Role-Based Policing: Restraining Police Conduct 'Outside the Legitimate Investigative Sphere'

70 Pages Posted: 24 Dec 2007

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Quality-of-life policing, responsive to the concerns of urban communities, presents a profound paradox. On the one hand, the collateral effects of drug use, especially in public and in racially fragmented, low-income communities, result in levels of crime and fear of crime that renders the communities almost uninhabitable; on the other, the collateral effects of policing drug crime, for these same communities, destroy the community's human fabric.

A "new" generation of legal scholars have embraced and transformed the Broken Windows model of policing urban communities. These theorists share a "social norms"perspective: they suggest that law's direct threat of imposing sanctions is not the sole means of constraining conduct. A variety of other devices, including non-legal, "social" norms, may supplement the law's coercive power. The social norms "take" on the Broken Windows argument is that public low-level crime undermines the social structures of local communities. Inner city blight sends a distinct message: that community members reject or ignore norms supporting law-abiding behavior in favor of norms supporting law-breaking. Accordingly, social norms theorists advocate empowering police and local communities through a variety of traditional and newly minted public order offenses (such as anti-loitering statutes and youth curfews) as means of attacking high crime in urban and predominantly minority neighborhoods.

In this article, I take up the challenge of public order policing. My claim is that the sort of preventative policing social norms theorists advocate can and should be separated from reactive "investigative" policing directed at apprehending criminals. Separating preventative and investigative policing means that the police, as currently constituted, are the wrong people to engage in preventative policing. Instead, the appropriate people include municipal officials with no power to engage in investigation but who have the authority to enforce norms of public order.

My proposal is to radically restructure the manner in which we think about the legitimacy of various policing practices and the type of authority the police wield. Our current focus on constitutional remedies for low-level police abuses has failed to ameliorate the justified resentment expressed by individuals and local communities subject to heightened amounts of increasingly invasive policing.

The attempt to limit police authority through prospective constitutional (and other) norms that control their ability to search, seize, and interrogate suspects is properly confined to the police's investigative role. Limits do not work to constrain their ability to police public order and engage in crime prevention. Yet even at the investigative stage, the Court has already replaced the rule-based due-process model of authority with a series of role-based exceptions to the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments' constitutional requirements.

Both role- and rule-based concepts of authority concern the proper scope of legitimate authority. Rule-based authority has its basis in adherence to the content of particular rules; role-based authority is based in the powers afforded individuals in particular roles of public authority. Whereas rule-based authority derives its legitimacy primarily from the government's right to promulgate norms, role-based authority gains legitimacy from the degree to which the official's role is matched to the circumstances triggering authority.

Keywords: criminal procedure, police, social norms, authority, fourth amendment

Suggested Citation

Miller, Eric J., Role-Based Policing: Restraining Police Conduct 'Outside the Legitimate Investigative Sphere'. California Law Review, Vol. 94, No. 3, 2006, Available at SSRN:

Eric J. Miller (Contact Author)

Loyola Law School Los Angeles ( email )

919 Albany Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015-1211
United States
213-736-1175 (Phone)


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