The impending death of community policing

Editor's Note: In our continuing effort to address issues important to officers who must cover many square miles with a scant few agency resources, we're happy to introduce Lance Eldridge as the latest addition to the PoliceOne roster of writers. Eldridge is currently a patrol officer in Craig, Colorado, a town with a population of roughly 11,000 people and a PD with 24 sworn and seven civilian personnel. If this size town or this size department sounds familiar to you, we encourage you to send us an email and let us know what you’d like Lance to cover in a future column.

The law enforcement profession must reevaluate its understanding of community policing if there’s any hope of saving the philosophy from becoming a 21st century anachronism. The problem is the gulf between the current strategic needs of local and state law enforcement leaders and the tactical demands of the officers who sit at the tip of the spear, fighting what can only be described (especially in our urban areas) as a war. The violent nature of criminal activity will only make this gap wider in the coming years.

For all the late-20th century efforts to nudge local and state law enforcement beyond the professional policing model, community policing has remained a quixotic and sometimes controversial notion of modern police work. Law enforcement officers — and the techniques they employ — are shaped not by classroom philosophies or community perceptions but by the nature of crime and the criminals they face.

Community policing may be as close as local and state law enforcement comes to having a strategic doctrine (a plan, policy, or principle to achieve an overall aim). The Department of Justice, the nation’s wealthiest proponent of the philosophy, defines community policing as a “... philosophy that promotes organizational strategies, which support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques, to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime.”

With such a broad — and therefore academically ambiguous — definition, local and state law enforcement leaders, their often politically conscious employers, the uniformed officer or deputy, and the public they all serve may misunderstand or, in a few immoderate cases, misrepresent the concept.

Local and state law enforcement leaders often find themselves using the ready label of community policing to gain public and political support for a variety of policing actions, some of which may be more institutionally acceptable and publicly popular than effective in reducing crime. David L. Carter of Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, and a strong proponent of the transformative power of community policing, suggested as much when he wrote that “[p]ublic backing for institutional responses to problems is notoriously fickle and must not be taken for granted because it ultimately governs political action.”

The philosophy, of course, demands that law enforcement officers and agencies spend time working on both reducing crime and the fear of crime among the general population. In this model, notions of idealistic, close community relationships flourish. But this begs the question of who constitutes the “community” for which law enforcement “works” and whether that community should impose politically acceptable priorities or influence police methods. Such a scheme runs the risk of politicizing law enforcement.

There is also a more insidious problem. The localities and agencies that have embraced community policing may be unintentionally fostering the very police state the philosophy was meant to discourage. Having armed law enforcement officers encouraged by community Policing, or directed by policy and practice, to mediate civil disputes, family issues, and social contracts may make officers appear more accessible to the public, but it also creates a slippery slope that places officers, and therefore their authority and integrity, in between and among citizens who otherwise may not request or appreciate their presence. Using law enforcement as a consensual tool in civil disputes builds a dependency on the coercive presence of armed officers for problem resolution in areas better suited for social services.

What’s even clearer is that acting like a community activist or social worker — which much of the philosophy of community policing appears to encourage — doesn’t sit well with the personality types drawn to modern police work. It’s probably a safe bet that someone attracted to social activism will not seek a career in law enforcement, where the constituents are sometimes violent and often must be arrested. The market has, in effect, outpaced the philosophy and relegated it to a topic for lively patrol room discussion. Just read any police publication. Few of the popular periodicals extol the virtues of community policing but instead celebrate the “warrior” ethos that finds strong purchase among many of today’s officers. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the accompanying contracts for police trainers, have only bolstered this popular paramilitary image.

For law enforcement leaders, community policing will remain an important tool that helps shape the department’s public image and strategic direction. For the individual officer, however, community policing consists of nothing more than knowing the community well enough to be at the right place, at the right time, to deter crime and, should that fail, to develop probable cause to make an arrest.


Community Policing and Politics


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