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Police: Organization and Management

The American System Of Policing

The American system of policing is unique by world standards. There are approximately twenty thousand state and local police agencies in the United States (Maguire, et al.; Reaves and Goldberg, 1999). Other English-speaking democracies have a much smaller number: Canada has 461, England has forty-three, India has twenty-two, and Australia has eight (Bayley). Furthermore, the majority of police agencies in the United States are only loosely connected to one another. Many have overlapping jurisdictions at multiple levels of government, including city or town, township, county, state, and federal agencies. The majority are general-purpose agencies with responsibility for patrolling a certain area, responding to calls from citizens, and investigating certain offenses. Most of the general-purpose local police departments are small, with 81 percent (11,015) employing fewer than twenty-five full-time sworn officers, 42 percent (5,737) employing fewer than five officers, and 7.5 percent (1,022) relying on only part-time officers (Reaves and Goldberg, 1999). Others are special-purpose agencies with responsibility for a specific territory (such as a park or an airport) or function (such as enforcing alcoholic beverage laws or wildlife regulations). Some agencies do not fall neatly within these categories. For instance, sheriffs' agencies in some states do not provide police patrol, but do provide a variety of other related services: running jails, guarding courtrooms, or providing canine service, undercover deputies, or investigative assistance to local police agencies. These variations in the size, type, and function of American police agencies make it difficult to establish an ideal method of organization and management applicable to all agencies.

A number of influential critics have claimed that because the American system of policing is so fragmented and loosely coordinated, it is ineffective and inefficient. For instance, Patrick Murphy, former police commissioner in several American cities, once wrote that many communities

are policed by a farcical little collection of untrained individuals who are really nothing more than guards. These genuinely small departments (fewer than twenty-five sworn officers), to begin with, tend not to have much of a franchise by and large; with small territory and limited clientele, they do not face much of a crime problem. (Murphy and Plate, pp. 71–72)

Murphy was one of several reformers to suggest that these small police agencies should be eliminated or consolidated into larger and more professional departments. For instance, one of the major recommendations made in 1967 by the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice was the coordination and consolidation of police services (p. 67).

Supporters of police consolidation tend to focus on two themes. First, they claim that larger police organizations can make more efficient use of resources by taking advantage of the economies of scale resulting from eliminating redundant functions. Second, many believe that the fragmented nature of the American policing system results in poor communication, coordination, and cooperation between police agencies. This results in an information-gap that allows victims and offenders to "slip between the cracks."

Research by Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues casts at least some doubt on both of these concerns. They studied patterns of police service delivery in eighty mid-sized metropolitan areas throughout the United States, containing 1,827 "police service producers." In a series of publications, Ostrom showed that when it comes to the size of a police organization, bigger is not necessarily better (Ostrom and Smith; Ostrom, Parks and Whitaker). Ostrom and other researchers have found that smaller police agencies often deliver more personalized services, have higher clearance rates, and are able to deploy a higher proportion of their personnel "on the streets" (Weisheit et al.).

Ostrom also found that while metropolitan areas in the United States are policed by a patchwork of agencies, they have developed locally cooperative networks for delivering public safety across jurisdictional lines. These networks are glued together with an array of formal (contractual) and informal (handshake) agreements between agencies. Two techniques used to minimize the fragmentation are contracting services out between law enforcement agencies and forming mutual aid agreements that allow officers from neighboring agencies to render assistance as needed. A 1997 study suggests that police consolidation may not be economically beneficial to communities (Finney, 1997). While consolidation may be a good solution for some communities, evidence suggests that it may not be a universal cure for police fragmentation.

Cooperation also occurs among agencies at different levels of government. Many state police and highway patrol agencies provide patrol services on state roads, even when those roads traverse a community with its own police force. State and county agencies also routinely provide investigative assistance to smaller agencies, especially in the case of more serious offenses such as homicide or rape. The formality of these agreements ranges from written legal contracts to verbal agreements. During the 1990s, there also was a proliferation of multijurisdictional "task forces" to combat offenses such as drug-trafficking. According to one study, many were formed based on "the realization that drug sellers did not respect jurisdictional boundaries. Law enforcement agencies serving contiguous jurisdictions therefore needed to coordinate enforcement activities both to share information and resources and to avoid overlapping investigations" (Jefferis et al., p. 86). These task forces often contain representatives from agencies at the city or town, county, state, and/or federal levels.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) allows state and local law enforcement agencies to access the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database and the Automated Fingerprints Identification System (AFIS). It is also common practice for federal law enforcement agencies (such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)) to be called into local and state jurisdictions to collaborate in solving certain offenses, especially those that cross jurisdictional boundaries. While newsworthy cases such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing highlight the collaboration between local and federal authorities, more routine collaboration occurs regularly in police agencies around the nation.

Cooperation between agencies also exists at an international level. The International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) "enables law enforcement information to flow easily from officer to officer across borders, language barriers, time zones, and terrains in the basic service of justice" (Imhoff and Cutler, p. 10). INTERPOL was established in 1914 to respond to criminal activity that transcends international boundaries. Although INTERPOL is not an international police force and does not have police powers, it serves as a means of communication between law enforcement agencies across the world. INTERPOL membership consists of 176 countries. Each member nation has a central headquarters called a National Central Bureau (NCB) that is managed by law enforcement officials from that country. The NCBs serve as hosts for information that is transmitted between INTERPOL members, as well as for information sent directly from INTERPOL's main headquarters, or the "General Secretariat," in Lyon, France (United States Department of Justice). INTERPOL has been responsible for solving international crimes dealing with religious cult groups, drug-trafficking, art thefts, the child sex trade, computer software fraud, organized crime, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, and money scams.

To foreign observers, the American system of policing seems disorganized and perhaps a bit chaotic. Despite the large number of agencies, a variety of mechanisms have been developed to seal the gaps between agencies. Thus, while law enforcement agencies at different levels of government do experience poor communication with other agencies and an occasional squabble over jurisdiction, they also cooperate with one another frequently. Some critics of the present system continue to suggest that the proliferation of small agencies results in a less efficient and effective system. Others find the American policing system to be the epitome of decentralized government, with local governments able to exert control over the kind of policing they receive. One consequence of having so many police agencies of different sizes and types is that there are important differences between them. The following section examines two of these: variations in the styles and structures of American police organizations.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPolice: Organization and Management - The American System Of Policing, Variation In Style And Structure, Managing Police Organizations, Information Technologies And The Police