Role of Police Officers Today

In the typical police department today, the job of police officers involves a wide variety of functions. But the major roles played by the police are patrol, traffic enforcement, peacekeeping and order maintenance, and investigating crimes.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, policing in big cities took on the role of providing public health services, as well as other social welfare functions. For example, in Boston, police officers often served soup to the indigent, and the homeless were housed at night in police stations (Oliver and Hilgenberg, 2006). These welfare services tended to disappear in the twentieth century, and policing began to focus more on maintaining order and enforcing the laws (Walker, 1992). As the twentieth century proceeded, certain police roles emerged. For instance, patrol officers took on a readily identifiable role in terms of their traffic functions and responding to crime scenes. However, detective divisions, established to investigate past crimes, were first formed by the second half of the nineteenth century.

In the following, Glenn Grana explains what police officers do:

During the course of my 21-year career, when people learned that I was a police officer, they routinely asked me what it was exactly that I did.This question always seemed puzzling to me given that law enforcement was constantly being portrayed in the movies and on television. From uniform cops racing from call to call, lights and sirens ablaze, to undercover detectives infiltrating the seedy criminal underworld, the world of law enforcement never seemed to shy away from the theatrical stage. What continued to surprise me, however, was how little the general public actually knew about law enforcement and the role of the police officer.

In the early stages of my career, I had the opportunity to serve as a field training officer (FTO), training new recruits as they just finished the classroom portion of their police academy training. During the initial meeting with the newly assigned recruit, I would hand him or her an organizational chart of our agency. An organizational chart illustrates the entire organizational structure of a police department by breaking down each tier, from top-level management to the precinct patrol level. It also highlights each specialized unit—including the detective bureau, the mounted patrol, and narcotics, to name a few.

I would explain to the recruits that they needed to gain a full understanding of the organizational structure of the agency they worked for to help them better understand the different aspects of policing that exist in order to successfully address the needs of the department and, more importantly, the community that the department served. For example, an organization as large as the New York City Police Department (NYPD) serves a population of more than 8 million people and, as such, needs to ensure it has the manpower, resources, and equipment needed to properly police a populace that large. The NYPD is in sharp contrast to a department such as the Brockport (New York) Police Department, which serves a community of approximately 8000 people with 13 full- and part-time police officers (Brockport Police Department, 2015).

With a larger demographic, such as the metropolitan New York area,specialized units are needed to address a large number of issues that result in police action, including such issues as drugs, violence, and domestic violence. That’s why the NYPD has many more specialized units (narcotics squad, gang enforcement unit, SWAT, etc.) that are required to handle special community concerns.

I always tried to emphasize, both to new recruits and to people who were simply curious about what exactly I did as a police officer, that to understand the various roles that a police officer performs, you need to understand the needs as well as the social issues, emanating from the community that is being policed.

Patrol Function

Uniformed police officers do a number of very different jobs on a daily basis. Whether they are providing patrol services in a car, on horseback, or on a bicycle, the primary goals of police patrol are to deter crime, enhance feelings of public safety, and be available for public service.

In regard to making officers available for service, the response of uniformed patrol officers, who are typically the first responders when a call is received at a police station, can be important in making an arrest or helping to secure a crime scene. However, in many instances, response time has no effect on clearing a crime. But this has little to do with the patrol officers themselves. On many occasions, a crime is not detected immediately after it occurs, so response by the police may not be critical. In addition, people often delay calling the police. And, although patrol officers may be available to respond to a call, there may be administrative details that result in delays in information being given to the officers on the street (Dempsey, 1999).

But it is the police dispatcher who notifies patrol officers in the vicinity to go to the scene. When uniformed officers arrive at the crime scene, they have an important set of tasks to carry out. They must

  • • Secure and preserve the crime scene
  • • Determine if a crime, indeed, has been committed
  • • Identify witnesses and potential suspects
  • • Ask for emergency medical assistance if there is an injury
  • • Report back to their supervisor as to whether a crime has occurred and indicate whether detectives or crime scene technicians should be dispatched to the scene

Given this set of responsibilities, their effective and efficient handling of the crime scene can be essential, and it can even be said that that is the most crucial aspect among the steps that will be taken leading to the gathering of evidence and the eventual solution of the crime (Walker, 1992).

Patrol officers play other roles in addition to being first on the scene of a crime. They have an important role in providing what Bayley (1994) calls a symbolic presence. In Bayley’s view, the police—especially uniformed officers—are a symbol of police presence and validate for citizens that law enforcement is doing its job and making citizens feel safe.Whether uniformed officers are directing traffic when a traffic light has malfunctioned or when sports fans are leaving the parking areas after a football game, their mere presence helps to reassure citizens that law and order exist (Bayley, 1994).

Additionally, patrol officers serve the public in many other ways by, for instance, answering questions or showing up in a neighborhood to deal with domestic violence incidents, responding to a security alarm that has signaled a possible break-in, or dealing with a complaint of noise from a neighbors party.

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