Generally speaking, for the first half of the 20th century, police departments both in the US and in Europe, operated under the strict axiom of traditional policing. This canonical model of policing was structured around a typical, hierarchical continuum, utilized standard law enforcement operational protocols and it focused on responding to incidents when they occurred.
As social disorder and criminal activity progressively rose during the second half of the century, both traditional law enforcement approaches and police’s effectiveness to address public safety concerns were re-examined. Consequently, competent authorities devised a set of reforms that sought to deter and reduce criminal activity through an open, quality-oriented partnership between citizens and police.
The aforementioned initiatives eventually morphed into a new strategy of policing, a law enforcement philosophy broadly known as “community policing”, which promoted the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques, in an effort to proactively address the root causes of public safety issues (e.g. crime, social disorder) predominantly on the local level.
The Spread of Community Policing
In general, the community policing paradigm tends to vary considerably from country to country and it is important to acknowledge its uneven application around the world. Community policing patterns are inextricably associated with topical State features, as in, constraining and/or enabling State-related factors, directly affecting community policing approaches or styles.
Community Policing is first and foremost regarded as a proactive, law enforcement strategy that has been successfully implemented –predominantly- in Western industrialized democracies. Its origins can be traced back to an Anglo-American policing philosophy (and it was –initially- widely adopted in the English-speaking industrialized States), with its standardized form being developed primarily in the UK and the US.
Along similar lines, other non-Anglo industrialized nations such as France and Spain, adopted a similar ideological framework and operational strategy; the French “police de proximité” and the Spanish “policia de proximidad” are grosso modo adapted forms of community policing, slightly veering off the normative Anglo-American conceptual structure.
Variations of the Community Policing model have also been observed in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Japan, and Singapore. It is worth noting that there is a substantial assortment of theoretical suggestions and conceptualisations of Community Policing-some of them within an exploratory framework- in various parts of the world, but there is no single universal formula about how a police department should operate under the Community Policing principles, mainly because Community Policing is and should be responsive to, and shaped by local conditions/circumstances.
The United States Paradigm
In the United States, community policing has been slowly evolving since the 1960s but the adoption of community policing as a national reform movement gradually took place throughout the 1970s and the 1980s; as community policing became progressively widespread and a part of everyday policing parlance, the U.S. Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which officially consolidated the implementation of community policing programs across the country.
Encouraged by the federal funds made available through this bill (8.8 billion over a six-year period), the development of community policing was swiftly accelerated and, subsequently, a new agency, the Office of Community Oriented Police Services (COPS), was created in order to distribute and monitor the funding as well as oversee the community policing reform process.
The COPS office continues to fund the research and development of new community policing initiatives and provides technical assistance to law enforcement entities implementing community policing principles. Community Policing remains the dominant law enforcement philosophy in the US today, as increased funding and relevant success stories helped popularize this innovative policing dogma and led to its widespread implementation.
Defining Community Policing
The Philosophical Dimension
At the outset, Community Policing is a law enforcement philosophy, a revolutionary approach to normative, standardized police practices, aiming at improving public safety. The Community policing philosophy is regularly centered around the need for a “sensitized” or self regulated community that seems to reflect idealized projections of how things “should be”; it essentially promotes a collaborative scheme between the police and the public and focuses on direct police engagement with the community (i.e. local population, residents or the general public).
Discussions of community policing are predicated on the basic notion that policing should have a closer connection/cooperation with the public it serves. The purpose of Community Policing is to systematically incorporate community variables into standard policing activities and it requires a localized element to policing and frequent interactions between the police and the public.
While there is a lack of standardization regarding the nomenclature, strategy and specific typology of what the Community Policing model should entail and how it should be implemented, community policing efforts are generally oriented towards the encouragement of community trust in policing and the fostering of a closer rapport between police and citizens.
Community Policing aims at –significantly- broadening the traditional functions of the police while ensuring its legitimacy, accountability and operational effectiveness. The rationale often cited for adopting the community policing approach is that police and citizens should collaboratively address not only specific social issues associated with criminal activity but also the less tangible fear of crime itself and the perception of citizens regarding their safety and security.
The term “community” is loosely defined and is generally understood to mean a community of a specific geographical area (i.e. neighborhood), or a community of interest (i.e. an ethnic minority group, a religious order, the elderly, etc.). The community can be represented either by individual citizens or by organizations that act on their behalf.
Moreover, Community Policing emphasizes the importance of Inter agency cooperation and partnership-building, i.e. increased interaction between various agency levels that aims to exchange information, best practices, methods, techniques, with the ultimate goal to target crime-causing conditions, so as to minimize the likelihood of crime production.
Basic Principles of the Community Policing Approach
Community policing efforts can be broadly grouped into an assortment of key theoretical suggestions and conceptualizations. Apart from the philosophical framework, the key components/dimensions of the community policing model can be summarized as follows: the Organizational Dimension, the Strategic Dimension and the Tactical Dimension.
Structural/Organizational Transformation also referred to as organization engineering, is the first step of a series of transformational changes in the organizational structure and operational processes of a police department
Diamond and Weiss (2009) point out that these transformations include a variety of operational aspects such as innovative management policies, personnel practices, information technology systems and a proactive, decentralized approach.
- Decentralization: At the outset, the theoretical cornerstone of organizational transformation is decentralization-both in command structure and decision making. Following the axiom of decentralization, police departments rely less on top-down policy guidelines from superordinate bodies and they are given more leeway in the decision-making process. Decentralized decision making involves less rigid and hierarchical reporting structures, thus providing flexibility in policing operations. Decentralization naturally requires local flexibility and increased tolerance for risk taking, so that authority and responsibility can be more widely delegated to the appropriate command levels. This allows local officers discretion in handling calls and gives them the autonomy to craft creative solutions tailored to their community’s primary concerns; management layers are subsequently reduced and more emphasis is placed on officially sanctioned values (rather than written rules). Other restructuring initiatives commonly associated with Community Policing include: Flattening of Hierarchy, De-Specialization, Civilianization, etc.
- Information: Community Policing is information-dependent and the effective utilization of information technology is of paramount importance, mainly because it provides ready access to quality information. Gordner (1996), stresses that an agency’s information systems need to collect and produce information on all aspects of the police function, ensuring agency accountability, more quality-oriented appraisal and assessment efforts. Similarly, information technology improves citizen communication and renders public safety information more timely and accessible (so that citizens get notified about crime alerts and can subsequently communicate their feedback, give tips, etc.). Other (Community Policing) aspects of police administration that are related to information include: Performance Appraisal, Department/Program Assessment, Crime Analysis, Geographic Information Systems.
- Increased Police-Citizen Interaction: The methodological continuum of the Community Policing Approach is largely based on the notion of police-citizen interaction. Standard operational practices (e.g. motorized patrol) are effectively replaced with more interactive and effective methods. The overarching objective (for police) is to devise innovative ways to carry out traditional police functions in a cost and time-effective manner, so that more resources can be allocated to community-oriented activities (i.e. Foot and other modes of patrol, walk and ride, directed/differential patrol, case screening, etc.)
- Prevention emphasis: The community policing philosophy is focused on a predominantly preventive framework -as opposed to a punitive legal one-, that seeks to undermine the ideological conviction that leads to criminal activity and promotes a more proactive orientation (rather than a reactive one).
- Geographic Focus: One key strategic element of the organizational transformation is the geographic focus, as in police departments are organized around strictly defined spatial boundaries. This “Geographic Policing Model” approach aims at establishing stronger bonds between officers and neighborhoods- by extensively involving the same officer in the same community on a long-term basis- in order to increase mutual recognition, trust, responsibility and accountability. The underlying idea is that with increased interaction comes increased understanding of the concerns and problems of a neighborhood; as a consequence, police may develop special insights into these problems and use local assets and resources in order to effectively address them.
The Tactical Dimension
- Community Partnerships: Active Partnerships are the quintessence of community policing. Police officers and community partners –collaboratively- play a vital role in identifying, prioritizing and tackling the most critical public safety issues. The goal is not only to empower citizens and accentuate community ownership at all levels, but also to maximize the effective use of available community resources, in order to successfully address both the needs of the community and the essential factors that contribute to crime.
- Problem Solving: One of the most transformative aspects of Community Policing has been the adoption of a proactive, problem solving orientation as opposed to the traditional crime-response model that has tended to prevail in the “professional” policing concept. The problem-oriented policing model seeks to effectively intervene before criminal incidents occur. Operating under a preventative axiom, this approach places a heavy focus on identifying and directly addressing the underlying conditions, factors and determinants that give rise to criminal activity. This creative, problem-solving method heavily relies on the systematic identification of repetitive patterns (or connections between incidents) and on the methodical examination of the identified concerns, as a means of controlling and preventing future analogous incidents. Common approaches to problem solving include: the SARA model (Scanning, Analysis, Response, Assessment), Guardians, Beat Meetings, HotSpots, Multi Agency Teams.
Weaknesses of Community Policing
As with every other law enforcement philosophy, there are considerable weak points with regard to its practical implementation. Trevor Bennett (1994) argues that certain implementation difficulties –partly- lie in the police department itself, e.g. the indisposition or resistance of lower ranking offices to the assimilation of community policing principles, due to their unwillingness to shift away from obsolete forms of standardized punitive policing models.
It should be noted that the institutionalization of community policing requires sufficient resources and sustainable commitment from all parties involved, i.e. department executives and municipal leaders. Changing the culture of a department, introducing new policies, procedures and training as well as redefining the functional spectrum (establishing new partnerships, engaging in problem solving approaches, etc.) can be very challenging.
Additionally, societal changes i.e. increased bureaucracy, widespread use of communication technologies and the growth in surveillance have substantially automated society, leading to the deep undercutting of traditional habits; there is little place for the improvement of local face-to face relationships, mainly because face-to-face relationships have become scarce. In this context, community policing itself becomes a technology, the technology of security counselling and security management.
Moreover, there is the problem of legitimization of decision making in Community Policing models. Kertész and Szikinger warn that Community Policing occasionally comes with the danger of the perilous expansion of the police role, the police being responsible not only for public safety and security but also for public welfare, housing, education and other societal issues.
Community Policing is a conceptual way of re-designing police functions within the frame of the law; it should not be viewed as a means to bypass the democratic institutions of legislation. So, in that sense, as Eliaerts, Enhus and van den Broeck point out, the role of the police should be delimited.
In other words, when the police- in cooperation with the community-identify certain social issues, they can inform the local administration and they can even suggest solutions, but the implementation of these solutions should be carried out by the citizens or the social services, not by the police.
Therefore, certain limits should be respected and the police should never become a super administration responsible for all community issues, because Community Policing could turn into a police community, as in, a community dominated by the police. This could subsequently increase the opportunities for police corruption and the danger that the police could ultimately use their authority to serve the interests of powerful community members.
Furthermore, in order for Community Policing to work, it is prudent to correctly identify the community that fits into the concept of Community Policing. As Manfred Proske argues, there are certain areas where Community Policing could actually do more harm than good, because traditional policing already works quite well.
On the other hand, it is unclear whether socially disorganized, poor or chaotic communities could benefit from community policing. As James Willis (2002) notes, “If there is not a viable community already in place, how can the police contribute to improving neighborhood life”?
A significant body of evidence -drawn from years of international Community Policing practices – suggests that the adoption of Community Policing as a department-wide law enforcement philosophy can achieve considerable reductions in crime and social disorder, ultimately resulting in the overall amelioration of the citizens’ quality of life.
It should be noted, however, that the successful implementation of Community Policing requires increased resources and sustained commitment from all parties involved. It is critical that Community Policing is not just endorsed in principal; it must come with an organic shift in paradigm and a genuine will to address issues of leadership, management, established behaviors and public predispositions. It is unsurprising that such a radical reorientation of the traditional police posture has faced opposition and a variety of political, logistical, financial and historical obstacles.
Nonetheless- provided that the necessary police reforms and attitudinal transformations are undertaken- a police force supported by the community can be a force multiplier that contributes to conflict resolution and can have a lasting impact on social, economic and political prosperity.