Police and Policing in the U.K. 

Policing, meant to maintain order, is performed by both police and other agencies such as private security firms. It includes functions like crime control, emergency response, and social service. Policing pervades various areas, from local to international levels, and incorporates strategies like community and problem-oriented policing. However, policing faces issues like subculture influences and unequal attention towards different societal groups. Recent years have seen efforts to reform procedures and introduce technology for more efficient policing. The rise of private security firms reflects the growing pluralization in the field.

The police have legal sanctions and are able to use legitimate force to control crime and deviance. Policing embodies the quest for general and stratified order, from parking tickets to class repression. The police are the people who the public turn to when they feel something ought to not be happening, and that someone better do something about it now!

Definitions of the police and policing

It is usual to distinguish between the police and policing.

Police: the specialist state agency tasked with crime control, order maintenance, and emergency response. 

Policing: organised forms of order-maintenance, peace-keeping, rule or law enforcement, crime investigation and prevention and other forms of investigation and information-brokering, which may involve a conscious exercise of coercive power, undertaken by individuals or organisations, where such activities are viewed by them and/ or others as a central or key defining part of their purpose (Jones and Newburn, 19888: 18-19). 

As we will see below policing may be carried out by agencies other than the police, such as private security firms. 

Five Functions of Policing 

Police work performs a variety of social functions:

  • Crime control 
  • Emergency response 
  • Social service
  • Order maintenance 
  • Political repression. 

Police Discretion and Control 

Police discretion is the leeway officers enjoy in selecting from more than one choice in carrying out their work (Mastrofski, 2004: 101). 

Discretion is inevitable given the impossibility of enforcement of every law all of the time and also because of the need for interpretation on the frontline of policing practice which often involves complex and unpredictable situations. 

James Q Wilson (1968) observed that within the police force the amount of discretion increases as one moves down the hierarchy. 

A lot of police work is low in visibility and thus regulating police discretion is difficult. However in recent years the police have been required to spend more time recording their activities and body cams have been introduced in some areas of policing. 

Police Subcultures 

Much social research suggests occupational police subcultures are best understood as a collective cultural adaptation to the everyday realities of police work rather than down to individual personality traits. 

Early studies which were based on the observations of rank and file officers identified a relatively stable set of factors which made up cop culture. 

Skolnick (1996) identified three main aspects of cop culture: suspiciousness, internal solidarity coupled with social isolation, and conservatism. 

  1. Suspiciousness arises because of the pressure to achieve results by catching offenders and the concern with danger. People and places are constantly scrutinised for signs of crime or risk. This also encourages profiling of certain people along stereotypical lines. 
  2. Solidarity and isolation reinforce one another. Solidarity emerges because of the reliance on colleagues in difficult situations, and isolation comes because of people’s reluctance to engage with authority figures, compounded by shift work. 
  3. Conservatism is due to the police’s role in upholding the status quo. 

Later studies added to this checklist: an exaggerated sense of mission, cynicism and pragmatism, machismo and racial prejudice. 

Most studies of cop culture do not support the notion of a freestanding phenomenon into which successive generations are passively socialised. 

Police culture is generated and sustained by the problems and tensions of the role of the police, structured by legal and social pressures. Culture does not determine practice, for example racist officers can be deterred. 

Many reforms over the past 30 years have seen police culture as a problem and reforms have tried to address this in three ways:

  • Introducing more diversity and preventing recruits with inappropriate views from signing up. Also training has attempted to shift views of current officers. 
  • Moves to constrain discretion. This means tightening the rules surrounding what the police can and can’t do. 
  • Making procedural justice more transparent – Building trust and legitimacy…. People are more likely to obey the law if they feel the police and other authorities are acting appropriately and treating the public fairly and with respect and dignity. 
The BBCS’ 2003 Documentary ‘The Secret Policeman‘ explored police subcultures.

Unequal Policing 

Certain groups in society tend to be over-police and certain victims are more likely to be ignored. 

Policing tends to focus on marginalised groups, for example poor young men, and ethnic minorities. Young black men in inner-city areas experience over-policing to the extent that they develop a view of the police as the enemy and distrust them, which makes developing positive working relationships very difficult. 

Domestic abuse cases have traditionally been under-policed and thus the mainly female victims have got a raw deal. Improvements have been made in recent years, but challenges still remain. 

Governance and Accountability 

Police forces are ultimately answerable to the general public, who they serve. However meeting public need is difficult as the public is so diverse and has conflicting views about what the police should be doing. 

Police and Crime Commissioners are responsible for local police force areas. They are 

  • Securing and maintaining the local police force. 
  • Holding chief constables to account. 
  • Publishing a police and crime plan with strategic objectives for the area. 
  • Work cooperatively with community safety partners and develop joined-up responses to local crime and disorder problems. 
  • Commission community safety services including victim support. 
  • Some have responsibility for fire and rescue services. 

The idea behind them is operational independence from local authorities and central government. 

Models of Policing… 

Three popular models of policing are community policing, problem-oriented and linked policing models. 

Community Policing

Community policing proposes greater citizen involvement in the identification of the problems that the police should prioritise and in how they should respond to these problems. At heart, community policing is about overcoming concerns about the legitimacy of policing in the eyes of the public.

Community policing was very popular during the 1980s when police-community relations had deteriorated in both the United Kingdom and the United States. It was championed by Left Realist Criminologists.

By the end of the 1980s community policing was orthodoxy among senior police officers, which made it difficult for them at a time when politicians were driving home more of a right realist agenda. 

The problem with community policing is that it is a vague concept: almost anything can come under the term. It involves inclusiveness, consensus and consultation, but it is difficult to pin down. 

Problem oriented policing

Problem oriented policing is often considered a variant of community policing. 

POP is an explicit attempt to make police work more analytical in the identification of problems to be addressed and constructive in the way solutions are applied to the problems identified. 

The problem with policing as usual is that it tends to treat crimes or other problems as discrete events. However, with POP it looks for patterns and connections with the aim of finding lasting solutions. 

One tool is the problem analysis triangle: the offender, victim, location. 

Another is the SARA process – scanning, analysis, response, assessment:

Sustaining such strategies continues to be problematic. 

Linked Policing 

Linked policing strategies focus on patterns such as repeat offenders or prolific offenders. There is a growing literature around ‘hotspot policing’. Experimental studies and meta-analysis show significant, if small, crime control gains with potential diffusion of gains.  (Braga et al 2019). 

This is aka evidence based policing. 

However, few forces are equipped to take this approach and the appeal of traditional policing remains strong. 

Intelligence Led Policing (ILP) – prioritises crime hot spots, repeat victims, criminal groups, prolific offenders, aim is to make policing more efficient. 

Predictive policing or smart policing is linked to big data. Uses historical data to detect spatial and temporal patterns in crime and identify likely targets for police intervention to prevent crime or solve past crimes by making statistical predictions. 

Automatic Facial Recognition (AFR)  is a variation on this. This Increases surveillance capacity of the police. 

Technologies such as AFR represent a Move to preemptive policing. This is a sectoral shift in which more responsibility lies outside of the police! 

The Pluralisation of Policing

The pluralisation of policing is the process of policing becoming more diverse including other non-police agencies taking over some of the functions of policing. 

Examples of the pluralisation of policing include…

  • The expansion of private security firms.
  • New forms of public sector policing auxiliaries such as local authority patrol forces and municipal wardens 
  • The creation of new patrolling ranks such as Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) 
  • The increase in informal community self-policing such as vigilante groups. 

Bayley and Shearing (2001) have argued that we may be moving away from the era of one system policing. 

The expansion of the private security sector is the main driver of the pluralisation of policing. There are many more private security personnel in the United Kingdom than there are police officers. 

The Security Industry Authority estimates there are 440 000 licensed security personnel in the United Kingdom compared to only 149 000 police officers. 

Security Personnel work in areas such as asset-protection, body guarding, debt collection, and door-services (‘bouncers’). The most significant expansion in recent years has been the increase in the use of CCTV monitoring, and many security personnel work in surveillance and alarm monitoring. GPS tagging services are also on the increase. 

Shearing (2006) suggests that the State is increasingly less important in providing security. He suggested that we now have a pluralised security network consisting of a range of private and public sector nodes. 

Brodeur (2010) uses the terms ‘policing web’ and ‘policing assemblage’ to describe modern policing to emphasise the idea that modern policing for security is still co-ordinated. 

Why has policing become more pluralised?

Crime has become more diverse and complex. In particular cybercrime and fraud are so complex that the police now have to work in partnerships. 

Public sector cuts mean the police are less able financially to meet security needs, and so private sector agencies have stepped in to plug the gaps. 

In some cases deliberate Tory privatisation policies have shifted previously state functions to the private sector. For example in 2012 Lincolnshire police outsourced 18 police functions to G4S, including custody services. 

The growing privatisation of public space has also resulted in an increase of private security services to manage these. 

Problems with pluralisation

  • Market pressures being involved in security provision are unlikely to improve public safety. 
  • The differential ability to pay for security services may increase inequalities. 
  • The commodification of security services may undermine public trust and civic engagement. 

The Globalisation of Policing 

The increasing globalisation of crime has resulted in the increasing globalisation of policing, where 

Transnational policing refers to activities undertaken by policing bodies that draw their authority from polities that lie beyond individual nation states. 

The International Criminal Commission was first established in Vienna in 1923, succeeded after the Second World War by the International Criminal Police Office, or Interpol. 

Interpol has expanded significantly over the last 70 years, operating in more than 200 countries today, however it is no longer the primary site of transnational policing activity. 

Two key factors behind the increase in transnational policing are the increasing reach of US law enforcement activities and the expanding power of the European Union. 

Europol was established in 1992, becoming fully operational in 1999. Europol is the Europe wide police intelligence agency which receives and provides intel from police forces in member states. 

European policing expanded significantly after the September 11th 2001 attacks Today Europol is mainly focused on transnational organised crime and international terrorism. 

In the last five years Europol’s mandate has expanded to include investigation of murder, kidnapping, hostage-taking, racism, corruption, drug-trafficking, people-smuggling and motor vehicle crime. A European Arrest Warrant exists in 15 member states. The UK is still part of Europol, despite Brexit. 

The private security and private military services have also expanded globally. The value of the global private security industry was valued at over $100 billion, and that was over 10 years ago. 

A combination of wars, ecological disasters and global economic instability has resulted in increasing mass migrations and transnational security has become increasingly focused on border control as a result. This control is a fusion of public and private agencies and raises serious concerns about human rights. 

NB it is important not to exaggerate the significance of global policing, a lot of policing remains focused on local concerns. 

Signposting and Sources

This material is mainly relevant to the Crime and Deviance module within A-level sociology.


The Oxford HandBook of Criminology.

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