The Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act of 1994 heralded the beginning of a massive effort to reform policing strategies in the United States, in part through implementation of community-policing programs at the local level. Congress has allocated billions of federal dollars over the years since to support such efforts and by the end of the 20th century, close to 90% of all police departments serving communities larger than 25,000 reported implementing community policing strategies. However, empirical studies examining the effectiveness of this style of policing are limited and most reveal a modest improvement. This report examines studies that have revealed some of the factors that contributed to the failure of community policing programs to meet the expectations of policy makers. A lack of police organizational commitment and citizen leadership are major factors that have undermined attempts to implement community policing more fully.
Community Policing Efficacy
With passage of the Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services was established within the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) (COPS, 2011). Originally funded with $148.4 million, levels rapidly increased and reached an all time high of $1.633 billion just four years later. Although funding over subsequent years has fluctuated between about $0.5 and $1.5 billion, it is obvious that congress is committed to community policing programs.
This level of commitment over the last 16 years suggests that community-policing programs are effective in controlling crime. This research report examines the evidence that supports or undermines this possibility and tries to understand whether community policing really represents the type of police reform communities want and congress expected.
Defining Community Policing
The Community Policing Consortium, consisting of law enforcement professionals, public policy academics, and political leaders, defined community policing as nurturing a trusting relationship between community residents and law enforcement personnel with the goal of improving the safety and quality of neighborhoods (Bureau of Justice Assistance, 1994, p. iii-vii, 15-17). This implies that residents become active participants in helping to fight crime and solving other problems. Citizens are encouraged to keep the police informed of ongoing problems in their neighborhoods, assist with determining policing resource priorities, and become more involved in crime control through neighborhood watch groups and other related activities. In turn, the police are expected to become more engaged in the communities they serve, by responding in good faith to complaints, listening to residents, providing advice, mediating disputes, and being more transparent about policing strategies. In essence, community policing involves the police engaging in social services-like activities in addition to the more traditional crime-fighting role.
Justifying Community Policing
The Community Policing Consortium suggested community policing could represent a significant policing reform strategy that could solve a number of issues facing mid-1990s law enforcement agencies (Bureau of Justice Assistance, 1994, p. 3). These issues included the loss of traditional crime control effectiveness in modern society, destabilization of the traditional family unit, influx of immigrants with distinct policing expectations, budget constraints, epidemic drug use, gangs, and increasing violent crime rates.
Community policing was also suggested to be a more commonsense approach to policing, because it is responsive to the needs of the community (Bureau of Justice Assistance, 1994, p. 4). Community policing was therefore viewed as more democratic, because it involved participation of all parties with a vested interest in policing outcomes, including community residents, police personnel, community leaders, and businesses.
Community policing has been portrayed as a response to the increasing isolation that police have experienced within the communities they served (Bureau of Justice Assistance, 1994, p. 5-6). Police officers were historically moved around to minimize the chances of engaging in corruption and foot patrols faded from use once the automobile became common. The implementation of random patrols to interfere with a criminal's ability to predict a police presence also interfered with a citizen's ability to predict when they could informally interact with the police. The use of advanced technology, such as radios and Compstat, used up patrol time with incident responses and concentrated police in crime 'hot spots', thus pulling policing resources away from the rest of the neighborhood.
However, a number of potentially serious drawbacks were envisioned if community policing were implemented. As police become connected to communities, there is the danger of a shift in political power to law enforcement and increased intrusion into the daily lives of citizens (Moore, 1992, p. 143-146). These changes could in turn lead to policing priorities favoring wealth and power. In addition, the threat of corruption, discrimination, and brutal policing methods may increase, as professional standards are deemphasized to foster normalized relations with members of the community. Moore (1992) feels obligated to mention that being placed into situations where the police are forced to mediate disputes may encourage them to become more attuned to needs of all parties, and accordingly develop a deeper understanding of the need for fair play. This suggestion, though, is moderated by Moore stating, "It would be wrong to be too optimistic about these possibilities" (p. 146). In fact, Moore feels the need to suggest that the relentless focus on improving the efficiency of crime control could very well lead to marginalizing the legal rights of the accused. Implementation of community policing may therefore require, according to Moore, more emphasis on civil rights and public oversight, rather than less.
Implementation of Community Policing
Community policing involves three core components: community partnerships, organizational transformation, and problem solving (COPS, n.d., p. 5-6). Community partnerships represent collaborative interactions between law enforcement and the various elements within the community that have a stake in policing effectiveness. The potential partners include other government agencies, members of the community, businesses, and private organizations. Examples of participating government agencies include schools, social services, city council, state and federal law enforcement agencies, and municipal services. Community members may serve on a community policing board, volunteer for a neighborhood watch group, or simply call when they see something that could be a potential problem or crime. Businesses can help identify public safety problems and provide valuable resources. Nonprofits can offer valuable oversight and the news media can act as a conduit for providing current policing information to the public.
The transition from more traditional policing methods to community policing requires transforming the organizational structure of local law enforcement agencies (COPS, n.d., p. 7-11). Probably the most important change is in the decision-making hierarchy. Since community policing emphasizes a problem solving approach to crime control, officers on patrol are given greater responsibility for identifying and creating solutions to problems. The overall effect is a decentralization of decision-making and a shift of control over policing resources to the field. As a result, strategic planning necessarily requires the presence of patrol officers. Other changes include long-term patrol assignments, specialized training, citizen satisfaction evaluations, and greater transparency.
Another aspect of community policing that represents a dramatic break from historical policing methods is its proactive approach to crime control (COPS, n.d., p. 12-13). Rather than waiting for crime to occur, community-policing strategies attempt to address the underlying problems that could eventually precipitate criminal activity. The problem-solving model is called SARA, for scanning, analysis, response, and assessment. Patrol officers are tasked with scanning for potential problems and then prioritizing problems in terms of threat to public safety. The officers would then analyze the problem, to understand the contributing factors better. The response phase involves developing a solution that would eliminate, reduce, or control the problem. Assessment would entail determining if the solution was effective.
The environment also takes a prominent role in community policing, replacing the traditional perspective of the psychology of crime (Clarke and Eck, 2005, p. 14). Rather than focusing on the mental state and background of potential offenders, environmental criminology focuses on situational predictors of criminal behavior, such as opportunity. Opportunity can come in the form of an absence of security precautions and availability of targets. The "Problem Analysis Triangle" proposes that predatory crime is precipitated by multiple factors, including the coming together of a likely offender and suitable victim in both place and time. Predatory crime prevention can thus be managed in terms of having security measures in place that discourage criminal behavior at a specific location, a "guardian" for the victim, and a "handler" for the offender.
A guardian may simply represent the victim taking security precautions on his or her own, or by virtue of the close physical proximity of a friend, coworker, or police/security personnel.
A handler is someone who can influence the behavior of the offender, such as a family member, friends, pastor, or probation/patrol officers.
Typically, the person who owns or is responsible for managing a location implements security measures to deter crime. This can be as simple as a bus driver asking a troublemaker to get off the bus, a bartender cutting a patron off, or a landlord threatening to evict a problem resident. Or, it may involve a real estate management company installing outdoor security cameras and lighting.