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Changing Conceptions of the Police Role: A Sociological Review

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Contemporary conceptions of the police and of the problems of policing in the United States have been shaped by the political upheavals and crisis of legitimacy that confronted all institutions of government in the 1960s. Recent research has focused attention on the structural aspects of discretion and peacekeeping in police work, and on the emergence of the ideology of police-community relations. Such studies have provided a critique of traditional police rationales and have demonstrated the complexity and contradictions inherent in the exercise of police power. Meanwhile, police reform in the 1970s has become an established enterprise, increasingly under the technical and administrative control of a class of professional change-makers. The present direction of technologically and legalistically determined reforms reflects an accelerated movement away from concerns of "substantive rationality" to those of "formal rationality" so that the reform process has become depoliticized and lacks policy direction. While helping to insulate the police from arbitrary political manipulation, this movement also attenuates the aims of substantive political justice, including those of police accountability, local community review, and control of police discretionary policy-making powers. Moreover, the prevailing forms of change-making in police organizations have not been substantively aimed toward creating the informed, skilled, and judicious police officer.

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