The primary function of police is to preserve order (sometimes referred to as "keeping the peace") between people within a community. Ideas about what this order is may be widely shared within a community or they may be imposed by a dominant group.


The primary function of police is to preserve order (sometimes referred to as "keeping the peace") between people within a community. Ideas about what this order is may be widely shared within a community or they may be imposed by a dominant group.

Type of Police

When the authority under which police operate is public, eg, a municipality, public POLICING exists; when the authority is private, eg, a large corporation, it is called private policing (also referred to as private security to avoid confusion with the public police). Public policing is usually carried out by a full-time police force, but sales staff and apartment superintendents are frequently required to engage in private policing as part of their jobs. In 1994, according to Statistics Canada, there were 55 865 public police and some 50 000 specialized private police. About 66% of private police, referred to as "in-house security," work directly for the authorities on whose behalf they police. The remainder, "contract security," act for companies who provide security services for hire.

History and Development

Prior to the 19th century, public policing was the responsibility of the ordinary citizenry and private policing was the norm. The Industrial Revolution disrupted the traditional police structures, leaving a gap that government filled in the early 19th century by developing the modern public police. This "new police" model was also adopted in Canada. Canadian municipal policing was modelled primarily on the London Metropolitan Police, whereas the NORTH-WEST MOUNTED POLICE (now the ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE) was modelled on the more militaristic Royal Irish Constabulary. Even in Québec, where the French influence is of obvious importance, public police are organized on the British model. There are signs that the organization of policing may be reverting to its earlier forms. The public police are relying less frequently on their own resources and are increasingly involving the public directly in policing through community-based programs such as "block parents" (which encourages parent participation in making their neighbourhoods safer for their children) and "neighbourhood watch." In some cases, public police forces and governments have hired private police agencies to do a variety of tasks, including patrolling, which they had previously undertaken themselves. In addition, corporations have become increasingly active in providing their own police, eg, to maintain order in areas such as commercial shopping malls.


Policing operates by fostering voluntary compliance with the desired order, by forcibly insisting on it, or both. As physical force is the ultimate coercive resource available to police, the instruments of force they most commonly use (eg, the billy club and the handgun) have come to symbolize the police. However, police in Canada usually rely on voluntary compliance, and when they do rely on force it may only be as an implicit or overt threat of force. Another central feature of police work is intelligence gathering. This function has shaped the organization of the police. For example, the traditional grid system of patrol was developed to extend the net of police surveillance as widely as possible.

Police surveillance is constantly frustrated by the institutions of PRIVACY, which restrict where and how the police may seek information. For example, public police on patrol are largely limited to public places. Therefore they must routinely patrol public streets, although crimes usually occur in private places. Private police, as agents of the owners of private property, usually have greater routine access to private property.

Many of the changes in the structure of public policing are a result of attempts by police to deal with the restriction of the institutions of privacy. For example, 2-way radios, telephones and automobiles are used in an attempt to provide a quick response to members of the public. These devices take advantage of the citizen access to private places. Similarly the recent use by the public police of "team policing," in which a team of police officers remains in an area and works together to police it, is largely a strategy to improve policing intelligence.

The tension between privacy and police intelligence is an essential feature of policing. It creates pressures on police to circumvent legal and social restrictions on their power. This tension is greatest for political police, such as Canada's CANADIAN SECURITY INTELLIGENCE SERVICE, who can seldom use evidence of wrongdoing to legitimize intrusions into privacy.

Sources of Police Powers

Police powers derive from the power resources at the disposal of the authorities on whose behalf they act. Where the authority is the STATE this capacity is ultimately physical force, because access to such force is an essential characteristic of state power. Where the authority is private, the resources to which police have access vary considerably. In educational communities, for example, they include sanctions such as the denial of library privileges and the withholding of educational certificates. Similarly, in economic communities the sanctions will tend to be economic in character, eg, loss of pay or credit privileges. In private policing the threat of physical force may underlie other sanctions because the private police may be able to draw on the assistance of the public police. In addition, they may be able to act themselves as agents of government, eg, by exercising citizen powers of arrest or by acting as special constables, a status that is used to extend some police powers to a few private police.


The law (both the general law, especially the Canadian CRIMINAL CODE, and provincial Police Acts) limits police power by defining the circumstances in which the police may act. These limits may be overridden by legislation giving the police "special powers" in particular circumstances. The most extraordinary example in Canada is the WAR MEASURES ACT, invoked during the 1970 OCTOBER CRISIS in Québec.

Authorities to whom police are responsible may restrict the police in other ways. The public police are bound by departmental regulations. Private police may also be bound by internal regulations, such as the terms of management-labour agreements.

All restrictions on police power are characterized by the fact that they limit the extent to which the police can legitimately intrude upon the privacy of others; the institutions of privacy thus help determine police boundaries.

Police Deviance and Accountability

When police disregard the restrictions placed on their exercise of power they expose themselves to possible sanctions. Traditional legal sanctions have not been effective in controlling police deviance because of the problems of securing evidence that will stand up in a court (in the case of criminal charges) and because of the costs involved (where civil remedies are pursued). Thus the sanctions most often used against police misconduct are internal disciplinary procedures, but the use of such remedies has raised accusations of "cover up" and has resulted in considerable political pressure to establish independent bodies to hear complaints against the public police. Although such boards have been established in a few jurisdictions, they rely on the public police to undertake investigations and have been criticized for lack of independence.

In addition, several commissions of inquiry have been established by governments over the last decade to investigate allegations of public police misconduct (see INQUIRY INTO CERTAIN ACTIVITIES OF THE RCMP). While these inquiries have led to few criminal charges being laid against the police, they have resulted in significant changes in the way complaints against the police are handled and in internal disciplinary procedures.

In many cases the news media have initially reported the allegations and lobbied for an inquiry. The press, however, while acting as an important watchdog over the public police, has until recently been less attentive to abuses on the part of private police.

Comparative Jurisdictions of Public Police Forces

Under the Constitution, responsibility for public policing is primarily a provincial matter. In exercising this responsibility, the provinces, through provincial Police Acts, have followed the British tradition and delegated the responsibility for public policing to municipalities when they are large enough to take it on. Nonetheless, provinces exercise considerable control over policing by paying part of the cost of municipal policing and by penalizing municipalities that fail to maintain standards. In most provinces this supervision is undertaken by a police commission established to avoid at least the appearance of direct governmental control over the public police. In addition, at the municipal level many towns and cities have established police boards to oversee the operation of the public police. Most municipal police forces, however, are governed directly by municipal councils or their committees.

The provinces not only provide provincial police for those areas that fall outside municipal jurisdiction but also support and co-ordinating services such as police training, criminal intelligence and forensic facilities.

Although the federal government does not have primary constitutional responsibility for policing, the federal police force, the RCMP, headquartered in Ottawa, is the largest single police force in the country and operates at both the municipal and provincial level in all provinces - except Ontario and Québec - and in the Yukon and the NWT. RCMP involvement in policing at the provincial and municipal levels arises because the RCMP contracts to provide policing services to the provinces and municipal jurisdictions. In addition to acting as a contract agency for policing in Canada, the RCMP provides services to all Canadian public police forces. The 2 most important services are the Canadian Police Information Centre, which provides information on such matters as criminal records, and the Canadian Police College, which provides advanced police training.

Apart from federal, provincial and municipal police, governments in Canada authorize other forms of police with legal powers which, while limited to specific areas or specific groups of people, or both, are not unlike those of the public police. The Harbour Police, Military Police and Railway Police are examples.


Further Reading

  • R. Ericson, Reproducing Order: A Study of Police Patrol Work (1982); W. and N. Kelly, Policing in Canada (1976); W. McGrath and M. Mitchell, eds, The Police Function in Canada (1981).

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