The primary role of the police is toDiscuss address all sorts of human problems when and insofar as their solutions do or may possibly require the use of force at the point of their occurrence.

The primary role of the police is to address all sorts of human problems when and insofar as their solutions do or may possibly require the use of force at the point of their occurrence. Discuss.


This essay will examine the widely accepted definition on the police role, which was given by the American political scientist, Egon Bittner. His view is that the ‘potential’ duties of police officers are so broad that ‘it compels the stronger inference that no human problem exists, or is imaginable, about which it could be said with finality that this certainly could not become the proper business of the police’. This role definition implies a corresponding shift in efforts to reform and improve police practice all over the world. He further attributed the idea that lawful force is the essence of the police institution. The importance of this insight cannot be challenged. Everything the police do falls into place when one recognizes the unique feature of their office, their ability legitimately to apply force on behalf of the state.

It appears that the arguments would be very persuasive if I were to discuss his definition on the police role in two parts; first, the scope of the police’s primary functions; second, the police’s use of force. It is further necessary to construct a picture of the origins and development of police and policing, in order to understand the role of the police in today’s world, before I discuss this in any depth. I therefore begin by looking at the origins of policing roles:

History discovers that the first police officer was a religious figure, perhaps a priest, who defined correct moral behaviour, declared who had broken the code and the punishment to follow. Such people saw themselves as ‘guardians of the truth’. Naturally, early societies had a low level of social differentiation. The same person therefore would combine the roles of priest, judge, police officer and executioner. Later, as communities grew in size, there would be greater differentiation and religious sites would have temple guards.


It is problematic to define contemporary police mainly in terms of their supposed function. As Bittner has emphasized, the police are traffic to controlling terrorism. The uniting feature of the tasks that come to be seen as police work is not that they are aspects of a particular social function, whether it is crime control, social service, order maintenance, or political repression. Rather it is that they all involve ‘something that ought not to be happening and about which someone had better do something now!’

Considering Bittner’s definition on the police role, police address all sorts of human problems so that there is no specific list of functions for police6. Various neat but commodious classification schemes have been suggested to cover the range of police activities. None of these schemes does justice to the richness of police work.

Here is a nearly exhaustive list of police functions, specifying at least one country where each is performed7: protecting life and property; enforcing the criminal law; investigating criminal offences; patrolling public places; advising about crime prevention; conducting prosecutions; sentencing for minor offences; maintaining order and decorum in public places by directing, interrupting, and warning; guarding persons and facilities; regulating traffic ; controlling crowds; regulating and suppressing vice; counselling juveniles; gathering information about political and social life; monitoring elections; conducting counter-espionage; issuing ordinances; inspecting premises; issuing permits and licenses; serving summonses; supervising jails; impounding animals and lost property; advising members of the public and referring them to other agencies; caring for the incapacitated; promoting community crime-prevention activities; and participating in policy councils of government8.

While no police organization does all these things, many do most of them. Therefore, it seems the critical question is how much attention has been given to each of these functions by the UK police9. In order to draw the picture of the police role in this essay, it is necessary to describe at least some of the crucial police functions in depth, as follows:

a. Crime control or enforce the law:

What the police do, as opposed to have the potential to do, is exercise the law and by so doing ensure that the ‘bad guys’ get their just desserts and the rest of us remain safe in our beds10. This traditional image of policing, to which the police themselves tenaciously hold and fictional portrayal re-affirms, is that of the proverbial ‘thin blue line’ protecting society from lawlessness.

Patrolling officers prevent crime by their presence and the possibility that they will stumble across an offence by using their crime detection tactics to recognize that something is a miss with a person or situation11. On the other hand, if patrol officers fail to prevent the crime from being committed, the patrol car speeding to the scene of a crime may catch the criminal red-handed, probably after a struggle. If neither prevention nor immediate apprehension succeeds then the third line of defence lies in detection: the superior intellectual powers and dogged persistence of the sleuth concludes with the assemblage of evidence that brings the guilty to justice.

The idea put forward by Bittner that the police are basically a crime fighting agency has never been challenged in the past because no one has troubled to sort out the remaining priorities12. Alternatively, they have always been forced to justify activities that did not involve law enforcement or the prevention of crime in the direct sense by either linking them constructively to law enforcement or by defining them as nuisance demands for service.

Two pernicious consequences dominate this view, especially in the minds of policemen13. First, it directs to a tendency to infer all sorts of problems as if they involved culpable offences and to an excessive reliance on quasi-legal methods for handling them. The widespread use of arrests without intent to prosecute ensures an example for this state of affairs. Furthermore, these cases do not involve errors in judgment about the applicability of a penal norm but deliberate pretense resorted to because more appropriate methods of handling problems have not been developed. Second, the strong view about the police activities that crime control is the only serious, important, and necessary part of police work has deleterious effects on the morale of those police officers in the uniformed patrol who spend most of their time with other matters. No one, especially who takes a positive interest in his work, likes being obliged to do things day- in and day-out that are disparaged by his colleagues.

This view contradicts with the recent analysis of calls by the public to the police. Home Office studies conducted in the early 1980s found that ‘only a small proportion of calls for police assistance are related to crime matters’. On the total number of calls received from the public over a period of six days in one sub-divisional control room only 18 percent required the preparation of a fresh crime report. Other calls relating to different matters such as: plight (persons locked out of their car or home, lost property, person missing from home), administrative matters (sudden death, various license renewals, or the revision of alarm key holder records), and nuisance (rowdy children or noisy neighbours, for example) made up by far the most significant proportion of demand15.

It is clear, therefore, that police work cannot accurately be encompassed by terms such as ‘law enforcement’ or ‘crime- control’16. On that point Wilson takes the view that police officers were originally ‘watchmen’ whose task it was to walk their rounds and maintain orders in the streets. To maintain order meant everything from removing obstructions on streets to keeping pigs from running loose to chasing footpads and quelling riots. Watchmen were not officers of the court charged with bringing to the bar of justice persons who had broken a law; that task was performed by constables, for a fee, and only on the basis of sworn warrants. These watchmen and later the police handled many situations that had nothing to do with enforcing the law or getting evidence and as a result they often acted under vague laws or no laws at all; a city council would later set down as written law rules that common practice had already established as binding.

Nevertheless, the study suggests that a considerable proportion of police time is devoted to dealing with tasks other than crime. The on going debate about ‘force’ versus ‘service’ has often hindered creative thinking about the role of the police. Though the emerging academic consensus is that the bulk of police time is not spent engaged on tasks that are ‘crime related’, how the work being done should be classified is far from straightforward. For some commentators, the conclusion to be drawn is that police officers ‘frequently have to act as untrained and temporary social workers’ and that the profession is in fact a ‘secret social service’. Recently, several studies have shown that this ‘service’ work is widely regarded by the mainstream police occupational culture as ‘bullshit’ and very much the poor relation of ‘real’ police work- generally viewed as ‘law-enforcement’ or ‘crime-fighting1.

b. Peace-Keeping:

Research around the world has shown so far that peace-keeping is the primary policing function, even in societies where the police are routinely armed, such as the United States, or where the community is seriously divided, as in Northern Ireland. What was new was the significance claimed for peacekeeping in the overall composition of police work. This is vastly in the case of the ‘discovery’ of police discretion between law enforcement and the peacekeeping functions of the police.

Peacekeeping is the commonplace among sociologists of the police that the scope for discretion is inversely related to status in the police organization: the most junior officers-generally the uniformed patrol strength-have ample opportunity-because of the frequently diffuse nature of the situations they encounter, because they must typically deal with these situations without back-up and because they are subject to little direct supervision-to use the discretion which, in the English system, is every constable’s common law power. The circumstances suggest that the law is not invoked because police officers are satisfied that a crime has probably been committed and because they deem it appropriate to apply the law to the situation24. Such decisions are often guided by peace-keeping considerations. Furthermore, Lord Scarman recognized there are inevitably situations in which the enforcement of the law is not compatible with the maintenance of the public peace. In which event it is the latter, he suggested, which should be the priority. Nothing has happened since his famous report was published which makes people think differently about this issue. Keeping the peace is both what the police do-or attempt to do-and what people think they should do.

c. Crime investigation:

The police investigate crime mainly due to both the identification and apprehension of suspects, and the preparation of the prosecution case against them. This task requires officers to have a very sound working knowledge of the relevant criminal law and the laws of evidence, especially the points needed to prove that a particular offence has been committed. Without a very sound grasp of both the criminal law and the legal rules concerning the admissibility of evidence, the second part of the detective’s task will be done poorly. Therefore, detective officers are initially recruited from uniform patrol officers who have completed their probationary period and usually spent a little further time in general duties. These officers, after attending detective training school, are fully employed in investigative work of various sorts.

Nevertheless, there is a high level of expertise required of a detective when examining a crime scene, or when searching premises. Detectives must be able to recognize the evidential value of items relating to a particular offence26. They must also know how to collect and preserve these items for analysis at the laboratory. Forensic tests are not without a financial cost, so detectives must be aware, not only of which tests are possible, but which are also feasible, for the particular crime under investigation. In the twenty first century, detectives naturally require computer literacy and search skills in order to store a vast amount of crime information on computer, which is of use in the investigation of crime.

d. Emergency response:

The police have always acted as an agency both of first and last resort: the first resort in an emergency and the last resort in a crisis28. However, there are always genuine emergency calls in order to fight outside pubs or clubs, disputes requiring resolution, accidents, children lost or drunks endangering themselves and numerous other incidents which must be dealt with immediately. In response, police will always have to be available at the scene. It sometimes appears that many of the ‘emergency’ calls made by the public are not so urgent, and they can be set aside for police in their community role to deal with, or are reports of crime which can safely be handed on directly to detectives.

Emergency response policing holds surprises every day. Often, officers called to a crime scene need some detective’s knowledge of crime to carry out the initial preservation of evidence. They further need some of a detective’s knowledge of crime to begin an initial investigation If there are witnesses and a suspect present at the crime scene, police officers would need to know a complete understanding of the limits of police powers to search, question and arrest. Officers attending a dispute need good interpersonal skills to deal with individuals under stress or aggrieved and good negotiation skills to effect a compromise or resolution.

There are a number of skills which officers responding to emergencies, or on patrol, need to refine. Emergencies generally require due to frequently accidents or assaults, so first aid is a necessary skill, which likely to be handled by officers on emergency response than other police officers. Similarly, the emergency may consist of an individual who is armed, violent, drunk or drugged, so self-defence and defensive weapons training are required, when interpersonal skills fail. The world is, unfortunately, becoming a more dangerous place for police, not just because of an apparent increase in the criminal use of weapons but through dangers of blood-borne diseases like AIDS and hepatitis. Any incident where blood is spilt, and police are called to, requires special care by police to save life without endangering themselves.


So many different theories and hypotheses regarding police use of force have been advanced, that a comprehensive cataloguing and discussion of them all, would be an enterprise well beyond the scale of this essay and perhaps even this topic. Here it will have to suffice to identify some broad issues which have been taken to explaining the use of force. For this essay purpose, Bittner’s view considering police use of force is perhaps most useful.

a. Police interventions:

While policing may be universal, the police as a specialized body of people given the primary formal responsibility for legitimate force to safeguard security is a feature only of relatively complex societies. To Bittner is the proposed idea in a study of the functions of the police that ‘the police are nothing else than a mechanism for the distribution of situationally justified force in society’33. This conception of the police role was elaborated by Bittner, which lends thematic unity to the immensely varied array of situations in which police intervene, as follows:

….police intervention, regardless the substance of the task at hand, means above all making use of the capacity and authority to overpower resistance to an attempted solution in the native habitat of the problem. There can be no doubt that this feature of police work is uppermost in the minds of people who solicit police aid or direct the attention of the police to problems, that persons against whom the police proceed have this feature in mind and conduct themselves accordingly, and that every conceivable police intervention projects the message that force may be, and may have to be used, to achieve a desired objective34. It does not matter whether the person who seeks police help is a private citizens or (other) government officials, nor does it matter whether the problem at hand involves some aspect of law enforcement or is totally unconnected with it …what matters is that police procedure is defined by the feature that it may not be opposed in its course, and that force can be used if it is opposed35. This is what the existence of the police makes available to society. Accordingly, the question, ‘what are policemen supposed to do?’ is almost completely identical with the question, ‘what kinds of situations require remedies that are non-negotiably coercive?’

Bittner highlighted the issue that situations are ‘policed’ to the extent that force may have to be used in their official management. How and how often force is actually used are then problems for the evaluation, not the definition, of police work. Nevertheless, the proposed definition of the police function subsumes those forms of police activity traditionally understood as ‘criminal law enforcement:

….the special role the police play in the administration of criminal justice has to do with the circumstance that ‘criminals’, as distinct from respectable and propertied persons who violate the provisions of penal codes in the course of doing business, can be counted on to try to evade or oppose arrest37. Because this is so, and to enable the police to deal effectively with criminals, they are said to be empowered to use force…But the conception of the police role in all this is upside down. It is not that policemen are entitled to use force because they must deal with nasty criminals38. Instead, the duty of handling nasty criminals devolves on them because they have the more general authority to use force as needed to bring about desired objectives.

b. Limitations on the use of force:

According to Bittner, good police practice would be judged to involve strictly limiting the use of force and confining it to effecting restraint. He suggests three formal limitations on the freedom of policemen to use force. First, the police use of deadly force is limited in most jurisdictions, though the powers of a policeman in this respect exceed those of citizens are limited nevertheless40. In all jurisdictions, for example, policemen are empowered to shoot to kill some fleeing felony suspects, but not fleeing misdemeanour suspects. Secondly, policemen may use force only in the performance of their duties and not to advance their own personal interest or the private interests of other persons. Finally, policemen may not use force maliciously. It can be said similarly that the officer should apply force ‘in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline’. These three restrictions were meant by the use of qualifier ‘essentially’. Furthermore, there exist no guidelines aside from these restrictions, no specifiable range of objectives, no limitations of any kind that instruct the policeman what he may or must do. Unfortunately, there are even no criteria that would allow the judgment whether some forceful intervention was necessary, desirable, or proper. It appears exceedingly rare that police actions involving the use of force are actually reviewed and judged by anyone at all

c. Monopolization of legitimate force:

The distinctiveness of the police lies not in their performance of a specific social function but in being the specialist repositories for the state’s monopolisation of legitimate force in its territory. ‘The policeman, and the policeman alone, is equipped, entitled and required to deal with every exigency in which force may have to be used’. There are many occupations in which the potential for the legitimate use of force may arise with a fair degree of frequency, most obviously in the case of private security officers, although their only legal police powers are those of the private citizen Legitimate force may also regularly need to be wielded by people not exercising a primarily policing role, for example workers in the health or social services handling disturbed patients, or public transport staff who may have to deal with every exigency in which force may have to be used46. Indeed, other workers are likely to ‘call the cops’ at the earliest opportunity in troublesome situations, and use legitimate forces themselves only as an immediate emergency measure in the interim.


To sum up Bittner’s definition on the police role, policing is the exercise of the authority of state over the citizens. That authority is based on the monopoly of legitimate coercion, police usually ask or command people to do something and those people normally comply; but if they do not then the police will force them into compliance, which separate the police from other policing organizations. The indeterminable scope of the police role arises from this exercise of authority: they intervene in any situation where someone in authority is required to ‘take charge’. This might involve assisting someone to gain entry into premises from which they have locked themselves out to confronting armed terrorists. Most of the time it involves mere presence: watching those around them and abstaining from intervention. How this is done and the way that policing is organized reflects the relationship between the citizens and the state. To the extent that police exercise authority over citizens then policing is hesitant and cautious because citizens have

rights, but where the police impose alien authority on a rebellious subject population then coercive power is exercised with little restraint. It is in this relationship between police and citizens that many of the issues that have pre-occupied police research lie


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6 Ever since the statement was agreed ACPO has maintained a ‘Quality of Service Sub-Committee’ which has identified five ‘key service areas’ which have become the framework for the work of the Home Office, ACPO, the Audit Commission, and HMIC on key indicators of police performance. The five areas are: the handling of calls from the public; crime management ( including crime reduction, victim support, and crime investigation); traffic management; public reassurance and order maintenance; and community policing.

7 Another writer describe that the short list covers a wide range of responsibilities the prevention of crime, the maintenance of order, and the detection and punishment of the offender. A wide variety of other ‘service’ or administrative functions were soon acquired by the police. These included: being inspectors of nuisances, weights and measures, diseases of animals, dairies and shops, contagious diseases, explosives, and bridges; in the case of some borough forces, the running of fire and ambulance services; and the provision of informal services such as ‘knocking up’ people for work.

8 See, Mawby and Wright, The Police organization. In T. Newburn The Handbook of Policing, P-245.

9 The people in England enjoy the best police service in the world! The best police service is not necessarily the most efficient in terms of low crime and accident rates and of high rates of clearance by arrest, of stolen property recovered, and of convictions. These factors must be evaluated in terms of disregard of the human rights graranteed to the British by their Bill of Rights

10 .On the other hand, not all people who enforce the law would be designated police. Are customs agents, for example, police? Even more complicating, many persons commonly classified as police do not spend even a majority of their time enforcing the law.

11 As Wilson puts it, to the patrolman, the law is one resource among many that he may use to deal with disorder, but it is not the only one or even the most important; beyond that, the law is a constraint that tells him what he must not do but that is peculiarly unhelpful in telling him what he should do. Thus, he approaches indicents that threaten order not in terms of enforcing the law but in terms of ‘handling the situation’ …keeping things under control so that there are no complaints that he is doing nothing or that he is doing too much.

12 On the other hand, there are two principal grounds that police researcher have relied upon for denying that law enforcement is not the defining characteristic of policing: first, law enforcement is neither what the police do nor what the public ask the police to do; and secondly the police are not very effective crime-fighters. There are also two subsidiary arguments that might additionally be employed: that police are not, and never have been, organized to fight crime; and there are many more enforcement agencies than the police.

13 See, Shapland & Hobbs, “Policing Priorities on the Ground” in R. Morgan and D. Smith (eds) Coming to Terms with Policing, P-123

15 See, Brogden, Jefferson, and Walklate, Introducing Policework, P-235.

16Wilson traces his conception of police work as concerned chiefly with the problems of order and social control to the historical context which in the nineteenth century shaped the emergence of modern municipal police forces: ‘the fear of riot and popular uprising was usually the reason for enlarging, professionalizing, and ultimately arming the police’. He suggests that the practical and political requirements for public order preceded the passage of laws to justify and legitimate police action.

24 Bittner (1967a) argued, the decisions to arrest and to charge are not made to enforce provisions of ‘the law’; instead, arrests can better be understood as one way of ‘handling’ certain situations requiring control. The police officer does not implement existing penal laws; rather, he takes advantage of their availability in accomplishing other tasks, for example, keeping people out of harm’s way. Thus, apart from a small number of genuine law enforcement decisions especially in the area of the sumptuary offences- police discretion concerns the handling of all situations in which force may have to be used.

26 Although there are known to be problems with the reliability of eye witness testimony, nevertheless it is still required to obtain the maximum amount of information from witnesses or victims, and also the skills of questioning a suspect. Suspects need to be questioned not just to obtain a confession, although a full voluntary confession which is admissible in court is always of value to the prosecution case, but also to refute any denial of culpability the suspect might make. While a suspect may never confess, a record of interview which demonstrates that a suspect lied to police when first questioned about the offence may go far towards refuting a later defence made in court. Finally, detectives working in specialized fields as diverse as child abuse or fraud require knowledge of the special issues concerning that particular type of crime.

28 Punch and Naylor (1974) point out, the police have acquired these roles by virtue of their position as a 24-hour emergency response organization.

33 This concept is preferable on three grounds . first, it accords better with the actual expectations and demands made of the police (even though it probably conflicts with what most people would say, or expect to hear, in answer to the question about the proper police function); second, it gives a better accounting of the actual allocation of police manpower and other resources; and , third, it lends unity to all kinds of police activity.

34 As Shapland and Hobbs note: The problem is that most of the so-called ‘service’ jobs of the police (which, indeed, were sometimes seen by officers as not ‘police work’) have a potential emergency element which may involve the need for coercion or legally sanctioned violence against persons or property.

35 See, Sanders and Young ‘From Suspect to Trial’, in Maguire, M, Morgan, R. and Reiner, R. p-157.


37 See, Dixon, Law in Policing: Legal Regulation and Police Practices,p-190

38 It is very likely, though we lack information on this point, that the actual use of physical coercion and restraint is rare for all policemen and that many policemen are virtually never in the position of having to resort to it.

40The ‘excessive force’ test probably constitutes the better social policy, since it is more likely to be protective of the individual, and thus more in keeping with a cultural tradition that recognizes and seeks to curb public authority’s tendency toward despotism. In a 1989 decision, the U.S Supreme Court determined that it should constitute the sole test for police uses of force. Nevertheless, a moral assessment of the police use of force cannot leave out of account the so-called ‘subjective’ factors. An officer who applies force that might on ‘objective’ grounds be considered ‘reasonable’, but does so, not because that exercise of force happens to be reasonable in the circumstances, but because the subject is black, has acted badly, even if also prudently.

46 See, Bittner 1974, P- 35.