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Police: Community Policing

Definition Of Community Policing

Since community policing is a difficult concept to define, a helpful way to understand exactly what it encompasses is to identify its key philosophical, tactical, and organizational characteristics.

Philosophical characteristics of community policing. At its core, community policing fundamentally challenges the underlying assumptions that have shaped American policing for most of the twentieth century. Since the 1930s, the traditional law-enforcement approach to policing has emphasized the independence of police agencies from the communities they serve, the importance of an individual officer's professional and dispassionate treatment of all citizens, and the close association between police work and fighting crime. In contrast, community policing significantly broadens the traditional role and function of the police. It takes the view that the police and citizens are co-producers of police services, jointly responsible for reducing crime and improving the quality of life in local neighborhoods.

According to the philosophy of community policing, local police should provide citizens with formal access to the department's decision-and policy-making process. Neighborhood residents are encouraged to voice their concerns to the police, and it is the responsibility of the police to thoughtfully address these concerns (Cordner). While police professionalism remains important, this quality is no longer equated with officers' being detached and aloof from local citizens. Under community policing, police officers are expected to initiate frequent personal contacts with community members on their beats, and to interact in an attentive, friendly, and compassionate manner. Enforcing the law and fighting crime remain important elements of policing, but community policing recognizes that, in reality, most police work is oriented toward nonenforcement tasks such as maintaining order and providing social services (Eck and Rosenbaum). Consequently, reducing community disorder, helping to mitigate residents' fears about crime, solving problems, and caring for individual victims, are all regarded as equally important to making arrests and solving crimes.

Tactical characteristics of community policing. Community policing demands that police departments reform their relationship with local communities, and that police officers change their attitudes and behaviors toward citizens and police work. The following interrelated programs and activities are oriented toward fostering a closer rapport between the community and the local police department, increasing the quantity and quality of police-citizen interactions, and enhancing the capacity of the police to engage in problem-solving partnerships.

Relationship between the police department and the community. In order to foster police-community cooperation in tackling community problems, police agencies must first elicit community input. This can be achieved via a variety of methods, including door-to-door visits conducted by police officers, mail-out surveys, and residential block meetings. The gathering of this information helps the police identify and prioritize community concerns. In their attempts to reduce crime and disorder, the police can enlist the help of community members by encouraging citizens to report illegal or suspicious behavior. In return, the police can educate citizens on how to avoid becoming victims of crime through crime prevention programs such as Neighborhood Watch. More importantly, continued cooperation between the police and community requires the establishment of trust.

Even though most of the decision-making authority is reserved by the police, a long-term relationship between the police and local residents can be created if police departments are responsive to community needs and accountable to the community for any actions they take (Gold-stein, 1987). Police departments might demonstrate this commitment and accountability by evaluating how well they have satisfied public concerns, and by providing community members with frequent updates on a particular case. Police departments could use follow-up surveys mailed to residences, neighborhood meetings, or telephone interviews with community members, to gauge "customer satisfaction" with the quality of police service delivered (Skogan and Hartnett). Feedback might be provided through newspaper reports, flyers, or community announcements.

Quantity and quality of police-citizen interactions. One of the cornerstones of community policing is the attempt to improve the frequency and the quality of interactions between individual police officers and members of the public. Assigning police officers to foot or bicycle patrols in specific geographical areas facilitates more frequent and personal contacts between the police and citizens than motorized patrol (the hallmark of traditional policing).

Police-community cooperation is cultivated by police officers getting to know residents on their beat. In addition, the removal of officers from their patrol cars gives them greater opportunity to engage in order maintenance and social service tasks. The visible presence of officers, who are easily accessible and caring in their encounters with residents, may help reduce citizens' fears of crime, and the improved rapport between the police and local citizens can improve officer morale and job satisfaction. Finally, an officer's assignment to a permanent beat helps create an officer's sense of responsibility toward the overall improvement of community life.

Problem-solving partnerships. The notion that the police and the public should collaborate in solving neighborhood problems helps move community policing past the criticism that it is just an exercise in improving community relations. In fact, as Goldstein makes clear, the creation of problem-solving partnerships between the police and the communities they serve is a radical departure from traditional policing (Goldstein, 1990). Rather than reacting to specific incidents and resorting primarily to law enforcement as a means of controlling crime, the police are encouraged to let communities identify local problems and to work with the community to find the most effective solution.

What it is so innovative about this approach is that the onus is on police officers to discover and carefully analyze the underlying cause(s) of concern. It is then their responsibility to focus all their efforts on a solution specifically tailored toward solving the problem at hand. Law enforcement is still recognized as one of the means available, but effective problem-solving demands that police officers should search for alternative methods of social control, and be guided by community preferences (Mastrofski et al., 1995). This might require that the officer draw upon resources beyond the confines of the police department, such as coordinating between citizens and other local government and community organizations. In sum, problem solving does not only rely upon greater familiarity between the police and the community, but on the ability of the police to recognize patterns or relationships between incidents, and on the willingness of the police to choose long-term, judicious, and highly selective solutions over short-term, cumbersome, and universal responses.

Organizational characteristics of community policing. Given its shift away from reactive patrol and incident-based responses (the principal tactics of traditional policing), it is clear that the effective implementation of community policing requires significant organizational change. Under the traditional model of policing, U.S. police departments were highly centralized and bureaucratized. The paramilitary structure of the police department was organized hierarchically, with key operational decisions being made by those at the upper levels in the organization. These decisions were then transmitted down the organization in the form of rules and orders, and enforced via a rigid chain of command. Since supervisors were directly responsible for the decisions made by line officers, decision-making authority at the street level was, in theory, subject to their direct control. However, given that a great deal of police work takes place outside of any form of direct supervision, it is not surprising that line officers continued to exercise a great deal of discretion.

In contrast to the traditional model, community policing recognizes that the knowledge and experience of line officers is of critical importance to the police organization. In order to be responsive to community problems and engage in problem solving, the rank and file must have greater autonomy in making decisions (Sparrow). The independence and freedom of line officers to respond to local community problems is encouraged by the decentralization of the police structure, and the formal recognition that police work is, by its very nature, highly discretionary. The creation of community substations in local neighborhoods and the organization's attempt to provide line officers with continuous access to resources, increases organizational flexibility and the capacity of the police officer for solving problems (Goldstein, 1987). Less emphasis is placed upon written rules as a means of managing officers, and a higher premium is attached to developing an organizational culture that values mentorship and guidance, and which encourages line officers to be innovative in their attempts to find solutions to problems of neighborhood crime and disorder (Cordner). Finally, those departments committed to a community-policing model must develop alternative measures of police effectiveness and accountability. The number of department arrests, or citations, can no longer be regarded as the sine qua non of a police organization that considers order maintenance and social service as of equal importance to crime control.

In addition to crime rates, measures that focus on the quality of police service and the effectiveness of problem-solving strategies are useful indicators of how well the police are performing, and to what extent the police are accountable to the community. Are citizens less fearful of neighborhood crime? Are the police responsive to community problems? When interacting with neighborhood residents, are the police courteous and helpful? Have problem-solving strategies been effective?

Without changes in the structure of the organization, its management style, and its measures of effectiveness and accountability, community policing cannot be implemented successfully.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPolice: Community Policing - Definition Of Community Policing, Origins And Evolution Of Community Policing, The Theory And Practice Of Community Policing