The Evolving Roles of American Police Officers

Bob Boehmer

How the roles of American police officers have changed with time

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I remember my time in the Police Academy in 1982. The instructors went through an exercise to describe a police officer’s different roles, which included:

  • Law enforcer
  • Counselor
  • Mediator
  • Consoler
  • Leader
  • Social Worker

Glancing around the room, you could see the looks on people’s faces, which said: “Wait a minute. I did not sign up for that.” Apart from this exercise, most of our time spent in the academy was devoted to law enforcement tactics, survival techniques, and a culture that placed its value on maintaining law and order. As we were sent to our assignments in the community, we understood how many roles police officers have, and we did indeed mediate disputes, comfort victims of crime and help people solve community problems.

Of course, we also issued tickets and made arrests. Sometimes the interaction between community members and us was challenging and resulted in the use of force. Generally, community members looked to us as leaders and sought our assistance with all kinds of issues, although I know that not everyone on the police department at that time, or even now, thought of their role as anything but a law enforcer. We know that issues related to excessive use of force and disparate treatment of minorities existed in those days and long before.

Policing Improvements

Over the years, after I left the police department, we continued to see attempts at improving policing. This included training officers on problem-solving, implementing various versions of community policing, and training officers to recognize and understand mental illness. Policing improvements were often driven by tragic incidents and missions refocusing on issues such as domestic violence, homelessness, and addiction. These programs focused on not just arresting people but using officer skills to deal with all kinds of issues thrown at them. At the same time, we implemented what many believed to be well-intentioned efforts to crack down on crime, though they had a disparate impact on persons of color.

Despite all the efforts to improve policing, we seem stuck in place regarding relationships with minority communities. The term “law enforcement” continues to be used and to define the mission. Attempts to enforce the law, sometimes without regard to community concerns or norms, frequently resulted in death and serious injury. In communities with very few societal problems, police often developed great relationships in the community. However, in communities with significant social problems, where typically there was a reluctance to trust the police and where police felt most threatened by the level of violence, police often maintained a kind of social distancing and did not develop strong community relationships.

Creating Specialized Units

In part, this lack of community interaction resulted from chasing after calls for service and reacting to violent crime, gangs, and drugs as though there was all-out-war in the streets. The police had little time to think about engagement as a central part of their mission. Many police departments recognized the breakdown between the police and certain communities/neighborhoods and attempted to incorporate a form of social outreach, often by creating special units devoted to the mission.

Using specialized units, like the community policing unit, to reach out to the community could be effective to a certain extent. However, while those officers received specialized training on engaging the community and developing partnerships, patrol officers were still tasked with chasing calls for service. As these responsibilities were divided, patrol officers were often left out of community engagement, resulting in community engagement only being a function of the specialized unit rather than the entire department.

Other specialized units were created to address specific problems, such as gangs, guns and drugs. These units often seemingly worked at cross-purposes with the community policing units and were frequently blamed for causing social harm and collateral damage in communities of color. Additionally, as patrol officers aspired to move within their organizations, the dynamics of being assigned to specialized units often required proactive law enforcement activity. In other words, a patrol officer making more traffic stops, issuing tickets and making more arrests was rewarded with an assignment to a tactical unit.

Partnering With Communities

None of this is to say that there isn’t a need for specialized functions within a police department. However, the missions of police departments need to be realigned to focus the department’s entire effort on engaging communities to deliver policing and address the community's needs. Our expectations of officers should not be that they become licensed social workers and mental health counselors or take on some other duties we impose upon them. But we should expect our officers to understand some of the dynamics of mental illness, poverty and other issues facing their communities.

Along with that understanding, officers need to know who the experts are and have a dependable cadre of providers who are partners with the department and community and can provide community members with the assistance they need. As the police respond to emergency calls for service, they can become a sort of broker to understand the caller's needs and refer them to appropriate services. This model of policing recognizes that the justice system is not currently equipped to deal with all social ills. We need community partners and their specialized resources.

Police officers may still need to arrest people in the appropriate circumstances. But as they develop additional tools and partners, police should be a trusted resource in the community rather than be seen as an oppressor. With this new way of policing, community members will have trust and confidence that police officers’ primary goal is to provide care and not do further harm. Learn more about our law enforcement consulting services and how we can assist with developing greater transparency and opportunities to deepen community trust.

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