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Police métier


Article en voie de traduction

There is an endlessly elastic sociopolitical context within which policing operates. This elasticity results in shifting targets, deployment of resources, and new rhetoric that shapes the mandate over time through the stabilizing medium of the police métier. The police métier is a window into the ways in which policing shapes1 the social order in which it is located. This métier contrasts with how policing manages the mandate publicly. Rather, the police métier captures the show occurring backstage, characterized by occupational assumptions and practices focused around and reflexively shaping the incident.

Assumptions are made, as in any occupation, about the politics of the field, the etiquette of treating citizens, mistakes at work, and routines and performances required of the practitioners. This is the assumptive world in which the occupation operates. There is an assumed practical model or logic in action that informs choices made in line with these assumptions. These assumptions and connections are taken for granted as being in the nature of the work and how it is to be carried out. Police practices are verified with reference to the several compatible assumptions that produce them. The assumptions about policing are the context within which practices have a life and a social reality. They reflect the value of the assumptions, and the assumptions are the context within which the practices are lodged. They are mutually supportive and are logical and methodical.

  • The police assume they know local areas, people, buildings, places, and their dynamics.
  • The structural features of places, neighborhoods, corners, and niches, “pockets of crime,” as St. Jean (2007) terms them, are largely immutable.
  • The people found in problematic areas are incorrigible. If they are drug dealers, they are “always dirty” (Moskos 2008, 83) and have no rights because they have forfeited them (ibid., 43–45) and can always be arrested (ibid., 49).
  • Long-term “prevention,” “problem solving,” or efforts to change the contours of such neighborhoods have no purchase on shaping policing reality.
  • Disorder can be altered superficially by local and personalized “treatments” and pragmatic, order-based policing.
  • It is only possible to disrupt, briefly deter, and make the occasional arrest as needed to maintain the essential authority of the officer.
  • Policing is differential by targets, time, place, and persons.
  • Policing should be personalized in the sense that officers identify with their district or beat.
  • While it is democratic in the sense of being responsive, policing in local areas, or neighborhoods, is shaped by ethnicity, class, time of day, and the political context. There is little one can do to change the economy, schools, family life, or religious values; these rarely change.

The Incident Focus

Domestic everyday policing is grounded in what might be called the cynosure of the incident (see Manning 2008, 81–82). Here, the métier is displayed.

In the police world, the incident is a microcosm of sensible, thoughtful, rational individualistic choices. It is the sacred center of policing. The idealized concept of the police officer transcends the actual officer in everyday practice. The officer is idealized as exceptional—he or she stands apart from malice, emotion, prejudice, or distorted perceptions. The sacred status attributed to the officer is complemented in law by the “reasonable man” legal standard. To call actions within an incident sacred is to reaffirm the nature of these social facts — they are obdurate, external, and constraining. Incidents involving corruption, violence, or showing personal everyday flaws such as anger, exultation, or depression are seen as rare by the media and the police and fall under the category of “rotten apples” and exceptions that prove the overall integrity of the police as a body.

The incident is framed or viewed organizationally exclusively as the officer at the scene describes it unless otherwise known. As Moskos writes, “The chain of command is a myth. A sergeant cannot be in active command of five units simultaneously (2008, 112). Moskos captures the “you had to be there” rule: “While an officer may believe that another officer handles certain situations differently, the idea that officers should be allowed to make their own decisions is never in question. If these decisions are wrong, then the officers will face the legal, departmental or physical consequences” (ibid., 112–13). What is left unsaid here, but revealed by the notion of absent supervision, creative writing, management of calls for service, and stops to avoid “trouble,” is the rarity of actual information that might be seen as showing an officer was “wrong” in his or her decisions. “Otherwise known” refers to review later by supervisors, captured by the media or a citizen’s camera, witnessed by third parties with an interest in the outcome, or observed as a result of the officer’s request for advice or backup. Given that the theatrical core of policing is thought to be patrol work, the incident is seen in the context of responsiveness to citizen demand for order and showing activity to supervisors, but it is virtually always a low-visibility matter seen metaphorically through the eyes of the officer.

The Métier’s Sustaining Practices

The first shaping force is the authoritative patterning of relationships called the organization. There is an abiding sense in which the work of the police is structured, that is institutionalized, routinized, unquestioned, done as if there was no other way to do it, taken for granted as to its effectiveness, purposes, and means. These constraints, social facts, make everyday work possible. They are valued up and down the hierarchy of the organization and in that sense are the deep structures that sustain meaning. The basic foundational assumption is that this organizing is functional and rational. The organization is designed to allocate officers to randomly patrol, mostly by automobile, to react and respond to calls, and to investigate “founded” (deemed valid as a result of police investigation of the report) calls. It is so structured and concentrates its resources at the bottom of the organization. The officers focus in the incident from whatever source to which they react. In this sense, “policy” is set on the ground by lower participants’ situated practices. This kind of policy results from decisions made quasi independently and seriatim by loosely supervised officers.


The second shaping force is interpersonal tactics in the incident. The sanctioned interpersonal tactics of policing are those thought to guarantee successful asserting of authority, taking control, closing the incident in some fashion, and returning to service. These are learned on the job from other officers and especially field-training officers, as the academic aspects of their training are viewed as irrelevant and even an impediment to doing good police work (discussed above as “police tactics.”) These constitute an aesthetic from which variation is permitted — a style — that has local departmentally shaped shadings.

The belief is that good policing, or a good piece of police work, has the following features. As a dramaturgical act, it requires:

  • sizing up the incident quickly (the police joke is that the officer is supposed to have it sized up before arriving)
  • dealing with the current situation in a parsimonious fashion
  • avoiding violence or extended arguments
  • deciding what to do and how to do it with dispatch
  • minimizing paperwork
  • producing solutions that facilitate returning to “service” (meaning becoming “available” — patrolling)
  • reducing cogitations about eventual guilt or innocence of the parties
  • eliminating remedies that are extensive, rehabilitative, educational, or transformative

The belief is that, once framed by the officer and handled in accord with these features, the incident has the social reality attributed to it by the officer. It takes organizational shape as the officer defines and describes it. A protective epigram protects and elevates judgments made on the scene: “You had to be there” (to understand what was done, why it was done, and the results produced). This epigram rules the occupational culture. It protects the officer from criticism or punishment. It has a patently irrational element in that it attributes to officers that which no one possesses: endless patience, insight into human deception, deep penetration into character, a wariness combined with trust, and a moderated “wait-and-see” attitude. Even researchers seek the buried but obvious reasonableness that must characterize police deciding. The idea that “distortions” are called upon suggests that the baseline of police deciding is of course reasonable, and somehow it must be shown by data that emotion, worry, guilt, anxiety, anger, and other mixed feelings exist in police shootings. This epigram and associated stereotype reinforce the inviolate and sacred center of the work — the reasonable, thoughtful, rational, cogitating individual officer, on the street deciding things. It provides for flexibility of action and freedom from close supervision. The officer’s account is virtually the rule of thumb in court as well: if the officer defines him- or herself as being in danger (or a police partner or member of the public), a shooting is considered prudent and legal (Hunt 1985). In addition, since the work is not defined in concrete terms or in terms of the content of the interactions involved, but rather is defined as a social form, what is done is open-ended and can be described using the conventional rhetoric sanctioned within the oral culture.

The third shaping force is repetitive modes of deploying resources. This is partially structural and partially processual — a result of how officers patrol. The repetitive modes of deploying resources (by beats, districts, and other territorially based obligations) ground “order” and ordering in places and doings more than in categories of crime, law, or morality. Policing is about the control of territory and the symbolization of that control. These deployment modes are sensitized by the list (above) of shifting targets, places, and people. In disadvantaged areas especially, where policing is expected as required, policing is played out as reflexive cybernetic policing. It responds to the known understandings of policing about where crime lies, in what areas of the city, and carried out by what groups of people, and during what hours, days, and months of the year. The records kept sustain the validity of the practices because they are based on the same assumptions.

The fourth force is the cluster of rewarded activities. Any organization operates by inducements and their distribution. These inducements to perform policing as expected are based on assumptions about how the social world of work operates, as well as what practices are necessary to cope with this world. These generally revolve around stops, arrests, and other visible interventions in areas known as being full of that potential. As discussed above, the absence of rewards for other activities — problem solving, developing partnerships, working with community groups, excellence in organizational politics (other than rank promotion) — continues to tie the organization to its symbolic crime-control emphasis and ritual attachment to routine stops and “showing activity.”

If we think of the incident as the window in which the practices are displayed, and these in turn being shaped by forces that are social facts, we can see that the incident is a ceremonial locus for repeating that which is valued and recognized as such in policing. In the incident the subjective and objective forces that govern the performance are mobilized. The activities have resemblance, coherence, and not a clear and obvious reality. Yet they are recognizable as “police work” in the here and now. The underlying continuity and resemblance between the actions may not be verbalized or described in nuance; the coherence is often assumed, not directly stated. The terms tied together by a fuzzy logic or like strands in a rope (Wittgenstein 1969) come to mind. They are known in spite of their emergent properties and complexity. These practices, and their existence as known properties of the incident, reproduce the modes of policing so frequently observed.


1. The term shapes can be only inferred from a number of studies of policing and its impacts as well as the available ethnographies and community studies of those policed.


  • Hunt, J. 1985. "Police accounts of normal force." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 13:315.
  • Manning, P.K. 2010. Democratic Policing in a Changing World. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
  • _________. 2008. The technology of policing: crime mapping, information technology, and the rationality of crime control. New York: New York University Press.
  • Moskos, P. 2008. Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • St. Jean, Pierre 2007. Pockets of crime. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Wittgenstein, L. 1969. The Blue and Brown Books. Oxford: Blackwell.

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