The Role of the Police in Controlling and Reducing Crime

This post simply applies a few perspectives to the role of the police in society

Consensus Theory and Right Realism

The Consensus Approach views the police as a neutral force who generally do a good job, having a close working relationship with law abiding citizens and responding effectively to the needs of local communities, defending them against the anti-social and criminal behaviour of a minority people. From this point of view most failings of the police are due to lack of funding and there not being enough police on the streets.

Right Realists – believes more emphasis should be put on Zero Tolerance policing – the main role of the police is to work with local communities and businesses to target those areas and individuals who are persistently anti-social and criminal and to clamp down hard on even minor offences. This obviously involves targeting weapon and drugs dealers, but also clamping down on anti-social behaviour, and the police being very visible on the streets to act as a physical deterrent against crime. Obviously Zero Tolerance policies would also involve the police working closely with the courts after offences have taken place.

Zero Tolerance Policing can incorporate ‘military style policing’ where the police act against whole communities.

Left Realism

Left Realists believe that ‘Zero Tolerance’ policies are legitimate but that the police should spend more time getting to know local communities – which involves a less militaristic approach to policing, speaking to and befriending local youths rather than pouring their beer down the drain and constantly ‘moving them on’. This will also involve more referrals to social outreach projects. Policing for Left Realists is more about working with communities and not alienating them through ZT in order to prevent crime in the very long term. Community Support Officers are a good example of ‘community policing’ – they do not have enough powers to engage in Zero Tolerance approaches.


According to Marxists the police engage in ‘selective law enforcement’
David Gordon argues that the police mainly focus on policing working class (and underclass) areas and the justice system mainly focuses on prosecuting working and underclass criminals. By and large the system ignores the crimes of the elite and the middle classes, although both of these classes are just as likely to commit crime as the working classes.

Marxists argue that the government puts more police on the streets in working class and underclass estates and underfunds the policing of businesses and Corporations engaging in Corporate Crime. Evidence for this lies in Tombs and Whyte’s study which found that The Financial Services authority (which investigates complex financial crimes) and the Health and Safety Executive (which investigate health and safety breaches by Corporations have had their funding cut in recent years.


Howard Becker suggests that police interpret working class and middle class behaviour differently – In a low-income neighbourhood, a fight is more likely to be defined by the police as evidence of delinquency, but in a wealthy area as evidence of high spirits. The acts are the same, but the meanings given to them by the audience (in this case the public and the police) differ.

Those who have the power to make the label stick thus create deviants or criminals. Eventually, ‘over-policing’ alienates marginalised groups and makes it more likely that they will actually turn to crime (a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy).

Aaron Cicourel also developed a class-based analysis of how agents of social control interact differentially with people from different class backgrounds in ‘The Negotiation of Justice’ – he suggested that middle class parents have more power to ‘negotiate’ effectively with the authorities and are more able to get their children off being given deviant labels – by convincing the police that their kids are really ‘good kids’ and their anti-social behaviour is a ‘one off’.