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Care and Control in Policing

September 17, 2011

Care and Control are two elements of policing that ignite a fair amount of discussion amongst academics. “A caring function may overlap, or reinforce a controlling one and vice versa” (Stephens et al, 1994). Although an array of research tends to point to the control factor as having preference, care can play an equally important role, both at conscious and subconscious levels. Broderick (1973) describes ‘the enforcer’ perspective as someone who emphasises the enforcing of the law at all costs, even if rules are bent to achieve this aim. On the other end of the scale is “the optimist” who derives their work from being able to help ordinary people at any given situation, complementing the care role as an aspect of community policing. The traditional male role in policing equipped with the macho work ethic, tends to focus predominantly on the control of social order and arresting offenders wherever possible in a bid to clean up the street. With the contemporary roles of women police, who are discriminatory viewed as weak and sensitive, community policing can be seen as a perfect role to their stereotyped nature. Depending on the personality of the officer, their approach will determine whether the care or control factor is necessary, with the option of utilising both elements.  



Streetkids can be seen as “low-status, powerless groups whom the dominant majority see as problematic or distasteful” (Reiner, 1992). Police officers may decide to apprehend at-risk youths for the purposes of social welfare intervention in a bid to prevent juvenile delinquency, “to provide a sensitive service to vulnerable minorities” (Stephens et al, 1994). An aspect of the care role is to take them to welfare agencies like their own Juvenile Aide Group or Mission Australia’s On Track as an alternative to processing them as an offender, with the associated stigma that could risk igniting a career of crime. Police can assist with services to ensure the young person at risk is helped to get back on track, as a role of community policing. Alternatively, 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 as a one-off opportunistic incident or anti-social behaviour. Police tend to give youths, in terms of care, more leniency than they would with an adult offender, in terms of control, who is deemed to know better and to be responsible for their actions.



Racial discrimination is believed to be rife throughout the various police forces worldwide and “the underclass” are seen as a “threat to social stability” (Stephens et al, 1994). In a research interview by Reiner (1978), he was informed by a uniform constable “if you asked them, you’d find 90 per cent of the force are against coloured immigrants”. As a result, the indigenous members of the public tend to find themselves disproportionately processed into the justice system instead of receiving care and caution that Caucasian individuals may receive. Attitudes such as authoritarianism and racism has been said to become much more marked once recruits have assimilated into the police role and its associated sub-culture (Butler et al, 1977). As of 30 June 2004, there were 91 indigenous and 27 non-indigenous youth held in detention centres in Western Australia (Veld et al, 2005). In addition, Aboriginal youth made up only 21% of all youths who received a caution (Ferrante et al, 2005). Social environments of the indigenous populations tend to contrast significantly with the mainstream population, particularly as a result of damaging historical developments and continues to play a role in the apparent anti-social behaviour of Aboriginal people who quickly come under notice.



The predominant image of police in today’s society is the controller of crime and social disorder. This is the image commonly portrayed on mainstream media entertainment like Underbelly and Blue Heelers. Care under the umbrella of community policing is not seen as real police work. “Research evidence suggests that police officers do not tend to rate the role of community policing very highly” (Rowe, 2010). “Their outlook is shaped by the need to accommodate to pressures from the governmental and social elites” (Reiner, 1992), forcing the care factor into second place. The macho perspective of policing entails a profession of “fun, challenging, exciting, a game of wits and skills” (Reiner, 1992) which cannot be matched with care relations. Police are equipped with discretion, enabling them to prioritise which laws they want to act upon and whether or not they want to prosecute those who they believe should be helped. Each case should be valued on its own merit and not simply processed as an act of a breach of social order.



Academic research emphasising the role of care and control in policing, vary from one researcher to the other, with most weighing towards control as being more important but this depends largely on the personality of the police officer in question. Armed with an abundance of police discretion that often does not come under the notice of superiors, they are given the authority to take charge of an offender’s situation either through the role of care or control. They have the power to investigate the reasons behind the offenders motive and may issue a discretional warning as care or decide to enforce the full arm of the law and utilise control to arrest and process the offending to maintain social order. There is no right or wrong answer as to whether control should take importance over care, as research implies, and will continue to be a discussion investigated 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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