June 16, 2024


Law can do.

The different styles and models of policing


When you think of policing, it would be understandable if all that comes to mind is conducting crime scene investigations and locking up offenders. However, there’s so much more to policing than these activities. According to the Collins dictionary, policing encompasses all “the activities carried out by police officers in order to preserve law and order.” The police system is just like any other system where there are proper structures in place, and officers can use different approaches in carrying out their work.

Most of the time, the policing style at play will depend on the community the officer serves. Public approval will determine the actions, behavior and capacity of the police to carry out their job of securing and maintaining public order. Communities with highly legalized systems typically don’t require superfluous policing as punishment can be meted out equally to everyone. While some communities will expect their officers to function largely based on discretion, others expect them to combine their discretion with the law.

Here is an overview of the primary goals of policing and the styles of policing that can be used to meet these goals, along with a look at how these models can be applied to modern-day police operations.

The primary goals of policing

The most popular function of the policing system is the deterrence of crime. However, police officers also help to ensure that people abide by the laws and keep local communities secured and informed. Policing activities are based in both the office and on the street, and they all aim to safeguard societies and individuals. The primary goals of policing can be broken down into three categories: enforcing law and order, reducing neighborhood crimes and responding quickly to emergencies.

Enforcing law and order

Every day, people in different societies are finding various ways to break existing laws. From speeding past a red light and jaywalking to stealing from stores and harming other people, there are several activities that police officers have to monitor in the name of enforcing law and order.

The main aim of law enforcement is to ensure the maintenance of order and safety within a given community. Law enforcement largely includes non-criminal activities that also require the attention of officers to preserve peaceful communities, such as crowd control, parking enforcement, and other civic-related activities.

Reducing neighborhood crimes

Law enforcement officers are saddled with the responsibility of reducing the amount of crime committed in their service area. Police officers will go on regular patrols, work with intelligence services, and stop drivers at checkpoints in their efforts to reduce crime. They may give more attention to neighborhoods that have a higher rate of crime in their efforts to reduce overall crime.

Police officers also respond to emergencies and calls from citizens who have been affected by a crime or have witnessed one firsthand. A significant percentage of the calls received at a police station are service calls from concerned citizens who need emergency help.

Responding quickly to emergencies

The third primary goal of policing is to ensure a quick response to actual emergencies or crime scenes. The average response time to a 911 call varies in different areas for different reasons, but most of the time, it depends on how far away the emergency caller resides from the police department in question. Other factors include the road and weather conditions and the type of call.

Police officers are working toward improving their average response time and acquiring newer technologies that can help them perform their duties more efficiently.

The primary goals of policing are generally universal, but the manner through which the different police departments approach those goals is typically specific to the department. When new laws come into play, neighborhood dynamics change and police departments undergo various changes, it is expected that the policing goals will also evolve in response.

Different styles of policing

James Q. Wilson, the author of the book Varieties of Police Behavior: The Management of Law and Order in Eight Communities, conducted research involving eight different police departments to highlight the behavioral patterns that they exhibited. 

That research led him to discover that there were three main operational styles of policing that existed within the police system: the legalistic, watchman, and service police styles. Here is an overview of the three different policing styles as they apply today.

Legalistic style

The first style presents us with a policing system that operates according to the “letter of the law”. Police departments that operate a legalistic style adhere to strict enforcement of the law, which means that the officers are always expected to conduct themselves in a professional manner.

In this model, citizens contact the officers through a formal and neutral process that ensures that the law applies to everyone across the board. The procedures go by the book and leave the officers with little to no room to use their discretion because citizens that the law applies to in a legalistic-style community regard police discretion as unethical.

Departments that employ this style tend to produce higher arrests and ticketing rates and generally high performance rates when it comes to their different job duties. Decision-making in this setting has a chance of going from top to bottom as there’s barely any need for input from subordinates. Most service calls are resolved officially whenever arrests and formal complaints are made.

Watchman style

The next is the watchman style, which focuses on maintaining order within society. This type of policing model is based mostly on maintaining order and generally occurs in heavily populated communities that generate a high number of service calls to police officers.

The watchman style requires departments to employ discretion to keep the peace in their communities. As a result, they tend to judge the seriousness of issues based on the personal and immediate consequences of the offense rather than strict enforcement of the law. Under this style of policing, minor infractions like misdemeanors and traffic violations may be overlooked or attempted to be resolved without involving the required agencies.

Interestingly, all police departments have a form of watchman style in how they operate. However, some of these departments have this style as their primary operating style. Policing departments that operate the watchman style typically work mainly on their discretion and focus their law enforcement activities on maintaining order within the community.

Service style

The final category of policing style is one that occurs mostly in middle- and upper-class society known as the service style of policing. Police departments that encourage the service style will typically place a high emphasis on the opinions of the community and other public relations.

Areas that are service-based place less of an emphasis on minor violations and misdemeanors and pay more attention to crimes that disrupt the privacy of citizens, such as robbery and burglary. Police officers tend to make arrests only when it is necessary. Police strive to keep communities safe from outsiders while protecting the welfare of citizens within community boundaries.

Service-style police departments tend to pay attention to all their requests for assistance, regardless of whether they are for law enforcement or mere order maintenance functions. Of all the three policing styles, the service style runs with much more abundant financial resources and modern technological equipment on account of the economic status of the citizens.

Styles of policing scenarios

As a way to better illustrate the differences between the three styles of policing, let’s use a common example. In a situation where a community has a group of youths who are out past the generally acceptable curfew, officers within a legalistic-style department will follow the provision of the law and write a citation for the culprits or arrest them.

For a watchman-style department, the officers will employ their discretion and consider that they have a number of other situations to attend to. In turn, they may not render any form of intervention and simply send them home or hold a short rebuke meeting with them.

Service-style departments, on the other hand, will try to determine if such a matter is a important to their community or the juvenile department. Based on their assessment, they may choose not to make arrests like the watchman style would. Instead, they might intervene in a way that can serve the community as a whole. They could either take the juveniles in question home or request that their parents come pick them up.

Within the police system, there are several structures that will be run by different policing styles. Most state police and highway patrol agencies tend to work more as a paramilitary structure when compared to other police departments, and they’ll also work according to the strict enforcement of the law with a legalistic style. These departments see themselves as enforcers of the law and will require the officers within the system to handle their interventions the same way.

Suburban police departments, on the other hand, typically follow a service-oriented style of policing as it’s the community they serve that will define their role. Suburban communities see the police largely as a tool to maintain public order within their community. They expect them to intervene when the need arises, but in a way that serves the majority of the community and mostly in an informal way.

Rural and small-town police departments tend to lean the most toward the watchman style, and they use their discretion in most situations that they have to handle. Small-town police officers generally have the most non-traditional police functions while also having more situations to handle without external assistance. As a result, they might rely on their discretion more than strict adherence to the rule of law.

Influences of policing styles

Many people do not realize that police work can be categorized into models and typologies, and this makes it so much easier for them to stereotype officers and their behaviors. However, when one acknowledges that there are a number of factors that influence police actions, it is easier to understand the need for different policing models. Some of the factors that influence policing activities include:

  • Personal influences: Examples include age, gender, ethnicity, race, experience, and education.
  • Situational influences: Examples include the seriousness of the offense, the demeanor of involved parties, the reactive call for service and the mental state of the citizens involved.
  • Environmental influences: The socioeconomic status of the community, the presence of social disorganization, the degree of the crime, ethnic or racial composition and homogeneity all play a role.
  • Organizational influences: These include the departmental style, supervisory support and work shift.

Of all these major influences, the two factors that appear to have the greatest influence on policing styles are situational factors and contextual characteristics of the community in question.

Situational factors play out as the specific reaction of the officers to the intervention on the ground. Typically, police officers will first have to decide if the situation requires intervention; if it does, they must then decide how to intervene. Contextual characteristics as a determining factor will mean that the environment or neighborhood that the officers are needed in will determine how they react to it.

Policing models and styles are influenced by more factors than you might realize, including the attitudes and behaviors of the victims, perpetrators and officers. Becoming a successful police officer requires that you understand the systems, structures and ideologies that are in place in order to make the right judgments. Police officers can advance their careers by earning a Laurier Online Bachelor of Policing

Today, most police departments are leaning toward hiring and promoting their officers based on the police personality that is strongly aligned with the goals of the department and community where they work. In addition, being assigned to specialized units and leadership roles can also mean that different policing styles will come into play.