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CJCCJ/Volume 63.2 (2021)

Police Street Powers and Criminal Justice: Regulation and Discretion in a Time of Change

By Geoff Pearson and Mike Rowe
Hart Publishing. 2020. 248 pp.

Police Street Powers and Criminal Justice: Regulation and Discretion in a Time of Change analyses police street powers’ utilization, regulation, and legitimacy in England. Drawing upon six years of ethnographic research in two police forces in England, this book uncovers the importance of time and place, supervision and monitoring, local policies and law on the way police ultimately exercise their discretion. Street powers, the term Pearson and Rowe devise to encompass their inquiry, usefully bundles together a set of powers that frontline officers possess when away from the station. Street powers include the coercive powers of ‘stop and account’ (non-arrest identity check stops similar to the ‘carding’ practices of North American police), ‘stop and search’, and of arrest, but also the more informal avenues where officers apply their judgment and authority. Through careful attention to how police officers use their street powers, Rowe and Pearson offer a profound engagement with the Mobius strip-like concept of police discretion, understood as a legal power awarded to officers by the state, rather than the absence of bureaucratic direction or legal structure. Noticing that police discretion disposes officers to be flexible and adaptable in their application of street powers, the authors explore how officers use these powers in practice within the context of their police organization.

This study results from the two police forces’ research access between 2013 and 2019, who approached the researchers to evaluate officers’ use of discretion in the stop and search context and the researchers’ decision to approach this research from an ethnographic perspective. This book makes an inquiry into the variable and fragmented responses to law and policy reform on the use of police street powers at 38 different police stations, across different policing roles, and between senior and frontline ranks, engaging nearly 80 primary participants through the duration of the study. The authors draw from socio-legal studies and public administration and management backgrounds, respectively, to emphasize their inquiry. However, the book also engages the fields of criminology, sociology, anthropology, and police studies.

The book is organized into 10 chapters. The first three chapters broach the contextual background, which informs the scope of the book. The first chapter lays out reasons for the authors’ decision to break from ‘police culture’ frameworks. Puzzlingly, Pearson and Rowe frame the book as a response to the anti-police slogan “ACAB” (“All Cops Are Bastards”). The slogan is understood to make two foundational claims about police organizational culture: that police as an institution are homogenous, and that police cannot and do not change. In contrast, the book aims to demonstrate how police street powers should be understood through the context of organizational change and by appreciating complex individual, contextual, and supervisory factors. The second chapter locates the methodology of this study within the field of ethnography and ethnographic research. Chapter 3 outlines the legal regulation of police powers by English judges and legislature. Their concise summary of the legal background traces police powers’ codification by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE). The framework of rights under the European Commission on Human Rights (ECHR) has played in restraining police officers in their position as agents of the state, particularly following the Human Rights Act 1988. The authors conclude that the statutory basis for the regulation of police street powers can be more meaningfully understood to be a constraint on police power when considered alongside the support of a complex network of non-statutory guidance, procedures, and policy-making at the nationwide, force-wide, and the divisional and station levels. Taking the cue from their research participants, the authors refer to this regulation domain as “policy”, locating it as the vital source through which police officers understand their powers’ practical implications. Chapters 4 through 7 directly engage the exercise of street-level police officer discretion. The authors contribute an understanding of police discretion that encompasses all the decisions officers make during the discharge of frontline duties. This concept of discretion extends to the seemingly mundane choices that officers make on shift, including which service call to prioritize over others, when to complete outstanding paperwork, and which area to patrol, down to the decision to make a left- or right- turn out of the station. Chapter 4 outlines the factors that shape officers’ interests and decisions concerning their street powers, including officers’ understanding of discretion and their operational priorities, training, supervision, bureaucracy, career advancement, and cultural values. Chapter 5 takes up an under-examined factor in the use of police street powers: the way the temporal and geographical context of the shift affects officers’ decision making.

The next two chapters focus on specific genres of police powers. Chapter 6 focuses on decision-making about police-initiated public encounters “on the beat” or during calls for service that occur before the arrest, such as “stop and account”, request for voluntary attendance at the police station, words of advice, and others. Chapter 7, on arrest, highlights how the interpretation of policy dictated by the supervisor directly impacts officer arrest decision-making and how the structure of command responds to unlawful detention. The authors also use this chapter to observe the changing trends in the arrest rate during fieldwork.

Before closing with the authors’ conclusions about the potential to change police behaviour, Chapters 8 and 9 engage debates about how public accountability measures, performance management and monitoring technologies intervene in how police exercise discretion in using their street powers through. The book offers rich evidence about these systems of accountability and monitoring operate in everyday policing environments through the remarkable level of access that the authors achieved. The unpredictable results of regulation are sketched out in brief vignettes throughout the book. These illustrate how officers navigate to the practical aspects of regulation in context, such as how officers navigate the way Radio Control Rooms prefigure a service call’s ‘crime’, how and when officers complete paperwork, and how police officers respond to monitoring technologies such as Body-Worn Cameras (BWCs).

Based on their data, Pearson and Rowe found that policy, guidance, and directions were observed to change even police officers’ entrenched behaviour. However, this conclusion comes with an important qualifier. Their findings indicate that progressive, policy-led reforms will not likely alter the kinds of police behaviors that are shielded from supervisors’ eyes. By extension, apparent changes to the way frontline officers conduct themselves may only last as long as effective supervision. “Legal restrictions, regulations, and guidance,” they write, “only controlled and change frontline officer behaviour and use of street powers where it was understood by the officer to be a policy that could be ‘enforced’ directly by their supervisor.” The conclusion about police organizational change makes an important claim about the way police officers understand law.

Though the notion that police may only vaguely understand the law they enforce has been more or less a staple of policing studies since Egon Bittner (1974), Pearson and Rowe’s work suggests that the same is true for police officers’ understandings of the law that structures and limits their powers. For police officers, law is malleable (if not imprecise), not in the least because the ever-changing organizational and legal landscape they operate within demands that they remain open to new interpretations of how they ought to exercise their powers. It follows that British police officers will enjoy a felicitous career when they pay heed to what their supervisor regards as policy rather than hold fast to any schedule. Thus, the authors decide to abandon the search for unifying values among police officers that set them on a path to explore the relationship between law and police in contemporary policing environments in a brilliant and novel way.

As a contribution to the study of the everyday work of policing, Pearson and Rowe contribute to the tenor of Richard V. Ericson’s classic study of police patrol work in Canada, Reproducing Order: A Study of Police Patrol Work (1982), and will endear itself to a similar readership. Its potent combination of the book’s conceptual and ethnographic rigour makes it an exceptional contribution to the sociology of policing and essential reading for those interested in gaining insight into police reform’s practicalities. As a Canadian policing researcher, I found ample reward in reading this book because it illuminates how police organizations incorporate law and policy into everyday police work, a theme that transcends nation and police jurisdiction. However, the book will likely resonate most with Commonwealth-based policing researchers. I felt the book’s limitations in how the authors rarely reflected on the specific or cumulative racist, sexist, and classist effects of the police work they observed, beyond acknowledging the role of racial bias in officers’ exercise of stop and search discretion. On the whole, the thick description of street-level and service call-based policing offered by Rowe and Pearson, combined with their robust hybrid socio-legal and organizational approach, provides the reader with a richer understanding of the workings of police discretion in a contemporary policing environment upon which to build.

MONIKA LEMKE (PhD Candidate)


Bittner, Egon.
Florence Nightingale in Pursuit of Willie Sutton: A Theory of the Police. In Herbert Jacob, ed., The Potential for Reform of Criminal Justice. Sage Criminal Justice System Annuals (pp. 17–44). Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.

Ericson, Richard V.
1982. Reproducing Order: A Study of Police Patrol Work. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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