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Mission impossible: satisfying society's increasing demands.

With America's renewed war on crime, society is demanding ever more from its police. Communities expect traditional crime control methodologies that once focused on enforcing laws and maintaining civil order to embrace social welfare and public health features. Consequently, police administrators are expected to broaden their agencies' methods of crime intervention without sacrificing efficiency or accountability, despite increasing budget constraints.

These divergent, and sometimes conflicting, pressures lead to questions about the direction many police agencies have taken, whether wittingly or not. Are society's evolving expectations realistic? Can an acceptable standard of police efficiency and effectiveness be achieved under such a broad mandate? Should law enforcement, as a panacea for society's ills, be the policing paradigm for the 21st century?

It is impossible for contemporary American crime fighters to respond effectively to the Nation's call for service without clearly defined, customer-driven mission statements composed of realistic objectives and achievable goals. Such statements would help to correct the ambiguity regarding the roles and functions of police that rests at the heart of the current debate concerning strategies. In fact, the future relevance of the police in society may depend on the creation of well-defined mission statements.

Universal Variations

That policing is in a state of flux is nothing new. The history of American policing is a tale of public mood swings followed by dramatic--and often painful--reforms. Politics, technology, and scholarly inquiry into the profession all strongly influence police operations. Consequently, the police mission in contemporary society has become increasingly varied and complex, driven by unusual demands for service.

Granted, it may be impossible, even foolhardy, to establish an all-encompassing national mission for policing. With over 17,000 individual departments--all with different histories, operational challenges, and leadership styles--a great deal of variation is inevitable. Yet, the fact remains that the basic mission of policing--crime control--is, or should be, the same. Ideally, therefore, only the peripheral components of each department's mission should differ in order to address local variations.

The Limits of Policing

While the police might be the most recognized agency of government, they are probably the least understood. The public generally views police operations as being uncomplicated; therefore, far more is expected of the police than they are authorized, trained, or equipped to do. However, it is unreasonable to expect law enforcement to address singlehandedly problems affected by immensely complex social, economic, and political forces.

In reality, the police possess a limited capacity to enhance the quality of life within communities through the prevention, investigation, and resolution of crime. No matter how professional or community-oriented police officers become, they are powerless to solve the root causes of crime alone. Curing long-term problems caused by the unraveling of family networks, unemployment, poverty, and other societal forces should not be considered a police responsibility.

Considering the available evidence, it seems clear that society must lower its expectations of the police. This is not to say that the police should retreat into a reactive, minimalist posture. But the time has come for political leaders and citizens to understand that the police cannot solve society's problems. To ask them to do so only dilutes and jeopardizes the true mission and function of law enforcement in society.

Citizens--not the police--bear primary responsibility for the quality of life within their communities. While the police certainly can provide assistance in this area by sponsoring neighborhood watches and encouraging community involvement in crime prevention, the ultimate responsibility for the well-being of a neighborhood, a community, and ultimately, a society lies with its citizens.

To help rehabilitate society's view, the police must recognize their own limitations. Many departments confuse diversity of programs with productivity, sacrificing the latter to achieve the former. There is transcending truth in the architectural principle that "less is more." Admittedly, the current scope of criminality dictates that the police must become more proactive and interactive in their orientation. But, increased activism must not come at the expense of their core function--enforcing the law and maintaining order.

Rather than adopting a particular philosophy of policing as best for all of the Nation's communities, each municipality must seek to define the police mission based on capabilities that make the greatest contribution to its quality of life. The law enforcement community should not lose patience because the ideal model has yet to be discovered and validated. At the same time, police administrators should not settle for simplistic, politically appealing concepts rooted in nostalgia, calculated to satisfy emotional, rather than practical, needs.

The mark of an effective police department should not be how successfully it implements the most recent national program model, but instead how thoughtfully it crafts logical solutions to local needs. An agency develops a practical mission by identifying the right fit between its capabilities and its environmental opportunities. There is no rule requiring that the same mission be executed in every municipality. Each department must remain flexible within the framework of its mission.

For example, it may be appropriate to emphasize the law enforcement role where a higher crime rate exists. Periods of increased social turmoil may require an emphasis on maintaining civil order. When relative tranquility prevails, the police may pursue more public service-oriented tasks.


If law enforcement is to avoid becoming an anachronism in the next century, the prevailing view of policing as a "catchall" profession must be dispelled. To this end, the formulation of appropriate mission statements is of decisive importance. Without a logical mission, law enforcement will be compelled to endure, rather than shape, its own course. The time has arrived for serious and realistic debate about the mission of the police and the role of law enforcement in society.

Major Hennen served in the Fort Montgomery, New York, Police Department and is now a technology program manager in the U.S. Army.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Federal Bureau of Investigation
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Hennen, Christopher G.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Oct 1, 1994
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