Just What is Community Policing Anyway

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

Joe Biden still says he is a proponent of community policing, even when surrounded by voices advocating defunding of the police. If his proposal to increase funding for community policing comes to fruition, what will that look like?

What community policing looks like is still an open question. A number of commentators will say it harkens back to the days before vehicle patrol. Cops on the beat would stop and interact with citizens. They were easily accessible and visible. They knew their area and the people of their beat. Those beat cops in cities, or small-town cops and deputies in rural America, would deal with any problem or situation brought to them. They lived where they worked and were invested in their communities.

Cars replaced foot patrol for faster response time with more equipment immediately available. Adding radios tied officers to their cars even more. The slow foot patrol and human interaction eventually lost out to response time behind the glass and steel enclosure of the patrol car. The human connection narrowed to criminals, victims, and witnesses. Police officer commuted and were happy to live away from their daily shifts. Cases were referred to detectives. Victims were referred to victim advocates. Large patrol areas and shift rotation became more anonymous.

The close relationship with a community’s police officers was seen as a potentially corrupting influence. There were many scandals in that era, with graft, political favoritism, and gratuities the order of the day. Modernization and efficiency were welcomed as crime began to rise through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Criminologists discovered that residents where foot patrol was tried again as an experiment felt much safer. Those citizens surveyed after a period of seeing foot patrols in the neighborhood described their observations that crime had been reduced, even when crime statistics said otherwise.

Additional permutations of foot patrol sought to engage officers with more ownership and investment in their area of responsibility. Officers got permanent assignments to neighborhoods, developed personal relationships with residents, and worked in teams to follow up on investigations. They attended and advocated for neighborhood watch programs and engaged in other community activities.

On the heels of these efforts, the Broken Windows theory was published and gained broad attention. This well-known theory regarded crime as arising from a lack of apparent caretakers, taking its name from abandoned buildings with broken windows that nobody cared to fix. As a result,  government agencies increased the enforcement of quality of life ordinances such as zoning, littering, and building maintenance. Police agencies increased enforcement of minor offenses such as drinking in public, littering, and cheating public transit systems out of fares.

A third influence in community policing was the development of problem-solving skills for patrol officers. Rather than just arriving at a call for service, taking a report, and continuing with the shift, officers were encouraged to seek out root causes from criminal events and seek collaborative partners to address causes of crime. If an area was being targeted for vandalism, for example, officers or a community policing team might work with community members to identify the offenders. If a group of juveniles was determined to be the source, activities or other interventions might be brought to bear to stop the behavior, along with appropriate enforcement action.

Problem-solving has been enhanced by intelligence-led policing. These efforts seek to prevent or solve crime by gathering data from a variety of sources in order to identify causes and contributors to crime. These include automatic license plate readers, digital crime mapping, surveillance, and the use of informants.

Having begun my career in a relatively small police agency of fewer than twenty police officers, I developed a community mindset and desire for problem-solving as a natural part of policing. In higher crime urban areas where manpower was stretched to its limits just responding to 911 calls, the luxury of time for human connection and collaboration had been lost to efficiency. Community policing was something that was integral to my early experiences but had to be reconstructed in populations where the personal touch was no longer a priority.

In the 1990s under the Clinton administration, community policing was a center post of his anti-crime legislation. Those efforts are now being criticized because of the “tough on crime” approach that resulted in increases in prison sentences and prison construction to house a disproportionate number of minority prisoners. For police agencies, Clinton’s proposals increased their staffing, funded research on law enforcement, provided equipment, and gave incentives to engage in programming related to community policing.

If Biden’s position on funding more community policing efforts comes to fruitions, the federal coffers will again be open for more police and more problem-solving efforts. In the face of rising violent crime rates, that would be welcomed by law enforcement. Whether it will be welcomed in the new administration remains to be seen.

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