist activities, and to alter sanctions for violent terrorism.

Summary and Conclusion

Approaches to policing have changed over the years. Since the beginning of the profession of policing, the threat of international terrorism, the1960s era of increased domestic crime, to the twenty-first century challenges of cybercrime, human and drug trafficking, the police have changed in tandem to ensure that they are well prepared to deal with the security concerns of the time. This necessitated the conception of various strategies and approaches that would assist in curbing and fighting crime. The traditional approaches to fighting crime mostly involved crime solving, a reactive form of policing which concentrated more on solving rather than preventing crime. Police personnel were accountable for traditional responsibilities such as calls for service and crime investigation. However, contemporary approaches to fighting and preventing crime took a proactive approach, rather than focusing solely on responding to crimes after they are committed. The police took on the goals of preventing crime and reducing crime rates. This approach had the overall effect of reducing crime rates and ensuring a safer society, although problems such as terrorism and cybercrime proved to be a difficult challenge due to their borderless characteristic.

In the wake of the twenty-first century, terrorism has become a concern for most countries. Like traditional crime, international terrorism has become a local issue and is a responsibility shared among federal, state and local governments. For years, local law enforcement agencies complained about federal agencies failing to appreciate the role of law enforcement in intelligence activities. However, in the wake of September 11, local law enforcement has taken on a pivotal role in preventing and responding to future incidents of terrorism within the United States. The post 9/11 American security mechanisms took two approaches. First, it involved a philosophical change in federal law enforcement to break down the barriers of compartmentalization and the acceptance of local agencies as full partners in the national security intelligence infrastructure. The second approach involved local agencies receiving the necessary training and analytical resources. These approaches to security, as well as the various legislations to reinforce the various security agencies have helped in ensuring that the United States is safe from external and internal terrorism threats.

With the increase in migrants coming into the U.S, coupled with the changes in the population composition and age structure of the contemporary American society, there has arose a need to change how the policing agencies react to and handle crime in the context of these multicultural communities. This has necessitated a change in policing strategies that would incorporate and respect the beliefs and values of the contemporary American society while at the same time ensure that law and order is maintained. To address this, law enforcement agencies have adopted strategies such as recruiting officers from the immigrant community, conducting cultural diversity training, and community involvement. Other strategies include establishment of community advisory committees, and educating the immigrant population on the fundamentals of the United States criminal justice system. This has resulted in a law enforcement agency structure and operation that is all inclusive and accommodative to the multiculturalism that has become a reality in many communities and institutions.

In conclusion, this essay has presented an analysis of the traditional and contemporary approaches to fighting crime. It has also presented future trends of policing as conceived by various scholars in the field of criminal justice. The essay also presented an interpretation of how changes in the United States demographics has influenced policing strategies to accommodate the changes in the structure and composition of the population. Finally, the paper presented an assessment of how United States intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been forced to cooperate with each other even the face of political differences as a result of the rise of international terrorism.



Brown, J. M. (2013). The Future of Policing. New York: Routledge.

D’Anieri, P. (2013). International Politics: Power and Purpose in Global Affairs (3 ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Ratcliffe, J. (2008). Intelligence-led Policing (illustrated ed.). New York City: Routledge.

Steverson, L. A. (2008). Policing in America: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO.

Unnithan, N., & Palmiotto, M. (2010). Policing and Society: A Global Approach. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Worrall, J., & Siegel, L. (2013). Introduction to Criminal Justice (14 ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.


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