What does the buzzword 'community policing' really mean?

One definition is that it's taking a proactive vs. reactive approach to problem-solving, but there's only one way of understanding it for true change


This article was updated on May 2, 2018. 

For some time now, ‘community policing’ has been the buzzword in law enforcement and a focal point of many an oral board. But what is community-based policing, truly? Is it a tactic, a concept, or a philosophy?

One popular definition is that community policing boils down to taking a proactive versus reactive approach to problem-solving. Whether it’s issues like crime or strengthening police-community relations, community policing is about exploring the underlying conditions that play a role in those issues and then determining the best course of action.

(Carl Wycoff/WikiCommons Image)
(Carl Wycoff/WikiCommons Image)

This is just one of many definitions, but there’s only one way of understanding it that creates true change.

I’ll illustrate this using a brief analogy between community policing and offender rehabilitation in the corrections system. If we view community-based sentencing as the preferred method of enhancing or instilling personality dimensions — the lack of which ultimately contributed to the offender’s criminal conduct — to the traditional use of prisons, then we might better understand the community policing philosophy.

In other words, do we say all criminals are wicked and must be incarcerated where they can no longer hurt society? Or do we address the underlying issues — the attribution tendencies (internal and external conflicts) — that led them to offend and afford them the opportunity through evidence-based correctional practices to become pro-social members of society?

Increasing Complexities

The same reasoning applies to community-based policing. If we label a particular place — a problematic neighborhood for example — as the bane of the community, then we tend to address all issues with a heavy hand. We perceive all residents of that neighborhood as fiendish criminals unwaveringly running afoul of the law. Not that some neighborhoods don’t harbor violent criminals, but here is where we bridge community policing with ethics.

If we take on the problem with a pervasive attitude that the entire neighborhood is a problem, then we increase the complexities in solving the issue and mitigate the chances of successful resolution. We offend the law-abiding residents of that community who will eventually lose trust in the police and further hamper efforts to resolve the underlying issue(s). Furthermore, as an additional deterrence to adopting such a toxic perspective of a particular area within your jurisdiction, we would become prejudicial in our enforcement actions toward anyone in that community. This is the antithesis of community policing.  

As we all know, the purpose of community policing is to bridge gaps and promote transparency in order to more effectively solve problems. Problem solving becomes a collaborative effort, thus increasing the rate of success. One of the main focuses of this effort is to reduce the risk factors associated with criminal conduct. So how do we identify viable problems to target and change for positive results and avoid an abrogation of public trust?

Real-World Example

In my jurisdiction, there is what many officers consider a “problem area” and many speak of it this way generically. It’s not an entire neighborhood, and so it doesn’t harbor the myriad individual problems of a larger locale, but the approach is similar. It is not uncommon to run license plates routinely and discover fictitious or warrant-attached plates. The location attracts residents of low socioeconomic status as there is little housing available in the town and what is on the market can be expensive. This has generated a very pessimistic and caustic view by other officers — it is viewed as a single problem.

This is where the concept and philosophy of community policing and how ethics plays a vital role is imperative to understand. I have taken the time to speak with individuals — whom others might view as part of the problem — just to establish a rapport. Again, establishing these relationships is one of the goals of community policing.

I heard through third-party channels that harassment was taking place with some of the residents and they were not reporting it for fear there would be retaliatory consequences. I sought out the alleged victims and spoke with them outside of that community — at their places of employment — and assured them there would be no reprisal for speaking with me. They were more than willing to discuss the problems they were experiencing — it just took a proactive effort on my part. People in high-crime areas often feel that they are unfairly polarized by society, including law enforcement.

It is at this precipice that the principles of community policing — fair access, public trust, safety and security, teamwork, and objectivity — play an important role in determining how successful an agency will be in promoting a better quality of life for the residents of high-crime areas (or any area of the community).

Does community policing work?

It’s important to note that community policing is unique to the needs of each community. Evaluation is more complex than simply comparing crime rates.  As outlined by the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), evaluation requires defining specific, measurable, and attainable goals set for a given period, and tracking that data over time to measure change. These goals should represent what the entire community – both LE and citizen – want from their police.

Some examples of strong community policing programs are the Madison, Wis., Columbia Heights, Minn., and Camden, N.J. models.  The COPS Office points to the scanning, analysis, response, and assessment (SARA) model as a great example of how LEOs can tackle  this type of complex problem solving in an organized way.   

Obviously, not everyone will be swayed by your efforts. Bad people exist and they especially love to hide in communities where police influence is negligible. But applying community policing techniques backed by the principles of ethical policing will produce notable results.

This article is not about identifying and applying all the nuances of community-based policing, but rather the underlying philosophy. It’s about how we view our jobs and ultimately how we act to prevent or reduce crime. Arrests are inevitable, but they are merely a reaction to a problem. Community-based policing, ethically based and orchestrated, is an enduring solution to the problem. 

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