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Police power and authority

The police. Twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year, this division of our government has a mandate to enforce the criminal law and preserve public peace. Understood in this mandate is an obligation to police everyday life matters that originate in the daily lives and activities of citizens within their community. Police interact in some form with the average citizen more often than any other government official. In society today the police play a key role in maintaining a civil society. This role assumes a substantial amount of power and authority over the general public. With power comes corruption and/or misuse of power. The question that is presented is, how and why do the police exceed the parameters of their power and authority?

This is an issue that is predominant in urban settings, but not exclusive to these settings. This is an important issue because it effects all people. The police is a government service to all people, but all people do not feel they are being serviced. Not everyone is satisfied with the conduct of the police. Why do people feel that police are crossing boundaries that they should not be? This will be observed from four different aspects in which police are capable of exceeding the parameters of their power and authority: police and use of discretionary enforcement, "Police justice", police harassment, and the unwarranted use of police authority.

Police are allowed to and must use personal discretion in their determination of law enforcement. Unlike a judge or lawyer a police officer can not gather information and take time to make a prognosis to make a decision affecting the fate of a person. He must make a quick decision based on his discretion to determine the fate of a person.. "...a quick decision is required to protect the interests of the public and to satisfy requirements of operating efficiency" (Reiss, p.130) Now we are telling officer to not enforce the law, but to determine the law.

A policeman's discretionary decision may then be evaluated by others both inside and outside of the department. This is the cause for a further complication in the processes because in order to avoid criticism the police officer then might use his own sense of justice. This "police justice" is basically having the officer conduct his own trial. This usually satisfies probable cause but also has the officer concluding a suspect's guilt and a arrest that he determines justifiable. That also leads to the fact that citizens who behave antagonistically towards an officer are more likely to be arrested than those who are civil or very differential. Donald J. Black reported in "Police control of Juveniles", American sociological Review February 1970, that when Complaints are present 72 percent of adults who behave antagonistically toward the police are arrested in the field while only 45 percent who are civil and 40 percent who are differential toward the police are arrested. This is an obvious misuse of discretion. When a police officer treats a citizen antagonistically there is not much the citizen can do, but when it is the citizen acting antagonistically it more than likely will be a determination of guilt.

When a police officers judgment is constantly questioned and his sense of justice is not validated he may lose his commitment to the system. Police are often alienated in the criminal justice system, in a sense there status is demeaned by the decisions of lawyers and judges. They are treated as less of a professional. To see a person who in the officer's discretion was guilty be released time after time, it is difficult for the officer to keep his commitment to the system. "Where moral commitment is lost, subcultural practices take over. One such practice that exacerbates the relationship of the police with the public is harassment" (Reiss, p.138) Therefore police create their own subcultural practices which include harassment.

Author Albert J. Reiss offers an alternative explanation to why some citizens feel they have been harassed. He states that citizens do not call upon the police for things that they feel the police will not believe or will not consider legitimate concerns. Therefore citizens only call upon the police for what they regard as a crisis or important matter.

"What the citizen generally regards as a crisis is necessarily routine to the police; it becomes part of their regular work and follows routines. Likewise, police intervention in the lives of citizens by such means as detaining citizens for questions- regarded by police as routine preventive or investigative work necessary to the role as agents of criminal control- are often regarded by citizens as harassment, infringement upon individual rights, or unauthorized intervention." (Reiss, p.64)

The unwarranted use of police authority towards citizens includes an array of components that employ illegal actions including the undue use of force and threats, harassment, uncivil treatment including abusive and demeaning language and actions, and unauthorized methods of investigation. These are actions that are obviously abuses of authority, but they do occur. In a survey done by the national Advisory Commission on civil disorders(done in fifteen cities) showed twenty-two percent of all blacks and six percent of all whites said that they had been frisked or searched without good reason, and twenty percent of all blacks and nine percent of all whites felt that they had been demeaned or had insulting language used on them.

One major way in which in which police cross the boundaries of their power and authority is police corruption. Corruption defined is a direct deal involving cash (or assets, or any personal gain for the officer) in exchange for official action or inaction.

"The national Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals postulates that:

1. The corruption of public officials at all levels of government- federal, state, and local- is perceived as widespread by the American public;

2. such corruption results in a staggering cost to the American Taxpayer; and

3. the existence of corruption breeds further crime by providing for the citizen a model of official lawlessness that undermines an acceptable rule of law. (More, p.346)

The police especially out of all government officials hurt society by this "official lawlessness" because they are the ones who enforce the law. This shows society that some people can be above the law. This does not promote social order. It is almost a message that police feel that there are two sets of laws: one for them , and one for the public. Roger Woddis exhibits this concept in his poem "Ethics for Everyman":

Throwing a bomb is bad

Dropping a bomb is good;

Terror, no need to add,

Depends on who's wearing the hood....

Daily the Church declares

Betting-shops are a curse;

Gambling with stocks and with shares

Enlarges the national purse....

Social morality

Has a duality-

One for each side of the tracks.

(Whitaker, p.14)

What makes police officers conform to corruption? Possibly because police feel disrespected, not only from their superiors in the criminal justice system as mentioned before, but also from the public. In a study of 437 police officers across eleven cities, fifty-four percent were unhappy with the respect they received from citizens. Thirty percent felt that the average citizen in their patrol held the police in some degree of contempt. Nineteen percent felt that most people in the precinct generally look at the police as enemies. Also one third of the police in the study frequently stop people to question or frisk them, which is seen by most citizens as suspicion of crime. This may have something to do with why so many of the police officers felt the citizens resented them.(More, p.120)

The best way to study these issues of whether the police exceed the parameters of their power and authority would be to conduct a survey of citizens, because the general population is who the police have power and authority over. Who else would know better if the police were servicing their communities in the manner in which is expected.

When police take too much power of the criminal justice system into their own hands they are damaging society. They are splitting society into the people who are policed for, and the people who are policed against. The police that abuse their power and authority are no longer enforcing justice, but are making it just to obey force.

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