Theory of Policing

Jaden Rayl

Definition: [1] 

Policing, which is the act police officers engage in, is defined as their role in areas such as, “crime control, order maintenance, peace-keeping, and upholding public safety” (Theories of Policing (police)).The ways in which police engage in these activities is what police theory seeks to explain.Therefore police theory is defined as the “organization… power and authority granted to [the police], the roles and tasks they are entrusted with… [and] the quality of effectiveness of their work” (Theories of Policing (police)).Essentially, it is what constitutes good policing for society. Thus, theories on policing explain why different police officers and organizations act differently. It is an inherently complex topic that includes approaches and has no correct answer because of different societies attitudes towards police.Thus, this glossary will include the history of policing in the US, basic principles of the three main theories of policing in practice, and the challenges they face.

History of Policing:

The modern police force as we know it today is not the same police force that was present in America from the period of colonization to today.Policing in colonial America was influenced by the English idea of, “kin policing” which is the practice of community members being “responsible for watching out for their relatives and kin” (Cox). This translated to community policing, wherein citizens were apart of, “watch groups, provided social services” however, “their involvement in crime control activities… was minimal at best” (Cox). The role of police was limited in their scope in terms of policing, and largely ineffective.Later in time, night and day watches were implemented, being molded after the “frankpledge system in England” where a semi-structured group of men from the community volunteered to enforce the law (Cox).Again, this was largely ineffective in crime control because they were mostly drunken men who failed to meet the goals of policing. Thus, there was still no true enforcement power of law in the colonial states.It was the development of two different and more formal police forces that policing became effective in the US. One form of policing came from the slave patrols of the south, which were formed to control the slave population in the South. The other was the congregation of the day and night patrols into a bureaucratic forum as a response to increasing populations in the northern colonies/states.

Slave Patrols:

Slave patrols in the 1700 and 1800s were the first clearly implemented example of a police force in colonial America, as characterized by their need to control slaves and later freed black Americans.They were a centralized system of enforcers who would, “manage the race-based conflict occurring in the southern region of Colonial America; these patrols were created with the specific intent of maintaining control over slave populations” (Cox). These were lead by, ‘White males… from every echelon in the social strata… that wanted to ensure control over their slaves” (Cox). They were described as being, “vigilante-style” and were made to control a population that deemed to be a “dangerous class” which were slaves and later freed slaves (Potter).The creation of a dangerous class that needed to be controlled was the basis for the first systems of policing in the colonies. This created a systematically racist form of enforcement create a control system of black people, especially during the Reconstruction Period.This was seen with the enforcement of Jim Crowlaws, which were, “laws that enforced racial segregation,” in the southern states between the late 1870s to the mid-1950s (Urofsky). This was furthered by the separate but equal doctrine that was created in the Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson(1896).With the codification of these practices in law, until the case was later overturned in Brown v. Board of Education(1954) by ruling the “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional, a police force was created with the intentions to control a certain population. It was clear that the role of police was the enforce racial segregation and control, creating inherently racist policing practices.And it was from these practices that modern policing in the United States arose from. 

Increasing Populations in the North: 

At the same time of slave patrols, policing became more centralized in the northern parts of the United States as a response to population growth in major cities. Which was coupled with mass riots in the northern states wherein police were needed for crowd control, and again the need to control a certain class of people.The population of New York grew from, “60,00 in 1800” and eventually had, “312,00 by 1840” signaling demand for control of such a large population (Whitehouse).  Riots occurred in the evergrowing New York “from 1801 to 1832, [where] Black New Yorkers rioted four times to prevent former slaves from being sent back to their out-of-town masters” (Whitehouse).There was also a difference of class that was being perpetuated as needing control, much like in the south.However, this came from an explanation that, “public drunkenness, crime, hooliganism, political protests and worker “riots” were the products of a biologically inferior, morally intemperate, unskilled and uneducated underclass.” (Potter). The need for control came from the elites of society who had, “mercantile interests” that needed order and, “they supported the development of bureaucratic policing institutions” (Potter).Thus, the police were established under the same principles as the south, to control those deemed needing control.See “The History of Policing in the United States”  and the “Role of Law Enforcement” gloss for more on the history of policing in the United States. 

As the south became free, and the northern urban centers grew, a common thread in policing came about, the need to control a class deemed needing control.This was and still is poor, urban, and black communities. They addressed the problems of, “collectivitive entities” in this case, “neighborhoods, crowds, and the poor.” (Whitehouse).Which then lead to the targeting of a few to deter these communities from acting against society.The goal of modern policing in America is to control groups, by utilizing their force on individuals.

Aggressive Patrol: 

This is the most common theory in the practice of policing in the US and falls in line with the deterrence philosophy of punishment by proactively stopping criminals from committing crimes before it happens.Its main goal is, “to apprehend criminal offenders so regularly that widespread deterrent would take hold” (Herbert).This aligns with the mindset that police should be controlling communities by using their force on individuals in communities. This use of force is to make an example of what can happen if they go against the power and laws of the state. This is how aggressive patrol acts as a force of deterrence.Aggressive patrol is the result of historical wars on crime and drugs and shows that “the police [are] created by government” which means that the government is now largely responsible for the way in which the police are policing (Potter). This can be heavily seen in the era of the 1990’s war on crime era, where politicians created policies that were intended to, “impress their… audiences with demonstrations of the toughness of their attitudes” (Page). Such as the three-strike policy created in Washington in 1993, which is a habitual offender law wherein a three-time offender of a serious crime, “shall be sentenced to life in prison without… parole” (Lacourse Jr.). This allows for the winds of political change to easily change the course of the policing. Showing that the interests of the police are not rooted in equality, rather in the special interests of those in power and what their philosophies on punishment control are(For more on philosophies of punishment, see the Definition of Law gloss). Next, the gloss will cover aggressive patrol in action and how its aggressive nature is not the most effective in practice. 

In practice, this model seems to fail in terms of achieving the goals of policing.This theory aligns well with the cultural norm, “to turn to police whenever concerns emerge about crime or disorder, due to a hegemonic belief that officers can respond quickly and effectively” (Herbert).The police are used as a crutch in social situations of disorder, causing them to be the ones to solve this disorder. This creates a cyclical system of police action that exacerbates race and class problems in policing. Such as situations of white people calling the police on homeless, black, or other minority individuals who are acting within the law but seen as a disruption to typical social order.[2] [3] However, this practice is problematic, as seen through the effects of calling the police on the homeless in San Francisco. In 2016, “The SF Police Department made 57,249 dispatches… relating to homelessness” and “resulted in 125 arrests and 4,711 citations” (Svitak). More specifically, it lead to the issuing of “282 [move along orders]” to the homeless, which is a citation that forces a homeless individual to move, and also forces them to show up to court and pay any fines along with it (Svitak).This creates a cyclical cycle of being involved with the criminal justice system (see Due Process and Crime Control model glosses) and can become more damaging for a homeless individual. Due to a lack of accessibility for them, they may be unable to pay fines or show up for court hearings and creates a deeper pit of legal involvement for them.Thus, this action of aggressive patrol is not effective in practice, hurts individuals more than they need to be, and it does not try to correct the outside social factors that can cause a change in behavior. Aggressive patrol is focused on the need to deter action, however, this focus on stopping crime before it happens does not work well in practice, and needs to be challenged due to its harmful practices.

Coercive Benevolence: 

This is the second most common theory of policing in America, and it can be confused with Aggressive Patrol. While it has the same principles in deterrence and preventive action, it is a more community-based approach on policing.These community partnerships include, “homeless shelters that stress intensive rehabilitation” (Herbert). In other terms, this is a “self-help” system wherein the police coerce the offenders into programs that are deemed benevolent to society (Herbert).It can be thought of as a carrot-and-stick model where an offender if offered the carrot, the good, of rehabilitation or the stick, the bad, of law enforcement and face jail time.Due to the guise of self-help, police are under the assumption that offenders put themselves in this place of poverty, homelessness, and criminal activity because “they aren’t willing to make good choices in their life” (Herbert).However, creating a type of policing that is based around ultimatums, with no room for error creates an unhealthy cycle where no correction has occurred. It is also an unhealthy mindset towards these issues that are largely systematic, rather than individual causes.Homelessness can be individually caused by one’s mental illness, substance abuse, and other factors, it can also be caused by larger social factors such as being, “inextricably linked” to poverty (Why Are People Homeless). The issues of poverty leads to, “stagnant or falling incomes and less secure jobs which offer fewer benefits” (Why Are People Homeless).Thus, ones position of being poverty leads to a less secure life that can lead one to homelessness. And these issues are not to be put on the individual themselves, since it can be caused by many outside factors, such as the economy. The mentality towards policing these communities in coercive benevolence does not adequately address the underlying issues of crime, much like aggressive patrol. 

Coreservice benevolence allows for an increase in police action.Since the implementation of, “The Safer City Initiatives (SCI)” by the LAPD, “officers’ willingness to conduct pedestrian stops” increased dramatically (Herbert).During the first year of the program, “officers made roughly 9,000 arrests and issues 12,000 citations… in a neighborhood with a population… around 13,000” (Blasi).This only continues to people at risk in further trouble by making them pay fines or face the consequences of an arrest on a permanent record. It does little to cause effective change.This theory is ultimately disguised as aggressive patrol, except there now lies two strict options for recourse instead of one. And both of these options are not addressing the root cause of crime. 

Officer-Lead Harm Reduction: 

This theory of policing refocuses the role of police, specifically in using their discretion to refer offenders to programs, rather than having the police enforce a legal punishment on them.These programs are like Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program. This program “is a pre-booking diversion… program developed with the community to address low-level drug and prostitution crimes.” (About LEAD). LEAD focuses on one’s ability to reduce harm to themselves and reduce their harmful behavior. This reexamines the role of officers by making their discretion power helpful to refer habitual offenders to a program that addresses the issues they face. This program also looks at the process of rehabilitation as one that is not a linear path and accepts relapses as normal. This is different from coercive benevolence because it does not punish an individual for not being able to complete a program or failing to stay away from drug use. For that reason, this program is the best suited for marginalized communities, as it tries to address underlying social problems that affect these communities.The results from LEAD seem to be promising.Evaluations of the program find that, “LEAD climates spent thirty-nine fewer days in jail than similarly situated arrested who did not enter LEAD” and that, “the odds that a LEAD client were sentenced to prison… were 87 percent lower than non-LEAD clients” (Collins, et al.).Hence, this is the most effective theory in practice that utilizes the police, as it reconditions the role of police within society.

While this theory of reducing harm to oneself is most practical in changing the role of police, it faces many cultural barriers that will likely make it not prevail.An example is from the lack of resources to make these programs come to fruition. As a LEAD steak holder described, Everybody recognizes that [methadone treatment systems] have got to exist but nobody wants them where they live” and that with the current “absent access to housing and jobs, the socially marginal will remain largely in the same status” (Herbert).LEAD suffers from not having the appropriate resources to realistically implement their programs to their fullest capacity to significantly reduce social marginality. It is important that programs like these, which are now being piloted in: “Albany, New York to Santa Fe, New Mexico” with “Baltimore and Atlanta” planning on to pilot these programs in the future, are successful to show the positive effect of reexamining the role of police can do.It is only with further use of this practice that it can become more prominent in society and make the change it wishes to do.More about LEAD can be viewed in this hyperlink.

Future of Policing:

Due to the systematic and social problems that come from the heavy emphasis of police in society, there has been a push to adopt different theories on policing.Below, two different options for the future of policing will be discussed, as they are different approaches to this issue.They are: Community Oriented Policing and policing without police, or more simply a world without police.These two different approaches to policing represent the ways in which policing is trying to be changed.

Community Oriented Policing: 

This type of policing takes a note from what was practiced in early colonial America by creating a system where community members and police work together for the goals of the community.Community Oriented Policing Service (COPS) has been recognized by the Department of Justice to try to build, “trust and mutual respect… ensuring all stakeholders work together to address our nation’s crime challenges” (Department of Justice). This program was created in 1994 by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Actand has had over $14 billion in investments towards it (Department of Justice). However, the website has not been updated on what they have achieved since May of 2017 and only includes information to 2007 (Department of Justice). Most of this information primarily talks about the funds they received for the years and how they were approached, rather than talk about work that happened in the field. Overall, this idea seems to be one that is talked about in theory but is rarely implemented in practice.Or at the very least, it has had a minimal impact on policing, and it is not an emerging theory that will likely address the problems currently posed by current policing practices.

Policing Without Police:

Another future for police is one without them, as seen in the movements towards abolishing police, ICE, and prisons because of the systemic problems caused by these institutions.The institutions of police “were created to protect the property of businesses and the wealthy and enforce white supremacy” which is seen through the historical development of police through slave patrols (For a world without police). Police draw their focus towards, “the racialized poor and away from the wealthy” leading to major discrepancies in how they practice (Whitaker).By this understanding, the police are not meant to serve and equally protect marginalized communities, and there should be a different way to approach these issues that police are historically involved in.An example of a way to keep the police uninvolved is the follow the motto of, “if you see something, do something” compared to the common idea of “if you see something, say something” (12 Things to do Instead of Calling the Cops). These include a person going to a police station, rather than bringing the police in one’s community or encouraging people to, “Create a culture of taking care of each other” (12 Things to do Instead of Calling the Cops)It is a call on an individual to check their own assumptions on when to get the police involved and work towards true community policing by its own members. These practices are the steps towards a future where police are not necessary for society by making the community itself do its own due diligence in situations where they would have called the police.

Another example of policing without police is the theory of mutual aid, which is seen in anarchist communities.Mutual aid stems from the idea of humans evolving, “as a sentient species and the emergence of Human Civilization were the result of solidarity for the needs of our fellow community members” (The Anarchist Response to Crime). It reorients members of the community to, “cooperate to ensure that no person is victimized by another, mutual respect and mutual freedom are observed” among many others pillars of civility and cooperation (The Anarchist Response to Crime). Overall, “in an anarchist society, everyone has the freedom of choice. Crime is, therefore, a choice” and it is one that is viewed as causing an “injury” to a member that is reflected as an, “injury to all” (The Anarchist Response to Crime).Thus, it is up to the society to deem what the injury is, and how they will deal with that injury. This type of cooperation seems to work better in a more homogenous society that is not as large as the United States. So, this would be an alternative for a smaller town/village/community to take up rather than the country itself.However, it is a good starting point for communities to understand how they can operate without police and create a system of policing that better serves their communities.


Police are inevitably apart of the United States society as it is known today, and their role in society is not understated.From historical developments, they have come up as a systematically flawed and politically charged group that is working for the benefit of the elite and politicians rather than the people they serve.The two main methods of policing reflect this ideology clearly and do nothing to address the social aspects that create the activity that is deemed criminal. Rather, an approach that is more akin to officer-lead harm reduction should be in practice to do so. I would make the argument that this method is the best from all that are presented here because they still keep police in society, but it rethinks their role. By doing so, there will still be the face of state power, but it will not be implemented in a way that completely condemns crime and tries to address the social factors that cause social disparities. However, a better alternative might be to leave the policing to communities themselves, such as allowing the theory of mutual aid to prevail.In the end, there is no perfect theory of policing deployed in society, but the issues surrounding as to why they are ineffective need to be addressed for effective policing to be present in society.

 Works Cited 

“About LEAD.” LEAD Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.King County Police Department. Accessed 4 February 2019. 

“About the COPS Office.” COPS Community Oriented Program Services. US Department of Accessed 31 January 2019.

Blasi, Gary. 2007. Policing Our Way Out of Homelessness?: The First Year of the Safer City Initiatives on Skid Row.Los Angeles, CA: Inter-University Consortium on Homelessness. Accessed 11 Feb. 2019.

Brown v. Board of Education. 347 U.S. Supreme Court 483. 1954. Accessed 11 Feb. 2019.

Collins, Susane E. et al. LEAD Program Evaluation: Criminal Justice and Legal System Utilization and Associated Costs. 2015. Accessed 8 Feb. 2019. 

Cox, Steven et al. Introduction to Policing. 3rd ed., SAGE Publishing, January 2016. Accessed 30 January 2019. 

“For A World Without Police.” A World Without Police, 2019. Accessed 31 Jan. 2019.

Herbert, Steve et al. Policing Social Marginality: Contrasting Approaches. Journal of the American Bar Foundation, 2017. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019.

Lacourse Jr, David. Three Strikes, You’re Out: A Review. Washington Policy Center. 1 January 1997. Accessed 4 February 2019. 

Page, Josh. Eliminating the Enemy. SAGE Publications. University of California, Berkeley. 2004. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019.

Potter, Gary. The History of Policing in the United States.EKU Online. Accessed 30 January 2019.

Svitak, Adora. “Why You Should THink Twice About Calling the Police on Homeless People.” The Bold Italic, 22 Oct. 2018, Accessed 9 Feb 2019.

“Theories of Policing (police).” What-When-How in Depth Tutorials and Information. Accessed 30 January 2019.

Urofsky, Melvin. “Jim Crow law.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed 7 Feb. 2019.

Whitehouse, David. Origins of the 24 Dec. 2014. Accessed 31 January 2019. 

Why Are People Homeless?. National Coalition for the Homeless. July 2009. Accessed 6 Feb. 2019.

“12 Things to do Instead of Calling the Cops.” Sprout Distro. 28 July 2017. Accessed 10 Feb. 2019.