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Each situation is different for a law enforcement officer. They do not know if a simple traffic infraction has a deeper issue (e.g. the perpetrator is unstable, hiding contraband, etc.); they do not know what, if any, weapons and intent a group of rioters might have; they do not know if a person with a hostage is willing to kill; they do not know what motives, armament, and/or actions/reactions they might expect in any situation. Additionally, it is a tough judgment call to decide what constitutes excessive force without being in that situation oneself. Certainly, three officers using clubs on a 120 pound young female might seem excessive, while those same officers dealing with a 250 pound weight lifter on an unknown substance might seem more prudent. The officer's ability to uphold the law and protect themselves, too, is often at odds; witness the events during the historic Kent State Riots (Ohio History, 2008).
In each society, chronologically as well as geographically/politically, there is a different level of permissiveness and tolerance for actions. A raid on a methadone factory would have a different level of perceived threat than a shoplifter; a 3am traffic violation with a vehicle with blacked out windows would be different than a pull-over for a Soccer Mom in an SUV full of children; a sniper on the roof of a college campus would require different methods than a group of students playing a prank, etc. And, despite the idea of what constitutes excessive force, one must ask, "if my loved on was being held hostage by a group of bank robbers, what would constitute the necessary force to retrieve them safely." Anyone can excel at being an arm-chair quarterback after the fact, and while it is certainly true that there have been documented cases of excessive force, one must also weigh the orders and societal permission (tacit though it may be) of the officers responding to an event (Montgomery, 2005).
Since individual officers are just that - individuals, training is important to establish a rule of caution and law for the group as a whole. Because of those differences, however, each person will react to a situation in a different manner: one officer might be appalled by the mistreatment of an animal, discarded on a roadway from an open moving car, another might have less emotion invested in that sort of incident. However, this is where training and strict guidelines and open communication from superiors is most critical - the officer needs to know what the definition of force is and what his/her superiors deem appropriate action in various situations - then temper that with the reality of the law, and of the individual situation to act accordingly (Montgomery). There is a problem reporting statistical accuracy in the level of excessive force. One certainly remembers the vast media coverage of the Rodney King incident (Liebovitch, 1998), but many citizens are reluctant to come forward with complains about the police department. In one study, however, of approximately 26,500 complaints against a representative 60% of officers (major police forces in larger urban areas), less than 10% of those complaints were shown to have merit (Hickman, 2006). And, while the Justice Department does compile statistics on excessive force, the interpretation of such issues is likely to be tried more in the contemporary media than the judicial system. Conversely, there are several independent "watchdog" groups that are active in reporting, and hopefully preventing, excessive brutality and acting as a check and balance to excessive force (See: Amnesty International, Bureau of Justice Statistics, American Civil Liberties Union, and Human Rights Watch).
The Philosophy of Policing - There have been many changes in the philosophy of policing over the last 3-4 decades, most especially within the United States. Since 1968, in fact, with the historic issues at Kent State and the Chicago Democratic Convention, questions have been asked about use of force, rights-based policing, and several models of appropriate policing and community involvement at multiple levels (Russell 2005). Rights-based policing has been endorsed by both the Red Cross and Amnesty International, with the idea being to temper all police activity with the basic tenet of human rights and rights under the Constitution. As a strong component, it encourages community and Police oversight into the implementation of the day-to-day activities and needs of the police force. While much of the egregiousness and over-extension of police authority have occurred outside the United States, the concept of putting human rights to the forefront when dealing with police issues (e.g. less force, more dialog, planning rather than reacting) are important parts of the law enforcement mix (Williamson 2008).
A utilitarian model, in contrast, focuses more on the punishment, for example, the length of incarceration as a way to maximize the safety of society. The manner in which this utilitarian approach to the public manifests itself is, as might be expected, more in line with a view of how to pacify the majority (society) without as much thought to the actual rights of the criminal (minority). However, this view, espoused by John Stuart Mill in the late 1800s, does focus on consequences - if one commits a crime, there are consequences to that action, and therefore, crime may be prevented by the idea of fear for the punishment, a deterrent system based on consequences (Lee 2007). Within law enforcement, however, it is often necessary to use deception (e.g. undercover agents, plants, etc.) and more invasive investigation techniques. Within the context of the two models discussed above, though, the very idea of deception is anti-rights based - perhaps even going so far as seeming to be entrapment. For the utilitarianism, though, the ends justify the means within reason. The greater good of society is being served by protecting the innocent from the criminal, and if techniques need to be utilized that are legal but not necessarily moral, then society is still better served (Orsagh 1985).
Thus, one must ask the seminal question about policing in the contemporary world: is it a unit of societal force and control or is it a public service organization designed to assist society in meeting its goals, or, is it both depending on the individual and unique situation? Because of the broad nature of this topic, we will confine this essay to policing in the United States in which the major paradigm of policing is the power to enforce law, protect property, and reduce civil disorder. This broad definition, though, takes on very different meanings when one compares situations such as the aftermath of 9/11, an angry riot, or assisting crowd control at a local high school sporting event. To assess the differences and the role within contemporary society, we can examine the police paradigm from a sociological standpoint to infer motivation, cultural disposition, and societal expectations.
Sociological Aspects of Policing - In contemporary society, a police office is a bonded and warranted employee of a law enforcement organization, be it a local, regional, or state police force; a federal law agency, or a more specific correctional facility or other law enforcement organization. The specific reason society has law enforcement is that groups of people living together do not always exist in harmony, and it is the job of the police officer to maintain public order, prevent and detect criminal activity, apprehend criminals, collect evidence, and see that the due process of law is followed within their given duty range. Under the rubric of the Western democracies, the major role of the police force is to keep order and discourage crime. Their organization is also asked to assist with emergency and disaster services, emergency medical situations, and to assist citizens in need. The duties of a police officer vary so dramatically, that the safety and internal culture of a police force differs from organization to organization (e.g. a Police Office in a large metropolitan area like New York will have different duties and dangers than a County Sheriff in a rural Oklahoma area) (Barlow, 2000)
Society has certain expectations of their law enforcement personnel, and that, combined with the legal aspects and internal stress resulting from the constancy of danger and dealing with the underside of society, supplies its own pressures to police officers. Officers are often in danger of infectious disease, motor vehicle fatalities, apprehension of persons under substance abuse, and line of duty deaths are not uncommon. For instance, approximately 200 police officers die per year in the United States, with over half of those deaths from direct assaults from suspects or criminals (Robert, 2008). Still, individuals are sociologically drawn to police work for numerous reasons: the desire to serve and protect the public and resulting social contract; a desire to hold a position of respect and authority within their own community, abhorrence for crime and rule breakers, and the professional challenges that daily interaction with a certain side of the public may have. While society expects those officers to be respectful, follow the law, and prevent crime before it happens, the reality of the stresses upon members of law enforcement are varied and often serious (Blum, 2000). Law enforcement officers are human, and like most humans, vulnerable to stress. Some scholars believe that the rate of alcoholism is double that of the regular population, and nationally, twice as many police officers commit suicide as are killed in the line of duty (Henry, 2004).
One of the sociological challenges of studying a group such as this is the code of silence that pervades many aspects of law enforcement. Besides their sworn duty, law enforcement often has a unique internal code designed to both protect the structure of the agency and organize the individual. Society does not expect its police officers to be weak or vulnerable, yet being people they are placed in extreme stress, have family problems, and the same sociological issues as everyone else. However, to set themselves apart, their internal language, behavior sets, expectations, even ways of dealing with each other, are all designed to perpetuate a certain strength and internal stoicism (Gilmartin, 2002).
Looking at law enforcement from three different sociological paradigms allows one to see how the very structure of society can influence the manner in which police organization can be defined. Utilizing the Structural-Functional Paradigm, one can view law enforcement as part of the symbiosis of an organized group. The police are a part of the social function of society at large, and this model shows law as one part of the organization that takes individual actions and combines them to be greater as the whole rather than the sum of each individual part. Modern society is continually evolving; it rarely has equilibrium and balance. Because of this, within this model of social behavior, the police forces are the actions that adjust in order to ensure that the balance of the whole is maintained in a more even manner. The complexity of ethnicity and economic behavior within a city requires adaptation - race, gender, sexual preference, social class, and even age differentiation change societal values to which law enforcement must react. Within this cooperative model, then, the very idea of law enforcement can be considered a balancing agent to maintain the peace between changing societal mores, and may even reach out through community programs and policing (Maguire, 1997).
When society is viewed as the product between the regular actions and interactions of individuals and their associated groups, a Symbolic-Interaction Paradigm occurs. There are three major parts to this theory that deal directly with law enforcement. First, if individuals within society act towards things based on the meanings they give to those things, the idea for law enforcement is to establish the definition of "police" to be respectful and part of societal organization. Too, if meaning is derived from social interaction, then it is important that law enforcement regularly interact within the societal paradigm. Finally, it meanings occur and evolve through interpretation; it follows that it will be law enforcement's duty to communicate their message through the appropriate media (Blummer, 1986). Essentially, though, this approach can be viewed more as a microcosm of a medium and large police force as opposed to the macro view of the manner in which law enforcement has evolved into the 21st century. It has value interdepartmentally in the manner in which communication occurs, but really does not take into account the evolution of society and expectations of law enforcement in the post-911 world. Additionally, when viewed using police as part of a hierarchical structure in society, the model fails to allow for success or failure based on action/interaction (Robert).
Community Policing - A Model to Reduce Citizen Complaints - One of the ways a number of police department have both reduced citizen complaints and involved the community into the sociological and cultural aspect of policing is through community policing. Community policing is, according to the United States Department of Justice. Looking inwardly from the sociological basis of the community, however, it means that there are a number of partnerships that must be put in place at the collaborative level. These partnerships must be between vibrant and robust institutions within the community and the entire law enforcement cadre (local police, county sheriff, etc.). The goal, of course, is that both sides trust each other, so that in problem areas, a great cooperative liaison will be formed (Miller, 2007).
The idea of collaboration between the community and the larger rubric of law enforcement is neither new nor novel. Many times, largely due to lack of adequate human resrouces, historical police groups counted on citizens as deputies, possees, and assistants. Statistically, it is impossible for a police force to be everywhere there is potential crime, and thus the community must be involved in a certain aspect of the justice system. There are, of course, times when this goes to the extreme, as it did in Stalinist Russia where estimates less than jokingly noted that it was likely half the population was spying on the other half (Solomon, 1996).
Modern law enforcement, though, tends to view its job as more public safety than public punishment, thus encouraging the relevance of such partnerships. The potential of these types of cooperative efforts is vast and has the very real probability of improving trust, relationships, and overall community feelings for both sides. There are, in overview, five major ways that differing partners can become effective in this sort of program: Interface with other governmental agencies; interface with the community member individually and community groups; nonprofit organizations and service providers; private businesses and their employees, and the media.
Increasing partnerships between local law enforcement and other governmental agencies can help identify individual community concerns and offer a number of alternative solutions. For example, members of the District Attorney's Office, Health and Human Service organizations, Schools, and even legislative bodies can more appropriate address their concerns and potential solutions under a community policing program (Briggs, 2008).
Community Members and Community Groups often are some of the most pivotal individuals within a community. They are often the types who volunteer, are activists for change, are formal and informal leaders of groups, and even residents who are able to identify problem areas and significant urban problems. It is often seen that with these individuals, engagement within the community fosters more trust, helps the store owners and allows the police to do a better job of helping to keep the peace as opposed to reacting to those who break the peace (Peak, 2007).
Organizations that, by their very nature tend to be advocates for community improvement, such as Churches, service clubs, victim groups, issue groups, etc. can be very critical and powerful partners in community policing. These groups are often composed of the type of individual that will go out of their way to ensure that their community as a whole prospers, and who will devote time, energy, and resources of their own to see that things are improving and that they support law enforcement (see the section on law enforcement and church in Miller, 2008).
Local owned, private businesses typically have a larger stake in maintaining safety and a sense of order within the community - keeping it health, robust, and the streets free of crime. This segment typically enjoys a cooperative relationship with police who support a climate that is low in crime, and therefore conducive to business. It is essential, most law enforcement scholars agree, that private business owners communicate with local police in their own security and use the police as advisors to "prevent" crime rather than react to it (Peak, 2007).
Finally, anything dealing with the community at large should view the media as a powerful tool and ally to communicate, enforce, and even inform its viewers/listeners about potential and current community issues. If the communication between the local media (radio, television, and newspaper) and the local law enforcement departments is positive, then statistics show criminal activity goes down. The media can bring the concerns to a larger group, and, in effect, help coalesce the various groups within the police liaison force, with each other (See the discussion of media in Baker, 2005).
Of course, there are critics of community policing, and even more, of the viability and management of such disparate groups into one whole. The critiques center on the notion that each group has its own agenda, and that these groups will rarely corporate with each other for the good of the community. Within the law enforcement community, the idea of "turf" wars, who controls what; within the local community, does local business take precedence, or does the Church and other social agency work mean more? One author took this challenge in the early 1990s and believes that really, the challenge of community policing itself requires and tests the ability for non-cohesive groups to coalesce into an entity that believes their own community is worth fighting for, and that they will put individual differences aside to work within the parameters of law to build a better foundation. Indeed, despite the critique, the key to making this work is often a few pivotal leaders, and a well-rounded, interactive, and problem solving Police Chief! (Rosenbaum, 1994). Clearly, though, the idea of community involvement in law enforcement is positive, it brings so many aspects of the community together, and allows people of perhaps disparate viewpoints, social means, ethnicities, etc. to work together to provide the goal of a better and more prosperous community for all.