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Care and Control in Policing

(Updated 19 May 2020)

Care and Control are two elements of policing that ignite a fair share of discussion among academics. “A caring function may overlap or reinforce a controlling one and vice versa” (Stephens et al, 1994). Despite research tending to point to the control factor as having a preference, care plays an equally important role. Broderick (1973) describes ‘the enforcer’ perspective as someone who enforces the law at all costs.

On the other end of the scale is ‘the optimist,’ who focuses on helping people in any given situation, an aspect of community policing. The traditional male role in policing with the macho work ethic tends to predominantly focus on the control of social order and arresting offenders wherever possible, in order to clean up the street.

The contemporary roles of policewomen are viewed as weak and sensitive, stereotyping community policing as their perfect role. Depending on the officer’s personality, their approach will determine whether the care or control factor is necessary, perhaps a combination of both.

WA Police speak to ‎Congolese members protesting in 2011 against Rwandan politician and former military leader's raping and genocide of Congolese people
Police speak to community members protesting against Paul Kagame's raping and genocide in Congo

Streetkids tend to be seen as “low-status, powerless groups whom the dominant majority see as problematic or distasteful” (Reiner, 1992). Police officers may apprehend at-risk youths for the purposes of social welfare intervention, in an effort to prevent juvenile delinquency.

The care role continues when the officer take the young person to the Juvenile Aide Group police unit or a welfare agency such as Mission Australia’s On Track, as an alternative to processing them as an offender. Police can refer the young person at-risk to relevant services to help them get back on track, commonly a role associated with community policing.

Two young streetkids sleep in an abandoned building Stirling Street Perth, Western Australia Crisis Care youth hostels full need help funding crisis
Two young streetkids sleep in an abandoned building on Stirling Street in Perth

It should be considered that a young person who is charged with a minor offence, is seen to be “sentenced to receive help” (Cunneen, 1985). Many juveniles brought before the courts do not reappear on further offences (Morgan, 1993) and are often processed on their one-off opportunistic incident or anti-social behaviour. Police tend to give youths more leniency (care) than they would with an adult offender, who is deemed to know better and more responsible for their actions (control).

Racial discrimination appears to run rife throughout police forces worldwide, with “the underclass” seen as a threat to social stability (Stephens et al, 1994). When Reiner (1978) conducted an interview on a uniformed constable as part of a research project, he was told, “if you asked them (police officers), you’d find 90 per cent of the force are against coloured immigrants.”

Indigenous people are more likely to find themselves disproportionately processed into the justice system, instead of receiving the caution that a Caucasian person might receive. Authoritarian and racist attitudes have been proven more common in recruits once they’ve assimilated into the policing role and its associated sub-culture (Butler et al, 1977).

Aboriginal youth were found to make up only 21% of all cautions issued by police (Ferrante et al, 2005). Furthermore, as of 30 June 2004, 91 indigenous and 27 non-indigenous young people were detained in Western Australia detention centres (Veld et al, 2005). This should be considered in light of historical events that continue to plague Aboriginal people and their future generations, significantly contributing to their perceived anti-social behaviour which quickly comes under notice.

A Nyoongar man looks at East Perth from Matagarup Refugee Camp Tent Embassy, also known as Heirisson Island Aboriginal protestors shelter homeless
A Nyoongar man looks at East Perth from Matagarup, also known as Heirisson Island, as he sets up a tent

Police in today’s society are predominantly portrayed as the controller of crime and social disorder. This tends to be the case in the entertainment industry with TV shows like Underbelly, Blue Murder and NYPD Blue. Care under the umbrella of community policing is not seen as real police work, which is reinforced with Rowe’s 2010 research which suggests that police officers do not tend to rate the role of community policing very high. Support for this view can be found in Reiner’s 1992 research, where he found that the police “outlook is shaped by the need to accommodate to pressures from the governmental and social elites,” therefore forcing the care factor into second place.

The macho perspective of policing encompasses a profession that is “fun, challenging, exciting, a game of wits and skills” (Reiner, 1992), which isn’t experienced to the same degree when utilising a care approach. Invested with discretion that doesn’t often come under the notice of superiors, nor are they always held accountable, police are given the authority and freedom to decide how they want to enforce the law. They may decide to either issue a discretionary warning (care) or decide to enforce the long arm of the law by arresting the offender (control).

Academic research tends to emphasise either care or control in policing and varies from one researcher to the next. There is no right or wrong answer as to which should take priority, particularly as each situation deserves to be considered on its own merit but it is very likely academics will continue to research and discuss the issue for years to come.


Cunneen, C. (1985). ‘Working Class Boys and Crime: Theorising the Class/Gender Mix’, in Patton, P. & Poole, R. (eds) War/Masculinity, Intervention Publications, Sydney.

Ferrante, A., Loh, N., Maller, M, Valuri, G. & Fernandez, J. (2005). Crime and Justice Statistics for Western Australia: 2004, Crime Research Centre, Crawley.

Morgan, F. (1993). ‘Contact with the Justice System over the Juvenile Years’. National Conference on Juvenile Justice: Conference Proceedings, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra.

Reiner, R. (1992). Cop culture. The politics of the police (2nd Ed., chap. 3, pp.107-137). New Youth: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Rowe, M. (2010). Community Policing. Introduction to Policing. Sage Publications: London.

Stephens, M. & Becker, S. (1994). The matrix of care and control. Police force, Police service: Care and control in Britain (pp. 213-230). London: Macmillan

Veld, M. & Taylor, N. (2005). Statistics on Juvenile Detention in Australia 1981-2004, Technical and Background Paper No 18, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra.

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