Law enforcement officers in the United States put on their uniform, gun, and badge, never knowing if today may be their last day. It’s a thankless job but a vital one. The role of law enforcement has changed drastically from its inception. In general, law enforcement’s role in a democratic society is to enforce laws so that each citizen’s liberty flourishes as well as to promote public safety.
The History of Law Enforcement in the U.S.
The U.S. adopted England’s common-law system that included constables, watchmen, sheriffs, social obligation, and a paid justice system. Most towns had at least a night watch that consisted of volunteers and part-time officers funded by the town. Mostly, they looked out for gambling and prostitution. Boston started a night watch in 1636, and New York followed suit, starting their night watch in 1658. The city of Boston started the first organized police force in the form of watchmen.
Different areas of the country had specific problems that required protection and enforcement by a uniformed police force. As the population of the country increased, localities became more industrialized and urban than rural. Communities became too large for the night watch to be effective.
Crimes such as public disturbances and riots became common. In the south, police forces were created to protect shipping interests. Citizens and governments knew they had to address the problem. Americans were hesitant to establish organized police forces, but they knew that the increased frequency of crimes made it necessary to protect society from violence and crime.
Sir Robert Peel is known as the father of law enforcement because he founded the first metropolitan police force in London in 1829. Peel was known to have said “The police are the public and the public are the police.” It’s meant to explain the dual role that law enforcement hold in society. Police officers often live in the communities that they serve. This duality gives them an increased responsibility to the public, their families, and their communities.
It wasn’t until 1838 that Boston, Massachusetts created the very first organized, publicly funded police department. Other cities such as Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, and New Orleans soon followed Boston’s lead. By the end of the 19th century, almost every urban city in the country had some type of centralized police department.
What Role Do Police Play in Society?
As defined above, law enforcement officers uphold state, local, and federal laws and promote public safety so that individual liberty thrives. Economics and politics were the primary catalysts for creating police departments across the country and their roles related to the issues prevalent in society during the timeframe they served.
Police are entrusted to maintain public order. To do their job, there must be a mutual trust and accountability between law enforcement and citizens in the community they serve. When these officers are sworn in, the locality they serve gives them the power to use force as a necessary means to accomplish their goals.
The Difference Between Urban and Rural Policing
While police officers essentially perform the same duties in both rural and urban areas, their environment greatly influences the way they do their job and sometimes the type of jobs they perform. Crime rates tend to be higher in urban areas; thus, they run more calls for service. Rural police officers may have fewer calls to respond to, but the trade-off is that, many times, there is no close backup. So, comparing urban and rural law enforcement agencies is like comparing oranges to apples.
Rural Law Enforcement
In 2016, the United States Census Bureau reported some interesting findings. Ninety-seven percent of the nation is rural, with only 19.3 percent of the population living there. That means there are fewer people populating large amounts of land while in cities thousands or millions of people inhabit much smaller places, such as New York City. New York City is the largest city in the U.S., with a total population in 2016 of 8.55 million people.
Rural police officers have smaller shifts that cover more area. It’s not uncommon in places such as Virginia to have only four to five deputies and one state trooper to cover approximately 900 square miles. That means backup can be on the other side of the county or 40 minutes away running code—if you have backup at all.
Law enforcement in rural areas deals with farm and wild animal calls frequently. It’s very rare that a city officer will have to chase a bear or cow. Many fire and rescue agencies in counties are staffed mostly by volunteers. In most places, they are starting to put paid staff at county fire and rescue departments, but smaller agencies may rely solely on volunteers. So, it’s not uncommon for deputies and officers to reach medical or fire calls before the fire department or rescue squad. Law enforcement often keeps different types of first aid supplies and extra duty gear accessories in their patrol cars.
One perk rural officers have is a take-home patrol car. Most rural deputies and police officers sign on to duty from their residence and start taking calls immediately. Some places assign officers a sector to patrol, and some live in that area. The downside is that many rural police agencies don’t have a roll call, where they meet to exchange important information and the day’s incidents. These law enforcement officers have limited interaction with their shift mates.
A rural police officer must rely on grit and good communication to survive each day. They never know when backup is coming, and most people in the area own some type of gun. It’s a significant factor in everything that they do.
One thing that rural and urban police officers have in common is they can become quickly outnumbered on calls. These situations are dangerous and have the potential to require the use of deadly force because the officers can become outnumbered quickly.
Urban Law Enforcement
All officers must be prepared for when things go haywire because they can at any time. The urban officer probably isn’t grappling with wild animals and responding to domestics on their own. However, they get many more calls for service every night compared to rural officers. Sometimes, it’s all they can do to keep up with the call volume, and there’s usually another call waiting as soon as they clear one.
Urban police departments often have more resources than rural agencies. A rural deputy may respond to a call that turns out to be a homicide and must call a detective on duty or work it out themselves with assistance from supervisors. An urban police department has more people and resources to assign to a case.
The bad news for urban police officers is that they have far more homicides than most rural police departments. New York City already had 135 homicides for the year by June 30. 2019. A rural county would think having ten homicides a year a catastrophe. There are also far more police officers in urban areas. NYPD has 76 precincts. That’s a massive number of officers versus the 5-200 total officers that rural county police agencies have.
There’s more gang-related crime, more violent assaults, and much more crime in general in urban areas. Rural locations have the same types of crime and violence, but they occur less often.
The very area that they serve can cause complications. Deputies may be looking for a missing or wanted person in thousands of miles of national forest, while urban officers may have to fight a suspect in tight quarters on a crowded subway. Big cities have more traffic and a larger concentration of people. Urban officers patrol smaller areas with more people.
A rural police officer may only run seven calls in one night but have to drive back and forth across a 900-square-mile county multiple times. Different environmental factors affect both types of law enforcement officers. The number of people may delay a city police officer’s response to calls, while distance affects the rural law enforcement officer.
The Nation’s Policing Crisis
Over time, policing began to change from the early model of watchmen, constables, and sheriffs. Things began to change when J. Edgar Hoover was assigned to be the head of the FBI in 1924. Novels with detective heroes were very popular during this time, and Hoover decided to make that fictional image a reality. Gradually, the professional crime-fighting model took over as the norm for law enforcement agencies across the country. Hoover’s idea of police work meant that the new role of police officers was limited to concentrate on combating dangerous street crimes.
Instead of building trust with the communities they served, police agencies began to sever the close bonds officers had with them. Officers patrolled more in cars and were switched around between districts so that they didn’t connect well with any community. They no longer worked in the areas that they lived. Police authority came from law alone and not a combination of politics and law like before.
People founded civil-service systems to shield law enforcement officers from political influence. Administration for police was decentralized and divided into different specialties, such as investigations, patrol, and support services with their own standard procedures, discretion levels, and training standards. The command and control structure became militarized.
Their method for handling crime became reactive instead of proactive, with a focus on a fast response to calls. This structure spread to other countries after World Wars I and II.
After World War II, American police departments became fully motorized, with the theory that preventative patrols would deter criminals and stop crimes in progress. When the police began installing radios in police cars, it decreased the amount of time that it took to respond to calls.
In 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice backed the preventive patrols and quick response to calls. They decided that the best law enforcement strategy was to fine-tune police personnel, equipment, and organizations.
Some people in communities didn’t like the preventive patrols but thought that the potential of crime prevention was so great, the commission proposed to keep them. Unfortunately, this model had many drawbacks. The very nature of the system created patrol units that were reactive rather than proactive. Their primary purpose was to respond to calls.
Citizens had little part of the crime prevention process other than calling for police services. The motorization of police departments isolated all officers from the community they served.
The 1960s and 1970s were filled with antiwar and civil rights demonstrations. Unnecessary use of force during this timeframe simply made the rioting worse. Citizens began to take measures to protect themselves and stayed away from public activities and parks. Now law enforcement was too far from the communities.
The Community Policing Model
During the 1950s and 1960s, new research illustrated that fighting crime was only one-fifth of police activities. The rest came from providing public or emergency services, resolving conflict, and maintaining order. Citizens now called the police for a variety of activities that didn’t fall under their duties. They also found that discretion was a critical ingredient of successful policing.
As politicians questioned this method of policing, the Supreme Court started handing down some verdicts that restricted police interrogations and searches. A new day was dawning, and community policing was entering the picture.
To improve community relations and increase the effectiveness of policing, many agencies established a policing strategy that would eventually evolve into community policing. Over time, policing evolved to assign specific areas to a supervisor, and they were in control of it. Those in charge of protecting citizens and enforcing laws in a specific area consulted with residents and leaders. Police hoped these interactions would destroy the barrier between police and citizens and help law enforcement customize services that matched the needs of people in each area.
After a while, team policing failed to show much effectiveness, so a new period of enlightenment recognized exactly how complex police duties were. They learned that officers should be able to use discretion to perform their tasks and that if law enforcement wasn’t close to communities, they would have a difficult time. It was also vital that police needed to be accountable to the public and elected officials. Community policing was born.
Scholars said that police should implement tactics that counteracted disorder and crime and helped preserve the sense of community in troubled areas. The visibility of law enforcement in troubled places builds a sense of trust and deters criminal activity. Community policing became a national crime-fighting strategy in the 1990s, and legislation authorized the hiring of 100,000 officers across the U.S. to implement the community policing plan.
Today, some places still follow the community policing model, but it’s less popular than it used to be. However, many departments still deploy strategies that encourage interaction with the public and complete transparency to help build trust with the community. Crime and community relations continue to change and, if law enforcement remains adaptable and open to change, the system can hopefully address the challenges law enforcement faces today.