What is Community Policing?
Community policing is perhaps the most misunderstood and
frequently abused theme in police management during this decade. In the past few years, it
has become fashionable for police agencies to initiate community policing, often with
little notion of what that phrase means. Indeed, all
manner of organizational tinkering has been labeled community policing. But
community policing is not a program.
Instead, community policing is a value system which permeates a police
department, in which the primary organizational goal is working cooperatively with individual
citizens, groups of citizens, and both public and private organizations to identify and resolve
issues which potentially effect the livability of specific neighborhoods, areas, or the city as a
whole. Community-based police departments recognize the fact that the police cannot
effectively deal with such issues alone, and must partner with others who share a mutual
responsibility for resolving problems. Community policing stresses prevention, early
identification, and timely intervention to deal with issues before they become unwieldy
problems. Individual officers tend to function as general-purpose practitioners who bring
together both government and private resources to achieve results. Officers are encouraged to
spend considerable time and effort in developing and maintaining personal relationships with
citizens, businesses, schools, and community organizations. Here are some other common
features of community policing:
Beyond crime fighting a focus on livability
Many police departments and police officers define their role primarily in terms of crime control. The very term law enforcement agency is certainly an indication of this focus. But policing is much more than law enforcement. Many studies have shown that dealing with crime consumes only 10-20% of the police workload. Officers in community-based police departments understand that "crook-catching" is only one part of their job, and a rather small one by comparison to the myriad of issues and problems they deal with each day. Officers freely accept a significant role in issues that might be derisively referred to as "social work" in traditional police departments. Officers understand that resolving a problem with unruly people drinking at a public park, working to reduce truancy at a middle school, marshalling resources to improve lighting in a mobile home park, and removing abandoned vehicles from streets, may all be forms of valid and valuable police work, which affect the livability of a neighborhood. Rather than treating these activities as diversions from "real" police work, officers understand that this is the essence of their work.
The police department strives to actively involve citizens in its operations, through a variety of means. Volunteers are widely used, whether college interns or retired seniors. Citizen patrols and crime prevention initiatives are welcomed and encouraged. Area commanders meet often with members of the public to solicit input and feedback. Many internal committees include public participation. Policy decisions typically involve opportunities for input from citizens, and the department has both formal and informal mechanisms for this purpose. Promotional boards include citizens. The department seeks to educate the general public about police work in various ways, including publications, web sites, public-access television, town hall meetings, citizen police academies. The department accepts and even encourages citizen review of its performance.
The primary division of labor for the police is geographical. Officers identify with
their area of assignment, rather than the work shift or functional division. Commanders are
assigned to geographical areas and given wide latitude to deploy their personnel and resources
within that area. Individual officers adopt even smaller geographical areas and feel a sense of
ownership for that area. Officers commonly know many of the people who live and work in
this area, and are intimately familiar with the area's geography, businesses, schools, and
churches. Officers seek out detailed information about police incidents which have occurred in
their area of assignment during their off-duty time.
Officers can expect to work in the same geographical area for many years. Officers'
preferences for areas are considered in making assignments. Rotation of geographical
assignments is rare. The organization values the expertise and familiarity that comes with
long-term assignment to the same area.
Decentralized Decision Making
Most operational decisions are decentralized to the level of execution. Field officers
are given broad discretion to manage their own uncommitted time. Operational policies are
concise, and serve as general guidelines for professional practice more than detailed rules and
regulations. First line supervisors are heavily involved in decisions that are ordinarily reserved for command ranks in traditional police departments.
The department employs numerous methods to involve employees at all levels in decision-making. Staff meetings, committees, task forces, quality circles, and similar groups are impaneled often to address issues of internal management. Many workplace initiatives begin with ideas or concepts brought forward from line employees. Obtaining input from frontline employees is viewed as an essential part of any policy decision. The department has comparatively few levels of rank, and rank is seldom relied upon to settle disagreements. Supervisors view their role primarily in providing support to field personnel by teaching, coaching, obtaining resources, solving problems, and "running interference."
Field officers dominate the sworn work force. Officers are expected to handle a huge
variety of police incidents, and to follow through on such incidents from beginning to end.
Specialization is limited to those areas where considerable expertise is an absolute necessity.
Even when specialists are used, their role is to work cooperatively with field officers, rather
than assume responsibility for cases or incidents from field officers. Most specialists view
their jobs as offering technical expertise and support to field personnel.
Police Leadership on Community Issues
Senior police managers are deeply involved in community affairs. They speak out
frequently and freely on issues of community concern, some of which are only tangentially
related to law enforcement per se. Police managers are encouraged to pursue important
community issues as a personal cause. Elected officials consult with police managers often.
Police representation is obligatory on committees or study groups which are set up to examine
significant issues on the public agenda, and it is not uncommon for police officers to serve in
leadership positions in community organizations.
The police department employs techniques to manage its workload in order to make
blocks of time available for police officers to address identified problems. The police response
to an emerging problem typically involves significant input and participation from outside the
department. The department routinely uses a range of tactics other than responding to
individual incidents, such as: targeted saturation patrol, bicycle and foot patrol,
undercover/plainclothes/decoy/surveillance operations, educational presentations, coordination
of efforts with other government or human service agencies, support to volunteer efforts,
initiation of legislative proposals, and so forth.
Rather than merely responding to demands for police services, the department
employees a Problem-Oriented Policing (POP) approach: identifying emergent
problems, gathering data, bringing together stakeholders, and implementing specific strategies
targeting the problem. The police response to an on-going or repetitive problem seldom
involves only police resources. The police are concerned not only with high-visibility crimes,
but with minor offenses which contribute to fear of crime, and negatively effect public
perception of city or neighborhood safety.
Emphasis on Quality
The police define success and accomplishment primarily by the results achieved and the
satisfaction of the consumer of services, rather than by strictly internal measures of the amount
of work completed. Thus, there may be decreased emphasis on common productivity
measures such as clearance rate, numbers of arrests, response time, etc., and increased
emphasis on outcomes. Thoroughness and quality are clear emphases, but "doing the right
thing" is as important as "doing things right." The department employs methods to assess
public satisfaction with services, and both individual officers and managers think about ways
to improve based on this feedback.
Recognition and Professional Development
Officers receive frequent recognition for initiative, innovation, and planning. The
department systematically acknowledges problem-oriented policing projects that achieve
results. Seasoned field officers are highly valued for their skill and knowledge, and feel little
pressure to compete for promotion to supervisory positions in order to advance their career.
Commendations and awards go to officers for excellent police work of all kinds, not just crime
control. Officers receive the respect and admiration of their colleagues as much for their
empathy, compassion, concern for quality, and responsiveness, as for their skill at criminal
investigation, interrogation, and zeal in law enforcement.
What Community Policing is not
Despite the claims of some ill-informed critics, community policing is not soft on
crime. Quite the contrary, it can significantly improve the ability of the police to discover
criminal conduct, clear offenses, and make arrests. Improved communication with citizens
and more intimate knowledge of the geography and social milieu of the beat enhances, rather
than reduces, the officers' crime-fighting capability. Moreover, though some of these may be
used as specific strategies, community policing is not:
- school resource officers
- a grant
- storefront police substations
- a pilot program in a single area of town
- foot or bicycle patrols
- a specialized unit of neighborhood police officers
- a citizen police academy
When an agency claims to have "implemented" community
policing last week, that's a pretty good indication that it has not.
Individual programs or projects that form part of this change may be
implemented, but community policing is not implemented. You
don't start it at the beginning of the fiscal year. It is a process that evolves, develops, takes root and grows, until it is an
integral part of the formal and informal value system of both the police
and the community as a whole. It is a gradual change from a style of
policing which emphasizes crime control and "crook catching," to a style
of policing which emphasizes citizen interaction and participation in
You can't tell whether community policing exists in a city on the basis
of the press release, the organizational chart, or the annual report.
Rather, it can best be discerned by observing the daily work of officers. It exists when officers spend a significant amount of their available time out of their patrol cars; when officers are common sight in businesses, schools, PTA meetings, recreation centers; when most want to work the street by choice; when individual officers are often involved in community affairs-cultural events, school events, meetings of service clubs, etc., often as an expected part of their job duties. It exists when most citizens know a few officers by name; when officers know scores of citizens in their area of assignment, and have an intimate knowledge of their area. You can see it plainly when most officers are relaxed and warmly human-not robotic; when any discussion of a significant community issue involves the police; and when few organizations would not think of tackling a significant issue of community concern without involving the police. The community-based police department is open-it has a well-used process for addressing citizen grievances, relates well with the news media, and cultivates positive relationships with elected officials.
The Lincoln Police Department has been "implementing"
community-based policing since 1975. Late that year, Chief George K.
Hansen announced to the public our first tentative steps into something
we called at that time "neighborhood-based team policing." While
similar projects in cities including Los Angeles and Cincinnati came and
went, we continued. We are perhaps the only police department in the
United States that has been involved so long and so thoroughly in a
conscious effort to refine and enhance the community-based approach.
Twice (in 1977, 1993, and 2001) we have embarked on comprehensive
strategic planning initiatives involving scores of employees and dozens
of recommendations for enhancing our efforts. We have done
exceedingly well at incorporating certain aspects of community-based
policing in the fabric of daily life at LPD. Concerning long-term
geographical assignment, or the generalist officer approach, for
example, we have a long track record of successful practice. In others,
such as problem-oriented policing, we have steadily improved. Our
problem-oriented policing projects are becoming both more frequent and
more sophisticated. In a few areas, however, such as involvement of
citizens in our decision-making process, we have much more to do
before we achieve excellence.
Community policing in Lincoln will continue to evolve.
We will build on some of our most powerful strengths: a highly
educated and capable work force, a respect for research and evaluation,
and a willingness to change. We will learn from our setbacks, and be
constantly open to innovation as we adapt to a changing city, society,
and world. We do not have a self-image of the "thin blue line",
protecting the helpless public from the ravages of predatory criminals.
Rather, we live, work, recreate, raise our children, and enjoy our city as
citizens first, even though we are citizens who have a special
professional responsibility for protecting others and ensuring the
livability of our city. We are wholeheartedly committed to policing
Lincoln in concert with our fellow citizens.
Tom Casady, Public Safety Director