The police on skid-row: A study of peace keeping

Bittner, E.

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Bittner, E. (1967). The police on skid-row: A study of peace keeping. American Sociological Review, 32(5), 699–715.

Following the distinction proposed by Banton, police work consists of two relatively different activities: "law enforcement" and "keeping the peace." The latter is not determined by a clear legal mandate and does not stand under any system of external control. Instead, it developed as a craft in response to a variety of demand conditions. One such condition is created by the concentration of certain types of persons on skid-row. Patrolmen have a particular conception of the social order of skid-row life that determines the procedures of control they employ. The most conspicuous features of the peace keeping methods used are an aggressively personalized approach to residents, an attenuated regard for questions of culpability, and the use of coercion, mainly in the interest of managing situations rather than persons.

Main finding
In efforts to keep the peace in skid-row districts, police supervisors grant patrol officers discretionary freedom. This freedom is required when the legality of a disturbance is nebulous, or when acting in an informal capacity promises better results. Officers are expected to know how to act and to do so accordingly. To maintain the peace, they cultivated personal relationships with residents, judged situations not on the basis of culpability but on perceived risk, and responded to individual cases in ways that would reduce trouble overall. Personal relationships reduced ambiguity and created trust, while maintaining the hierarchy of the officers. Discretionary freedom sometimes led to excessive force, but some officers were critical of colleagues who abused their power. Although patrol work is generally undervalued, the author argues that it takes great effort and detailed knowledge to maintain peace in complex situations.

Description of method used in the article
The research included 12 months of fieldwork in the police departments of two large cities in the US, eleven weeks of the field work in skid-row districts, and one hundred interviews with police officers of all ranks.

Of some practical use if combined with other research

Organising categories

Crime and Aggression Working
Field Observations Interviews
Physical types
Other Streets
Geographic locations