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Becoming a Police Officer: Law Enforcement Glossary (page 2)

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Updated on Dec 2, 2010

civil service system. A system of hiring and promoting employees that is designed to eliminate political influence, nepotism, and bias, generally involving a written examination of factual material, and sometimes combining interviews and other criteria as part of process in hiring or promoting personnel. Most municipal, county, and state police departments and most federal law enforcement agencies are covered by civil service regulations; many sheriffs' departments and some special jurisdiction police departments are not.

civilianization. Describes the hiring of non-sworn employees (civilians), often to fill positions that were once filled by sworn employees. Among these jobs have been answering non-emergency and emergency phones, dispatching beat officers, investigating traffic accidents and civil infractions, and media relations. In recent decades, civilians have been hired to provide computer services and web design, crime and crime scene analysis and technical services, and budget and financial expertise.

community policing. A philosophy of policing that gained public attention beginning in the 1970s that is based on police agencies developing close relationships with civilian populations and developing partnerships to work more closely with the community to develop solutions to persistent crime problems.

criminal justice system. A description used to encompass the police, the judicial system, and correctional facilities and to show their interrelatedness as elements of a system of justice. The police are viewed as the gatekeepers to the system because they make the initial contact with law-breakers, and through the arrest process determine who will enter into the system. The judicial system is the middle phase, where guilt or innocence is determined, and correctional institutions are viewed as the final phase because it is where punishment is carried out. A broader description may also include probation and parole as alternatives to correctional institutions.

crime (criminal offense). Legal definition of an act that the government (local, state, federal) has declared to be unlawful; a crime is defined by law (statute) and is prosecuted in a criminal proceeding.

crime scene/crime scene investigators. The location where evidence of a crime may exist; over the past decade, the emergence of television programs that feature crime scene investigators (often termed the CSI effect) has led the public to focus on crime scenes and evidence obtained at them in greater detail than in past decades. In most large city police departments, crime scene investigators are sworn police officers selected for the job on a number of criteria; in some police and investigative agencies those who collect and analyze certain types of evidence may be civilians hired specifically for these tasks.

crime-fighter style. A philosophy of policing that was particularly popular from the 1930s to the 1970s that focused almost solely on the police role in fighting crime rather than on providing community services; this is the police role that is paramount in most fictional portrayals of the police, which many police candidates incorrectly believe will form the largest portion of their job responsibilities.

deadly physical force. Physical force which, under the circumstances in which it is used, is readily capable of causing death or other serious physical injury. Police officers are among the few government employees who are authorized to use deadly force under certain circumstances that are governed by department policies and court decisions.

decoy operations. A non-uniformed (plainclothes) assignment during which officers are assigned to play the role of potential victims with the goal of attracting and catching a criminal. Decoy operations can be very dangerous because the decoy is often unarmed and carries no police identification; this results in the decoy being totally dependent on the backup team (officers observing and positioned to assist) should the criminal attack the decoy.

detective. Sometimes called an investigator. Generally an experienced police officer who is assigned to investigate serious crimes by following up on initial information obtained at the crime scene by the patrol officers. In many police agencies, detectives are selected and appointed based on their active arrest records while police officers or having worked in plainclothes assignments. In some agencies detective is a civil service rank for which police officers must take and pass a written test to be selected from a list; this is similar to the procedure of tests and lists for chain-of-command ranks. The position of detective is highly sought after because it means working out of uniform, provides more freedom than is provided to uniformed police officers, and carries prestige, enhanced by the media portrayal of what has come to be known as the detective mystique—a view that detective work is glamorous and dangerous and that only detectives ever arrest criminals accused of serious crimes (felonies).

discretion. Freedom to act on one's own and make decisions from a wide range of choices; although police officers, particularly in uniform, are expected to act according to their departments' rules and procedures, police work entails considerable discretion by officers because situations may develop or change in ways that cannot be anticipated. Policing is often singled out as a profession in which the most important discretionary decisions are made by the lowest ranking personnel; this view is based on the understanding that it is almost always the officer who arrives at the scene of an event who makes decisions in which more senior or higher-ranking personnel are not involved until after the fact.

domestic (or family) violence. Incidents of violence between spouses or partners or between family members. These calls are disliked by police officers because they are often unpredictable and may turn violent when family members had intended for the police to simply stop a situation without using force or making an arrest.

drug testing (or screening). Analysis of employees or applicants for use of illegal drugs or substances; most agencies screen candidates at the time of hiring and many have policies for random testing of officers or of testing after a vehicle accident, shooting, or any situation in which impairment may have influenced the event.

evidence. Anything that tends to prove or disprove an alleged act (crime) or fact or action pertaining to a crime. Direct evidence is generally defined as an eyewitness account, a confession, or a tangible link to the act; indirect (or circumstantial) evidence is the deductive process of inferring an unknown fact from a known or proven fact. Physical evidence is anything tangible that links a person to the act under investigation.

field training (field training officer). On-the-job training that generally occurs immediately after completion of the police academy when a new officer (in most departments referred to as a rookie) is assigned to work with an experience officer (the field training officer). Depending on the agency, this period may last a few weeks and may be informal. In some agencies, field training may continue up to a year and may be a formalized program during which rookies are assigned sequentially to a number of training officers and during which the trainers file formal reports on the rookies' performance of particular tasks. In some agencies with formal field training, failure of the rookie to be positively appraised by the training officer may result in termination during the probationary period.

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