A body sanctioned by local, state, or national government to enforce laws and apprehend those who break them.
The police force as we know it came into being in England in the 1820s when Sir Robert Peel established London's first municipal force. Before that, policing had either been done by volunteers or by soldiers. Police officers in the twenty-first century have technological advantages at their disposal to help them solve crimes, but most rely primarily on training and instinct to do their work.
In the United States, policing was originally done by the "watch system" in which local citizens would go on patrol and look for criminal activity. As cities grew, so did the amount of crime, and it became impossible to control it through volunteers. In the mid-1840s, New York City established the first paid professional police force in the United States. By the end of the nineteenth century, major cities across the nation had their own police forces. Regional police organizations were also established. Federal policing agencies such as the U.S. Park Police (who patrolled national parks), the Postal Inspectors (who helped ensure safe mail delivery) and the Border Patrol (which kept criminals from sneaking into or out of the country) were introduced. In 1905, Pennsylvania established the nation's first state police; other states quickly followed suit.
During the first decades of the twentieth century, police forces were established in smaller municipalities, and police officers took a more active role in fighting crime and protecting citizens. The widespread introduction of telephones and automobiles made it easier for police to respond quickly to emergencies.
Over the ensuing years, many of the techniques and tools commonly associated with police work—mug shots, fingerprint analysis, centralized records, crime labs—were introduced and constantly improved. Although the scenarios commonly created by television police shows are exaggerations of how much technology can actually do, such innovations as DNA testing have made it easier for the police to positively identify criminals.
The average duties of the modern police officer can vary widely from community to community. In a large city whose police force has dozens of divisions and neighborhood precincts, an officer's duties may be quite specialized. In a small town with a police force of only a few people, each officer will likely have to know how to do several jobs to be able to fill in for their colleagues as needed.
The duties of a police officer on the New York City police force provide an example of what the police do. New York officers are expected to patrol their assigned area, either by car or on foot. They apprehend criminals or crime suspects, stop crimes in progress, and assist people who are in trouble (such as complainants in domestic disputes or emotionally disturbed homeless individuals). They investigate crimes and crime scenes, collect evidence, and interview victims and witnesses. They help find missing persons and handle cases of alleged CHILD ABUSE. They help identify and recover stolen property, and they testify in court as necessary. They also keep detailed records of their activity by filing reports and filling out various forms.
Police officers are expected to be in good physical condition. They may have to run after a suspect, carry injured individuals, subdue suspects (who may be armed or physically strong), and carry heavy equipment. They may have periods of extreme physical activity, followed by hours of no activity at all (perhaps just sitting in a patrol car for several hours). They must also be mentally alert and emotionally able to withstand the strain of their work. Although officers in large cities or dangerous neighborhoods may have a statistically higher chance of being injured on killed on the job, all police officers know that life-and-death situations can happen anywhere.
Not accidentally, police departments, especially those in large cities, are compared to military institutions. In fact, the police and the military have a number of goals in common, including discipline, endurance, teamwork, and clearly established procedures for all operations. Even the ranks given police officers are similar to those in the military.
Not surprisingly, police officers are required to undergo often rigorous training before being sworn in. The movement for formalized training began early in the twentieth century. August Vollmer, chief of police in Berkeley, California, from 1905 to 1932, believed that police officers needed professional training at the college level. He helped found a police training academy at the University of California's Berkeley campus, and Berkeley later established the nation's first college-level CRIMINOLOGY department. Today, many COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES have criminology departments and offer degrees in criminal justice. Many police departments will provide tuition reimbursement or scholarships to officers who want to continue their education after they have joined the force. Some officers get their law degrees; others get advanced degrees in criminology and become college instructors.
One of the major goals of many police departments is getting cooperation from within the community. Many officers receive training in communications, and most police departments have public affairs divisions that provide information for citizens who wish to organize neighborhood watch programs or who want to get information on avoiding crime. Some police departments, for example, have increased their foot patrols, believing that the officer "walking the beat" makes people feel safer and also builds rapport with local individuals. Police also work with each other as well as with other law enforcement agencies. State, county, and local police will often come together to solve a crime that falls within their jurisdiction. Agencies such as the FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, the SECRET SERVICE, the Coast Guard, and others also work with the police to help solve crimes. The emergence of computerized records and databases make it easy for police organizations across the country and even overseas to exchange information about suspects and criminals. In emergency situations (fires, explosions, or natural disasters), police officers work in tandem with fire fighters, medical professionals, or emergency service workers.
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