The definition and use of “Community Policing” have ebbed and flowed over the past four decades. While some experts call it a non-traditional form of policing that seeks to proactively connect the community with local police to problem-solve crime, others say it’s the most authentic form of policing and works, invoking a time when police officers naturally patrolled the neighborhoods where they lived.
But with the renewed focus on building trust between communities and the police, the debate around its definition of community policing and its effectiveness has resurfaced. The vague definition has come to mean everything from a tactic to a concept to a philosophy and has been used in ways ranging from embedding police officers in the community to conduct foot beats and outdoor roll calls, and in some cases, having police officers move into the neighborhoods they patrol.
“Our lack of definition around community policing still haunts us and confounds many earnest attempts to reduce crime and improve community satisfaction,” said James Burch, president of the National Police Foundation (NPF) in the recent article I wrote for Freethink Media (see below).
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office community policing is “a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies that 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.”
“That definitely is difficult to implement in practice,” said Dr. Charlotte Gill, Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University.
According to a 2014 systematic review on the topic that Gill co-authored, she and her colleagues identified a range of strategies employed under the auspices of COPS over the past few decades. Their review found that community policing strategies have positive effects on things like citizen satisfaction, perceptions of disorder and police legitimacy; however the effect on crime and fear of crime were limited.
Carl B. Klockars, Professor of Criminal Justice and Sociology at the University of Delaware, argued that although we hope to achieve the lofty goals of community policing, it cannot work in reality (https://www.ncjrs.gov/policing/use139.htm). Others who have supported community policing argue that it works very well in reality and has practical applications in communities riddled with crime.
Yet of 16,000 police agencies (including local police departments and sheriff departments), approximately 13,000 police agencies use some form of community policing. Since 1995, the COPS office has invested more than $14 billionto advance community policing.
In another article on policing (see below), the author states that the effectiveness of community policing is an important debate, “because we cannot afford to waste money on something if it does not work effectively. Only if community policing benefits the police, community, citizens and government should we allocate the manpower and money to implement and sustain it. Before considering the arguments for and against community policing, we need to define and explain its concepts.”
If we’re not even sure whether community policing works, let alone agree on its definition, should taxpapers be supporting community policing or is it worth a try regardless? Why or why not?