Police Officers as Street Level Bureaucrats

In Public Policy 155, we discuss what barriers keep policies from being implemented properly. Along with other issues, one relevant idea presented was street-level bureaucrats. According to the public policy definition, street-level bureaucrats are people (public servants, such as police officers) who make policy on the ground. Policies may be created on a federal level, but street level bureaucrats are able to interpret policy in their own way, and according to their own discretion. This results in policies that do not achieve their intended goal.

On a basic level, the term street-level bureaucrat is merely a title for public servants who are guided by their own discretion, even when there are policies that should guide their decisions. In  “Changing Conceptions of the Police Role: A Sociological Review”, Rumbaut and Bittner discuss this issue in greater depth. They present that police officers function within four main realms: police- invoked order maintenance, citizen- invoked order maintenance, police- invoked law enforcement, and citizen- invoked law enforcement situations. For the sake of this post, we will only highlight police and citizen- invoked order maintenance situations. In these cases, police are peace keepers and are not formally guided by the law, or policy, in their actions. While police work as order maintainers, they are most likely to find themselves as street-level bureaucrats that will negatively affect a policy’s success.

One idea to reduce the negative effects of street level bureaucracy is monitoring. Street- level bureaucracy can only be overcome when there are monitoring systems in place that ensure public servants follow the policy’s guidelines. Body cameras could be that monitoring system, IF the camera itself was not subject to the discretion of police. The choice to turn on the camera or wear it properly presents a new issue. The system created to reduce the side effects of street – level bureaucracy will not be able to be properly used as a monitoring system unless some other policy is put in place that sets rules on how and when the cameras should be used. Then, that system will ALSO be subject to street-level bureaucrats’ discretion and the cycle continues. It all brings the question of whether it is even possible to put a check on human discretion. If so, monitoring is not the solution.

Discipline maybe a viable solution. The worst instances of street level bureaucrat’s misusing discretion is seen when innocent lives are taken by the police. As a nation, we have witnessed the Black Lives Matter Movement and many others call for justice when police kill unarmed citizens. Over and over, officers are exonerated, protests erupt, and the problem persists. Guilty officers are not punished for their actions. Police departments stick with their officers in their wrongdoing. They isolate themselves and further create more street – level bureaucrats. In order to combat this problem, justice must be served. Officers need to know that there are consequences for acting outside of the jurisdiction of the law. Only then can the street – level bureaucrat problem be overcome.

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