Although community policing and the efforts surrounding it may look different in each jurisdiction, there are many examples of community policing strategies at work demonstrating the three key components of organizational transformation, community partnerships, and shared problem-solving.
Modern community policing has its origins in the 1960s - a time when urban riots and gang activity were on the increase, and when brute force police responses had caused a deterioration of police-community relationships. Law enforcement and community leaders saw it was time for a change and started re-examining the role of the police in public safety management.
The result was a series of reforms at local level that sought to reduce neighborhood crime through improved relationships and direct partnerships between police and the community. The reforms were effectively endorsed by the federal government in 1994 with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which established the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).
Since its establishment, the COPS program has provided funding to more than 13,000 of the nation's 16,000 law enforcement agencies to train police officers and community leaders on community policing strategies, terrorism prevention, school safety, and crime control. Today, approximately 81 percent of the nation's citizen population is served by law enforcement agencies practicing community policing.
“The COPS Office mission is to advance public safety through the practice of community policing. By proactively addressing the root causes of criminal and disorderly behavior, rather than simply responding to crimes once they have been committed, community policing concentrates on preventing both crime and the atmosphere of fear it creates”.
The Three Key Components of Community Policing Strategies
The three key components of community policing strategies are organizational transformation, community partnerships, and shared problem solving. Individually and together, these three components decentralize police operations, make the police more accountable to the community, and tackle the root causes of neighborhood crime in a manner that builds trust in law enforcement.
The issues with police-community relationships required more than a change of attitude. They also required a decentralized redistribution of resources to give law enforcement officers a better understanding of neighborhood concerns and - with more frequent contact between police and community members - the assets that could be leveraged to address those concerns.
However, in a period of budget cuts - during which law enforcement agencies were expected to do more with less - finding enough resources to go around was difficult. Consequently, law enforcement agencies started hiring more civilians to handle support roles such as dispatch, crime scene forensics, record keeping, and other administrative duties.
“Civilianization” had the dual benefits of freeing up police officers for deployment in community policing, and bringing more of the community into closer contact with law enforcement. The practice of hiring civilians for non-sworn roles had cost-saving advantages as well, and in some jurisdictions civilians now provide up to 50% of the law enforcement workforce.
The term “community partnerships” can mean different things in different jurisdictions. In those in which there are the most examples of community policing strategies at work, relationships are created between police and community groups such as faith-based organizations, tenant councils, business groups, local government agencies, social service providers, schools, and local businesses.
These partnerships are ongoing projects rather than periodic neighborhood watch meetings and have the objective of developing interaction between police and the community. Indeed, some of the most successful examples of community policing strategies at work are when police services are provided or co-located with other civic services such as paying utility bills or obtaining parking permits.
Building on the organizational transformation above, much of the police interaction at co-location venues is provided by civilians or local volunteers, which helps with the identification of localized problems and the means of solving them. They also provide a good opportunity for law enforcement agencies to engage with neighborhood watch groups and share crime prevention tips.
Shared Problem Solving
The biggest consequence of organizational transformation and community partnerships has been the success of shared problem solving. Police departments with the most successful examples of community policing strategies at work train officers to focus on creative and active problem solving in the community - and with the help of community members - rather than simply react to crime or disorder.
One of the most common approaches to shared problem solving in community policing is the “SARA Model”. SARA stands for Scanning, Analysis, Response, and Assessment and involves recurring issues in the community being identified and analyzed, and community members being consulted, in order to determine the root causes of the issues and find long-term solutions to address them.
Evidence suggests shared problem solving based on the SARA Model can achieve significant reductions in crime over traditional response models. A 2010 review found proactive problem solving had a significant impact on improving public safety and that the shift from reactive crime response had resulted in specific social issues being resolved and crimes being prevented before they happen.
The Role of Technology in Community Policing
Technology features significantly in all three key components of community policing and beyond. Good communications technology is essential for organizational transformation, developing community partnerships, and shared problem solving; and, in a 2009 COPS Survey, nearly every jurisdiction with a community policing program provided a website through which citizens could receive crime alerts or provide tips, give feedback, or communicate concerns.
Over the past decade, mobile technology has transformed community policing. The introduction of cost-effective anonymous tip texting services - in which text messages are stripped of any identifying information before being received by law enforcement agencies - has resulted in a huge increase in community engagement, albeit anonymously, which has enabled law enforcement agencies to gain further insights into recurring issues in the community and their causes.
Modern tip texting services support two-way encrypted conversations and real-time logging so that trends and incident patterns can be identified over time. As community members become more familiar with using an anonymous tip texting service, the number of crimes prevented and solved has escalated over the years. In many respects, anonymous tip texting is one of the best examples of community policing strategies at work!