Courtesy and Police Authority

By Wadman, Robert C.; Ziman, Stephen M. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 1993 | Go to article overview

Courtesy and Police Authority


Wadman, Robert C., Ziman, Stephen M., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Policing in modern America has a fascinating history--from the development of "reactive police theory" in the 1930s to the "team policing" concepts of the 1970s and the crime prevention programs of the 1980s. More recently, the move toward community-oriented and problem-oriented policing brought law enforcement closer to its early American roots. Still, America's police continue to edge toward the brink of major change. But, as Stephen Crane wrote, "We are like the diver who hesitates on the brink of a dark and icy pool, we have failed to leap. The thought of a cold reception has held us back."(1)

Often, significant nationwide events, such as the Rodney King incident, bring about the leap of change. These events strike at the conscience of the Nation. However, as convulsive as the King incident and the ensuing riots were, these types of events afford law enforcement a unique opportunity to grow through open discourse with the community. For, though it may sometimes appear otherwise, the factors that create these incidents are not intractable in any society.

One issue on which the Los Angeles experience provides seemingly contradictory feedback is the use of force. Clearly, outrage over a perceived use of excessive force during Mr. King's apprehension contributed significantly to the unrest that followed the acquittal of the officers involved. By contrast, law enforcement came under considerable criticism for exhibiting a decided lack of force during the initial stages of the riots, which some observers claim allowed the unrest to escalate beyond control. What conclusions, then, should law enforcement managers draw from this and similar episodes?

The issue of force falls within a still larger area of concern--how law enforcement personnel treat citizens in their communities. Ultimately, the success of any theoretical policing concept depends largely on this one factor. And, this factor revolves around one simple, yet often misunderstood, term--courtesy.

In order to better understand the impact of courtesy on policing, the Aurora, Illinois, Police Department conducted a study to measure the relationship between police authority and courtesy. Fourteen police agencies (four large departments, five of medium size, and five smaller departments) participated in the research effort.(2)

Commanding officers from each of the departments completed questionnaires that addressed various issues from training to use of force and citizen complaints. The survey was comprised of nine open-ended questions, such as "Do you think that the teaching of courtesy has a definite impact on an efficient use of power/control?" and "Do you think that discourteous officers are more likely to use unnecessary force?"

The responses provided the framework for a qualitative assessment of the departments' views of courtesy. From the data collected in this survey, as well as a review of previous literature concerning the appropriate application of authority, researchers concluded that courtesy can be a strategic tool for the efficient and effective use of power.

Courtesy and Power: An Overview

In Historical Capitalism, Immanual Wallerstein pointed out, "The overt use of force by the state-machinery to control the internal work-force, a costly and destabalizing technique, is more often the sign of its weakness than its strength."(3) This raises the question, "Is the overt use of force by a police officer a sign of weakness?" The answer seems to be an unequivocal "yes."

Overt use of force by a police organization serves as a sign of weakness in management, in first-line supervision, and in training. More importantly, however, it displays a weakness on the part of law enforcement to understand the fundamental issues relating to police responsibility and the use of force.

Edmund Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution outlines the evolution of western civilization and the use of power and authority. …

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