The Canadian Review of Policing Research (2004)

ISSN: 1710 6915


Willem de Lint

The author is an assistant professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Windsor. The article on which this summary is based is published in the British Journal of Criminology, 43: 379-397

The question of what do the public police do has long preoccupied analysts, policymakers, and police themselves. The research reported in this article re-examines the police role in light of recent arguments that policing is changing radically and rapidly. It is useful to have a clear understanding of what the police are expected to accomplish, since the public policing function is closely tied to the understanding of liberal democracy in general and Canadian society in particular. Thus an examination of the police role is also an examination of the practice of liberal governance. The research was also undertaken to shed light on the changing nature of the social world in which police operate. Is it correct to say that as society changes policing becomes fundamentally a different enterprise?

Empirical examinations of the police role have established a number of interesting findings on how public police occupy their time, how they are differentiated from private and contract security, and the changing limits of their mandates. Currently, there is little agreement on what distinguishes public policing. There are those who maintain that police are ultimately a means of legitimate coercion. Others see the police function as an expression of symbolic authority, without which there would be no police. More recently, some have argued that police may be more readily understood today as “knowledge workers”.

The research is based on secondary theoretical analysis. It is grounded on a review of secondary findings (over 100 research references) and discovering continuities and discontinuities between schools of thought on the police role. It is an attempt to reconcile features of two schools of thought in a new conceptualization. The aim of the research is not so much to distinguish public from private police, enforcement from patrol and service, but to tease out common elements. And rather than supporting the view that the police role has changed or changing rapidly, the aim is to show that police continue to do things they have done since the time of Robert Peel and before.

Most readers will readily agree with Egon Bittner1 that the police are a form of accessible legitimate coercion. As Bittner argues, the distribution of legitimate coercion must be suitably supple and reliable to resolve many problems – which we might today call “governance” problems – in an administratively flexible fashion. The police are an available force and this distinguishes them. Readers will also agree with Muir2 that police are also “streetcorner politicians”, whose moral authority is the key to their success.

The concept of policing by consent relies on the continual reaffirmation of the right and legitimacy of the police function. Public perception of the police is a key determinant of their capacity to act. Police accountability but also police craft is related to the importance of public perception.

In the ‘information age’ or ‘surveillance society’, the emphasis is on risk minimization, and many agencies which might formerly have been concerned with justifying themselves in terms of justice are now more clearly exercised about risk management. So the police function comes to be viewed as working with data to minimize risks. As Albert Reiss jr. and P. K. Manning have argued, police are an information agency. They trade in information. In their turn, Richard Ericson and Kevin Haggerty3 argue that police spend a great deal of time providing information to insurance companies, the courts, and a variety of law enforcement agencies and other regulatory bodies. In this way police come to be knowledge brokers.

The article proceeds to evaluate these differing views of the role of the police. Are they coercive authorities or are they knowledge workers? To address this question, empirical knowledge of police activities is reviewed, leading to the conclusion that both arguments have strengths and weaknesses, and that they differ largely because they are not launched from the same point. Close study of police in their daily interactions with members of the public is likely to yield different results from close study of police action behind the onboard computer or in following the paper and audit trails they produce. But there are common linkages, and the argument developed from this analysis is an attempt to reconcile the different perspectives in a common model.

It is true, as those viewing police as coercive authorities point out, that police are fundamentally concerned with applying on-the-spot remedies. This is in evidence from problem-oriented to “broken windows” policing. Such remedies involve a form of distributive justice that cannot be explained by the idea that it is risks that police are distributing. Justice is hard to separate from street policing. Although police are not given the right to mete out retribution, applying force or initiating the criminal process are both actions rightly perceived by subjects as indistinguishable from punishment. And police weigh moral duty with legal expedience when making on-the-spot decisions about applying both.

However, law enforcement and crime prevention do not comprise the total police mission. Sometimes public police maintain order at the expense of law enforcement and crime prevention, but do so with reference to even larger aims. While they derive their immediate authority from the public they do so within the broader political interest of the political elites of society.

Some 20 years ago, Austin Turk4 argued that police have service and control functions more or less on a continuum. It is the control function, even in liberal democracies, which ultimately shapes the police role. At times of crisis especially, the service function will be subordinated to the control function. This is because police are mandated first and foremost to serve the politics of social order and continuity. However, to maintain police legitimacy, police must regularly be seen to be serving the public at large in law enforcement, order maintenance, and crime prevention. The craft of policing in liberal democracies is, as far as possible, to maintain the service function separate from the needs of their political masters.

Bringing these considerations together, it is contended that the craft of policing is the brokering of access to troublesome individuals and problem populations for further processing by an administrative authority. In effect, public police use their special access to law, information and force to mediate between the interests of political elites and the administration of local governance.

This conceptualization adds to the research by reintroducing the political element into the police role, while still acknowledging that the police function is more transactional than is usually considered the case in normative and sociological accounts. It also maintains the commonsense understanding that while society is changing in many ways, what the police do may still be best understood as a product of political rather than social concerns. Politically, police are still contextualized and flexibly empowered to respond to crises and change within a more or less democratic social structure.

Police missions might change from community policing to intelligence-led policing. The orientation may be more preventive than punishment-oriented. But the police role still remains one largely devoted to ordering individuals and whole populations on behalf of political authority, and the craft of policing is to broker the necessary accessing by finessing law, coercion and information.


1. E. Bittner, The Function of the Police in Modern Society, Chevy Chase: 1970, National Institute of Mental Health.

2. W. Muir, Police: Streetcorner Politicians, Chicago: 1977, University of Chicago Press.

3. R. V. Ericson and K. Haggerty, Policing the Risk Society, Toronto: 1997, University of Toronto Press.

4. A. Turk, Political Criminality, Beverly Hills: 1982, Sage