Law enforcement has the unique challenge of balancing the perception of what is necessary and the reality of what is necessary in their chosen career fields. This can lead to varying views of the function of police and what their role should be on a local, state, and federal level. When one combines this with the need to serve the public which is in a constant state of flux, the challenges of defining police functions can easily be seen.
In examination of the role of police, it can easily be determined that the expectations and assumptions of the community often do not match the reality of police work. Further, all officers are generally viewed as interchangeable even though they have differing roles in society. Most interactions with law enforcement within a community occur with those officers employed at the local and state level. It is municipal police, county police, state police and sheriff’s officers that are often brought to mind when one considers the role of policing in society, while interaction with federal officers can be minimal.
At the local level, municipal police as well as county and sheriff’s officers play a larger role within the context of community. Routine patrol makes up the majority of these officer’s days and they are the most likely to respond in the event of a disturbance within the community (Walker & Katz, 2008). The county sheriff has a unique role amongst local officers in that it is an elected office and in the majority of states, the role of the Sheriff is clearly defined within the state’s constitution. This entitles the sheriff to more civic responsibility, spending a lot of time serving subpoenas and acting as officers of the court.
State police are often encountered in the form of a highway patrol or a criminal investigations unit. These units are responsible for everyday traffic violations and incidences as well as investigating crimes providing lab services for local policing agencies. In some instances, state policing agencies are responsible for training of local law enforcement officers (Walker & Katz, 2008). Organization of state level policing agencies varies greatly with almost every state having their own requirements and preferred methods of management.
Federal law enforcement agencies are often relegated into specific tasks. Examples include the Department of Homeland Security(DHS), the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency(FEMA) just to name a few. While the specialization of agencies varies, their primary tasks concern protecting the nation as a whole. These agencies have to be mindful of the government’s role in law enforcement. In addition these agencies are often the focus of scrutiny in times of crises, with some, such as DHS, even being formed as a result of them (Walker & Katz, 2008).
While law enforcement agencies have different perspectives of their work, management of these agencies can be similar. The majority of agencies have chosen a bureaucratic method of management that contains a strict hierarchy of accountability and responsibility. Occasionally, this type of management can hinder the justice process by forcing people to align to protocol over efficiency. Recently, different approaches to management, such as community policing and the creation of task forces, for example. These methods have been utilized in order to address the issues of changing society as well as the quasi-military style of policing that had been prevalent in previous decades.
With a large amount of responsibility and differing points of view on how to achieve tasks, law enforcement must be able to use their preferred method to effectively deal with societal issues. Possible changes in law can have a drastic impact on policing efforts as well as society’s views of these efforts. An obvious example would be the enforcement of the Patriot Act after the events of 911. At this time, law enforcement agencies had been viewed with an interesting mix of admiration and fear. However, as time went on and the implications concerning these laws, particularly as they concern Arab Americans and the intrusion into everyday civilians’ lives quickly led to the mistrust of police as a whole (Victor & Naughton, 2010). While efforts have been made to rebuild community trust, the majority of actions of police portrayed in the media indicate a clear trend of the continued fear and mistrust of law enforcement, perhaps rightly so.
Further challenges concerning changing laws come from a clear divide in the opinions of the populace. The nation seems to stand on a precipice at the moment. The majority of this division is caused by fear, and the balance of liberty versus security is hotly debated (Waller, 2009). In some instances, such as the use of police discretion seem to be a balancing act between political correctness and the misuse of authority. In others, the debate centers on civil liberties and when they have the right to be violated. While some are willing to sacrifice freedoms for security, others are most avidly not.
Regardless, of the cause of changes, law enforcement is required to respond to these changes. While most often this results in policy changes, the results can be more drastic. For example, when an officer feels they are violating the obligations of their post, they may protest rather than enforcing the law. This was evident during the recent Occupy Wall Street protests of the last few years. While the command was to arrest the protesters, and most officers did, others viewed this as a violation of their oath to uphold the Constitution and validation of the hypocrisy of the system. This illustrates that laws are open to interpretation of individual officers, and each officer must make their own decisions concerning them. Changing laws will give more individual officers the opportunity to determine, and perhaps adjust, their role as it pertains to the criminal justice system.
Law enforcement officers and agencies have a unique challenge. They must balance personal views of policing with societal views and the law. This can be a difficult challenge as stations vary greatly in action and management. Despite this, law enforcement agencies have continues to move forward, adjusting to these challenges on a local, state, and federal level as necessary.
Victor, J. L., & Naughton, J. (2010). Annuals editions: Criminal Justice. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Walker, S., & Katz, C. M. (2008). The police in America: An introduction (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Waller, B. N. (2009). You decide! Current debates is criminal justice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.