Studying Police

Varieties of Police Behavior by James Q. Wilson; Harvard University Press, 299 pages $6.50

EVEN A Joe Friday, equipped with a college education and all the sensitivity-training the Los Angeles Police Department can offer, would probably find pounding a beat on the hostile streets of Watts a frustrating experience. After reading Varieties of Police Behavior, one might even guess that Friday would cause more friction there than would the proverbial Irish cop with a parochial grade school education.

That's why, for the most part, the Joe Fridays in the nation's police departments operate out of the detective bureaus, taking care of what James Q. Wilson terms "law enforcement"--the job of solving felony cases such as homicide and grand larceny. Most of these cases have a clearly defined object--catching the criminal--which challenges the tough, analytical minds of the Fridays.

Patrolmen, often the rawest, lowest paid, and least intelligent members of the force, are left with the other 99 per cent of police work, which Wilson dubs "order maintenance"--the usually tedious, sometimes dangerous duties of controlling restless teenagers on hot streets, of stepping into armed quarrels between lovers, of shepherding drunks. As Wilson sees it, the patrolman's lot is not a happy one. He pounds his beat alone or in pairs and doesn't enjoy the neat guidelines of the detective; "disorderly conduct," "creating a public nuisance," and other laws used to maintain order leave the patrolman with an enormous amount of discretion since few justices can define order in specific terms or say what annoys the people of a given neighborhood. If Joe Friday were pounding the pavement, he'd have to spend more time learning the personalities and trouble-making potential of the people on his street than poring for hours over the book. The law only provides the patrolman with names of charges to use if an arrest is made; it can't tell him when he should make an arrest.

Such are the hard patterns Wilson found in the eight communities, from Oakland, Cal. to Long Island, which he studied to develop his comments on police behavior patterns. In all cases, the patrolman had, of necessity, to use a great amount of judgment in his work. Wilson argues that police administrators can at best instill a certain style of approaching order maintenance into their policemen and dress them down afterwards for their actions in specific cases, but they cannot tightly control their patrolmen's behavior on the street.

OF THE THREE STYLES of police behavior developed in the book, the "watchman style" has the most familiar ring. As Wilson notes, most 19th century American policemen did behave like watchmen, ignoring small offenses and maintaining order through their personal authority (often backed with fists) rather than by their arrest power. The watchman-style patrolman judges offenses by the prevailing standards of the immediate community. He might ignore a small theft in a ghetto neighborhood, but investigate the same theft in a prosperous white area. Only in more serious offenses would he crack down, perhaps breaking a few more heads in a street brawl than would a policeman with a different style. An officer of the Albany police force described his watchman style:


The motto is, "don't rock the boat," don't get the citizens upset, keep the taxes down, keep stories out of the newspapers, and keep things quiet..

Such is the credo of the traditional, the watchman force, now disappearing due to what is loosely called professionalism--a term which Wilson uses sparingly.

Instead, he points out that a so-called "professional" police force may actually be moving toward one of two very different styles: the service style and the legalistic style. The service department takes all complaints seriously, but is likely to try to handle them as gently as possible, by working through community agencies. In effect, it's the sort of style best fitted for communities with few serious problems of maintaining order, i.e. much of Nassau County and other middle class and upper class suburbs. The policeman can perform as a servant since his authority is seldom needed and almost never questioned.

More interesting is the darker side of "professionalization"--the legalistic style. The police try to do the impossible: go by the letter of the law all the time. They act like book-following Joe Fridays even in an obscure quarrel on a back street. Or, as an Oakland sergeant puts it:

It's Chief X's philosophy that the case is either unfounded or you had better have them charged with the offense which they are suspected of having committed. When we come across a group of kids scuffling around after a basketball game, there's no such thing as "messing around" in his eyes. Either there's no trouble and no reason to stop them, or else you had better bring them in.

The choice of Oakland is apt, for it's long been wondered how a city with a reputedly professional police force could generate so many complaints of police brutality and harassment of minority groups. As Wilson sees it, there have been few cases of actual brutality, but the complaints of harassment are understandable, considering that the chief pressures his men to maintain order by the book, even where that book is irrelevant. What might be considered a disorder in a prosperous area might be only a quiet evening on ghetto streets. But the legalistic-style police go where the "offenses" are and arrest the "offenders." That means more Negroes in jail and more complaints of harassment.

WILSON'S STYLES of police behavior are best used as a rough grid to help describe how and why the police of a given community act. As Wilson admits, the styles are not empirically defined, and are more the result of the judicious impressions of his workers in the field. Indeed, the book falters most noticeably when Wilson attempts to use selected tables of arrest statistics to bolster his argument on the styles. The statistics do tend to confirm that the styles exist, but they also lead him into tiresome digressions to explain anomalies in certain of the tables.

Not surprisingly, Wilson, after cautioning that it is difficult to provide absolute answers to questions of police behavior, proceeds to offer a few suggestions of his own. What he says is not sanguine, but sensible. Even though administrative control over the patrolman is limited, the police chiefs can try to lay down some negative polices: how not to treat Negroes, for example. And police departments can be functionally decentralized; policemen should be given a better chance to know their neighborhood, the better to exercise their discretion.

In brief, the patrolman's duty of maintaining order should be treated for what it is--a delicate, lonely job more fitted for a diplomat than a Joe Friday.