U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Policing in Transition

Plenary Address at the Fourth Biennial Conference: International Perspectives on Crime, Justice and Public Order Budapest, Hungary

I am deeply honored that you invited me to address this impressive gathering of international experts and scholars here in the beautiful city of Budapest. As Director of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, I am particularly excited about the potential for a continuing dialogue between my colleagues and the practitioners and researchers who are gathered at this conference.

My topic this morning is "Policing in Transition." I intend both meanings of that title: we should recognize that the police themselves are in transition; we should also think carefully about the changing role of the police in a world that is experiencing profound transitions.

At a conference such as this, it is commonplace to remark upon the profound changes that are underway in our global community. The fundamental truths of our age could only be imagined a decade or two ago. We communicate instantly through Internet technology. We speak around the globe through satellite transmissions. The economies of our nations are now so interdependent that a tremor in the Tokyo market is felt instantaneously in the financial markets around the world. Boundaries that have kept nations apart for centuries have lost much of their meaning. And around the world, from the countries of the former Soviet Union to the post-apartheid world of South Africa, the forces of totalitarianism have lost their hold -- sometimes precipitously -- and the forces of democracy are struggling to take root.

The question facing this conference is how these forces influence -- and are influenced by -- the changing nature of crime and our changing responses to crime. So, for a moment, we should comment upon the currents of change that we can observe in the world of crime. With the diminution of national borders, criminal activity that might formerly have been confined to national limits now spills from one country to another. Organized crime can now reach from Russia to New York City, from Thailand to California. Women in Ukraine lured by offers of a better future find themselves captives to a life of prostitution in Israel. Electronic financial transactions move the proceeds of drug transactions from one country to another in a split second. The same technology that makes our Internet communications possible also provides the vehicle for a new phenomenon known as cybercrime.

We should quickly acknowledge that the changes in crime are not only changes in the transnational nature of crime. At the National Institute of Justice, we have a saying that "all crime is local." While somewhat simplistic, this saying still reflects a fundamental truth that crime trends also reflect local conditions and affect local communities. In the United States, we experienced the sharp increases in violent crime associated with changes in our illegal drug markets, and the deadly confluence of kids, guns and drug dealing. In countries in transition to democracy, disturbing criminal activities emerge as the repressive powers of the state are lifted. New criminal enterprises are created faster than the ability of our nations to respond. And in many countries, corruption in the conduct of official governmental activities has become endemic, threatening the very foundations of democracy itself.

At the center of this nexus of powerful historical forces and rapid changes in crime patterns stand the police.

Why are the police so important in the development of democratic societies? The police are different from any other governmental entity. Of all governmental functions, the policing function is arguably the most visible, the most immediate, the most intimately involved with the well-being of individuals and the health of communities. Perhaps one could make similar observations about the relationship between the educational system, the public health system, or the social welfare system and the well-being of a community. But the police are different in important ways. The police have the critical responsibility of enforcing the laws enacted by democratic governments. They have the power to deprive individuals of liberty by invoking the authority of the state. They are authorized to use force -- even deadly force -- in limited circumstances.

So, put bluntly, if the police carry out these responsibilities in a way that reflects democratic values, the cause of democracy is advanced because citizens will observe that the police serve the public, not the regime in power. Conversely, if they do not, the cause of democracy will be impeded.

Given the importance of policing to the advancement of democracy, it is incumbent upon all of us -- practitioners, researchers, policy makers, police professionals -- to promote a robust international debate about the principles of democratic policing and the relationship between the development of democratic policing and the movement toward greater democracy.

In my remarks this morning, I would like to share some observations about those principles, to discuss ways in which research can help us ascertain the true nature of policing, and to reflect on the challenges posed to democratic policing by emerging crime trends.

I. The Principles of Democratic Policing.

The first question, then, is What does democratic policing look like? To shed light on that question, I wish to commend to you a document that was developed two years ago in the crucible of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the context of the Youngstown accord, the warring factions came together to articulate a set of principles to guide the development of a new police force in their country. I believe that the seven principles set forth in this historic document -- and the operational standards that were defined as necessary to their implementation -- have widespread application, to stable democracies and emerging democracies alike. Allow me to summarize them.

First, the police must operate in accord with the principles of democracy. This means, in operational context, that the police should be trained in the law, should understand international standards of human rights, and should act in accordance with the criminal code. Police operations themselves should be governed by written policies that are available to the public. In other words, the management, execution and articulation of all police activity should reflect commitment to the rule of law.

Second, the police, as recipients of public trust, should be considered as professionals whose conduct must be governed by a code of professional conduct. More than a mere collection of rules, this code should reflect the highest ethical values and should provide the basis upon which allegations of misconduct can be judged and disciplinary action taken.

Third, the police must have as their highest priority the protection of life. This principle has particular applications for the police use of force -- namely, that the use of deadly force is appropriate only to save a life. The signatories also agreed that instances of the use of force should be investigated to determine whether they met these standards.

Fourth, the police must serve the community and consider themselves accountable to the community. To implement this principle, the signatories agreed to provide transparency to their operations -- to publicly disseminate reports on crime and police operations, to establish mechanisms for the public to request police service, to create forums for open discussion of crime problems, and to establish external review of allegations of police misconduct.

Fifth, the police must recognize that protection of life and property is the primary function of police operations. The agreement also states that, notwithstanding the importance of criminal investigations, the primary concern of police operations must be the prevention of crime.

Sixth, the police must conduct their activities with respect for human dignity and basic human rights. Specifically, the agreement stated that torture or other cruel or degrading treatment could not be practiced nor countenanced and that officers should be expected to report all instances of alleged human rights violations.

Finally, the police are expected to discharge their duties in a nondiscriminatory manner. The agreement specifically states that, "discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion or ethnicity in the delivery of police services is incompatible with policing in a democratic state."

I submit that these seven principles provide a solid foundation for a sustained discussion on the attributes of democratic policing. They apply equally forcefully to policing in the United States and policing in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They articulate accountability to the rule of law, transparency in the conduct of police activities, fidelity to principles of equality, commitment to the value of human life and human dignity, and recognition that effective policing requires partnership with the communities being served.

II. The Role of Research in Assessing Democratic Policing.

If we assume a broad consensus around these seven principles of democratic policing, we should then ask, How do we know whether those principles are being observed? First and foremost, this responsibility lies with police management and the public officials responsible for providing civilian oversight of the police. They are accountable for ensuring that training of police personnel reflects these principles, that appropriate policies and guidelines are developed, that public transparency is assured, that the laws are fairly and consistently enforced.

I would like to suggest this morning that independent research can also serve as a valuable resource for assessing the progress toward democratic policing. Allow me to draw on some recent experience in the United States, research that is made possible by President Clinton's program that is supporting the development of community policing, as well as some groundbreaking research being conducted in other countries as well.

Take, for example, the principle of equal treatment. In the United States, the National Institute of Justice is funding a very ambitious study of police services in two cities -- Indianapolis, Indiana[3] In this study, dozens of researchers are spending several weeks accompanying police officers as they patrol the neighborhoods of those two cities. They are employing a methodology called systematic social observation, coding every interaction between the police and the citizens. The officers are guaranteed confidentiality so that the observations will closely mirror actual police work. From this study, we are now beginning to understand -- empirically -- the ways that the police conduct themselves, whether they treat different classes or races of citizens differently, how they decide to use force or make an arrest, how the citizens respond to police actions. The effort here is not intended as a critique of the police -- indeed, the study has the support of the police and union leadership -- rather, we see this study as enriching our understanding of real police work so that changes can be made in police operations.

A second example, involving the principle that force be used judiciously, respecting human dignity and human rights. The National Institute of Justice is funding a study of the use of force by the police in five cities.4 The researchers are conducting confidential interviews with police officers making arrests in a random sample of cases in each city -- and with the individuals whom they arrest. Our purpose is to gain empirical insights into the ways in which police carry out their arrest powers -- how is that authority exercised, in what contexts, how and when is force applied, and how is that force perceived by both the officer and the individual being arrested. These insights will provide the basis for training and ongoing assessment of this critical aspect of police work to ensure that, when an arrest is carried out, force is applied in a non-discriminatory manner and only when necessary.

A third example, involving the fundamental principle that the police are servants of the public. As articulated in the Bosnia Herzegovina statement, the police are expected to engage the public in defining the crime problems in the various communities and designing strategies to address those problems. These concepts form the basis of what is now called "community policing". Beyond abstract assertion, there is the empirical question of how these police-community interactions actually transpire. What does it mean for the police to engage the community? We are supporting an ambitious evaluation of the implementation of community policing in Chicago, conducted by Professor Wesley Skogan and his colleagues.5 As part of this study, researchers observed hundreds of community meetings, trying to develop models of effective police-community interactions. What are the problems of crime and disorder, from a community perspective? Who speaks for the community? How do the police respond? How does this process of raw democracy, bringing together public servants and the public, change the day to day operations of a police department. This study, and others like it, will add immeasurably to our understanding of the potential for true democratic engagement in the policing process.

A fourth and final example, involving the very important topic of police ethics and integrity. At NIJ, we have focused substantial resources to understanding the nature of police corruption and police misconduct.7 The same survey instrument has already been used in a similar study in Croatia and is planned for use in several other countries. This study will result in important insights into the relationship between formal and informal rules, particularly the phenomenon of police officers remaining silent about the misconduct of fellow officers. The study poses five research questions. First, what is the level of knowledge among the police of the organizational rules governing corruption? Second, how strongly does the culture of the organization support those rules? Third, to what extent does a code of silence protect officers who violate those rules? Fourth, to what extent do the ethics of individual officers depart from the norms of the code of silence? And finally, what is the relationship between the perceived severity of punishment of corruption and the strength of the code of silence?

We are watching with interest another study soon to be undertaken in Germany by Professor Christian Pfeiffer and his colleagues at the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony. They plan to interview over 2,000 police officers to ascertain how often the rules about police misconduct are broken and to understand the situational context in which this occurs. Very importantly, the German research design will focus on the life course of a police career, to determine whether the standards of conduct change from the time in the recruit academy to a time when the forces of the operational culture have exercised greater influence over the actions of officers.

These four examples demonstrate an important proposition: that independent, empirical research on issues at the core of everyday policing, if constructed properly and carried out with confidentiality, can shed light on the extent to which the policing that the citizens experience is consistent with the principles of democratic policing. We hope that these studies -- and others like them -- will set a new foundation for our discussions of the future of policing. And I encourage you to contact us at NIJ with information about similar efforts so that we can learn from each other's experiences.

III. Policing in an Era of Changing Crime Patterns.

Finally, I would like to share some reflections about the challenges that the police face in an era of rapidly changing crime patterns. When the crime situation in a country is worsening, the public and the elected officials who represent them often turn to the police to do something to bring the situation under control. This certainly happened in the United States as we experienced a rapid rise in juvenile handgun violence in the second half of the 1980's. This is certainly happening in other countries that are witnessing troubling increases in crime following the movement toward from repressive regimes to more democratic societies. And the new pressures of transnational crime pose acute challenges to democratic nations that have little experience in collaborating on criminal investigations that transcend national borders.

These times pose very real risks to democratic policing. The imperative to "do something" can easily be translated into an imperative to "do whatever it takes, without concern for the consequences." It is relatively easy, in established as well as emerging democracies, for police activity to remain hidden from public scrutiny -- and for abuses to occur in the name of effective crime control. It is hard, in the face of growing crime rates, to retain allegiance to the principles of transparency, to remain vigilant regarding human rights, to adhere scrupulously to the code of ethics, to enforce the law equitably. Yet it is times such as these that these principles take on added importance.

These difficult times call for even greater commitment to learning across our borders. We need to share lessons about effective responses to crime -- particularly to official corruption, organized crime, youth violence, drug abuse and family violence. We need to learn from each other about effective community involvement in designing crime prevention programs. We need to come together at a large, global table to develop a knowledge base about effective crime control and prevention that is consistent with, and supportive of, democratic values.

This conference represents an important forum for the exchange of these ideas -- at a time of transition in policing and in the development of democratic societies. I am honored to have been invited to be with you this morning and commit my institution as full partner in this critical exchange of knowledge.


  1. Commissioned Guidelines on Principles in Democratic Policing by the United Nations Police Task Force in Sarajevo-Herzogovina. Material drafted by David Bayley and Andrew Michaelson under funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, 1996.

  2. Mastrofski, S., R.B. Parks, A.J. Reiss, and R.E. Worden. Policing Neighborhoods: A Report From Indianapolis. Research Preview. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, 1998.

  3. Mastrofski, S., R.B. Parks, A.J. Reiss, and R.E. Worden. St. Petersburg Project on Policing Neighborhoods: A Study of the Police and the Community. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, forthcoming.

  4. Garner, J., J. Buchanan, T. Schade, and J. Hepburn. Understanding Use of Force By and Against Police. Research in Brief, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, November 1996.

  5. The evaluation of community policing in Chicago is funded primarily by the National Institute of Justice and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services through National Institute of Justice grant numbers 95-IJ-CX-0056 and 94-IJ-CX-0046, awarded to Northwestern University. Also see Skogan, W.G. and S.M. Harnett. Community Policing, Chicago Style. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

  6. Gaffigan, S.J., and P.P. McDonald. Police Integrity: Public Service with Honor. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice,1997. Part of a continuing National Institute of Justice and Office of Community Oriented Policing Services project.

  7. Klockars, B. and S.K. Ivkovic, Cross-Cultural Study of Police Corruption: Perceptions of Offense Seriousness, final report to the National Institute of Justice under grant number 95-IJ-CX-0058.