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The Role of Police

The police are by nature a closed and secretive organization. This essay, identifies and discusses the variety of difficulties social scientists face when researching the police.

How we define the role of police is much more than an interesting problem in community. Rather, it is a direct reflection of society’s heart. Using primary source documents to trace the evolution of the role of police in society who handle contemporary police problems in the UK. But it also chronicles the attempts of political leaders, reformers, scholars, and police executives to deal with a range of social problems such as immigration, population growth, urbanization, racism, poverty, gender bias, and technological change as well as crime.


Policing addresses one of the most fundamental problems of social living- how to deal with those who violate group customs, norms, rules, and laws that enable cooperation. Cooperating together in large groups enables us to take advantage of one another’s strengths and to compensate for individual weaknesses. The resulting sum can be much greater than the parts and, all else being equal, the large the social group, the larger the potential benefit. But social living also provides opportunities for people to cheat. Instead of cooperating to produce a shared benefit, people can use force, fraud, or stealth to obtain valued resources. Once again, generally speaking, the larger the social group, the greater the opportunities for cheating. Cheaters weaken the cooperative bonds that enable productive social living and, like parasites in an animal, too many cheaters can kill or cripple a society.

In a general sense, crimes include those acts or omissions punished by law to maintain public order. This in accordance with the inherent duty of the State of parens patriae or to be the guardian of the rights of the people.

Crimes are the most common topic of news because more often than not, they satisfy the essential requisite of research worthiness of a particular fact or event. And just like any other topic in journalism, crime-related events should be presented, as much as possible, in a balanced, objective, accurate and adequate manner because parallel to the duty of social scientist to investigate and inform the public of the issues which are of public interests is the right of the public to be informed of facts truthfully.

In view of this fact, this paper aims to provide an analysis of the difficulties of social scientists face when researching the police. The objective is to determine the variables related to the practices of social scientists when researching the police. An analysis of these variables is provided as well as its interpretation and its possible consequences in relation to the image of the society that these portray.

The role of the police service has changed immensely since its conception by Sir Robert Peel in 1829. The new system of police was the first of its kind within the world. It had been established in London, to formalise the policing to the laws governing in society. The previous Anglo-Saxon system of watches, and parish constables had failed due immense social and economic changes and the consequent movement of the population to the towns. It was at this time government passed the first Metropolitan Police Act and the Metropolitan Police Force was established.

Actually, the basic principles that Sir Richard Mayne believed in are still one of the many that are used in running the modern police service seen in Great Britain, and throughout the United Kingdom today. Although the actual role of today’s police service is somewhat of a debate, even internally to its own individual chief constables or commissioners, the belief that the police are there to primarily prevent crime, and secondarily for the detection of crime and punishment of offenders is a stereotypical view carried in today’s community. The truth in the matter is nowadays the police service are merely the ‘gatekeepers’ on today’s criminal justice process, and are supported by a several other equally important agencies in the quest of detecting crime, the punishing of offenders, and the ensuring of justice. Today’s police force also carries other roles except the management of crimes, and pursing cases to court.

However, there are some cases that police image are devaluated through bad impressions such as police ineffectiveness, brutality, etc. These types of mistakes led to the public confidence in the police dealing effectively with crime and criminals slipping below an acceptable standard. This has also not been helped by the fact of the majority of the public’s impressions of today’s police force are being driven by the drama series seen on TV, a majority of which are based in UK law enforcement agencies. These programmes glamorise the role of the police, with the star of the show solving the crime and always winning in court, without showing the obvious burdens and bureaucracy of paperwork and the complete process of the British legal systems.

In addition, despite the popularity of the ‘crime-fighter’ image, a great deal of police work is humdrum. Research has demonstrated that far less police time is spent in ‘crime-related’ activity than in providing a ‘service’ by, for example, calming disturbances, negotiating disputes and responding to a wide range of accidents and emergencies. (Maguire, Morgan, et al. 2002 p. 987). The 1988 British Crime Survey statistics have in the past shown that only 18% of all public contact with the UK’s police services actually involves crime. It can therefore been seen as ironic, that given the proportion of time spent dealing with crime related incident, and the higher proportion thus dealing with the other service related functions, that the public devalue the police purely on the face of crime related incidents.

The public poor perception of the police and in particular the perceived lack of contact with today’s police force has caused the government to essentially redevelop the face of the police service within Great Britain. The new Police Reform Act, and related legislation has helped introduce new roles and responsibilities for the police services in the UK. Exceptionally, the new initiative has also introduce the Community Support Officer, and other such civilianised positions to help support constables in helping to release more police officers, and uniformed civilian staff into the community by cutting bureaucracy and paperwork.

With regards to the roles and status of police in society, issues regarding researches of social scientist to police practices are emerging. Actually, most of the problems encountered by social scientist to police practices are almost similar to the problems encountered by a regular citizen. Most of the problems are regarding police secrecy, misconduct, abuse of authority and social problems. Thus, the review of most social scientist complaints is an important and rapidly changing aspect of police oversight. Police officer misconduct results in public dissatisfaction with police services, particularly when social scientist who file formal complaints believe that their charges are not investigated thoroughly. Problems associated with the complaint process have inhibited positive relations between law-enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. This issue is even more important today, as law enforcement moves into the era of community policing, with its emphasis on closer interaction between police departments and social scientist.
Traditionally, police departments have reviewed social scientist complaints internally. Sworn officers assigned to the internal affairs or office of professional standards unit investigates individual complaints and recommends a final disposition to the chief executive. But nationally, municipal law-enforcement agencies sustain an average of only 10 percent of all social scientist complaints reviewed internally (Pate and Fridell 1993, 113-120).

In addition to the problems encountered by most social scientist in researching the police, interrogation among policemen seems to become an issue. Perhaps the defining characteristic of the modern police interrogation is its almost universal endorsement by the policing community as a necessary component of any effective investigation (Baldwin 1993). Based on this conviction, interrogative practices have come to play an irreducible role in the justice process as a means of establishing the culpability of suspects, and subsequently, preparing the cases against them. As Baldwin (1993: 326) argues, “It has now become something of a truism to observe that, in most criminal cases, the crucial stage is the interview at the police station, for it is at that stage that a suspect’s fate is as a rule sealed”.

Despite this widespread endorsement of the interrogation as a key stage in the justice process, considerable ambiguity and debate surround the specific nature of its functions and effects. Thus, while the most typical rationale involves its technical role in eliciting confessions, providing inculpatory evidence, and generating information pertaining to other crimes (Leo 1994), a number of researchers have indicated that, in actual fact, the interrogation plays a much more limited role in the majority of police investigations (Bryan 1997). McConville and Baldwin (1982:169) provide perhaps the strongest articulation of this position arguing that, “The available evidence suggests that, in the total law enforcement picture, the interrogation is comparatively unimportant”. The implication here is that most case outcomes are determined by evidence which precedes the interrogation itself- such as forensic data and eyewitness accounts. Nevertheless, despite its apparently limited technical value, the police interrogation continues to be endorsed by the majority of analysts as a key investigative practice, a contradiction which requires a much more subtle, sophisticated, and ultimately, less technical appreciation of its nature and functions.

The starting point for such an alternative approach lies in re-framing the interrogation in relation to the wider structure and context of police work. Specifically, interrogative practices must be viewed as natural extensions of the police activities of case construction and legitimation. This follows from an interpretive approach to policing (Ericson and Baranek 1982) which conceives of police work primarily in terms of the production and legitimation of narrative accounts of criminal behaviour, an inherently social process which is itself dependent upon the interpretive work and social interactions of individual police officers under conditions of autonomy and low visibility. It is the relative success of the police in constructing and justifying these accounts, and hence in de-legitimating competing visions, that is believed to be largely determinative of the outcomes of specific cases (Ericson 1993). This preliminary narrative work is thus largely constitutive of the power relations between the police and the public. In this respect, the later stages of the justice process come to represent sources of justification and legitimation for the initial accounts developed by the police, rather than autonomous mechanisms of adjudication (Ericson 1985).

From this perspective on police work, it is reasonable to argue that the police interrogation functions as an integral component of a more general process of account production and legitimation. This stems from its existence as an interactional medium and dramatic ritual through which police narratives of criminal acts are not only tested, elaborated, and reaffirmed, but also endowed with the organizational and personal commitments of the individuals involved. The result is the conceptualization of interrogations as, “… social encounters fashioned to confirm and legitimate a police narrative” (McConville et al. 1991: 327).

It should be noted that an integral part of this process of legitimation is the reconciliation of any lingering ambiguities with the official account of the event. In this way, a narrative is created which highlights the suspect’s guilt and selects out mitigating facts and circumstances (McConville and Baldwin 1982). As part of this process of translation, simplification, and naturalization, the suspect’s viewpoint is ultimately either ignored or incorporated into the police account through an active process of negotiation and persuasion (McConville et al. 1991; Ericson and Baranek 1982).

Ultimately then, the interrogative process, drawing upon specific police schemas and theories of suspect culpability, is designed to persuade a suspect to accept a particular, predetermined rendition of events – a narrative account which is based on the excessive simplification of what is, in reality, a complex situation with ambiguous meanings and consequences. In conformity with this underlying logic, the questions asked are not of any true probative value but, “… merely seek to persuade suspects to accept a predetermined version of events” (Baldwin 1993: 341).

While the production of a confession is one specific outcome of this process, of more implicit importance is the commitment that the interrogation fosters, on the part of both the police and the suspect, to the official account of a criminal act. For the police, the performance of the interrogation ritual provides them with an opportunity both to confirm previous suspicions about a case (Bryan 1997), and actively to incorporate the suspect into the official account through the elicitation of confirmative statements. This latter function is particularly important as it supplies the suspect with what appears to be an authentic subject-position within the police narrative. In this way, the legitimacy of the police account is bolstered as the suspect’s involvement in the case is articulated in their own words, rather than those of the detectives. For the suspect, this process usually results in a reluctant identification with the police position – at least to the extent that it is the police account which now becomes the recognized framework according to which the suspect’s defense must be organized and articulated. This identification is only accelerated as other possible framings of the events are successively foreclosed through the course of the interrogation.

The end result of this entire process is the legitimation of the organizational narrative and the police actions that were taken in its defense. Once again, this must be seen to conform to the overall logic and structure of police work itself which is premised upon the rendering of the ambiguities and complexities of life events into stabilized, organizationally supported narratives that offer clear lines of organizational action (Ericson 1993). The interrogation thus emerges as a critical sense-making medium through which the unique circumstances of cases may be applied against a background of taken-for-granted assumptions, and thus, converted into fairly routine forms of organizational work (Manning 1986).

Beyond its implications for police narratives as applied in specific cases, there is also a second respect in which the police interrogation fulfills a crucial legitimating function. Following from the position of the police as key representatives of the socio-normative order, and consequently, a critical point at which the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour are negotiated, the interrogation may be viewed as a mechanism for both identifying deviations from the status quo, and shaming the individuals who are responsible for this deviation (McConville and Baldwin 1982).

Based on the discussion, it is found out that the police function is a product of the societal structure of which it is a part. Simply stated, where the structure of that society is classless and uncensored, that is, where there is more or less an equal right and opportunity for all societal members to share in access to and use of basic resources, then the police has as its function to see that individuals who attempt to interfere with that free and equal access are prevented from doing so. Where, however, a society is class-based, that society must have a state structure to maintain that unequal access to basic resources. A police is the element of that state structure that has for its function the maintenance of that inequality by force.

Recent examples of propertied classes using police to patrol inner-city minority areas, to control worker efforts at unionization, to suppress protests against government policies to fight unpopular wars, or to maintain repressive regimes such as the southern slavocracy are legion and need no citation.

Thus, it is obvious that the possibility of producing an equal police from an inegalitarian society would have about the same chance as expecting a swan to emerge from a hen’s egg. Yet, having examined as many societal attempts to deal with this problem as we have, we believe that we should make an attempt to apply what we have learned to at least imagining a society in which such a police would be possible rather than leave the reader with the unsatisfactory conclusion that nothing can be done until society, at some distant moment, is restructured to our satisfaction.


Baldwin, J. (1990). Police interviews on tape. New Law Journal 140: 662-3.

Baldwin, J. (1993) Police interview techniques: Establishing truth or proof?. British Journal of Criminology 33(3): 325-352.

Bryan, I. (1997) Interrogation and Confession: A Study of Progress, Process, and  Practice. Aldershot: Ashgate-Darmouth.

Ericson, R V. and P. Baranek (1982) The Ordering of Justice: A Study of Accused Persons as Dependants in the Criminal Process. Toronto:     University of Toronto Press.

Ericson, R. V. (1985) Legal inequality. Research in Law, Deviance, and Social Control 7:33-78.

Ericson, R. V. (1993) Making Crime: A Study of Detective Work. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Leo, Richard A. (1994) Police interrogation and social control. Social and Legal Studies 3:93-120.

McConville, M, A. Sanders, and R. Leng (1991) The Case for the Prosecution. New York: Routledge.

McConville, M. and J. Baldwin (1982). The role of interrogation in crime discovery and conviction. British Journal of Criminology 22: 165-175.

Pate A., and L. Fridell. ( 1993). Police Use of Force: Official Reports, Citizen Complaints and Legal Consequences. Washington, D.C.: Police Foundation.

Manning, P K. (1986) Texts as organizational echoes. Human Studies 9(2-3):287-302.

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