What Is the Difference Between Law Enforcement and Policing?

Fighting Crime Means More Than Just Enforcing Laws

Juvenile Justice Officer
Juvenile Justice Officers work with youth to ger them out of trouble. fstop123/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 the same or - at most - a difference without distinction, to criminology practitioners the terms have very big and very important differences.

For those of you interested in pursuing careers in criminal justice or criminology, you should learn what the difference is between law enforcement and policing and why the distinction matters

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 is 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 alone as a response to crime 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 crime fighting through community service and problem-solving.

The idea of policing requires a holistic approach to community service, taking into account the problems that plague a community and working with the people within that community to solve them.

Policing requires cooperation from stakeholders- residents, business owner, and leaders - participate in the process of reducing crime and improving quality of life.

While it may seem at the time this newly envisioned idea of policing as a societal function as opposed to being reserved for law enforcement departments alone is only beginning to gain traction, in fact it hearkens to the earliest days of the modern police force. The concept is best articulated in Sir Robert Peel's 9 principles of policing.

Difference Between Law Enforcement and Policing

While there may be a temptation to believe the two concepts are one and the same, or even two sides of the same coin, in truth the difference goes deeper. Whereas law enforcement implies compulsory compliance, policing suggests voluntary adherence. In that sense, law enforcement is but one component of policing, one of many tools in the toolbox available to police officers and law enforcement agencies.

Whys Does Knowing 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 of 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 for all parties and helps foster trust between officers and the general public.