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Police are local, regional, or national governmental personnel who are responsible for investigating crimes and arresting criminal suspects, reducing the incidence of criminal acts, managing vehicular traffic and responding to accidents, and a variety of emergency services dependent on local needs and policies. They are principally responsible for domestic criminal matters, although certain police agencies may have anti-terrorist or paramilitary roles. Some parts of police organizations are critical infrastructure for emergency response.

The role of police

When Sir Robert Peel instituted the Metropolitan Police he laid it down that their primary functions were the maintenance of public order and the prevention of crime.

In most police systems in the Western world, there tends to be a split between the patrolling role of police - handled by uniformed officers - and the investigatory role of detectives. The role of the uniformed patrol officer - the "bobby on the beat" in Britain - can include crowd control and public order as well as apprehension of those breaking the law.

Depending on local law and custom, they may operate prisons, but will almost always have temporary secure holding facilities, often called jails, for suspects.

Investigative functions

Identifying the perpetrator of a crime requires a detective or criminal investigator who collects and evaluates physical evidence from the crime scene and conducts interviews of witnesses, friends and family of the victim and potential suspects. Increasingly, forensic techniques are used to discover and characterize evidence that will hopefully lead to the apprehension and conviction of the criminal.

Investigators may specialize in certain types of crime investigation, such as murder, sexual offenses, drug abuse, forgery, etc.

Specialized jurisdictions

Military police may have authority only over military personnel, but often have role in maintaining order in occupied areas after combat troops have left. In the Iraq War, military police often escort convoys and can take on a combat role very much like that of infantry.

Sheriffs and deputy sheriffs may be police officers who are responsible to the courts, maintaining order and security, and carrying out judicial functions such as serving court orders.

Civil rights

The role of the police towards civil and criminal rights varies widely. In some case, police may actively investigate and enforce civil rights violations. They may be constrained by rules in how they may interrogate prisoners and collect evidence.

In some countries, however, "secret police" or "political police" may be among the worst violators. Gestapo, derived from the German (originally Prussian) "secret state police" has become synonymous with abuse.

The politics of policing

The political nature of police resource allocation has been controversial in recent years: many consider the heavy focus on arresting drug users to be a waste of time, distracting the police from dealing with the underlying causes of drug use - arresting dealers, or attempting to break apart gangs and protection rackets. In some European countries, drug use has changed from being an issue of criminal justice to one of health intervention on these kinds of principles.

As any human institution does, the police makes mistakes and sometimes contains corruption and other undesirable traits of human character. Police attitudes to racial minorities have often been a subject of intense criticism and debate. The Rodney King incident in 1991 created outrage at the brutality showed towards King by six Los Angeles Police Department officers. The death of Stephen Lawrence, a black British teenager, in 1993 led to a report by Sir William MacPherson which dubbed London's Metropolitan Police as "institutionally racist", meaning, as explained in the report, that they operated in such a way as unintentionally and unwittingly to produce discriminatory results. The use of various weapons by police forces has also led to criticism: in the United States, there has been controversy regarding the overuse of tasers. In the UK, the debate about whether the police should carry handguns reappears every few years, although the mistaken shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube station in July 2005 has cast doubt on British police increasing the use of armed officers.

Perceptions - sometimes justified - of racially selective use of police power including "stop and search" have led to the introduction of laws and codes of practice for the use of police powers: in the United Kingdom, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 marked a sea change in the use of police power.