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Watchman, Legalistic & Service Policing Styles

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  • 0:02 Policing Styles
  • 1:37 Watchman Style
  • 3:21 Legalistic Style
  • 5:53 Service Style
  • 8:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

Police departments have their own style, or way of doing things. Three well-known policing styles are the watchman, legalistic and service styles. This lesson explains these policing styles and the differences in these approaches.

Policing Styles

Have you ever watched an old episode of 'The Andy Griffith Show'? If you haven't, you should! It's a great exercise in police studies. Notice the difference in styles between the Mayberry Sheriff's Department and the Las Vegas Police Department depicted in the original CSI television series, or any of the police departments used in any of the CSI shows.

Police departments do things differently from one another. They have their own policing style. A policing style is a collection of the police department's methods, routines, and processes. The department's policing style serves as a reflection of the department's culture and affects all aspects of police work in that community.

In 1968, social and political scientist James Q. Wilson conducted a study on police departmental styles. He studied police departments in eight different communities and found that there are three distinct styles of policing. The styles are:

  • Watchman
  • Legalistic
  • Service

Wilson found that policing style is heavily linked to a community's characteristics. In other words, the socioeconomic make-up of a community, the size of the community, and the community's government organization influence the methods adopted by police.

Let's take a closer look at each of the three policing styles.

Watchman Style

First, let's examine the watchman style. This style places an emphasis on maintaining order, but through informal methods. The watchman department is focused on resolving disputes, but not terribly focused on proactively preventing disputes. The department's overall goal is to keep the peace.

Wilson found that the watchman department is popular in rural, small town, and blue-collar communities. This may be because these departments carry out many non-traditional police functions and don't have many outside resources available. The watchman style is also prevalent in communities with a diverse population.

Because watchman departments aren't as proactive as other departments, officers are allowed wide discretion. In a watchman style, officers gauge the seriousness of the offense based on its immediate consequences. This means that certain offenses are overlooked because the department is working toward the broader goal of maintaining overall public order.

However, watchman departments can run into trouble with this method. Sometimes wide discretion can be interpreted as discrimination. Officers must be careful. It's important that they don't create a perception of unfair treatment toward any particular group. For example, let's say there's a particular traffic intersection near a high school. If most traffic offenses are overlooked at that intersection, then officers shouldn't stop only teenage drivers at that intersection.

Legalistic Style

Now let's take a look at the legalistic style. This style places an emphasis on violations of law and relies on threats of arrest or actual arrests. Think of it as strict enforcement of criminal law.

The legalistic department is focused on resolving disputes, like the watchman. However, they use formal, rather than informal, methods. The legalistic department emphasizes their role as law enforcers and prides themselves on professionalism. It's sometimes compared to a 'paramilitary' style.

Wilson found that this style is popular in larger cities with diverse populations and well-organized governments. The Los Angeles Police Department of the 1950s and 1960s is often used as an example, especially as it was portrayed in the popular television series Dragnet. Dragnet was the first popular crime and police television drama, and featured Sergeant Joe Friday and his no-nonsense catchphrase 'Just the facts, ma'am'. The show featured storylines based on actual LAPD cases. Many shows that came later, such as the various CSI series, also depict departments that use a legalistic style.

The legalistic style is popular in state police and state highway patrol agencies, too. In all legalistic departments, officers are expected to make a lot of arrests and write a lot of citations. These officers initiate more contact with the public than those in other types of departments.

Legalistic departments are also different than watchman departments in that the officers have little discretion. Legalistic departments use a single community standard for conduct. Standards don't differ between groups and offenses are rarely overlooked.

But this method can also cause problems. Because all groups are treated the same, it might seem that some groups are treated too harshly. Let's go back to our traffic intersection by the high school. Let's say the police officers stop every car that exceeds the speed limit, even by one mile per hour. This means many new and inexperienced drivers will receive traffic tickets for minor violations.

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