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Working the Street

Working the Street: Police Discretion and the Dilemmas of Reform

Copyright Date: 1988
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    Working the Street
    Book Description:

    Now available in paperback, this provocative study examines the street-level decisions made by police, caught between a sometimes hostile community and a maze of departmental regulations. Probing the dynamics of three sample police departments, Brown reveals the factors that shape how officers wield their powers of discretion. Chief among these factors, he contends, is the highly bureaucratic organization of the modern police department.

    A new epilogue, prepared for this edition, focuses on the structure and operation of urban police forces in the 1980s.

    "Add this book to the short list of important analyses of the police at work....Places the difficult job of policing firmly within its political, organizational, and professional constraints...Worth reading and thinking about." -Crime & Delinquency

    "An excellent contribution...Adds significantly to our understanding of contemporary police." -Sociology

    "A critical analysis of policing as a social and political phenomenon....A major contribution." -Choice

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-594-8
    Subjects: Sociology, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables and Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-18)

    THIS BOOK is a study of patrolmen, the lowliest but most significant of policemen. It is about the routine decisions patrolmen make as they work the street, as they manage their task of coping with crime and disorder: a decision to stop and “shake” two black kids walking down the street; a decision to let a drunk driver meander on his way; a decision to forcibly break up a fight between a man and his wife; a decision to pull the trigger to stop a suspected “felon” as he recedes into the darkness. Much of the book is devoted to...

  6. PART ONE Bureaucracy and Political Choice

    • Chapter 1 Administrative Discretion and Public Policy
      (pp. 21-35)

      THE FATE of the modern police is emblematic of a broader trend in industrial societies: the bureaucratization of these societies and the concomitant reliance upon the administrative apparatus to achieve desired social goals. In a very real sense, administration has supplanted politics. With the expansion of government, the centrality of the bureaucracy for public policy is considerably augmented, and the political arena becomes an administrative arena. Key political issues are resolved less through the deliberations of elected officials than through the routines of administration.

      The politics of bureaucracy is largely a politics of administrative discretion. But in what sense can...

    • Chapter 2 Police Professionalism and the Bureaucratization of Police Work
      (pp. 36-52)

      THE POLICE wield their powers of discretion in specific historical circumstances. The values and beliefs they bring to bear in their work—their conception of their duties and responsibilities, their understanding of the law, their ideas of how strictly the law should be enforced and when it should be enforced, their conception of order—and the political and organizational arrangements within which they function depend on the relationship of the police to society at any given time. The eighty-year effort to professionalize the police has wrought fundamental changes in the relationship of the police to the society they are charged...

  7. PART TWO Cops as Professionals and Bureaucrats

    • Chapter 3 The Patrolman and the Community
      (pp. 55-74)

      THE JOB of policing a community and, thus, the way the police wield their powers of discretion are undoubtedly affected by the social makeup of a community. The way a community setting shapes the exercise of discretion by a patrolman depends, partly, upon the actual problems of crime and disorder within a community. The kind of community in which a patrolman works may necessitate that he confront a variety of crimes and human maladies—from murder to drunkenness. Depending on the crime rate, it may also pose questions of personal safety. Most patrolmen readily acknowledge the relevance of the community...

    • Chapter 4 The Police Task and Organization
      (pp. 75-95)

      THE POLICE are often regarded as the epitome of the highly professional and bureaucratic agencies that are the legacy of municipal reform. Police departments are typically described as quasi-military organizations in which command and control is centralized, and administrators emphasize the legitimacy of hierarchical authority and rigid adherence to impersonal rules and regulations. Yet, it is also acknowledged that policemen wield broad powers of discretion and have substantial autonomy in carrying out their task. This paradox is rarely admitted, much less explained, by most observers of the police. The explanation lies in the structure of professional police departments, which is...

    • Chapter 5 The Dilemmas of Administrative Control
      (pp. 96-132)

      THAT administrative controls within police departments affect the behavior and decisions of patrolmen cannot be denied. What is an open question, though, is the precise impact of the system of discipline, impersonal work controls, incentives, and the expectations of police administrators and supervisors on the choices of patrolmen. The ability of police administrators to influence and control police discretion may depend, as James Q. Wilson has suggested, on the type of incident a patrolman confronts.¹ When the choice is cut and dried, such as the choice of whether to issue a traffic citation for a palpable violation, a chief of...

  8. PART THREE Working the Street

    • Chapter 6 Crime Fighting
      (pp. 135-181)

      ALL TOO OFTEN the behavior of patrolmen is understood only in terms of their responsibilities for maintaining order and providing services. The presumption is that since these activities—settling family disputes, handling drunks, chasing noisy juveniles, looking for lost children—are what patrolmen most often do, and since very little of their time is spent on crime-related activities, the responsibility and difficulty of performing these tasks define the role of patrolmen.¹ This view may be a necessary corrective to the popular image of the police but it is insufficient as a statement of the patrolman’s role. Quite simply, it omits...

    • Chapter 7 Nonenforcement: Minor Violations and Disturbances
      (pp. 182-220)

      THE ENFORCEMENT of misdemeanor laws presents difficulties for the police that laws pertaining to more serious crimes do not. If a misdemeanor is, by definition, a less serious violation than a felony, the irony is that many misdemeanors cover rather serious offenses. Drunk driving, a rather commonplace offense and the cause of an undue amount of traffic fatalities, is a prominent example. The problem for the police is that many misdemeanors are not taken very seriously by the public. Traffic offenses are considered by most people as a mere hazard of driving; petty theft offends more basic values but it...

    • Chapter 8 Police Discretion and Operational Style
      (pp. 221-245)

      THOUGH there are important commonalities in the experiences of patrolmen, though they confront the same dilemmas and choices while working the street, there are profound differences in the way they respond. The occupational pressures that impinge on patrolmen do not lead to a distinctive “police mentality.” Rather, these occupational pressures facilitate the formation of a bond of solidarity among policemen, one that provides the emotional support and trust necessary to perform an arduous task in the face of a deep-seated sense of isolation from the community. This bond also, in conjunction with the ethos of individualism and the limits to...

    • Chapter 9 Coping with the Police Bureaucracy
      (pp. 246-280)

      A patrolman’s discretionary choices turn partly on an evaluation of the organizational consequences of any action. Since an individual’s position in an organization—the rewards he gains, his reputation, his status—often rides on the outcome of a discretionary decision, the choice of alternatives is influenced by a crude organizational calculus: how will this decision affect me personally? In general, individuals in administrative organizations exercise their powers of discretion to their own advantage, and seek to avoid those choices for which there are perceived to be disadvantages. The act of discretion thus involves an assessment of the risks and opportunities...

  9. PART FOUR The Politics of Police Discretion

    • Chapter 10 Political Control of Police Discretion: The Dilemmas of Reform
      (pp. 283-306)

      THE overt hostilities of the 1960s have subsided, but the contending political currents remain. Many of the issues raised during the latter part of that decade have not so much been resolved as postponed. This becomes apparent when we question the role, prerogatives, and behavior of the American police. If the fear of crime is still a very real concern to most Americans, the wanton brutality of Houston patrolmen, two recent shootings by the LAPD, and the death of a black businessman at the hands of the Miami police are grim reminders of what concerned so many people a decade...

  10. Appendix Scale Construction
    (pp. 307-312)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 313-328)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 329-338)
  13. Epilogue Race, Reform, and the American Police in the 1980s
    (pp. 339-360)

    JUST TWENTY YEARS AGO the Kerner Commission submitted its report on the civil disorders of the 1960s. The Commission unequivocally pointed to an American version of apartheid at the core of the social and political upheaval they were called upon to investigate.¹ They called attention to the role of the urban police as being among the myriad causes contributing to the black revolt. The police were not merely a spark, in the Commission’s view, that ignited urban conflagrations; they were deeply implicated, for “some Negroes [the] police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression…. [there] is...

  14. Index
    (pp. 361-374)