The police are a government organisation who are given responsibility for maintaining law and order. The word is from the Greek politeia, referring to government or administration. The word police was coined in the 18th century. The police may also be known as a constabulary, after constables, who were the first police officers.
In most Western legal systems, the major role of the police is to investigate crimes, and if able to determine the probable culprit(s), apprehend them (if necessary), and provide the evidence on which the police made their determination to the appropriate criminal court, either directly or through a team of prosecutors, when the case is heard. See criminal law.
Police are normally considered an emergency service and may provide a public safety function at large gatherings, as well as in emergencies, disasters, and search and rescue situations. To provide a prompt response in emergencies, the police often co-ordinate their operations with fire and medical services. In many countries there is a common emergency service number that allows the police, firefighters or medical services to be summoned to an emergency.
Police are also responsible for enforcing minor offenses by issuing citations and imposing fines, particularly for violating traffic laws. The police are often called on to maintain law and order and protect the public, even where no crime has been committed. Police may respond to reports of excessive noise, For instance, in some Australian jurisdictions, people who are drunk and causing a public nuisance are typically no longer arrested, but legislation has been passed allowing police to take the person to a "drying-out centre" where they can recover from the effects of the alcohol. Police have been called "social workers with guns."
In many countries, particularly those with a federal system of government, there may be several police or police-like organisations, each serving different levels of government and enforcing different subsets of the applicable law. In the United States of America, for instance, there are typically police forces run by local and state authorities, as well as several federal law enforcement bodies (including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Secret Service and such like all have police or quasi-police roles. Police organisations have established the International Criminal Police Organization - Interpol to detect and fight trans-national crime and provide for international co-operation and co-ordination of other police activities, such as notifying relatives of the death of foreign nationals.
In many jurisdictions, particularly the United States, police officers carry guns in the normal course of their duties. In the United Kingdom, and some other countries, police are not normally armed but are issued weapons in special situations. Police often have specialist units for handling armed offenders, and similar dangerous situations, and can often call on the military, including the SAS. They also can be equipped with non-lethal weaponry for riot control (including batons, shields, and tear gas), as well as handcuffs for the easy control of arrested persons. The use of firearms or deadly force is typically a last resort only used when necessary to save human life.
Although both the military and the police carry weapons, the equipment, training and tactics used are very different. Generally, the police use the minimal amount of force necessary to maintain order. The military is trained to defeat the enemy and is less concerned about potential collateral damage.
In some countries, the line between military and police can blur, especially in a military dictatorship or a country experiencing internal upheaval or war. The result is the creation of paramilitary forces having mostly military training and mostly police equipment.
Most police forces contain subgroups whose job it is to investigate particular types of crime.
In most Western police forces, perhaps the biggest division is between "uniformed" officers and detectives. Uniformed officers, as the name suggests, wear uniforms, and their jobs involve overt policing operations, traffic control, and more active crime response and prevention. Detectives, by contrast, wear normal clothing and their job is to more passively investigate serious crimes, usually on a longer-term basis. Generally, the work of detectives is regarded as more prestigious both inside and outside the profession (though some of the specialised uniformed squads are also high in status).
Specialised groups exist within the branches either for dealing with particular types of crime (for instance, traffic policing, murder, or fraud) or because of particular specialised skills they have (for instance, diving, operating helicopters, bomb squad, and so on). Most jurisdictions also retain specially-trained quasi-military squads armed with small arms for the purposes of dealing with particularly violent situations. These are sometimes called SWAT teams.
The British Police
While constables had existed since Saxon times the creation of a police force comparable to modern structures did not come about until the early 19th century, with the introduction of a nationwide system of local forces on a broadly common pattern (with some variation). However this had been foreshadowed in the late 18th century with the establishment of the Marine Police[?] based in Wapping, although this was only a localised force with a limited remit.
In Britain in 1812, 1818 and 1822 a number of committees had examined the policing of London. Based on their findings the home secretary Robert Peel passed the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829[?], introducing a more rigorous and less discretionary approach to law enforcement. The new Metropolitan Police force, founded on September 29, was depersonalized, bureaucratic and hierarchical with the new police constables tasked to prevent crime. However in contrast to the more paramilitary police of continental Europe the British police were initially clearly civilian and their armament was limited to the truncheon, a fear of spy systems and political control also kept 'plain clothes' and even detective work to a minimum. The force was independent of the local government, through its commissioner it was responsible direct to the Home Office. The new constables were nicknamed 'peelers' or 'bobbies' after the home secretary.
Outside of the metropolitan area the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835[?] and further legislation in 1839 and 1840 allowed counties to create their own constabulary, around thirty counties had done so before the County and Borough Police Act of 1856[?] made such forces mandatory and subject to central inspection. There were over 200 separate forces in England and Wales by 1860, while in Ireland a more centralized paramilitary force, the Royal Irish Constabulary, was created (see Royal Ulster Constabulary).
Within the Metropolitan Police a detective force was founded in 1842 and following the Turf Fraud scandal of 1877[?] it was reorganized into the C.I.D.[?] in 1878. A pension was guaranteed by the Police Act of 1890[?], previously it had been discretionary. The police became unionized during WW I and the strikes of 1918 and 1919 resulted in the Police Act of 1919[?], prohibiting trade unions but creating the Police Federation[?]. However the fragmented nature of the police resisted change, there were still over 200 separate police forces before WW II and 117 before the mass reorganization of the Police Act of 1964[?] which created 49 larger forces covering several counties or large urban areas. These new forces were distanced from the public and operated with limited accountability.
Evidence of widespread corruption in the 1970s, serious urban riots and the police role in controlling industrial disorder in the 1980s, and the changing nature of police procedure made police accountability and control a major political football from the 1990s onwards.
For various police agencies, see also
For concepts, see also:
For fictional accounts of police work, see Crime fiction.