Policing | Section 6.1

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

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Development of Community Policing

From its inception, modern policing in its ideal form was envisioned as a partnership between officers and the communities they serve.  As Sir Robert Peel articulated around the time that the London Metropolitan Police force was established: “the police are the public and the public are the police.”  Many commentators and researchers alike have lamented the fact that policing organizations around the world have lost sight of that important relationship. Several authors have suggested that it was the unintended consequence of Reform Era changes that began in the early 1900s. 

The changes in the way policing was done during this era reflected a national movement toward professionalization.  The chasm was created at least partly by design: It was thought that officers in static geographic areas and loose supervision was a recipe for corruption.  To fight corruption, officers were assigned to rotating beat areas. Centralized supervision was increased, and “standard operating procedures” became the byword.  An effort to establish an aura of impartiality served to create a perception of officiousness.

Ideas about professionalism in public service were not the only causes of the widening gap between the police and everyday citizens.  Technology also played an important role. Recall that a major change in the way American cities were policed was the advent of automobile patrol.  The friendly neighborhood foot patrol officer was replaced by an officer in a fast moving car that could not easily “meet and greet” the public.

This strategy was perceived as highly successful because officers could respond to emergencies in record time.  The response time was improved when two-way radios became standard issue, and telephones became a feature of nearly every home.  The culmination of response times as a measure of police performance came with the advent of the 911 system. People began to call for many situations where assistance was desired.  Often, these situations are not true emergencies, yet police officers must still respond.

By the 1970’s, rapid telephone contact with police through 911 systems allowed them to respond quickly to crimes. Answering the overwhelming number of calls for service, however, left police little time to prevent crimes from occurring. As increasingly sophisticated communications technology made it possible for calls to be transmitted almost instantaneously, officers had to respond to demands for assistance regardless of the urgency of the situation. Answering calls severely limited a broad police interaction with the community.

The advent of the computer also contributed to the decrease in police contact with the community. Statistics, rather than the type of service provided or the service recipients, became the focus for officers and managers. As computers generated data on crime patterns and trends, counted the incidence of crimes, increased the efficiency of dispatch, and calculated the rapidity and outcome of police response, rapid response became an end in itself.

Random patrolling also served to further break the link between communities and police. Police were instructed to change routes constantly, in an effort to thwart criminals. However, community members also lost the ability to predict when they might be able to interact with their local police. The height of police isolation came in an era of growing professionalization, when the prevailing ideology was that the professional knew best and when community involvement in crime control was seen by almost everyone as unnecessary.

The movement to end police corruption, the emphasis on professionalization, and the development of new technology occurred in an era of growing crime and massive social change. Police had trouble communicating with all members of the socially and culturally diverse communities they served. The police and the public had become so separated from one another that in some communities an attitude of “us versus them” prevailed between the police and community members. One observer of the urban scene characterized the deteriorating police-community relationship this way: “For the urban poor the police are those who arrest you.”

The burst of ideas, arguments, and protests during the 1960’s and 1970’s mushroomed into a full-scale social movement. Antiwar protestors, civil rights activists, and other groups began to demonstrate in order to be heard. Overburdened and poorly prepared police came to symbolize what these groups sought to change in their government and society. Focusing attention on police policies and practices became an effective way to draw attention to the need for wider change. Police became the targets of hostility, which ultimately led police leaders to concerned reflection and analysis.

In this era of protest, citizens began to take a stronger hand in the development of policies and practices that affected their lives. The police force’s inability to handle urban unrest in an effective and appropriate manner brought demands by civic leaders and politicians for a reexamination of police practices. Between 1968 and 1973, three Presidential Commissions made numerous recommendations for changes in policing—recommendations that were initially responded to by outside organizations.

Agencies of the U.S. Department of Justice, in collaboration with countless police departments throughout the country who were open to research and innovation, played a major role in stimulating, supporting, and disseminating research and technical assistance. Millions of dollars were spent to foster and support criminal justice education. In addition, these Federal agencies supported a wide variety of police training, conferences, research, and technology upgrading.

A number of organizations within the policing field also became committed to improving policing methods in the 1970’s. Among those on the forefront of this movement for constructive change were the Police Foundation, the Police Executive Research Forum, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Urban Sheriffs’ Group of the National Sheriffs’ Association, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. These organizations conducted much of the basic research that led police to reevaluate traditional policing methods.

Increases in Federal funding and the growth of criminal justice education resulted in the rapid development of research on policing. Many of the research findings challenged prevailing police practices and beliefs. Federally funded victimization surveys documented the existence of unreported crime. Practitioners had to acknowledge that only a fraction of crimes were being reported, and, therefore, began seeking ways to improve their image and to interact more effectively with the communities they served. An early research study was the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment. This field experiment found that randomized patrolling had a limited impact on crime or citizens’ attitudes and caused police leaders to begin thinking about alternative ways to use their patrol personnel.

Another study by the Kansas City Police Department assessed the value of rapid response by police and concluded that in most cases rapid response did not help solve crimes.  The study revealed that a large portion of serious crimes are not deterred by rapid response. The crime sample that was analyzed indicated that almost two-thirds of these crimes were not reported quickly enough for rapid response to be effective. While a prompt police response can increase the chance of making an on scene arrest, the time it takes a citizen to report a crime largely predetermines the effect that police response time will have on the outcome. This study revealed a need for formal call-screening procedures to differentiate between emergency and nonemergency calls. More efficient dispatching of calls could make additional time available for patrol officers to interact with the community.

This study led to further research that also demonstrated the value of response strategies that ensured that the most urgent calls received the highest priority and the most expeditious dispatch. Studies of alternative responses to calls for service found that community residents would accept responses other than the presence of police immediately on the scene if they were well informed about the types of alternatives used.

Differential police response strategies were also examined by the Birmingham, Alabama, Police Department.  The objectives of the project were to increase the efficiency with which calls for service were managed and to improve citizen satisfaction with police service. The study included the use of call-prioritization codes, call-stacking procedures, both police and nonpolice delayed-response strategies, and teleservice. The alternate strategies were found to be successful in diverting calls from mobilized field units without a loss in citizen satisfaction.

The Directed Patrol study assessed how to use most effectively the time made available by more efficient call-response measures. The study suggested that, rather than performing randomized patrols when not handling calls, the officers’ time could be more profitably spent addressing specific criminal activities. To direct officers’ attention and to help them secure time, the department instituted support steps that included crime analysis, teleservice, and walk-in report-handling capabilities.  The San Diego Police Department conducted several significant research studies during the 1970’s. These included an evaluation of one-officer versus two-officer patrol cars, an assessment of the relationship between field interrogations of suspicious persons and criminal deterrence, and a community-oriented policing (COP) project, which was the first empirical study of community policing.

The COP project required patrol officers to become knowledgeable about their beats through “beat-profiling” activities, in which officers studied the topographics, demographics, and call histories of their beats. Officers were also expected to develop “tailored patrol” strategies to address the types of crime and citizen concerns revealed by their profiling activities.  Officers participating in the COP project concluded that random patrolling was not as important as previously thought. They also concluded that developing stronger ties with members of the community was more important than once believed. In addition, the project demonstrated that interaction with the community could improve the attitudes of officers toward their jobs and toward the communities they served and could encourage the officers to develop creative solutions to complex problems.

Many of the findings from this study have a direct bearing on contemporary community policing efforts. First, by getting to know members of the community, the officers were able to obtain valuable information about criminal activity and perpetrators. They were also able to obtain realistic assessments of the needs of community members and their expectations of police services.  The study also exposed the need to reevaluate the issue of shift rotation. Officers must be assigned to permanent shifts and beats if they are to participate in community activities. Finally, the COP project demonstrated the critical role that shift lieutenants and sergeants play in program planning and implementation. The exclusion of supervisors in training and development efforts ultimately led to the demise of the COP program in San Diego.

As many have observed, the nature of society in the United States has evolved over the past century, and the rate seems to be accelerating due to advances in technology and changing demographics.  Along with shifting cultural norms, patterns of crime and disorder have changed within American communities. Policing strategies and tactics that performed adequately in the past often seem to cause more harm than good in contemporary society. 

The first wave of community policing that occurred in the late 1990s was spawned by a public perception that crime and disorder were growing at an accelerating rate, and that traditional modes of policing were ineffective at dealing with common problems, especially in large, urban environments.  The second wave of heightened interested in community policing has been an increasing public perception that the law enforcement community is largely incompetent and racist. While the rhetoric surrounding current problems makes them seem new, a brief survey of the history of policing reveals that the vast majority of public complaints about the police follow age-old themes.

One theme that has changed little since the early days of community policing is a general lack of resources.  As they seem to always have, public funding for policing seems to be shrinking as crime and disorder problems seem to be growing.  Another theme present in the literature yet strangely absent in the public sentiment is the logical conclusion that local governments and private citizens must play an active role in crime and disorder reduction.  In most localities, crime and disorder difficulties have been relegated to the police for resolution, and all other groups and individuals have washed their hands of these problems.

As the BJA warned nearly 25 years ago, “Communities must take a unified stand against crime, violence, and disregard for the law, and must make a commitment to increasing crime-prevention and intervention activities.”  Despite large amounts of public money being spent on spreading this idea, past results have been less than exciting for advocates. To be effective, the public must realize that community policing requires the active participation of local government, civic and business leaders, public and private agencies, residents, churches, schools, and hospitals. All stakeholders with a concern for the safety and security of the neighborhood must share responsibility for safeguarding that safety and security.
Police are finding that crime-control tactics need to be augmented with strategies that prevent crime, reduce the fear of crime, and improve the quality of life in neighborhoods. Fear of crime has become a significant problem in itself. A highly visible police presence helps reduce fear within the community, fear which has been found to be “more closely correlated with disorder than with crime.” However, because fear of crime can limit activity, keep residents in their homes, and contribute to empty streets, this climate of decline can result in even greater numbers of crimes. By getting the community involved, police will have more resources available for crime-prevention activities, instead of being forced into an after-the-fact response to crime.                    
Analysis of crime statistics show that the current emphasis on crime fighting has had a limited effect on reducing crime. In addition, the concept of centralized management of most police organizations has often served to isolate police from the communities they serve. This isolation hampers crime-fighting efforts. Statistics on unreported crime suggest that in many cases police are not aware of existing problems. Without strong ties to the community, police may not have access to pertinent information from citizens that could help solve or deter crime.  

Key Terms

References and Further Reading



Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  06/14/2019

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

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