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Police

A body sanctioned by local, state, or national government to enforce laws and apprehend those who break them.

The police force as we know it came into being in England in the 1820s when Sir Robert Peel established London's first municipal force. Before that, policing had either been done by volunteers or by soldiers. Police officers in the twenty-first century have technological advantages at their disposal to help them solve crimes, but most rely primarily on training and instinct to do their work.

In the United States, policing was originally done by the "watch system" in which local citizens would go on patrol and look for criminal activity. As cities grew, so did the amount of crime, and it became impossible to control it through volunteers. In the mid-1840s, New York City established the first paid professional police force in the United States. By the end of the nineteenth century, major cities across the nation had their own police forces. Regional police organizations were also established. Federal policing agencies such as the U.S. Park Police (who patrolled national parks), the Postal Inspectors (who helped ensure safe mail delivery) and the Border Patrol (which kept criminals from sneaking into or out of the country) were introduced. In 1905, Pennsylvania established the nation's first state police; other states quickly followed suit.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, police forces were established in smaller municipalities, and police officers took a more active role in fighting crime and protecting citizens. The widespread introduction of telephones and automobiles made it easier for police to respond quickly to emergencies.

Over the ensuing years, many of the techniques and tools commonly associated with police work—mug shots, fingerprint analysis, centralized records, crime labs—were introduced and constantly improved. Although the scenarios commonly created by television police shows are exaggerations of how much technology can actually do, such innovations as DNA testing have made it easier for the police to positively identify criminals.

The average duties of the modern police officer can vary widely from community to community. In a large city whose police force has dozens of divisions and neighborhood precincts, an officer's duties may be quite specialized. In a small town with a police force of only a few people, each officer will likely have to know how to do several jobs to be able to fill in for their colleagues as needed.

The duties of a police officer on the New York City police force provide an example of what the police do. New York officers are expected to patrol their assigned area, either by car or on foot. They apprehend criminals or crime suspects, stop crimes in progress, and assist people who are in trouble (such as complainants in domestic disputes or emotionally disturbed homeless individuals). They investigate crimes and crime scenes, collect evidence, and interview victims and witnesses. They help find missing persons and handle cases of alleged Child Abuse. They help identify and recover stolen property, and they testify in court as necessary. They also keep detailed records of their activity by filing reports and filling out various forms.

Police officers are expected to be in good physical condition. They may have to run after a suspect, carry injured individuals, subdue suspects (who may be armed or physically strong), and carry heavy equipment. They may have periods of extreme physical activity, followed by hours of no activity at all (perhaps just sitting in a patrol car for several hours). They must also be mentally alert and emotionally able to withstand the strain of their work. Although officers in large cities or dangerous neighborhoods may have a statistically higher chance of being injured on killed on the job, all police officers know that life-and-death situations can happen anywhere.

Not accidentally, police departments, especially those in large cities, are compared to military institutions. In fact, the police and the military have a number of goals in common, including discipline, endurance, teamwork, and clearly established procedures for all operations. Even the ranks given police officers are similar to those in the military.

Not surprisingly, police officers are required to undergo often rigorous training before being sworn in. The movement for formalized training began early in the twentieth century. August Vollmer, chief of police in Berkeley, California, from 1905 to 1932, believed that police officers needed professional training at the college level. He helped found a police training academy at the University of California's Berkeley campus, and Berkeley later established the nation's first college-level Criminology department. Today, many Colleges and Universities have criminology departments and offer degrees in criminal justice. Many police departments will provide tuition reimbursement or scholarships to officers who want to continue their education after they have joined the force. Some officers get their law degrees; others get advanced degrees in criminology and become college instructors.

One of the major goals of many police departments is getting cooperation from within the community. Many officers receive training in communications, and most police departments have public affairs divisions that provide information for citizens who wish to organize neighborhood watch programs or who want to get information on avoiding crime. Some police departments, for example, have increased their foot patrols, believing that the officer "walking the beat" makes people feel safer and also builds rapport with local individuals. Police also work with each other as well as with other law enforcement agencies. State, county, and local police will often come together to solve a crime that falls within their jurisdiction. Agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, and others also work with the police to help solve crimes. The emergence of computerized records and databases make it easy for police organizations across the country and even overseas to exchange information about suspects and criminals. In emergency situations (fires, explosions, or natural disasters), police officers work in tandem with fire fighters, medical professionals, or emergency service workers.

Further readings

Bittner, Egon. 1990. Aspects of Police Work. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

Das, Dilip K., and Arvind Verma. 2000. Police Mission: Challenges and Responses. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press.

Kelling, George L., and Catherine Coles. 1996. Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities. New York: Free Press.Wadman, Robert C. 2004. To Protect and to Serve: A History of Police in America. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Cross-references

Federal Bureau of Investigation; Police Power.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

police

originally the order and governance of the locality including things like sanitation but now the local constabulary and indeed national analogous forces. The police generally have no more powers than ordinary citizens, but there are many additional powers that they are given under legislation and under many other enactments. Thus, police have powers of search, seizure and to obtain information beyond that of the ordinary citizen. It is an offence to obstruct them in the course of their duties as it is to waste their time. The Chief Constable is vicariously liable for the wrongs of his force but answers on financial matters to the local authority. The Metropolitan force answers to the Home Secretary, who himself is responsible to Parliament. They will not generally be liable to a member of the public for a failure to prevent crime and it is difficult to sue the police for negligence in carrying out their duties. They may however be sued for MISFEASANCE in office if the requirements of that wrong can be established.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

POLICE. That species of superintendence by magistrates which has principally for its object the maintenance of public tranquillity among the citizens. The officers who are appointed for this purpose are also called the police.
     2. The word police has three significations, namely; 1. The first relates to the measures which are adopted to keep order, the, laws and ordinances on cleanliness, health, the markets, &c. 2. The second has for its object to procure to the authorities the means of detecting even the smallest attempts to commit crime, in order that the guilty may be arrested before their plans are carried into execution, and delivered over to the justice of the country. 3. The third comprehends the laws, ordinances and other measures which require the citizens to exercise their rights in a particular form.
     3. Police has also been divided into administrative police, which has for its object to maintain constantly public order in every part of the general administration; and into judiciary police, which is intended principally to prevent crimes by punishing the criminals. Its object is to punish crimes which the administrative police has not been able to prevent.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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