The Persistent Pull of Police Professionalism
New Perspectives in Policing, March 2011
20 Pages Posted: 23 Mar 2011
The focus of this short essay is the renewed popularity of the ideal of police professionalism. That ideal dominated efforts at police reform throughout most of the twentieth century, and especially from the 1950s through the early 1970s, but in the 1980s and 1990s was supplanted by community policing as the reigning orthodoxy of police reform. At its core, police professionalism had three elements: police departments should focus on crime suppression; they should do so objectively and scientifically, free from political influence; and authority within the department should be centralized and rationalized. Community policing departed from police professionalism in each of these three respects. Police departments broadened their focus from crime control to a range of other goals; they selected and pursued those goals in consultation and cooperation with the public; and, to facilitate that consultation and cooperation, authority within departments was decentralized.
Outside law enforcement circles, the ideal of community policing remains broadly popular. Inside policing, though, a sense has been growing for at least the past decade that it is time for something new. That sense is still far from universal. Many police executives and many police reformers continue to believe in community policing. But for years other figures within policing have been casting about for the next big thing. There are signs that those efforts are beginning to coalesce, and that the next big thing is … police professionalism. No one is arguing explicitly that policing should return to the 1960s. But there is increasing sympathy for the notions that police departments should focus on crime suppression, that they should do so in ways dictated by objective analysis rather than public whims, and that authority should be centralized and rationalized.
This paper begins by describing some of the ideas getting the most attention today in police management circles and the under-appreciated ways in which they constitute a return to the ideal of police professionalism. The paper then speculates about why professionalism, so recently discredited, seems to be coming back, and it sounds a note of caution, warning that, despite changes since the 1970s, there are still reasons for police departments to resist the pull of professionalism. The paper concludes by suggesting that the competing ideal of community policing, for all its ambiguity and limitations, may deserve a longer run.
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