What is the Mission and Intent of Policing a Free Society?

The fundamental objectives of policing (also referred to as the mission of the police or the core functions of policing) are the ultimate purposes for which police agencies have been created. Goldstein was one of a number of scholars who recognized and articulated the breadth and complexity of the police mission. He synthesized his understanding of the multiple objectives of the police in his seminal work, Policing a Free Society, a precursor to his writings on problem oriented policing. Drawing from earlier work he had done, Goldstein (Goldstein, 1977) characterized the fundamental objectives of the police in free societies as follows:

  1. To prevent and control conduct threatening to life and property (including serious crime);
  2. To aid crime victims and protect people in danger of physical harm;
  3. To protect constitutional guarantees, such as the right to free speech and assembly;
  4. To facilitate the movement of people and vehicles;
  5. To assist those who cannot care for themselves including the intoxicated, the addicted, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, the elderly, and the young;
  6. To resolve conflict between individuals, between groups, or between citizens and their government;
  7. To identify problems that have the potential for becoming more serious for individuals, the police or the government; and
  8. To create and maintain a feeling of security in the community.

While there are other ways to characterize the police mission, both in greater and lesser detail, Goldstein’s formulations remains a comprehensive and useful reference for guiding police actions.

Properly understood, this broad, though not limitless, set of objectives should be liberating for the police. Theoretically, at least, it frees the police from being bound to certain methods of achieving these objectives, allowing them to develop other methods that might prove more effective. In practice, however, the police remain somewhat bound to conventional methods of operating, for several reasons. One is the sheer force of habit, habits not only of the police, but also of the public and of other government institutions. Enormous investments have been made in the form of technology, training and organizational relationships to support conventional methods like criminal investigation, criminal prosecution and rapid response to calls for police service. A second, and yet more profound, reason why the police remain bound to conventional methods is that not all decision-makers accept the notion that law enforcement is but a means to other ends. The idea that the fundamental purpose of the police is to enforce the law, however idealistic, remains powerfully attractive because it’s simple and straight forward and it seems, on its surface, to be consistent with more deeply held beliefs about the rule of law.

The entire structure of problem oriented policing is built on the forgoing idea about the fundamental objectives of the police, the recognition of law enforcement power as a means rather than an end, and all the implications these notions have for the exercise of police discretion and for police authority to operate by administrative rules, and not solely by legislative decree. In other words, problem oriented policing makes sense to those who share these fundamental beliefs about the police’s role and who see policing as a complex and sensitive function, but less so to those who don’t. Many of these core beliefs get glossed over in the debates and discussions about problem oriented policing. The debates and discussions then are about how best to implement problem oriented policing, rather than whether it is the right approach to policing at all. Problem oriented policing implicates some of the most important principles governing police power in a society of law. (Scott, 2000)

This begs the question, just what is the mission and intent of policing a free society?

Stay Oriented!