Community Policing – Theory & Practice

from Community Change: Theories, Practice, and Evidence (pdf). Amie M. Schuck and Dennis P. Rosenbaum. Edited by Karen Fulbright-Anderson and Patricia Auspos. The Aspen Institute.

The community policing era, roughly 1970 to the present, is arguably only the third period in the history of American police reform, following the political era, 1840s–1920s, and the reform era, 1920s–1960s. Emerging from the ashes of the urban riots of the 1960s and from the failure of urban police to develop meaningful and respectful relationships with African-American neighborhoods, community policing was an attempt to recognize and respond to the needs of the community. The debate over the definition of community policing has been contentious at times, and police departments have implemented hundreds of diverse programs under this one label. Nevertheless, there is some agreement in the literature about common elements.

Community policing can be distinguished along four basic dimensions: philosophical, strategic, tactical, and organizational. At the philosophical level, community policing encourages strong citizen input into police decision making, and offers a broader view of the police function that extends beyond crime fighting to solving problems, preventing crime, and generally improving the quality of neighborhood life. Citizen input in the form of advisory boards, community meetings, and surveys is encouraged. Citizens are expected to have some say in the prioritization of neighborhood problems, the deployment of police resources, and the type of policing they will receive.

At the strategic level, community policing often results in a reorientation of street-level operations to increase face-to-face contact between police and citizens, such as more foot patrol, door-to-door contacts, and community meetings. Other operational changes include geographic-based deployment of personnel, which requires individual and group responsibility for smaller geographic areas on a 24-hour basis rather than larger areas for an eight- to ten-hour shift.

One component of this new emphasis on place rather than time is the use of permanent assignments. The potential benefits of this approach are many: Officers and citizens become familiar with one another, begin to develop trust, and establish the basis for a mutually respectful working relationship. Other benefits include officers’ increased knowledge of local problems, troublemakers, and resources. While permanent beat assignments are very popular among citizens, they are problematic for the police. Officers are promoted to new assignments or elect to move elsewhere. As officers become more familiar with the neighborhood, the risk of police corruption increases, although good supervision can be preventative. As a result of these and other problems, permanent assignments are difficult to implement. Ultimately, responsibility for neighborhoods occurs at the command level. At a minimum, to address the problem of officers being unfamiliar with the neighborhoods and the residents they police, many cities are establishing residency requirements. Requiring that officers live within the city boundaries will help, but in larger cities, this will not solve the problem at the level of beat assignment. Officers are likely to live and work in different places.

Community policing at the strategic level also includes an emphasis on preventing crime and solving neighborhood problems. This model encourages police officers to go beyond responding to individual incidents and taking reports to address underlying problems and conditions in the neighborhood. This requires careful problem analysis, good data, and community involvement. Community policing could involve a new relationship between police and youth—one not based on conflict and hostility. For younger children, police can serve as mentors and role models. For adolescents, police can begin to bridge the gap by facilitating an open dialogue about concerns and prejudices.

At the tactical level, where philosophies and strategies are translated into real action, community policing can take on many faces. In addition to creating more opportunities for positive interaction with citizens (which requires the police to get out of their cars), community policing calls for mobilizing citizens, building partnerships with other organizations, and engaging in systematic problem solving. In the more progressive police departments, mobilization and problem solving are intimately linked, and the long-term goal is to establish self-regulating neighborhoods.

Smart community-oriented police organizations do not define their range of partnerships exclusively in terms of total community membership (e.g., Neighborhood Watch) or total law enforcement membership (e.g., FBI-DEA­local police task force). They recognize that linkages must be created with other institutions and agencies (ranging from local churches to other city departments) to leverage resources for local problems. These smart police organizations recognize something that traditional police agencies do not, namely, that the police alone cannot achieve public safety.

Finally, community policing can be conceptualized as a series of potential changes at the organizational level. Various changes within the police organization are considered necessary to achieve a new style of policing at the neighborhood level. Among these are: (1) changes in organizational structure, decentralizing, flattening, creating teams, and civilianizing, (2) changes in management, a mission statement that reflects new policing values, strategic planning, supervisory coaching and mentoring, and empowering of officers, (3) changes in information management to establish new systems for evaluating personnel, units, and programs, and new systems for crime analysis, mapping, and resource deployment. Whether new information technology will be used to further the goals of community policing or to move policing in another direction remains to be seen.

How effective?

Is community policing effective and beneficial for neighborhoods? The jury is still out, and the evaluation findings to date have been mixed. Some reasonably good evidence suggests that community-policing tactics can reduce fear of crime, improve police-community relations, and stimulate more positive attitudes among police personnel. We have less evidence that community policing can reduce levels of crime and disorder or change the actual behavior of citizens or police. As an exception, one of the more rigorous evaluations has shown positive results in Chicago neighborhoods on many of these outcomes. [ed: for a more recent evaluation, see  Community Policing in Chicago – An Evaluation of Chicago’s Alternative Policing Strategy]

Community policing is attractive in theory, but has faced an uphill battle to convince police officers and citizens to accept new roles and responsibilities. Despite these constraints, many determined police executives and community leaders have persisted in their reform efforts and, consequently, have recorded some notable successes. The larger problem lies in the changing landscape of policing and the challenge posed by competing paradigms.

Community policing offers a real solution to this growing problem. Joint police-community problem-solving initiatives—with open, two-way communication and a focus on building comprehensive partnerships that attack the problem from all sides—hold considerable promise. This approach has been effective in addressing other social problems, and there is no compelling reason to believe that it cannot be applied to the problem of public safety.

Related resources:
DOJ Office of Community Oriented Policing
Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

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