With the exception of Tammany Hall, no other period in American history has seen the need for more police professionalism. In addition, no other period in American history has presented law enforcement with the challenges to authority as seen today. The need for professionalism among police has never been greater or more difficult.
What Does Police Professionalism Mean?
Per the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “professionalism” in the simplest terms means, “the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well.”
So professionalism requires that persons of a particular profession become skilled at their job, exercise the judgement required of the position, and comport themselves in courteous ways which gain support from those they serve. It should be noted then that “professional” is very dependent on the exact position held.
To illustrate, think of going to a restaurant for a meal. If one goes to a fast-food chain, one would not expect the highest level of personal service to the table. But if one goes to a casual diner, one expects service at the table, but even this service differs from a fine dining establishment.
The reason is simple: in the casual restaurant, most of the servers are not exactly professionals. The majority are college students with other plans. But a fine dining restaurant attracts those who are servers by trade, who have been doing the work sometimes for years, even decades. They develop a high degree of proficiency in their career and it shows in the service.
So professionalism is largely dependent on the type of organization, the goals, and those served by that organization.
Modern policing has developed a number of schools of thought since the first foundations were laid by Sir Robert Peel. Peel rightly believed that police both serve the public and ARE the public. He believed that police answer to the public and this should influence their actions.
But herein lay a dichotomy. Police must also arrest some of that same public.
In time, other schools of thought have promoted such concepts as “Community Policing” and “Broken Windows theory.” These have influenced police professionalism in areas where they have been applied.
Finally, we cannot forget that the mission of various police agencies differ. This too means that what is considered professional in one may vary much from another. Case in point: One would expect the actions of a small Town Sheriff to be very different from those of a big City Police Commissioner which would differ from those of an ATF Agent. What is “good judgment” in one situation could end in death in another.
Still, there are some areas where one would expect commonly-held notions regarding police professionalism.
- specialized knowledge
He then summarizes with,
“As you can see from these characteristics, professionals are the kind of people that others respect and value. They are a genuine credit to their organizations!”
For anyone interested in professionalism, regardless of their career, these six elements are a must. Each encompasses what it means to be a professional. Each ensures that those served by the organization are served well. This includes police officers and really, anyone in law enforcement, regardless of the exact organization.
Why Are Some Police Not Professional?
We must recognize that some police officers are not professional. But this does not mean that ALL police are not professional and deserving of public respect.
What it does mean is something we all know, yet often fail to fully comprehend.
Police are people too.
That deserved repeating. Police are people too.
Many people find themselves in careers they never imagined as children. Sure, some know early on they want to be doctors, nurses, teachers, and so on, but most folks whether they earn a degree or not, sort of fall into their professions. Police officers often come from folks who weren’t sure what they wanted to do as a career. Some start as security guards and find they enjoy the work. So they apply and go to police academy. Point is, just as many do not make a conscious choice early in life to become anything in particular, many police officers just sort of get into it.
Some of these turn out to be great officers, others not so much. Frankly, the same can be said of nearly any profession whether sales, insurance, home improvement, whatever.
The Bell Curve
Another element which deserved noting is the Bell Curve. Anyone familiar with the Bell Curve knows that it represents any subset of people in any grouping. It demonstrates how there will always be a small percentage of individuals who outperform the rest and a small percentage who underperform. The balance, the majority of people however, fall in the middle.
Police professionalism can be viewed through the same prism. The Bell Curve reminds us that regardless of how well we do as a society, there will always be those who shine for the profession and those who leave a stain on it.
What Can be Done to Increase Police Professionalism?
Much is already being done. In many departments across the nation, police must have a college degree. In others, degreed persons are given preferential hiring treatment. Active recruiting is taking the place of simply considering whoever walks in seeking “a job.” Active recruiting locates those interested in making police work a career, regardless of whether one holds a degree or not.
In addition, many departments are stressing ongoing training. In fact, most state-operated police training organizations are making continuing training a requirement for annual recertification.
Much is happening today to counter the negative elements associated with policing such as increased public scrutiny vis-a-vis smart phones and YouTube. Police departments across the nation are attempting to educate officers about mental health issues, juveniles, the elderly, and dealing with the added pressure of amateur filmmakers.
The process is slow and there is more to be done. A new generation is learning criminal justice and law. This generation will enter the field with its own ideals and biases.
At CriminalJusticeLaw.org, we hope to be a positive influence in helping shape the future of police professionalism. This is why we have started an entire section devoted to exploring ideas and concrete actions taking place today. We hope you will bookmark and share this page or perhaps even contribute via articles and comments.
Increasing police professionalism is not only up to police. Because police are the public, we all have a role.