The Difference Between Law Enforcement and Policing

Fighting crime means more than just enforcing laws

Closeup of police badge
••• Tetra Images / Getty Images

Often when we discuss criminal justice systems, strategies, and even professions, the terms law enforcement and policing are used interchangeably. Though to some the two concepts may seem to be one and the same, to criminology practitioners the differences are significant.

Those interested in pursuing careers in criminal justice or criminology should learn the difference between law enforcement and policing, and why the distinction matters. Knowing the role each plays in keeping the public safe could help repair the rift that is growing between police and communities.

Concept of Law Enforcement

At its core, the concept of law enforcement consists of just that: enforcing laws. In its purest form, law enforcement requires an unwavering adherence to rules and procedures. It involves a focus on the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. Citations are issued, arrests are made, and force is employed with little regard for the reason or meaning behind a particular law or policy.

Law enforcement can be a very effective way to maintain public order and punish crime inasmuch as it is focused on requiring the members of a community or society to comply with the law or face the consequences. The problem of law enforcement as the sole response to crime, however, is that it is singular in its approach, responding to effects without consideration for causes.

Concept of Policing

The term policing has come to mean an approach to fighting crime through community service and problem solving. It requires a holistic approach to dealing with crime, taking into account the problems that plague a community and working with the people within that community to solve them.

Policing requires cooperation from residents, business owners, and leaders who participate in the process of reducing crime and improving quality of life. While this idea of community policing may sound revolutionary, it actually dates back to the earliest days of the modern police force. The concept is best articulated in Sir Robert Peel's nine principles of policing.

Difference Between Law Enforcement and Policing

While there may be some overlap between these two concepts, the truth is that the differences run deep. Whereas law enforcement implies compulsory compliance, policing suggests voluntary adherence. Where law enforcement uses the rule of law and the threat of punishment to enforce obedience, policing is intended to deal with behaviors through community relationships and addressing root causes.

In a sense, law enforcement is but one component of policing—one of many tools in the toolbox available to police officers and law enforcement agencies.

Why Does the Difference Matter?

In the current environment, particularly in the United States, there is a perception that a gulf has emerged between police departments and their communities. By focusing solely on law enforcement, as opposed to the holistic approach to community policing, officers risk widening the gulf.

Taking a law enforcement-only approach to fighting crime can encourage an us-against-them mentality, both in officers and the members of the public they serve. When police look to work within their communities to solve problems and fight crime together, it encourages participation and ownership on behalf of all parties and helps foster trust between officers and the general public.