• By Lt. Tim McMillan

So What Exactly Does "Law and Order" Policing Mean?


On January 20, 2017, just after President Trump was sworn-in, the White House website was transitioned from President Obama to President Trump’s new administration. Immediately, the White House’s new website a web page entitled “Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community.” The page expresses the President Trump’s desire to “empower our law enforcement officers to do their jobs and keep our streets free of crime and violence.” Additionally, the site further states that “The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong.”

Now, the website “standing up for law enforcement” site shouldn’t be misconstrued as propagated rhetoric meant to empower of a totalitarian police state. The site does indeed express, that America needs “more law enforcement and community engagement, and effective policing.” In the end, what the site clearly states, is that “the Trump Administration will be a law and order administration.”

So what does it mean for a government to instill a sentiment of “law and order” as the focus of its police forces? Well, the term “Law and order” indeed is a term that originates in the political arena. Republican Senator Barry Goldwater is credited with introducing law and order politics when he used it as his platform for his 1964 Presidential Run. Goldwater was defeated by Lyndon Johnson, and the law and order platform would be shelved until Ronald Reagan introduced his theme of “law and order” in 1966 as Governor of California. Two years later, Richard Nixon, as a presidential candidate, would seize the term and use it to combat the sentiment that liberal politicians were too soft on crime and violence. After the Watergate scandal and impeachment of President Nixon, law and order philosophies would once again be scrapped until 1981, when Ronald Reagan became president.

Law and order policing, saw its most significant and lengthy stint in American society during 1981 to 1989 in the Reagan White House. Many people may remember this was also the start of the operational war on drugs. The ripple effects of the war on drugs are still felt today, with increased persons being incarcerated for drug crimes and a racially disproportionate judicial system in the sentencing of drug offenses.

Excluding the empirical evidence of racial disparity, the increase in individuals being arrested and incarcerated is indeed the expected outcome of law and order policing. In essence, the philosophical approach is much like that of a strict or heavy-handed parent. Provided the likelihood of consequences for illegal acts are high, and the punishments are severe, then the result should be a reduction of criminal offenses.

Now, the most important question is how effective are law and order policing? Well, first of all, let’s examine the effect that law and order policing has on the safety of police officers. From 1981 to 1989, 1,519 police officers died in the line of duty, with 707 of those officers losing their life from an overt act of aggression (i.g. shot, stabbed, assaulted). From 2008 to 2016, 1,180 officers were killed, with 435 dying from overt aggression.

So by those figures, 22% more police officers died in the line of duty, and 38% more died from assaults during the “law and order 80’s” than they did from 2008 to 2016. Also, out of the officers killed in the line of duty, aggression related deaths where 10% higher during the “law and order” years than the last eight years. It also must be noted that there are more cops in the profession now than in the 1980’s, so on average it was more dangerous to be a cop during a “law and order” political climate.

The next question is how effective is “law and order” style policing in reducing the overall crime problem? Well, evidence does show that the overall crime rate was reduced from 1981 to 1985. However, the crime rate began to increase starting in 1985, and by 1989 and in the years following the “law and order era,” the crime rate would immediately jump to the highest levels ever seen in U.S. history. Now, starting in 1993, the crime rate would begin to steadily free fall, a trend that has been maintained for the last twenty-three years.

Ultimately, it is hard to say how effective law and order policing was in totality. From 1981 to 1985 it seemed to have a positive effect on reducing crime. However, from 1985 to 1989 the crime rate would increase. Regarding officer safety, law and order policing of the 1980’s seems to be more dangerous and resulted in more officer deaths. Nevertheless, researchers, criminologist, and sociologist have never come to a general conclusion as to what was the reason for the dramatic decrease that began in the mid-1990’s.

Now, the real question is exactly what is meant by President Trump when he says that the new administration will be one of “law and order." To be fair, there is nothing that says that translates to utilizing the same tactics that were implemented during the 80’s law and order administration. So if support for “law and order” just means reducing crime, what strategies have been examined that could prove actually to work?

A significant number of researchers conclude the most promising contemporary approach that can have a meaningful reduction of crime is “hot-spot” intelligence-led policing. Under these precedents, officers are no longer randomly patrolling to deter crime and catch offenders. Rather, data and predictive analysis are pinpointing areas of concern and officers are focused in those areas. Now, this does not only mean patrolling, and arresting people in those areas. It also means, being involved in actively fostering positive community relationships in these particular areas of concern.

Currently, the only thing that is certain is that the new presidential administration has expressed its intent to support law enforcement and establish “law and order.” To instill lasting and significant changes, whatever programs or policies are implemented should be legitimate holistic approaches to crime reduction. Heavy-handed methods may seem logical. However, evidence has shown, the benefits are ultimately minimal whenever law enforcement tries to shove law and order down the public’s throat. In essence, the “law and order” style of policing from the 1980’s should be rejected as a paradigm for how policing should be approached now. The effect on crime is nominal, and the dangers to police officers are increased.

Presently, there are a lot of members of the law enforcement profession that are excited about President Trump’s “law and order” stance. Truthfully, that relates to the fact that those in the profession enjoy having the president talk highly in support of them. Personally, I am a little hesitant to get overly excited right now over the president’s support. Honestly, this has nothing to do with Trump, and I would feel the same way if it was any president. Primarily, I am a little cautious whenever something becomes the focus of political discourse. Often the object being supported is merely being used as a means to polarize or galvanize a political support base. Therefore, it isn’t the object that the politician is trying to help, rather it is the perception that the object is performing in a manner that a politician’s constituent base expects them too.

In my opinion, I would prefer to see law enforcement is supported in a manner that ensures all members of society feel they are receiving equitable and fair services. In essence, the police should be operating in a non-partisan manner, since indeed we serve all members of the community. Ultimately, this is the only method in which the police foster lasting relationships of mutual trust and respect within communities.

Truthfully, to eventually benefit cops, you cannot give law enforcement uncontested unilateral support. The powers and authority held by our profession are too significant to even provide the impression that the police having unchecked power. This sentiment may be rejected by some cops, however just because you wouldn’t abuse the position, doesn’t mean that another person might. In the end, the only way to ensure that bad cops don’t exist in the profession is to have checks and balances in place.

The police are the people and the people are the police. Support the people and the police equally and the results ultimately will end up representing genuine and lasting improvement to society's relationship with law enforcement.


Tim McMillan is a retired police lieutenant and investigative intelligence analyst; and holds BA's in mathematics and cognitive psychology. Primarily, focusing on the Defense and Intelligence Communities, he now uses his unique background, coupled with a willingness to examine any mystery, to deliver groundbreaking investigative reporting. Tim is a contributor for The War Zone, Vice, and Popular Mechanics

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