Partnerships with communities is the core element of traditional community policing, and is the core of the theoretical perspective applied to the new, expanded definition of community policing suggested herein. This first pillar dictates that police departments must foster trust within their communities. As the President’s task force (2015) suggests,
“Building trust and nurturing legitimacy on both sides of the police/citizen divide is the foundational principle underlying the nature of relations between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve” (p. 1).
The Task Force points out that decades of social science research bolsters the notion that people obey the laws more readily when they perceive that those enforcing the law have legitimate authority (President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing 2015, 1). To achieve compliance with police instructions without coercion and force, the best strategy for police to use is to form credible partnerships based on reciprocal trust and understanding within communities. One of the most important facets of building the trust of police within communities is the perception of procedural fairness. That is, police abide by procedures that treat everyone with equity, dignity, and value.
Building this awareness within many disillusioned communities may be a long and painstaking process. Undoubtedly, building relationships is worth doing for ethical reasons. It is the right thing to do. It has critical pragmatic advantages as well. If unforced compliance can be gained without resorting to force or threat of force, then fewer officers will be injured in the line of duty. Additionally, fewer citizens will be harmed, and more infrequent “use of force” complaints and lawsuits will be filed. This element is foundational to community building; thus, we have made it one of the “8 Ps of the New Community Policing.”
The growing momentum within communities to contribute to the fight against crime and disorder has dovetailed an increasing acknowledgment by police that conventional crime-fighting strategies alone have a limited significance in countering crime. Community policing can be viewed as the integration of these two movements.
The underpinnings of a thriving community policing initiative are the close, mutually advantageous bonds between police and community members. All formulations of community policing (both new and old) consist of two integrated elements, community partnership and problem-solving. Before healthy community partnerships can be established, police must build positive relationships with the community. Also, they must include the community in the struggle for better crime control and crime prevention. They must aggregate their resources with those of the community to confront the most critical concerns of community members. Problem-solving is the systematic process of identifying the specific interests of communities and developing remedies to alleviate these problems.
Community policing does not suggest that police are without authority or that the critical duty of preserving law and order is ignored. Yet, we must realize that the opposite of freedom—the core American value—is coercion. Coercion simply means being forced to do something that you do not want to do. In democratic societies that value freedom, a vast amount of psychological resistance to coercion is present in every individual. This resistance to others forcing us to involuntarily do things is so strong that many forms of it are criminal in America. Other types of coercion are lawful or even ethical duties. Parents are ethically obligated to correct antisocial behaviors in their children. Still, all parents will tell you that such corrections are bitterly resented by the child. The parent-child relationship can often survive this because there is a bond of love and trust between the parent and the child. The child will not admit it at the time, but they know deep down that the parent’s corrective action is in the child’s best interest.
It is always best to use the least coercive method possible to gain compliance with the demands of the law, order, and public safety. Most rational people will do the right thing when they are asked nicely and understand the reason for the request. If a crowd is told to “disband or be arrested,” they will likely be outraged that their freedom is being curtailed. If it is explained that people are hurt and that the way needs to be cleared for an ambulance, they will usually comply. The key to turning any encounter with citizens into a positive one for police is to make compliance with the officer’s request the citizen’s idea. In many circumstances, officers do have the legal authority to command citizens to do certain things. That legal authority should only be used in the gravest extremes. Coercion breeds contempt, and contempt is the enemy of partnership.
Under the community policing philosophy, local government officials, social agencies, schools, church groups, businesses—all those who live and work in the community and have an interest in its advancement—share responsibility for finding workable solutions to problems that interfere with the safety and security of the community.
An important goal of community policing is to bring down crime and disorder by thoughtfully examining the qualities of problems in neighborhoods and then applying appropriate problem-solving solutions. In the context of community policing, it is important to consider what we mean by community. The “community” for which an officer is given accountability should be a small, well-defined geographical area. When we consider that different agencies face vastly different geographical size differences, it is perhaps best to think of this in terms of population density. It is also important to consider the idea of communities of interest. The most common label that tries to include all of these elements is neighborhood. Beats should be configured in a manner that preserves, as much as possible, the unique geographical and, more importantly, social characteristics of neighborhoods while still permitting effective service.
As with traditional policing, the officers that provide the bulk of the day to day police services to neighborhood residents will be assigned to the patrol division. Also, under both models, there are midlevel managers to provide guidance and assistance. Community policing differs in that a much broader array of “helpers” are available to help deal with community problems. Another key difference of community policing is that upper-level management (“the brass”) are there to facilitate the work of rank and file officers, not dictate the nature of that work.
The foundational premise of community policing is that positive interactions between citizens and police must be a priority. This is why many departments have experimented with alternative methods of patrol rather than relying solely on automobiles. The idea is that automobiles, while excellent for rapid responses to emergency situations, do a terrible job of fostering interactions with residents. Foot patrols, bicycle patrols, horse patrols, and even Segway patrols have been used. In addition, many departments have used “mini stations” to bring officers closer to communities. Frequent community meetings and forums have been touted as a way to hear community concerns.
Another often touted community policing strategy is to fix officer shifts and beats such that the same officers interact with the same people going about their daily routines. The idea is that officers will become familiar figures within communities, and officers, in turn, will become familiar with the day to day activity on their beat. It is important to understand a relevant fact of human psychology: We fear the unknown. Familiar offices that residents call by name are broken off from the officious, dangerous entity known as “the police.” This is a prerequisite for building trust, and without that, the benefits of community policing cannot be realized. Fear of crime must be reduced, but in many neighborhoods, fear of police must be reduced first. It is important to note that this familiarity effect of fear reduction goes both ways.
The idea of a community has much more to do with people than places. Communities consist of a matrix of interacting people and social institutions. The diversity of these elements can be extremely broad, especially in densely populated urban areas. This isn’t limited to local governments and residents. Hospitals, nongovernmental organizations, faith organizations, schools, and a host of others can be included. In urban areas, large numbers of people commute in for work and leisure. Failure to consider these “communities of interest” has proven to cause a host of problems in past police reform efforts.
Just because we can classify different groups as “communities of interest” does not mean that we can craft generic policies and procedures when considering the special needs and concerns of those groups. Some communities of interest are long-lasting within our broader communities and are formed along racial, ethnic, or occupational lines. In addition, communities of interest can arise from shared histories and common social institutions such as churches and schools. Other communities of interest form, dissolve, and reform based on some perceived need to address some problems. These sorts of groups can sometimes be at odds, and tensions rising to the level of violence are not unheard of. Civic leaders obviously have a role to play in ending such disputes, but police are often called into the fray. How such instances are handled can make or break the reputation of an entire department. These tense situations arise most often in densely populated urban centers, and they tend to happen in times of changing demographics and population migrations. `
These facts suggest that front-line police officers need to learn conflict resolution and mediation skills and be able to deploy those skills in a wide variety of situations and people. One of the most precarious situations officers can find themselves in is when the demands of one group conflict with the rights of another group. We see this sort of conflict vividly when crimes for “law and order” by one group result in what are seen as racist enforcement practices by another group. These situations cannot be satisfactorily resolved if consensus cannot be reached among the stakeholders from both groups. History teaches us that reactive strategies based on code enforcement always result in disastrous consequences. The ideal solution is a mediation process that manages to preserve public order while respecting the civil rights of individuals. As has been repeated in the police reform literature for decades, the key to establishing relationships within communities where such mediation efforts can work is to build public trust. In many jurisdictions, especially large urban ones, this trust does not exist.
The above discussion leads us to a working definition of community in the policing context: A community is an aggregation of individuals and groups that occupy a defined geographical space and that have a role in creating safer neighborhoods and improving the quality of life in those neighborhoods. This definition takes into account the idea that people in a narrowly circumscribed geographical area often have similar norms and values, but that this is not always the case. We describe the phrase “narrowly circumscribed” because police departments, because of their decentralized nature, requires this sort of narrow focus.
While many of these groups within the larger community (i.e., police jurisdiction) overlap, it is often helpful to consider groups in terms of community problems and community solutions to those problems. Some examples commonly cited in the literature are:
- Minors that are at “high risk” of becoming involved with crime
- Offenders and their family members
- Neighborhood groups
- Businesses, business leaders, and business groups
- Faith-based organizations (and alliances between them)
- Charitable organizations and Non-Governmental Organizations
- Service organizations (drug treatment, victim advocacy, employment training, etc.)
- Criminal justice agencies
This list is not meant to be all-encompassing but rather to demonstrate the broad range of communities that can exist within the jurisdiction of a police department. It is almost always a mistake to think of a community as the entirety of a police department’s jurisdiction. This sort of definition may be helpful to those concerned with education, water quality, or public transportation, but it is inadequately nuanced when it comes to police relationships with communities of interest. Ethnic, racial, and religious groups often see themselves as a community, regardless of geographical separation across a municipality (e.g., Latin American, and African American communities).
A key factor for police planners to focus on is to recognize communities in terms of collective perceptions of group members. In other words, if a group of people considers themselves a community, then they are a community as far as policing is concerned. The common core to most (sociological) definitions of community is the idea that members share a common culture and common interests. For all of the benefits of urbanization, a downside is certain inherent depersonalization. Therefore, there are no major cities that share a common and cohesive sense of culture.
Police departments have traditionally done a poor job of defining communities because they rely too much on maps. They tend to define communities along precinct lines or artificial divisions such as public housing developments. The practical demands of running the day to day operations of a large agency may sometimes demand that some communities be subdivided, especially when that community is one of shared interests spread across the entire city. Still, the best way for police to define a community is to seek input from the public. Citizens know what community they live in, but police seldom ask these questions.
Because of the way the United States is politically organized, most police departments are circumscribed in their activities by city limits. Within those jurisdictional confines, however, police departments have broad discretion in identifying groups and neighborhoods that function as communities. If the important work of identifying these communities is not done or it is not done well, then community policing efforts will fail. This is not as easy as it sounds. Identifying communities within the larger “community” that a department serves requires intricate knowledge of the entire city.
If the chamber of commerce is allowed to dictate how police departments operate, then the entire community policing effort is merely a sham. A true dedication to community policing within a department will be evidenced by the identification and inclusion of previously overlooked and marginalized communities. Ironically, it is the most marginalized groups (historically) that have the greatest ability to form meaningful, impactful partnerships with police in efforts to improve safety and security within neighborhoods.
An underlying assumption of most prescriptions for community policing is that a community exists. Note that geographical “neighborhoods” may exist on city maps, but many times there is, in reality, no neighborhood in the sociological sense of the word. Residential areas that form quickly and areas with unusually high levels of transience do not possess the community cohesion that sociologists would require to meet the definition.
It has become painfully obvious that most American cities have significant marginalized minority populations, and those populations must be considered as a community within the community policing context. The least productive method of defining a community is to use police organizational designations (beats, districts, precincts, sectors, etc.). Similarly, geographically defined neighborhoods that are defined by barriers are a bad idea, unless those natural or human-made features happen to coincide with communities as defined by people. Residents of a true neighborhood may be socioeconomically similar, but it is often a mistake to use socioeconomic data to define communities. It is important to delve deep when defining a community and look for a shared sense of identity and a shared sense of purpose (e.g., common concerns and common problems).
A prerequisite for establishing community partnerships—the core of community policing—mutual trust must be established and maintained. Police, even among the most traditionalist departments, understand that cooperation with at least some elements of the broader community is necessary if any “police work” is to get done. For example, the flow of information from private citizens to police has proven critical in solving crimes. Officers are frequently called upon to speak at civic events, work with social service agencies, and participate in school programs.
The primary difference between these sorts of collaborations and the partnerships that define community policing is the degree of integration. In true community policing, citizens are integrated into policing in very tangible ways. These close-knit partnerships aren’t the sole purview of special units and task forces; they are integral to all aspects of the department’s (nonspecial) operations. In community policing, police become a part of the community, not an outside agency that merely interacts with the community. This means that the community is integral in defining police goals and objectives. When a department defaults to the traditional mission of code enforcement, community policing collapses. Code enforcement only matters insofar as it is the priority of the community. Every cop will tell you that departments don’t have enough resources. Given that fact, community policing dictates that those finite resources be devoted to community priorities.
It follows from this that, under community policing, the police are no longer logically referred to as “law enforcement.” The law enforcement role is subsumed under a much larger, more broadly defined role. The goal of policing cannot be “catching bad guys” if the department’s efforts are to be successful. Under community policing, there is no singular goal. There are multiple goals, with the wellbeing of the neighborhood being chief among them. Of course, taking violent, predatory criminals off the streets has to be a top priority. When we take for granted that community safety is of critical importance, then we can examine what calls for police services actually look like. Most of those calls are for non-emergency purposes. Most calls for service are about problems, and people don’t know who else to call. Officers help accident victims, write reports about accidents, provide emergency assistance, help resolve conflicts, control traffic, and a host of other tasks that have nothing to do with “catching bad guys.”
The idea that police officers are helpful in bad times serves to build trust because it demonstrates that they have good (benevolent) intentions. This trust enables officers to gain access to valuable community intelligence that can lead to solutions to crime and other problems. For this trust to be built, the entire organization must embrace this service role and demonstrate goodwill with all communities. Trust begins with respect and compassion. The unnecessary use of force, indifference, and discourtesy at any level within a police department will dampen the community’s willingness to partner with the police.
Building community support and trust will take different levels of work and potentially different strategies, depending on the community. In communities that have a positive outlook on police, the task is relatively easy. Most often, such communities tend to be affluent and predominately white. In communities that have a long history of conflict and animosity toward police will be much harder to sway. A common feature of past community policing efforts was to strengthen existing social institutions, such as churches and schools. This serves to build trust in officers, and also helps build up the community and increases the effectiveness of informal social controls. In the most disordered communities, the police must serve as both catalysts for and facilitators of positive change.
Perhaps the most obvious way to improve public perceptions of the police is to focus on proactive crime prevention rather than reactively investigating crimes that have taken place. Reactive strategies almost always entail negative interactions between police and neighborhood residents. Proactive strategies aren’t seen as authoritative because they are seen as helping rather than attacking people. Under community policing, communities become partners with the police and facilitate safety and public order. Old models of the relationship between officers and citizens must be replaced by new, partnership-based ones. Most importantly, the authority figure versus the subordinate model must be dismantled. No matter how hard-working and professional an individual police officer is, crime prevention isn’t something that can be done by a single person. Equal and enduring partnerships are the only sustainable answer.
In modern America, the word “bureaucracy” is often said with contempt. This is perhaps unfair. Bureaucracy suggests a class of professional public servants that often do their job very well. If there is a valid criticism against prevalent bureaucracy in local governments, it is hyper-specialization. People working in governmental organizations, especially large ones, tend to wind up in “silos,” where they only worry about a very narrow range of activities. In other words, they are so specialized they can lose sight of the bigger picture.
As a standalone agency, police departments lack many of the tools necessary to truly implement community policing. Innovative community problem-solving requires all of the tools available to local governments. City leaders must understand what a police department is trying to do and how they plan to do it. Furthermore, all stakeholders—including city leaders—need to be involved in the planning process. Many resources necessary to solve community problems must come from other agencies, and the deployment of those resources requires partnerships between all levels of government with the police. Because police officers are in the field and have the most frequent contact with community residents, they are in a unique position to act as service brokers. Non-government agencies can also be important partners, and police need to reach out to service organizations to establish partnerships.
For a police department to transition to a community policing agency, several different obstacles must be overcome. Local governments must be won over, leadership must be dedicated to the transformation, and line officers must “buy in.” The evaluation literature is full of examples where community policing failed because it was implemented as a “program” rather than as a cultural transformation, management did not support the transition, or line officers didn’t support the transition (or some combination of those three factors). For real, enduring change to occur, everyone from the mayor down to the least experienced patrol officer must support the change.
Heavy-handed, top-down demands for change from agency leaders will not work. The agency executive will be required to show exemplary leadership, and that leadership is most effective when it is by example. In other words, the Chief’s behavior and demeanor will set the tone for the entire department. Management must create a new, unified outlook for the entire agency. Obstacles need to be anticipated, and plans need to be put in place to overcome them as they arise. Fortunately, the criminal justice literature is full of program evaluations that detail (at least in general terms) the problems that agencies have encountered in the past. While every situation is different, some general themes can be identified and used in planning.
The underlying reason that community policing so often failed in the past is that it was most often instituted as a program or strategy. It was something that could be superimposed on the existing status quo. For community policing to work, police officers are required to adopt an entirely different way of life. The challenge is not to introduce a new program like the public relations strategies of the past. The task is to change the fundamental culture of the entire department. As impossible as this sounds, in many cases, the public will stand for nothing less. Public dissatisfaction in some cities has grown to the extent that the call for “defunding the police” has been answered, and traditional agencies have been abolished to make way for something new. That new thing, if it is to be enduring, will, in essence, be community policing. It seems better for everyone if agencies make the difficult choice to do the hard thing and change from within.
Why “Crackdowns” Are a Bad Idea
A great example of a traditional police practice that results in plenty of citations and arrests is the use of periodic “crackdowns.” A crackdown refers to a sudden and sizable increase in the presence of police and the use of criminal sanctions targeted to specific offenses or specific places. These efforts are often well-intentioned but often make things worse. The fatal flaw in the logic of using crackdowns is that it makes “catching bad guys” the number one priority of the police. Studies of the effects of crackdowns demonstrate that they do reduce crime in the area where they are deployed, but those results are short-lived. Soon after the crackdown, crime rises back to previous levels. Some scholars have theorized that criminals learn to adapt to crackdowns and perform their criminal activities in different ways that aren’t easily detected.
The reason that crackdowns are of limited consequence is that they do not address the underlying precipitators of crime and disorder. Physical and social conditions must be right for crime to occur. If those are not changed, crimes will happen regardless of how many individuals are temporarily removed from the environment by arrest. Lasting results require that the environmental and social factors that lead to crime be improved. This work is much better suited to community policing and problem-solving approaches.
From this, we can determine that the benefit of crackdowns is quite low. In addition, the price is quite high. Crackdowns tend to worsen police-community relations and undermine police legitimacy. Criminologists have long recognized that crime and poverty are correlated (although the cause-and-effect debate rages on unabated). Crackdowns tend to focus on high-crime areas, which are poor areas most of the time. Poor neighborhoods tend to be minority neighborhoods. This means that crackdowns disproportionately impact minority residents, no matter what the intent of the police was.
Often, crackdowns are coupled with aggressive “enforcement tactics,” which often result in claims that the police used excessive force and stepped on other civil rights, such as violations of the Fourth Amendment. The presence of an unusual number of officers, special weapons, and unusual police equipment serves to create an aura of fear among neighborhood residents, especially where trust in the police is weak. When neighborhood residents start to see their homes as hostile places because of police activity, much damage is done to the trust necessary for community partnerships to form and thrive.
As with any public service agency, the single biggest expense in any police department is its human resources. Police officers are more expensive, in fact, than most public servants (unless the position requires a college degree). Some departments also refer to crackdowns as a “saturation.” In other words, the purpose is to saturate the streets with police officers. All of those officers must be paid, so a crackdown winds up being very expensive in financial terms. We must also consider the opportunity cost of the strategy. As cops are quick to point out, they have limited resources. When human resources are focused on one problem area, other areas, and problems must, by definition, be neglected.
This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.