seal  Purdue News

September 25, 2003

New book considers history, public distrust of American police

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – If American police highlighted the social-service dimension of their work, the results would lead to less crime and more community support, says a Purdue University political science expert in a new book.

Judson Jeffries
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"Historically, police officers were in a unique position to provide services to the community that no other branch of government was capable of offering," says Judson L. Jeffries, an associate professor of political science whose expertise is in U.S. politics and African-American politics. "Unfortunately, their inability to maintain that role ultimately led to the disintegration of public confidence and trust from which the police have yet to fully recover. The police would be more successful if they devoted as much attention to the social-service component of their jobs, such as family issues and medical assistance, as they did fighting crime."

Jeffries co-authored "Urban America and Its Police" ($29.95) with Harlan Hahn, professor of political science at the University of Southern California. The book, released by University Press of Colorado last month, examines both sides of the police-public relationship from the post-colonial era through the turbulent 1960s by contrasting law enforcement officers' dual role as peace officers and social workers.

In the early days of American democracy, police officers served primarily as peace officers in their own tight-knit neighborhoods, Jeffries says.

book cover
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"Their role changed in the 19th century when waves of immigrants created new functions and challenges," he says. "Communities that once had their own officers patrolling neighborhoods were now too large and diverse, and experienced more conflict because of the different ethnic groups residing in the same area. When neighborhoods couldn't meet their own policing needs for self-protection, law enforcement grew to fill the voids.

'Urban American and Its Police' is a study of how the environment and complexities of urban life have placed more demands on America's police force, Jeffries says.

The authors review how police officers' jobs have evolved, especially from incidents of corruption and brutality in the early days of law enforcement. One chapter focuses on police and racial conflict, one of the most pressing issues in the 21st century.

In their evaluation of why the public tends to mistrust police, the authors identify law enforcement's self-imposed image of crime fighters as problematic. The image of fighting crime is primarily symbolic, especially when 80 percent of theft cases do not produce an arrest, Jeffries says. Most efforts to control crime focus on patrolling, and that activity often does not generate the results, such as arrests, the public wants to see. Some previous studies question the effects of patrolling, but the majority of law enforcement officials thinks neighborhood surveillance is key to protecting people and their property.

Even though the public may judge the police based on their crime fighting record, most Americans call on the police for non crime-related assistance, such as requests for medical services or accident response.

"Although service activities formed a major — even a critical — part of police duties for many years, officers were not allowed to develop a strong commitment to this type of work," Jeffries says. "Service work involves the police in a positive role with the public. However, some officers saw this work as low priority. But service work may have been the only major police function that could have generated the kind of widespread support these agencies needed."

The authors suggest a more appropriate administrative structure that reflected the actual distribution of police officers' work would have enabled police to utilize their talents in a reorganized community-service agency that consisted of bureaus such as medical assistance, family problems and similar divisions.

"In addition, intensive efforts could have been launched to improve police departments' capability to refer specific cases to other government agencies," the authors write. "Although many people may have argued that other bureaucracies might be better equipped than law-enforcement agencies to process community services, at least two characteristics of the police – their availability and their accessibility – could have been cited in defense of continuing to include those activities within the purview of police departments rather than redistributing them elsewhere."

The research for this book is based on social-science studies of urban police departments, government documents and reports from community organizations.

Jeffries also has written two other books, "Virginia's Native Son" about the first and only black American to be elected governor (L. Douglas Wilder, governor of Virginia 1990-94); and "Huey P. Newton, The Radical Theorist." Jeffries says the authors plan to produce a follow-up study about law enforcement from the 1970s to the present day.

Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723,

Source: Judson Jeffries, (765) 494-7604,

Note to Journalists: Review copies of "Urban America and Its Police" are available by contacting Amy Patterson-Neubert (765) 494-9723,


Judson Jeffries co-authored "Urban America and Its Police," with Harlan Hahn, political science professor University of Southern California. The book, ($29.95) released by University of Colorado Press last month, examines both sides of the police-public relationship starting from the post-colonial era to the 1960s, while chronicling law enforcement's roles as peace officers and social workers. (Purdue News Service Photo by David Umberger)

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