13 Mar 2013

Keystone Cops & The Evolution Of Policing; Have We Evolved?

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Keystone Cops & The Evolution Of Policing; Have We Evolved

Evolution; Merriam-Webster’s definition best represents my conversation about America’s Political Era of Policing; (1): a process of continuous change from a lower, simpler, or worse to a higher, more complex, or better state : growth (2): a process of gradual and relatively peaceful social, political, and economic advance.

I am fortunate to travel frequently as a workshop facilitator and national guest speaker. My favorite topic is the evolving role of law enforcement. Using data, mapping, and an efficient allocation of resources for effecting positive change within your organization is critical. More importantly, combining sound principles of proactive policing in reducing social harms has become my calling.


Regardless the topic I discuss, the city I’m in, or the audience in attendance, it usually boils down to evolution. Having read Monday’s overview of the Political Era (1840 – 1930), you should have automatically responded with, “Those were crazy days.” Unfortunately, those long-ago times remain entrenched.

I preach the principle of working smarter than harder (though I have no aversion for hard work). I wrote an article for Law Enforcement Today (October 09, 2012) about changing the culture and history of policing. I include an excerpt below to reference our operational origin to England’s tithing system for showing the flow of evolution has actually been a trickle.

Changing the culture and history of policing

 “The apple never really falls far from the tree, and this remains a truism of policing’s reactive paradigm of responding to crime.  The tree I’m referring to is England’s tithing system begun in 648 A.D. that included groups of village men (usually 10) responding to the commission of a criminal offense.”…. 


Today’s practices of policing have not moved far beyond the central tenants of the Political Era. The decision by government leaders to link police agencies to the control of elected and city leaders was a purposeful strategy.

While London’s Met Police established a level of autonomy meant for protecting officers from political influence and interference, no agency will ever be free from elected-influence. I still get a kick out of listening to young Sheriff’s deputies proudly boasting after issuing a potential VIP or city official’s supporter a citation. “I don’t play politics, I do my job.”

Ah, the innocence of youth. Reminding them that their boss, the Sheriff, is an elected official and that each employee works at the “pleasure of the Sheriff.” This certainly does make the proud deputy in fact, political, though not elected.


Even the evolution into America’s next phase, the Reform Era which created civil service systems for protection from political processes, remains fraught with elected influence. When you think of this era, the political machines come to mind such as the 19th century’s “Boss” Tweed and Tammany Hall’s running of New York.

Until recently, I still hear accounts of Sheriffs basing the hiring of an applicant on the number of registered voters in that family. It is naive to believe the remnants of the Political Era do not exist. Is it totally detrimental to police work? I believe it is important to realize we do not operate in a vacuum.

Despite best efforts of civil service testing and processing, merit-based hiring and promotions and ethics reform, there is still the element of human intervention in each level of decision making. As a Chief of Police I do not want a mindless robotic cop on a mission enforcing every law to the letter.

I do look for the best applicants, but with all things being equal I will default to the candidate soundly invested in their community. The one who knows the people we swore to serve, and sometimes that does equate to votes for elected officials.


The final issue I would like to relate to the historical significance of the Political Era is the Social Worker paradigm. While the Industrial Revolution created social upheaval within the major cities, the latter part of the century saw a “settling in” period. Law enforcement’s primary purposes became of caretaker over crime fighter.

Today’s law enforcement struggles to clearly define the mission designating which model is their primary mission. Does your agency focus on dispensing “curbside” justice or meals at soup kitchens? There are many model agencies with a proper blend of the two. It is usually up to the elected officials to decide. Did the Political Era really end in the 1930s?

One, the other, or a combination of both? Do the issues of policing tied to elected officials remain in today’s profession and culture? Are police still used as the state’s arm of force for maintaining social control? Do remnants of the Political Era still exist? Which model best suits your community’s needs; Social Worker or Crime Fighter?

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