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The Evolution of Police: From the 19th Century Beat Cop to Today

By Dr. Chuck Russo, Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University

Unfortunately, many citizens today consider police to be a necessary evil rather than assets who protect and assist those in their community. But that hasn’t always been the case. The role of law enforcement (as well as their perception by the public) has changed dramatically over the last century.

[Related: Leading Change in Law Enforcement]

In the late 1800s through early 1900s, the beat cop (or town cop, if you lived in the country) handled all of society’s ills. He (it was always “he” back then) would work to make sure the hungry got something to eat, the homeless had a place to stay, the unemployed found jobs, and anyone else in need got help. He would even—from time to time—dispense justice as he saw fit, sometimes at the end of a nightstick, sometimes with an arrest, or sometimes with just a stern lecture or a combination of actions.

Development of Specialized Government Agencies Changed the Role of Police

In the 1920s-1940s, there was significant government expansion. No longer was the beat cop or town cop the sole representative of government for people to turn to when they needed assistance. Instead, specialized agencies and departments were created to address different social issues, such as departments to assist children and families in need, unemployment offices for those needing work, housing departments for those without a place to stay, and agencies dedicated to addressing mental health issues.

As the government expanded and specialization became the norm, law enforcement focused on addressing crime and crime-related issues. However, police agencies still remained the “gatekeepers,” directing those in need to these specialized departments for specific types of assistance.

[Related: Pursuits, Use of Force, and the Influence of Public Perceptions on Policing]

It was during this time period in many urban centers that law enforcement came to be viewed as an “occupying force.” No longer did everyone know their beat cop or town cop. To make matters worse, these officers were often relegated to a patrol car so they could provide coverage to a larger geographic area. It became standard practice for officers to respond to a situation, take care of the problem, and then retreat to their patrol car to await the next call for service. If citizens lived in an area where there weren’t frequent criminal problems, they would rarely see these officers. To most citizens, officers became unknown people in uniforms driving around in metal boxes.

Police Are Expected to Address Community-Related Problems

Then things changed again in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Issues that previously weren’t seen as “law enforcement problems” began receiving a law enforcement response. Views on domestic violence shifted and what was once viewed as a private issue between a husband and wife suddenly became a police concern. The “broken windows theory,” which became popular in the mid-1980s, meant that police suddenly had responsibilities to stop vandalism, loitering, panhandling, fare evasion and littering.

This shift to community-orientated policing and problem-solving policing meant that officers responded to and tackled “community concerns” and not just “crime issues.” Officers were encouraged to get out of that metal box on wheels and “engage” with fellow members of the community. They were now to act (and strove to be viewed) as members of the community they patrolled.

[Related: Problem-Oriented Policing and Today’s Struggle for Effective Community-Police Relationships]

In many ways, these changes brought law enforcement back to the bygone era of the beat cop and the town cop. Police were once again expected to take an active role in handling all of society’s ills, not just directing individuals to other departments and agencies, but working with those departments to meet the needs of citizens.

Economic Crash Reduced Resources, Changed Police Roles Again

But then things changed once again in 2006 and 2007, when the economy started to crash. Budgets were cut and personnel were reduced in every specialized department that had once helped police address such issues. And law enforcement agencies were not immune. They also suffered from reductions in resources and saw significant reductions in staff. Suddenly, the services that were once readily available became scarce and some even ceased to exist.

Once again, law enforcement found itself standing alone to tackle many of society’s ills as members of the departments it had once worked with seemed to disappear. Much like the beat cop or the town cop of the late 1800s/early 1900s, today’s officers feel the burden of handling many of society’s ills, often without external resources. For example, police are often the default responders to mental health calls and it is estimated that a quarter of all police shootings involve a mentally ill person. Several high-profile cases including the shooting deaths of LaQuan McDonald, Ethan Saylor, Michelle Cusseaux, make it apparent that police cannot tackle such social issues alone. Police should not be the ones responsible for dealing with the country’s mental health problems, but are often the ones called because other options aren’t available.

[Related: Use of Deadly Force on Fleeing Criminals]

So what’s next? Will the role and responsibilities of police change yet again? Hopefully this time around, change will include the reinstatement of training budgets to equip officers with the necessary tools and education they need to properly address social issues when they encounter them. Such changes—both within agencies and among citizens—must aim to reinstate police as the assets they are to their communities, rather than the necessary evil that many citizens consider them today.

Dr. Chuck RussoAbout the Author: Dr. Chuck Russo is the Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University (AMU). He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in Central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the United States and the Middle East. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, in addition to post-traumatic stress and online learning.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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