Police Methods | Section 3.1

Police Methods by Adam J. McKee

Section 3.1: What is a Community?

What is a Community?

Traditionally, “community” has referred to people living in a specific geographic locale who often have shared values or norms. Additionally, assets such as people and institutions, schools and hospitals, businesses, land, etc., are also commonly included in geographic-based definitions of community. Community may also refer to people who share special interests but have no common geographic reference point (e.g., participants in Internet discussion groups). Although there are many ways to define community, this working definition is offered for law enforcement agencies: The community is all groups in a geographic area that have a specific role to play in creating safer neighborhoods or improving the quality of life for its residents.

These groups typically include: 

  • Youth at high risk of involvement in gun-related crimes
  • Family members of offenders and youth
  • Neighborhood and citizens’ groups, particularly in areas with high levels of violent crime
  • Businesses and business associations
  • Faith-based organizations and ministerial alliances
  • Charitable foundations and organizations
  • Agencies and organizations providing services, such as substance abuse treatment, employment training, housing, education, and victim advocacy
  • Criminal justice system partners
  • Offender population (including ex-offenders, parolees, and probationers)

Including offender populations as part of the community may seem counterintuitive to some groups or individuals whose primary concern is enforcement or prosecution. However, community outreach in many cases should include offender groups because many communities consist of high numbers of ex-offenders. In addition, many community and faith-based groups are committed to providing opportunities for offender populations and youth to break the cycle of violence. 


Source:  COP Office.  The Collaboration Toolkit for law enforcement: Effective Strategies to Partner with the Community.


Community Policing versus Societal Problem

Many community problems do not have a police solution, such as lack of recreational opportunities, lack of educational opportunities that can lead to viable employment, lack of parental involvement and supervision, and illicit drug use. How can local government and police administration best manage community expectations and help residents understand the limitations of community policing? 

While an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, D.W. Miller offered that “…to policymakers and citizens eager to know whether smart policing (community policing) can prevail over the ‘root causes’ of crime, social scientists have been forced to say: ‘We may never know.’” The reality is that even with the best data, it is impossible to determine with any degree of certainty just how policing affects crime. As one New England police department chief stated, “Winter is our best ally in our fight against crime.” 

The police do not have the resources or skills to deal with all the root causes of crime. They are not equipped to solve the causes and problems of poverty or unemployment. They are not psychologists or counselors who can uncover the reasons for spousal or child abuse. They are not educators who can give people hope for a productive life. These larger societal issues are best handled by agencies set up to address those problems with input from the citizens they serve. 

Law enforcement officers can identify problems and, in many cases, take a leadership role in addressing the problems. For example, the police can partner with community health organizations to educate high school students about the dangers of drinking and driving. Or they can team with community nonprofits to identify members of the homeless population who need a helping hand. But all involved in community policing should work to avoid the dangers of mission creep, expecting more of law enforcement than is realistic, given their  training and experience. Publicly recognizing the role of community policing in addressing complex societal problems is key to managing community expectations.

Respondents to ICMA’s survey noted that often the process of defining community policing becomes an exercise in determining what community policing should do. The ability to differentiate between the two tasks is required when working with the public. In public meetings, a good facilitator can point out the differences and guide the audience’s thinking about the issues. Respondents to the survey recommended recruiting the media as an active partner in this process, presenting stories that get the definition out into the community, and using public service announcements to keep the definition in the forefront of the public’s mind. 

The participants also noted that the roles and responsibilities of the police must be periodically revisited, setting new or updated realistic goals and strategies. There can be, and must be, buy-in by the police, the community, and the local government. It is critical to remember that no goal or strategy is going to receive 100 percent agreement. In the final analysis, and based on the information available to them, the police will be in the best position to determine what their mandate will be and how best to meet it. 

Measuring Effectiveness 

Research indicates that there are still questions about the effectiveness of community policing. How should the effectiveness of community policing be measured? The police saturate a particular neighborhood in the community, and the number of muggings plummets. Did the police activity cause the decline? Possibly. The weather might also have gotten dramatically colder, the number of tourists in the area might have dropped, or a transient gang may have moved on to another city—all of which could cause the number of muggings to decrease.  

Not only is crime prevention and order maintenance part of policing, organizational changes, community interaction and interventions, and government processes also fall under the rubric of community policing. The first question that must be asked is, “What is being measured when we assess the effectiveness of community policing?” If we are talking about the prevention or reduction of crime and disorder, care must be taken when discussing causation and correlation. 

Measuring the effectiveness of community policing is not a simple matter of implementing a given strategy to see if crime drops. It involves defining specific, measurable, and attainable goals set for a given period, and tracking that data over time to measure change. John Eck, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati, notes that decision makers need to have “a detailed understanding of the problem, of how the response is supposed to reduce the problem, and of the context in which the response has been implemented” in order to assess and evaluate the effectiveness of a chosen response. 


Setting Goals and Objectives 

Goals and objectives provide the means for fulfilling the mission of community policing. They need to be integrated and thoughtfully constructed as part of a broader plan for community policing. Without such a comprehensive approach, community policing efforts will likely become a disparate list of programs and initiatives that achieve no lasting effects in the community. Goals define the end results the community wants to realize through community policing, and they must be mission-related. Goals represent the destination, the place where the community ultimately wants to be. Goals, therefore, need to be specific, measurable, and attainable over a given period, with a mix of short-, intermediate, and long-term goals.

Goals should also be within the power of the community and the police department to achieve. For example, the goal of having a crime-free community is impossible to achieve because the causes of crime are numerous, and there is simply no way to control all the variables that lead to crime. More realistic examples of goals for community policing might include the following: 

  • Initiate a neighborhood improvement program.  
  • Increase the number of Neighborhood Watch programs.  
  • Create a citizen ride-along program.  
  • Work with local schools and community groups to establish a K–12 program for drug prevention.  
  • Have the racial and ethnic makeup of the police department more closely match the community served.  
  • Enhance communication with limited English speaking residents. 

Objectives specify how the goal will be met by outlining the tasks and activities that will be undertaken to achieve a goal. Objectives are tools for meeting a goal. Returning to a goal from above, “Initiate a neighborhood improvement program,” examples of objectives for achieving this goal might include the following: 

  • Establish a monthly walk-through by police beat officers to look for and ticket unlicensed or abandoned vehicles.  
  • Assign the code enforcement staff to review, each month, neighborhood buildings to look for broken windows or other damages to property, both public and private.  
  • Involve public works employees in a monthly check for needed repairs to sidewalks, curbs and gutters, low tree branches, and potholes.  
  • Develop a neighborhood e-newsletter and website to report current happenings

The terms “goals” and “objectives” can be easily confused. A simple question can help clarify the difference between the two: “Is this an end or a means to an end?” Goals are the end; objectives are the means to the end.

Source: COPS Office.  Community Policing Explained: A Guide for Local Governments.


Defining the “Community” in Community Policing

Our notion of what comprises a community is a paradigm that varies to some extent from one individual to the next, based on each individual’s background, socialization, education and general perceptions of society. Although we can find the literal definition of community (which involves the characteristics of a group of people who share certain demographic and socioeconomic traits and fellowship), our individual perceptions vary widely on the notion of community.

Some think of a community as a residential neighborhood while others envision it as a city, county or region. It is also not uncommon for us to have sentimental feelings about our personal perception of “community.” Ethnic, cultural and racial groups often refer to themselves as communities (the Latin American, African American or Asian American community), and groups with common interests consider their commonality a community (the business, academic or law enforcement community). In addition, residents of a geographic area or housing development sometimes consider and refer to themselves as a community, even naming their community, regardless of whether the area is a municipality or other form of political subdivision. Thus, the notion that binds people together as a community lies in their collective perception. A community can be a heuristic and somewhat organic structure—ambiguous to the extent that the ambiguity gives rise to a considerable amount of the debate regarding community policing.

Donald R. Fessler noted that sociologists define community as “any area in which a common culture share common interests.” The problem with this broad definition is it applies to anything from “a rural village of a half-hundred families” to “one of our major cities.”  Fessler also noted large cities are not included in sociologists’ definition of communities because inherent depersonalization dominates larger cities and militates against the cohesive sense of community.

Beyond the groups that consider themselves communities, there are segments of the population that exhibit characteristics commonly associated with a community. The members of these segments, however, often do not recognize their commonality nor realize they are part of a discernible group. Accordingly, for community policing to be successful, the police must have a firm understanding of community dynamics. With this understanding, police must take a leadership role in organizing homogeneous segments of the population into communities to serve as focal groups for localized community-policing initiatives.

Police Definition of Community

While on some levels the possibilities of community composition and definition vary widely, the police must be pragmatic to implement community policing at an operational level.

Police departments tend to define communities within jurisdictional, district or precinct lines, or within the confines of public or private housing developments. As a result, the community, which is the core of the community-policing strategy, is often defined more by police administrative parameters (division of labor and reporting guidelines) than by careful piloting and a thorough assessment of stakeholders. Therefore, the police must delineate communities in a fashion that does not always conform to homogenous community structures to manage personnel, resources and service demand.

The typical police method of defining communities is functional for community-policing purposes insofar as jurisdictional, district or precinct boundaries are usually derived from a combination of socio-economic, geographic and historical factors that collectively contribute to some level of community composition. Nevertheless, the selected communities tend to be primarily residential, and include small businesses that interact with the residential areas. These communities experience a high percentage of crime and have difficulty with quality of life issues. Since these communities fit into the community-policing model, however, they are likely to benefit from community-policing initiatives.

Although the typical police method has practical advantages, it also has disadvantages, which in some cases inhibit the success of community policing. First, the stakeholders affected by a given problem may not reside within the confines of jurisdictional boundaries or traditional subdivisions of the jurisdiction. Second, groups of stakeholders within a jurisdiction do not fall into tidy residential or business-residential neighborhoods. Therefore, it is possible for the police to overlook other communities and enter into partnerships with incomplete groups of stakeholders.

Another disadvantage to typical police definitions of communities is that the resulting shortcomings may not be readily apparent. It is relatively easy to achieve positive, short-term public satisfaction with community policing, even when community selection has been less than optimal. Most groups respond well to their newly empowered status as stakeholders and the enhanced attention from the police. The interventions that are most likely to have long term positive effects, however, are those that are the result of skillful problem diagnosis and serious valid performance measurement formed in partnership with as many stakeholders as possible in a comprehensive community unit. If the composition of the community has not been correctly assessed due to a restrictive paradigm of the notion of community, all stakeholders will not be identified and involved. Consequently, solutions are likely to be short-lived and superficial.

Redefining the Community

It is reasonable that taxpayers generally expect their police department to devote the vast majority of its time and efforts within the boundaries of their jurisdiction. Nonetheless, within their jurisdictional confines, the police generally have flexibility to identify the groups, neighborhoods and areas that function with some commonality. Accurately identifying such groups and considering and treating them as communities, for the purpose of community policing, is important for long-term effectiveness and positive synergy of the larger community.

At first glance, it may seem a simple task to identify individual communities within a jurisdiction. In reality, however, it takes a comprehensive in-depth knowledge of the entire jurisdiction to recognize the communities and subsets of interests. Community structures that are neither typical nor traditional may require resourcefulness, imagination and creativity to identify. Difficult as that challenge may be, it is in that pursuit that we can expand the horizons of community policing by reaching and forming partnerships with previously overlooked segments of the population. These groups have great potential of becoming allies to the police.

One of the crucial issues those concerned with community policing must face is the assumption that there is a community to organize. Some cities and suburbs have developed rapidly and have not formed what sociologists refer to as communities or neighborhoods. Similarly, some precincts or reporting areas may not be contiguous with natural neighborhoods or communities.

We can expand on the applicability of community policing by reexamining the traditional notion of community to include previously overlooked interest groups. If we consider the extent to which traditional communities are autonomous and apply that standard to new groups that have some common interest in a definable segment of geography, we can expand on our paradigm of community and better focus the efficiency and effectiveness of community/ problem-solving policing.

Typically, police define traditional communities singularly or by some combination of factors, that include:  

  • Police organizational designations (beats, sectors, areas, precincts or districts);  
  • Socio-economically defined neighborhoods (housing developments, or racially or culturally homogeneous neighborhoods);
  • Geographically defined areas bounded by natural or man-made barriers;  
  • Geographically defined areas that are distinctive by their crime rates or numbers of calls for police service;  
  • Areas represented by self-appointed grassroots organizations; and  
  • Areas containing particularly vocal or politically active inhabitants.

While all these factors have some validity and certain pragmatic origins, using any of them exclusively limits the ability of the police to reach the stakeholders in a designated area and the groups of stakeholders in the jurisdiction.

A way to transcend from the traditional notion of community while remaining within police operational parameters is to examine some common denominators of the various interpretations of communities, craft a generic working definition of community and then consider non-traditional applications of that definition.

George A. Hillery, Jr. attempted to classify 94 different definitions by content to see whether he could identify areas of common agreement. His conclusion was that “most are in basic agreement that community consists of persons in social interaction with a geographic area and having one or more additional ties.”

Trojanowicz and Moore noted, “what many researchers have failed to address adequately is that at least three profound changes that have occurred in the United States since World War II have dramatically altered the concept of community. The impact of mass transit, mass communications and mass media have widened the rift between a sense of community based on geography and one on interest.”

The common factors found in the areas police departments use to define communities include:  

  • Geography. Inherent in the fundamental concept of community is people who live and or work together in a given place;  
  • Shared Character or Identity. Groups of people who merely live or work together in the same geographical area do not make a community. They must share some characteristic(s)—ethnicity, age, economics and religion—that cause them to identify with one another; and 
  • Common Concerns or Problems. For groups of people to join together, attain consensus on issues and agree to act in a partnership with the police, the groups must share common concerns or problems.

Groups of people who more or less exhibit each of these three factors can be considered a community, at least for the purposes of community policing.

We can expand our view of community structure, not by adding factors, but by expanding upon the paradigms within which we view each factor. For example, if we generally view the factor of geography in a residential neighborhood context, we could question whether geography could include a large airport, hospital complex, civic center, warehouse complex, a distinct natural habitat or a series of delivery routes. If we generally view shared character or identity in a context of economic status, race, ethnicity or culture, we could analyze whether this shared character or identity includes such diverse groups as seasonal residents, commuters, the aviation community and the motoring public.

The factor of common concerns or problems is perhaps the most flexible of all. We can assess if otherwise unrelated groups have common concerns with an area such as a business and recreational area or a political district, or those concerned with the problems of a region recovering from a natural disaster. With these various definitions of what constitutes a community, there are untapped possibilities that can enhance the potency of community policing.


Source.  PERF. Defining the “Community” in Community Policing.



Modification History

File Created:  08/10/2019

Last Modified:  08/10/2019

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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