There has been huge growth in policing sciences in the last generation, as police departments increasingly require at least some college of recruits. In response, numerous textbooks on policing have been published to cater to this new market. These texts, however, tend to be very vocational in focus and deal with the fundamental role of police in society in a very superficial way; drawing often on research done over 30 years ago, such as landmark works by Jerome Skolnick, Peter Manning, James Q. Wilson and Egon Bitner. These authors, as well as more recent ones, have tended to produce detailed field examinations of police at work with a chapter or two of theory derived in large part from the lessons learned in that particular study. What the field of police studies has been lacking, and this work attempts to provide, is a more robust theoretical look at the basic nature of policing drawing on a wide variety of contexts.
To provide such a theoretical overview, Brodeur focuses on the need to look at more than just routine uniformed patrol in a few Western democracies. Instead he argues for the importance of understanding all types of police activity such as criminal investigation, political policing, private policing and even extralegal forms of policing in a number of different countries. In the process, Brodeur draws heavily on his extensive firsthand knowledge of policing in Canada, as well as existing literature on policing in continental Europe and even developing countries such as Mexico. Unfortunately, his ability to fulfill this cross-national investigation is hampered in part by the limited research on policing outside Europe and North America. Nonetheless it is an important effort and shows the utility of thinking outside the typical Anglo America-centered approach to policing research.
The goal of this investigation is to construct a general theory of policing that takes us beyond Bitner's argument that the police can be defined by their special ability to use force within a legal framework rather than any specific goal. In fact, Bitner is both a figurative and a literal interlocutor in the book, having agreed to an extended interview with the author, the results of which appear in several sections of the book. In the end, Brodeur expands on Bitner by pointing out that the use of force is not the only method used by the police. In fact, he argues that it is the ability of the police to use a number of different techniques that would be considered extralegal for others to perform, that most clearly defines the broad category of the police. From wiretaps to car searches as well as the use of force, it is this special ability to operate outside the legal constraints placed on average citizens that defines the special social position of the police.
This insight, however, poses a bit of a problem for Brodeur. On the one hand, it is an important expansion of Bitner's ideas and draws together many different and disparate threads of social regulating activity. On the other hand, its breadth requires him to draw in lots of other activities that might normally be considered to fall outside of the normal conception of policing. In some ways this too is a virtue by getting us to think about social regulation as a broader process than just the functioning of uniformed police. It includes shopping mall security guards, secret political police and even in some cases organized criminal enterprises such as the Italian Mafia. However, this broad inclusiveness tends to water down the utility of the underlying insight; its heuristic value being primarily its inclusiveness.
Like Bitner, Brodeur's approach is largely functional with a heavily Weberian orientation. This produces a very thoughtful analysis of the many things police do and the varieties of state regulatory activities. Working off of an early Continental conception of policing, Brodeur provides an excellent accounting of the myriad agencies involved in regulating public behavior. And while he shows that the police have been at many times, and in many places continue to be, fundamentally involved in corrupt practices, he fails to go far enough in showing how, in many ways, the police have always been at the center of an engine of inequality; making possible the transfer and preservation of wealth.
In many ways this work is a personal tour de force. Its use of a wide variety of source materials from many parts of the world gives it at times an encyclopedic feel. At other times, it utilizes original research to try to fill in some of the many gaps in the analytic policing literature. The overall feel can therefore be a bit disjointed. The chapter on police image, in particular, seems somewhat out of context and superficial in its assessments, though its central point that people's perceptions of police are predominantly shaped by media representations is clearly true, at least in the West. Overall, the book is very accessible to graduate and even some undergraduate readers and is an important step in producing a better theorized analytic policing literature.