Policing 101

Public Safety is #1

For many individuals, interactions with the police are rare. Therefore, the average individual may not be fully aware of how a police department functions or the roles and responsibilities of police officers in ensuring public safety.

No Universal Standard

According to the FBI, there are more than 18,000 local police departments in the United States. These departments are subject to different state, county, and city laws and codes, and they have different policies, practices, and officer training programs. There is no universal standard for the structure, size, or governance of police departments in the United States.

Overview of the Criminal Justice System

In the United States, the criminal justice system has a number of separate branches with the common goal of public safety. Police departments are a part of the larger criminal justice system that includes prosecutors, courts, juvenile justice systems, and correctional agencies such as prisons and probation and parole departments. The effectiveness of the criminal justice system is determined by many different agencies on the local, state, and federal levels. Police are one of the most visible representations of the criminal justice system in the eyes of the public.

Police departments do not write laws; they are tasked with the responsibility of enforcing laws that are enacted by elected officials in the legislature and that are interpreted by the courts. Enforcing laws is just one of many different roles of the police. Other important roles include working with communities to prevent crimes and solve various “quality of life” problems, maintaining order, and conducting investigations.

Constitutional Policing

Police officials are responsible for performing their various roles and responsibilities in a way that protects everyone’s constitutional rights. At its most basic level, constitutional policing can be described as “legal policing.” This means that policing must be conducted in accordance with the parameters set by the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions, and the many court decisions that have defined in greater detail what the text of the Constitution means in terms of the everyday practices of policing.

“What we need to understand is that “constitutional policing” is both foundational and aspirational for the police. The Constitution, in other words, provides both the basic legal framework within which we operate and the larger ethos which we strive to embody.”

- Policing consultant and retired Police Chief Noble Wray

Public Trust and Cooperation are Key

Police are entrusted with an enormous amount of authority, including the authority to use force, and it is important that the police undertake these tasks in a manner that is legal, and also is respectful to community members and is in keeping with local priorities. (For example, different communities may vary in their approach to certain issues, such as the enforcement of federal immigration laws or drug decriminalization or legalization.) Police agencies must also promote transparency and accountability to demonstrate to the community that officers act fairly and impartially, and that there are systems in place to detect mistakes or abuses of police authority. Public trust and cooperation are key elements of effective policing, and are lost when police engage in unconstitutional or unprofessional conduct.

Source: Department of JusticeCommunity Relations Services Toolkit for Policing – Policing 101

Quick Facts

  • The number one goal of policing is public safety.
  • There are more than 18,000 local police departments in the United States.
  • Police departments are organized in a hierarchical structure, usually with the Chief of Police as its executive leader (in some agencies, the top official’s title is Commissioner or Superintendent).
  • Most departments have at least two sections: a patrol side and an investigations side. Typically the public interacts most often with patrol officers.
  • For departments serving large geographic areas, the service area may be divided into geographic districts, each of which is policed by a number of officers led by a district commander.
  • Community members should determine which district their neighborhood is in, and which district commander is in charge of that area.
  • The district officer may be the most knowledgeable resource regarding the details of crime patterns and other issues in a given neighborhood.
  • For many people in the United States interactions with the police are rare.
  • While there are known best practices in policing, there is no universal standards for the structure, size, or governance of police departments in the United States.
  • Each law enforcement department are subject to different state, county, and city laws and codes, and they have different policies, practices, and officer training programs.
  • The effectiveness of the criminal justice system is determined by many different agencies on the local, state, and federal levels.
  • Police are one of the most visible representations of the criminal justice system in the eyes of the public.
  • Enforcing laws is just one of many different roles of the police officer. Other important roles include availing resources and working with communities to prevent crimes and solve various livability issues, maintaining order, and conducting investigations.
  • Police are entrusted with an enormous amount of responsibility, including the responsibility to use force when necessary, and police undertake these tasks in a manner that is legal, and also is respectful to community members and is in keeping with local priorities.
  • Public trust and cooperation are key elements of effective policing.
  • There are usually multiple ways to contact the local police. For example, police departments often hold community meetings in which the police interact with the public, such as neighborhood watch meetings, problem-solving meetings to address specific community concerns, or general community relations meetings.
  • Some police departments incorporate liaison officers or units in order to increase the department’s outreach to community members, and perhaps to specific populations.
  • Examples of populations that police departments may designate for specific outreach liaisons include youths, seniors, faith leaders, and African American, Latino, Asian, deaf and hard of hearing, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities.
  • Liaison officers can be an important resource for involving residents and business owners in addressing public safety issues in the community.
  • The police chief and the “culture” of the department can influence patrol and community policing practices.
  • Ultimately, community members also influence policing priorities. Daily interactions between officers and community members may determine the specific issues that an individual officer pays attention to while on duty.
  • In an effort to improve relationships with communities and to improve the practice of policing, various agencies and organizations are working to prevent biased policing, especially racial profiling.
  • Positive police-community relationships are essential to maintaining public safety and order. These relationships help to reduce fear and biases, and build mutual understanding and trust between the police and community.
  • Community policing is a policing philosophy based on three core components: community partnerships, organizational transformation, and problem-solving.
  • Positive police-community relationships contribute to increased community perceptions of the legitimacy of the police to enforce the law.
  • Perceptions of police legitimacy impact the willingness of community members to support policing strategies and cooperate with police directives on a daily basis and during an emergency.
  • The police need the community’s help in maintaining order just as the community needs fair, just, and effective law enforcement. This collaboration and cooperation improve public safety and officer safety.
  • Since trust and mutual respect between police and the communities they serve are critical to maintaining positive police-community relations, many police agencies establish programs such as ride alongs or citizens’ police academies to facilitate positive interactions with the community.