The role of the police force is shaped by the nature of political system in which it operates and the ways in which the government uses the police. The role can be broadly divided into: civil policing and political policing.
1. Civil Policing :
It refers to the role of the police in the enforcement of criminal law; like maintenance of law and order, protecting and safeguarding the lives and properties of citizens. This is the most familiar police work and general public thinks, the police force exists to fight crime.
However, with industrialisation and modernisation, maintenance of civil order differ from country to country and different styles of civil policing have been adopted. Two styles can be identified: Community policing and Reactive policing. In Community policing, there is a constant police presence within the community which ensures public cooperation and support in investigation of crimes and public help to prevent law breaking and violence in the community.
'Reactive Policing' or 'Fire-brigade' policing requires the adoption of paramilitary tactics and use of sophisticated weapons by police to instil fear in potential offenders of law and order.
Thus the community policing tries to prevent crime by making the entire community part of the law enforcement process. In contrast, the reactive policing instils the feeling that the police is all watching and powerful.
2. Political Policing :
If policing extends beyond civil matters and requires for maintenance of order due to political disputes, it is termed as political policing. In complex and divided societies the police force is used to control strikes, demonstrations (dharanas) and civil unrest; they arise from national rivalry, ethnic violence, deep social division. The use of police as a political instrument changed the image of police as neutral body and is looked upon as an instrument to satisfy certain groups or interests or is politically biased.
In many countries, trained paramilitary police forces have been set up specifically to carry out politically sensitive operations. The role of police intelligence and security agencies is deeply political. The more centralized a police force, the easier it is for the politicians to influence and manipulate the actions of the police.
3. Secret Policing :
In authoritarian regimes the police is used as an agent of political repression. This role of police is carried through surveillance, which has to be secret. In secret policing any illegal activity of people will not avoid detection by the police and severe punishments will follow. The use of the police to silence opposition in the form of state kidnapping, torture and murder of political opponents, became common in all forms of government. The Ruling elites in any party rely for the security of their tenures on the actions of the secret police by instilling fear in the minds of people. This type of dependence on police repression led to many states being described as 'Police states'.
4. Expanding the Role of Police
As the tasks of police have grown and diversified, the need for specialization within police forces has also increased. Most police forces have many structural subdivisions dealing with specific tasks; for example, criminal investigation, anti-drug squad, etc. With criminal and terrorist activities like narcotics trade extending beyond the national boundaries, there is also an increased role for international cooperation in policing. Interpol has been the main institution for coordinating Cross-European criminal investigations. To fight against international terrorism, it is necessary to have bilateral contracts, agreements and investigations of the police.