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Police: History

Policing In America From The 1970s To The Present—the Community Era?

The 1960s police-citizen crisis, coupled with research findings from the 1970s, questioned the core philosophies underlying policing in America. In a seminal article on policing, Wilson and Kelling proposed the broken windows thesis. They argued that a broken window in an abandoned building or car is a symbol that no one cares about the property, making it ripe for criminal activity. Wilson and Kelling stressed the importance of controlling minor crimes and disorders in an effort to curb more serious crime. Making citizens feel safer and improving their quality of life should be the goal of police. This idea sparked the development of a number of different police strategies and tactics designed to improve police-community relations. The philosophy of community policing is built upon the premise that reducing citizens' fear of crime while forming a partnership between the police and the community is a worthwhile goal of police organizations. Particular tactics utilized in this philosophy include foot patrol, problem solving, police substations, and community groups, among others. These tactics stress citizen satisfaction and improvements in citizens' quality of life. In addition to changes in tactics, changes in organizational design must also accompany community policing. Police organizations are to become decentralized, flatter hierarchies with less bureaucratic control. Patrol officers at the lowest levels are encouraged to be creative in their responses to problems and are given more discretion to advance their problem-solving efforts.

Kelling and Moore have described the 1970s and 1980s as an era in which a shift toward community policing occurred. They suggest that community policing is a strategic change complete with changes in organizational structures, tactics, and outcomes (see Table 1). However, changes in organizational design appear to be more theoretical than practical. Maguire's examination of organizational change in a sample of large departments shows that there were no significant changes in the bureaucratic structures of police agencies practicing community policing in the 1990s compared to those who were not.

Although community policing and problem solving have been popular policing strategies, some departments are utilizing zero-tolerance policies. Zero-tolerance policies encourage the use of aggressive police tactics and full enforcement of minor offenses. For example, the New York Police Department instituted zero-tolerance policies in the mid-1990s in an effort to reduce minor disorders and control crime. Based on the "broken windows" hypothesis, aggressive enforcement of minor crimes is predicted to produce the same outcomes of increasing citizen satisfaction and improving quality of life that are sought under the models of community policing. However, the tactics are very different. Community policing encourages partnership development, less frequent use of arrest, and more creative responses to particular problems. Zero-tolerance policies encourage the use of arrest and other get-tough policies. Furthermore, trends in the militarization of police have been well documented. The number of police agencies that use police paramilitary units (PPUs) and special weapons and tactical teams (SWATs) have increased by over 80 percent since the 1970s (Kraska and Kappeler).

It is clear that the idea of the existence of a "community era" in policing is not without critics. Walker (1984) claims that scholars have misinterpreted and misused history in their descriptions of the "community era." Williams and Murphy suggest that scholars have not attended to the obvious influences of slavery, segregation, and discrimination on policing throughout history. Somewhat surprisingly, the description and interpretation of the history of police continues to be a matter of great debate. Perhaps this is due to our need to fully understand the events of the past to effectively guide the events of the future.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPolice: History - Early Policing In England, The Beginning Of "modern" Policing In England, Early Policing In Colonial America