Law Enforcement in the United States

As a prevailing practice, law enforcement occupies a central position in the United States and all its overseas territories. It is one of the three main components in the criminal justice system, working in liaison with the courts and the department of corrections. From the moment an individual is placed in custody, a series of events are instituted that often include investigations into the said criminal activity, ultimately leading to sanctions as part punitive action. As a rule of thumb, the act of enforcing laws is the preserve of governmental power agencies with sweeping powers as granted by the federal government. They include a myriad of sheriff departments, college campus precincts, local officers and federal agencies (Trautman, 2015).

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In carrying out their mandate, these agencies are uniquely tasked with investigating any criminal activity that has been brought to their attention. Next, they are expected to conduct an in-depth probe and refer these results to circuit courts in their areas of jurisdiction. The temporary detention of persons of interest soon follows, pending the ultimate decision of judicial authority. Such actions make sure that law enforcement agencies are responsible for deterring various forms of criminal activity while also protecting lives and property. An in-depth assessment of law enforcement in the United States is therefore fundamental to understanding its history, philosophies, psychological theories in use, models of police behavior, policing styles and the stress associated with life as a police officer.

Past and Current Law Enforcement

 Law enforcement in the United States originated from Anglo-Saxon common law during the colonial era. Agents were expected to play an essential role as vanguards of the stipendiary justice as this was their primary social obligation. The shift from sparse rural communities, steeped in the agrarian system, of living to one that was industrialized and urban now meant that there was an upsurge in crime that had to be contained. It was this reality that led to the formation of the “Watchmen” in Boston, Massachusetts in 1631 as the first attempt at creating a police force (Trautman, 2015, p. 12). A majority of the officers working for the organization were dedicated to ensuring that the citizen’s well-being was always assured and received a stipend from private citizens. Soon after, this organization paved the way for vigilante associations that were all too common in 19th-century frontier regions. The task of these vigilantes was to control the rise in criminal activity in areas that had little or no formal justice systems and introduce a semblance of order that would benefit the citizenry. In addition to this, the burgeoning population of urban centers as a result of immigration from European countries was also a source of concern for the ruling elite wary of citizens of foreign extraction. The establishment of night-watch associations that were supported by active constables was expected to curtail this threat while spreading the Christian religion for moral purposes. Soon after, the New York City police department was established in 1844 to serve as the country’s first official constabulary organized in a para-military command arrangement. Power shifted from such departments to states and local governments to decentralize their activities while developing autonomous units. A common task of police units during this period was to prevent the escalation of violence in areas that grappled with ethnic rivalries thus creating a state of equilibrium.

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The current system of law enforcement in the United States came into being as a result of numerous reforms that were made to create a modern arrangement and one that could function in contemporary society. Political leaders were very much aware of the challenges that the new liberal society that they intended to build faced and knew that they had to begin with a thorough shakeup of law enforcement agencies. Gaining the trust of the citizens was an important step that was bound to improve relations between different races since individuals always knew that they could count on police officers during their time of need. In this new dispensation, law enforcement officers now had a clear understanding of their mandate that required them to prevent the commission of a crime while still maintaining law and order. Moreover, they were now required to enforce warrants posted by various departments and administer writs as per the rules of multiple courts (Trautman, 2015). Their scope of action was also expanded to now include acting as first responders whenever a situation threatening public safety was reported. It also extended to shielding public facilities and other pieces of infrastructure that are integral to everyday life. The 1960s marked a new era for law enforcement in the United States. For the first time, a sitting president was fervently dedicated to instituting police reforms that would forever change the face of law enforcement for years to come. President Lyndon B. Johnson undertook a dedicated and systematic approach to establishing reforms in the face of public outcry owing to a sudden spike in corruption and police brutality. These changes also included the militarization of various law enforcement units to include tactical groups such as SWAT teams. By so doing, law enforcement was now better placed to deal with emerging threats such as terror and the permeation of drug-related gang crime.

Law Enforcement Philosophies 

The philosophy of punishment precedes all other ideologies currently used in law enforcement. Punishment is viewed as the only option available when dealing with law offenders and a tactic that deters such behavior. As an approach, it is implemented by the criminal justice system which is dependent upon members of the law enforcement profession as enforcers. Criminal justice personnel is uniquely tasked with making sure that conflict does not arise in society and individuals causing others harm are punished for their actions (“Corrections/Law Enforcement Intelligence Gathering and Sharing Project,” 2014, p. 25). Although the degree of punishment may vary from one state to another, there is a consensus in the criminal justice system concerning offenders atoning for their actions. Equal retribution for the crime committed serves as an appropriate punishment for offenders who are then separated from other members of society.

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Law enforcement officers also act within their area of jurisdiction and always strive to adhere to the rule of law when dealing with offenders. They are well aware that these individuals also have a set of inalienable rights that are accorded to every citizen of the United States. By applying this perspective, officers cultivate a neutral mindset critical when approaching suspects. It also serves as a safety measure consideration since errors are always bound to arise when identifying specific offenders. As a philosophy, this shift in attitude helps one to avoid instances of institutional prejudice towards suspects from a particular segment of the population (Rogers, Senior Lecturer in Police Studies Colin Rogers, Lewis, John, & Read, 2011, p. 67).  In recent years, it has emerged that officers who failed to adhere to this philosophy often engaged in a type of misconduct hinging upon bias.

 It is also imperative that law enforcement officers make concerted efforts to improve their level of education. In particular, in-service and higher education serves integral roles as law enforcement philosophies. The premise behind it is that the improvement of an individual officer goes a long way in improving society as a whole.  Observing this philosophy means that one is now capable of questioning age-old beliefs and value systems, therefore participating in a process that ultimately improves a specific criminal justice organization  (“Law Without Enforcement: Theory and Practice,”). Additionally, officers now get a unique opportunity to observe the changes that may be taking place in society and acting accordingly. A clear understanding is soon established between these two groups that often seek to improve relations.

Psychological Theories of Law Enforcement

 The application of psychological models and theories in law enforcement is a strategy meant to articulate alternative models to predict behavior. They offer empirical demonstrations of the effect of specific actions on suspects and how law enforcement officers can behave in a given situation to increase their chances of success.

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 The exercise of authority theory places law enforcement agents at the center of every situation that warrants their attention. They are expected to be fully aware of the influence that they wield and exercise a degree of authority that is within the confines of the law. In addition to this, officers should always remember that they are representatives of the criminal justice system (“Law Without Enforcement: Theory and Practice,” n.d., p. 56). Exercising their legal authority can influence the behavior of offenders and would-be offenders achieving compliance to a certain degree in social settings. Furthermore, law enforcement officers espousing a degree of imposition influence tense situations positively since citizens get to acknowledge that deferring to a legal authority is unacceptable.

 The legitimacy theory posits that citizens are bound to adhere to instructions provided by law enforcement officers since they enjoy a level of acceptability. Their position in society is one that is enshrined in the constitution and can thus act under this discretion. To the general public, law enforcement officers represent an entity that is desirable since the country’s system of governance protects it. For instance, members of police departments across different counties work in concert with courts and shapes behavior (Stering, 2018). It is for this reason that a majority of the country’s citizenry have a level of deference to police presence even during tense personal encounters.

The independent policing theory is of great psychological importance to members of the law enforcement community. Police are expected to perform their duties without awaiting public approval at any given moment. Their responsibility is to the state, the constitution and the criminal justice system. By implementing the law, they apply constitutional requirements that are expected to create a certain level of civility within society (“Law Without Enforcement: Theory and Practice”). Such an attitude has positive effects on the public who voluntarily obey the law to avoid clashing with law enforcement officers. As a result, a level of respect is maintained with values playing a major psychological role in shaping the overall behavior of individual members of society.

Models of Police Behavior

Law enforcement officers typically implement the community mobilization as the first model of behavior in their area of jurisdiction. At the crux of this model is breaking the barrier that exists between the general population and police officers. Meeting community leaders in a target has been linked to positive results and reduction of crime rates since they exercise degree ownership in the community. They are also viewed as active members of the community who lend their support whenever required by those in need. As a result, their chances of success in such cities are high since trust is established through various forms of outreach. Through this model of behavior, law enforcement can now obtain feasible ideas from the public on how to serve them while also meeting their needs.

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Police have also been known to be adept at offering opportunities to community members to improve their condition. Job-related opportunities help vulnerable youth steer off crime and lead more productive lives which, in turn, makes police work much more relaxed. In this sense, police behavior is directed in such a way that individuals are provided with vocational skills during a rigorous training program that provide them with mainstream opportunities. The alienation of potential suspects is viewed as primary cause of a steady increase in crime across the United States. Reversing this trend by avoiding segregation has a positive effect since major problems are explored, reducing incidences of crime, short-term custody, and incarceration.

Policing Styles

Law enforcement officers are mandated to work with other administrators using the available resources within a specific set of policies. There are numerous instances where these resources may be limited, prompting officers to apply distinct policing styles that would prioritize their activities. The policing techniques that are currently in use observe a set of socioeconomic characteristics common to a jurisdiction.

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Firstly, the “watchman” policing style is applied as a means of maintaining order within society. It is common in areas with mixed racial population and a rapidly deteriorating industrial base. In essence, there are some offenses that may be overlooked by this approach on the grounds that such an action will mitigate the likelihood of social disorder. The discretion applied in this policing style might, however, be interpreted as a biased methodology by those not receiving this type of treatment.

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        Secondly, the service policing style seeks to emphasize the critical role of police officers through individual contributions. Using this model, the police conduct their work with the citizens in mind. They try to ensure that all their actions ultimately improve the condition of all citizens as a charitable gesture and as a show of dedication to their country. They may protect residents from outsiders and their influence in the case of a homogenous community to prevent an insult on the accepted way of life.

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Thirdly, police may apply the legalistic style of policing. It entails emphasizing aspects such as competence and law enforcement. At the core of its function is the application of reforms that are in line with the changes that may be occurring in a progressive society. Officers treat every individual equally without any preferential treatment. All groups are expected to observe the laws while still obeying the community’s standard for conduct.

Stress Associated with Life as a Police Officer

Stress has recently become synonymous with contemporary society.  Police work provides an environment that efficiently produces stress which ultimately affects an individual officer both mentally and physically. The dangers and threats encountered by these individuals while in the line of duty produce a cataract of high strung attitudes and lead to erratic behavior.

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Police officers experience a level of personal stress. The primary cause of this pressure is the interpersonal characteristic inherent in every law enforcement officer. If an organization and agency fail to provide adequate training on how to deal with such situations, officers fall into this abyss and may fail various competency tests (Ménard & Arter, 2014, p. 47). Moreover, lack of job satisfaction may create a rift between officers and may lead to protracted conflicts.

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The military character of the police produces organizational stress. Police officers are expected to answer their call of duty when required, be it during national holidays or ordinary work days. These odd hours, coupled with strict discipline requirements cause severe stress for police and their families and may harm their wellbeing. As a result, social life and relationships may be affected, leading to isolation and even suicide.


Law enforcement provides a streamlined system of criminal justice with components that are dependent on each other for efficiency. Each element functions autonomously, although they are essentially semi-independent components that aim to serve a singular goal. An evaluation of past and current law enforcement, philosophies, policing models, policing styles and stress associated with life as a police officer offers perspective into this profession thus fostering a better understanding of their role in society.

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