We see many news stories where the character of someone arrested by police is laid bare. However, not much evidence or empirical research exists that examines the role the officer played when making the arrest; and indeed whether their attitude was the explosive factor in the incident. Accordingly, this article will examine the nature of the decision to make an arrest, and why the need for this examination is paramount in order to prevent a division between the police and its public - which in the UK is already underway.
Many of the research studies which have examined police decisions to arrest suspected offenders have tended to concentrate on detailed analyses of the characteristics of the persons arrested, compared with those whom no formal action is taken by the police, and on the personal interaction which surrounds the arrest decision. Alternatively, other studies have focused on the organisational and occupational pressures upon the police to exercise their arrest discretion according to certain expectations.
We need to re-address that imbalance, and clarify how police behaviour leads to arrests which will undoubtedly cause a division between the police and the public they serve.
Skolnick (1966) found during his research that the highest proportion of respondents (39%) gave "disrespectful behaviour" as the reason for force being thought to be necessary in an arrest situation, directed particularly against "wise-guys" who think they know more than the officer, talk back or are insulting. This is an important factor when considering rising crime figures; we must examine whether crime is actually rising, or whether the police have lost their way and are making unjustified arrests to compensate for a feeling of impotence. Many arrests occur in the heat of a situation in which tempers are flared. Police officers are human like the rest of us, and are as susceptible to this as any other member of society; but their powers create an imbalance set firmly against the citizen.
A police officer's flaring temper will not result in his or her arrest, while the citizen won't have any redress. This situation is simply unjust.
Controlling any situation is paramount to settle and prevent any further possibility of a disturbance. In order to maintain control, the role of the police is constantly being assessed and any imbalances found are counteracted - well, that's what we would all like to believe. Assuming that police control and authority have been established in a particular situation, to what extent is there a secondary handling problem of what to do next? This is the situation in which many arrests occur: all seems quiet, but a simple misjudged statement made by the officer, directed wrongly or thoughtlessly towards the suspected offender, and then mis-interpreted will undoubtedly lead to an arrest. The arrest is usually for Breach of the Peace or assaulting a constable in the execution of their duty.
By reacting this way, the officer has gained respect (if only in their own eyes) and they have gained control. His power (such cases almost always involve male officers) has been firmly established, and when he gets back to his colleagues he is once again a man amongst men.
Such incidents have a lasting effect upon community relations and how the public see the role of policing within its community. To maintain excellent community relations the police need to be constantly aware of the attitudes they are expressing whilst in contact with the public. If they constantly abuse their authority and arrest merely because the officer was unable to be dominant, then respect will not be given freely, and the police will have to work to earn it back.
Karen Clark Stapleton