Police Powers



If we were to live within a community that was based on total freedom then anarchy would prevail, and if we lived in a society dictated by total order , there would ultimately be tyranny. It is this respect that we can view the police force to be an agency that maintains a balance between the two, that is the thin blue line between order and chaos. Most contemporary societies are base on democracy, including our own, whereby parliament holds a key position and the rule of law can be said to be established. In such a setting a well respected police force is said to be desirable and much needed group in terms of sustaining such a society. Furthermore such an agency is a 'condition, not a denial of liberty' within the restraints of the law. Theoretically the police force are there to uphold the law set by any given society, and without these laws societies are said to be practically 'worthless.' However, what are the fundamental functions of the police? Are they limited as to what they do, or do they fulfill an array of functions? These questions will be addressed throughout the main body of this essay.

Upon identifying these functions it is of primary significance to understand police roles under two very different levels. The first of these levels is that of covert reality, whereby the functions the police carry out are not directly visible to society, nor do they represent the collective interest of the community, yet they are still executed and covered by those whose interests they serve. This is perhaps a view that would be best at home with conspiracy theorists, or even neo Marxists. The second of the two levels to be identified is that of perceived reality, whereby what the police do is both visible and desirable, highlighted best by the viewing figures for the television programme 'The Bill.' It is within the realms of overt and covert realities that we can begin to address the questions forwarded in the introduction.

The police force have been around for centuries, albeit in various manifestations and guises. However it was not actually until the 1800s that the service was nationalised. The early views of policing were that its role included preventing crime, protecting life and property and keeping the peace, yet they were not only concerned with these measures, they had other administrative and service tasks to perform. It is when we look back at the history of the police that we can begin to see the signs as to why this essay is directed to answer specific questions. Has the role of the police changed that much from the 1800s to the present day? The answer has to be absolutely. Even the police themselves believe that their role has dramatically changed primarily due to the public demand for their services. The British public has witnessed police work expand into areas such as drug enforcement, domestic violence, computer crime and perhaps more recently terrorism. Of course there are also areas that they have tended to move away from, but these are few, and overall the functions of the police remains a complex and dynamic one.

In contemporary society it would seem that the police are primarily concerned with the provision of security, or at least that is what the agency believes....

        "The purpose of the police force is to uphold the law firmly and fairly, to prevent crimes, to pursue and  bring to justice those who break the law, to keep the Queen's peace, to protect, help and                               reassure the community...." (ACPO 1990)

However at this point there does seem to be somewhat of a contradiction as the state, which was predominantly run by the Conservativism the 1980s and early 1990s, views the primary role of the police to be in catching criminals. This was encapsulated in the governments white paper in 1993, which was followed by the introduction of performance targets, which strongly related to the polices effectiveness in dealing with crime. Of course the image of the police being an agency that deals purely with catching criminals is not simply one promoted by the state, but even the officers themselves. This comes in the form a vast majority of lower ranked officers, who find other types of service work to be 'boring.' This idea of protecting the public and preventing crime has led writers such as Bayley and Shearing (1996) to deem the actions of a police force as operating a scarecrow function.

So what about their role as a service that responds to calls of distress. Society is often exposed to images of the police giving positive assistance in circumstances such as accidents, helping little old ladies across the street and giving directions to passing drivers. It has been suggested, on this premise, that the police could be labeled a 'secret social service,' yet many lower ranked officers see this role to deflect them from their real purpose, that of fighting crime. Such a view is confirmed through the observations of Fielding (1996).

Given the above evidence and ideas it is hoped that the reader can begin to relate to the force versus service debate, but it is actually possible to move away from this simplistic, one dimensional debate, yet at the same time remain within the overt parameters of the police functions. According to Bitner (1991)....

       "The role of the police is best understood as a mechanism for the distribution of non negotiable coercive force employed in accordance with the dictates of an intuitive grasp of situational exigencies."

Bitner was far more concerned with 'how' the police deployed the roles they undertook, rather than what the actual functions were. Furthermore he saw the states coerciveness as being of primary importance as to what functions the police actually conformed to. He went on to identify four key themes of police work...reactive, proactive, maximal and minimal, which can be analysed, integrated and incorporated into the contemporary functions of the police.

At this point in time mainstream policing could be considered to be a combination of either maximal proactive or maximal reactive. The former is an enforcement style of policing, and the authority exercised by the police is legitimated by the law. Of course the police cannot enforce every single law that exists, there has to be a certain amount of discretion exercised, yet the current style of policing allows little room for discretion. This is achieved by not only ensuring that what the police do is largely determined by public demand, but by using the philosophy of enforcement to keep the public satisfied with regards to results. Fielding (1996) regards to this type of policing as 'fire brigade policing,' with its primary emphasis being on reaction times and clear up rates. An example of it would, in my view, be the implementation of the 'zero tolerance' initiative, of which the purpose was to apply 'maximum enforcement techniques against quality of life offences.'

Maximal proactive policing comes in the form of community policing, and despite its increasing influence over the past few decades, is not regarded as the main function of the police. This type of policing retains the belief that conventional policing (maximal reactive) does not address the roots of the problem (Hough 1996). The developments of surveillance technology has also increased the role that community policing has to play, but one could foresee problems in the lower ranks resisting its growth, problems in installing partnerships with the wary public and lastly management short comings.

However both of these types of policing only act to strengthen the philosophy that the primary function of the police is crime fighting, and that the other roles it does fulfill player smaller 'bit parts.' This is indeed enforced by the media images we are exposed to continuously, most notably of violence and arrests in the tabloids, and television programmes such as 'The Bill,' of which the force is actively seen to be always fighting crime and making arrests. On an overt level the primary function of the policies as a force, and although it does undoubtedly carry out protective and service functions, they are less likely to be related to police work than the role of fighting crime.

On a covert level the force versus service debate no longer takes centre stage. The function of the police is to control, and the more economically stratified a society becomes the necessity for coerciveness increases. The police are essentially in place to maintain social order, and the methods employed to achieve this included information control, intelligence gathering, intimidation and the neutralisation of offenders (Turk 1981). This all falls under the broad spectrum of the control function, which contradicts the service function because 'those who are at times recipients of police service work, are at other times prime targets for control.' This covert function sees the community maintain an ambivalent attitude towards the police, and in return only offer conditional acceptance , a somewhat hegemonic relationship....calm on the surface but turbulent below.

Historically the state has always emphasized the service function of the police, which is why we have a service versus force debate in these contemporary times. But what the state does in addition is to graft on the additional benefits of 'controlling' conventional criminals, and once such a mystification has been deemed a success the state would be free to slip in more important policies on the ethos of control. Effectively the police are guard labour, a mechanism of repression, a control agency that is there to aid the state to 'fracture and annihilate those who refuse to accept its legitimacy. Such political criminals can then be enshrined within the conventional criminal, and society would remain blissfully unaware. The protect function, which has been of historical importance to the police force, essentially exists for two very different reasons. On the one hand it is their to ensure that the public are there to protect both their property and more importantly their lives. However on the other hand research (Lane 1967, Miller 1977, Bayley 1979) suggests that this function was merely a response by the elite to the perception of the increasing threat of the underclass.

What must be understood at this point in time is that although the police prioritize the control function over its service counterpart, the organisation is not simply a passive instrument to be controlled and manipulated by the state. Yet to understand the importance of the police function is to understand their purpose....

    "Guard labour reproduces the formal structure of capitalism, and maintains and reproduces capitalist productive relations. Guard labour does not produce commodities..yet without guard labour                  commodity production would be impossible."   (O Conner 1975)

The relationship between the state and the police is one of great complexity, yet at the same time one that is also mutually beneficial toward the other. The state requires the police force to carry out and fulfill its main function, that of control. In return the state will not insist that the police will keep strictly with the law on the provision that they keep their deviants invisible. In effect the state turns a blind eye to any police misconduct, and defends them as being the best police force in the world. The complaints procedures and public accountability are in existence, but the state makes sure that they are largely ineffective.

A prime historical example of the understanding of this relationship comes in the form of Sir Robert Mark, a widely acclaimed commissioner of the metropolitan police force. Upon his appointment he had to take action following The Times newspaper allegations on police corruption. He began a clean up campaign which resulted in eight times as many early retirements as that prior to his reign. Overtly this looked good for the police in that they were fighting crime within as well as against those who offend within society, yet on a covert level this was not so much of a clean up as a strategic handing over of a body of scapegoats so that the inner mechanism vital to the police could actually stay in their own hands rather than being transferred to an independent body to investigate. Such a move would have been disastrous for the police, if they could not investigate themselves then they could not cover up the crimes committed within their own organisations.

Thus covertly the police are essentially a controlling force who represent the interests of the elite as a front line mechanism of repression. What this suggests is that the control function of the police is to regulate the working class, and if things get out of hand more coercion will be employed through an increased number of police, new strategies (zero tolerance), new technological capabilities etc.. However these methods are all expensive, and the state sees a cheaper alternative....

    " All that is required is that the elite be more willing to overlook the violent short cuts taken by the dirty workers, in the interest of order." (Jacobs and Britt 1979)

Although the public are made unaware of the majority of police brutality, and without wishing to go off on a tangent there have been a few examples that have caught our attention, most notably the death of Rodney King who was beaten by the LAPD.

To conclude one would say that there are undoubtedly two aspects of policing. For the public and lower ranked police officers the main function is that of crime fighting. Of course the public also acknowledge the roles of service and protection, enforced largely through media imagery, but for the lower rank officers this merely deflects them from their 'real jobs.' Further up the police management hierarchy there seems to be an increased interest in community proactive policing, and so the emphasis of the police service role is greatly visible, adding more fuel to the force versus service debate. It has even been suggested that a combination of the two, order maintenance, best describes the overall function of the police. However does this deflect the public from the real functions the police carry out, the covert role of control.

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