What Are the 7 Different Styles of Policing?

By Patrice D. Wimbush - Updated June 15, 2017
Red and blue flashing lights of the police car

Policing style varies based on the type of community the officer serves. Highly legalized communities require “no frills” policing in which punishment is applied equally to everyone. Some communities expect officers to function with a high level of discretion, while other communities expect the officers to use a combination of discretion and law. According to a study conducted by James .Q. Wilson, only three styles of policing exist within the law enforcement organizational structure.

Varieties of Police Behavior

James Q. Wilson, author of “Varieties of Police Behavior: The Management of Law and Order in Eight Communities,” examined the behavioral patterns in eight police departments in 1968. During his observation, he found that police operate within three operational styles of policing: legalistic, watchman and service.

Legalistic Style

Police departments operating under a legalistic style operate according to the “letter of the law.” Police conduct themselves in a professional manner. Citizen contact occurs in a formal and neutral process, applying the law to everyone across the board. Procedures are “by the book” with little to no discretion because citizens in a legalistic-style community view police discretion as unethical. Departments employing this style tend to have high performance rates concerning job duties often displayed in arrest and ticketing rates. Decision making tends to occur from the top-down with little input from subordinates.

Watchman Style

Watchman style focuses on maintaining order. This type of policing generally occurs in heavily populated communities that generate a high number of calls for police assistance. Watchman style departments employ discretion as a means of keeping the peace. Officers tend to ignore minor infractions such as traffic violations and minor offense misdemeanors. Officers in this type of department try to resolve minor issues, absent of the commission of a serious crime, without involving other agencies. All police departments display some form of watchman style, but in some departments, this style is the primary operating style.

Service Style

Service style policing occurs in middle- and upper-class societies. Service police departments place a high emphasis on community opinion and public relations. Service-oriented policing places less emphasis on minor infractions and more focus on crimes that violate a citizen’s privacy, such as burglary and robbery. Officers tend to make arrests only when necessary. Police strive to keep communities safe from outsiders, while protecting the welfare of citizens within community boundaries. These types of departments run with abundant financial resources and current technological equipment due to the financial status of the citizens.

About the Author

Residing in Clarksville, Tenn., Patrice D. Wimbush has been writing since 2002, with her work appearing on various websites. Her areas of writing expertise are contract and criminal law. She holds a Master of Public Administration from Murray State University and a Master of Arts in communication from Austin Peay State University.

Cite this Article A tool to create a citation to reference this article Cite this Article