Community Policing (Can It Work)

Steven S. Schuchart (Division of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA)

Policing: An International Journal

ISSN: 1363-951X

Article publication date: 1 September 2004



Schuchart, S.S. (2004), "Community Policing (Can It Work)", Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 27 No. 3, pp. 447-451.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Community Policing (Can It Work) is the latest addition to the Wadsworth Professionalism in Policing series. Compiled by Professor Wesley Skogan, the book features nine articles from 17 authors who examine community policing by addressing four questions:

  1. 1.

    Are the police changing?

  2. 2.

    Will the public get involved?

  3. 3.

    Will police officers buy in?

  4. 4.

    Can it work?

In the first chapter, Jeffrey Roth, Jan Roehl, and Calvin Johnson examine the formation of police‐community partnerships, the adoption of problem‐solving orientations toward police work, police roles in crime prevention, and the extent of organizational change needed to support those objectives. Using data from the Office of Community Policing Services survey, their findings indicate that the self‐reported use of community policing tactics proliferated between 1995 and 2000 in both large and small agencies. Large agencies moved very early into a variety of community policing initiatives, but later took a more cautious and selective approach. Small agencies adopted community policing initiatives more slowly, and the rate of adoption in small agencies remained smaller than that of large agencies. However, in both large and small agencies, two‐way communication opportunities were increased between police and the communities they served through programmatic mechanisms such as resident surveys, citizen advisory boards, and citizen police academies. Although many agencies reported they were engaged in problem‐solving policing, “problem‐solving” turned out to have a variety of definitions which served only to obfuscate its intent and dilute its meaning. In their examination of the organizational modifications necessary to support community and problem‐oriented policing, the authors found that the most frequent modifications were those designed to signal change: revised mission statements and new performance review criteria for community policing officers. Roth, Roehl, and Johnson conclude there is ample evidence that the police have accepted the viability of partnership‐based problem‐solving and prevention strategies as useful to their institutional mission of crime fighting.

Community policing proponents have traditionally called for changes in the way police are organized in order to facilitate establishing closer and more productive links between police and community. In Chapter Two, Jack Greene discusses the organizational obstacles to implementing community policing. For nearly two decades, American policing has been shifting from traditional to community and problem‐oriented policing. Over that time span, the language and symbolism of policing have changed. Discussions over what the police should do and how they should go about doing it have changed as well. Greene suggests the institutional premise of policing has not shifted dramatically. Police still cling to an institutional definition that stresses crime control and not prevention. While many, if not most, police agencies have publicly embraced community policing, at least in a broad sense, the concepts of community policing are plastic and malleable depending on circumstances and locations. This presents a dilemma fueled in part by the mixed messages police receive from their many constituents. It is not clear what level of community participation the police should anticipate, under what conditions, and with what reinforcements. It is unclear whether the police are willing or able to broaden their organizational mindset. And it is equally unclear what capacities or willingness resides in other agencies to work with the police.

Greene suggests the police have moderately incorporated communities and external others into discussions about public safety, and in some smaller measure, about actual policy and decision making. However, there remains considerable distance between what is preached and what is practiced about the openness of police organizations. Greene concludes that by all available evidence, police organizations have not been radically or significantly altered in the era of community and problem‐solving policing. Police departments have generally grown in size and specialization, although there has been some evidence of reductions in hierarchy. What the police actually do to engage the community and to solve community problems remains elusive. It may be that the police have effectively repackaged their efforts with a community and problem‐oriented label. Although police agencies have adopted the rhetoric of community policing, they remain organized to do traditional policing.

In Chapter Three, Wesley Skogan draws on his immense experience with Chicago's community policing program to address whether expectations about community involvement in community policing are realistic. He outlines the structure of Chicago's community policing program and addresses the issues of who gets involved, what they represent, how effectively they monitor police activity, and the impact of their involvement on neighborhood conditions. Skogan finds a strong relationship between Chicago residents’ priorities and city service delivery. However, there is a strong middle‐class bias in participation among community members. Chicago beat meetings did a better job at representing already established stakeholders in the community than they did at integrating marginalized groups with fewer mechanisms for voicing their concerns.

In his introductory remarks to the book, Skogan observes that police have a remarkable ability to wait out efforts to reform them, and police resist the intrusion of civilians into their business. Addressing the question “Will police officers buy in?” is the focus of the next three chapters of this book. The authors in this section appear to be in accord in the belief that community policing requires competing for the “hearts and minds” of police officers who are naturally suspicious of untested social experiments, and distrustful of those who would insist they engage in social work.

Dennis Rosenbaum and Deanna Wilkinson examine two midsized cities (Aurora, Indiana and Joliet, Illinois) that attempted to adopt and implement community policing programs. They utilize quantitative and qualitative longitudinal data to assess the impact of community police initiatives on police personnel in these two departments. A broad range of attitudinal and behavioral indicators are used to test the proposition that organizational changes and training programs can enrich and enlarge the officers' job, improve job satisfaction, strengthen problem‐solving skills, and instill a variety of positive attitudes and behaviors relevant to establishing a closer working relationship with the community. Rosenbaum and Wilkinson attempt to establish whether the police can adapt to this new methodology of organization and service delivery. What they found was that the best strategy for adopting community policing was the formation of specialized community policing units staffed by skilled volunteer officers. The work of most officers doing routine patrol activities did not change, and neither did their hearts and minds, when community policing initiatives were introduced. But within the specialized community policing units, there existed a large group of officers for whom community policing, creative problem solving and data‐driven planning was appealing and easily adopted. The authors suspect that these officers may become the critical mass that eventually drives policing and organizational change.

William Terrill and Stephan Mastrofski examine the community policing programs of St Petersburg, Florida and Indianapolis, Indiana in Chapter Five. The primary concern of their article is police use of force and the hypothesis that community policing will lead to less coercive forms of policing. Terrill and Mastrofski assess how police interactions with citizens are influenced by community policing factors, including department philosophy, officer assignment, officer training and attitudes about community policing. In the two departments examined, uses of force differed, but community policing assignments, training, and attitudes were not systematically related to the amount of coercion used by police. What mattered was the model of community policing that top police management promoted. Officers at the broken windows site (Indianapolis) showed greater tendencies toward coercion than did those at St Petersburg. Little support was found in either city for officer‐level influences, and no support was found that either model increased verbal coercion while decreasing physical coercion. Officer attitudes toward the two community policing models showed no effect at either site. These findings fail to support the argument that accomplishing community policing requires changing officers’ values because community policing is held to be a philosophy, not a program. Officers were not inspired to act according to their own views of community policing, but they were responsive to top management's philosophy about community policing, at least as it played out in the use of coercion.

Richard Wood, Mariah Davis, and Amelia Rouse discuss the difficulties of injecting change into a police subculture environment. They examine opposition to community policing among influential coalitions of officers, ranging from hard‐core paramilitary types to “get ahead” careerists, rule‐bound bureaucrats, and expert craftsmen. Wood, Davis, and Rouse describe the evolution of a traditional unified police culture dominated by a code of silence toward misconduct, into a department fragmented into competing factions that represent changes not only in the police officers themselves, but in the cities in which they police. Each fragmented subculture exhibits its own reaction to community policing, most of which is negative. Negative reactions to community policing undermine attempts of department leaders to implement change. Wood draws the conclusion that police administrators intending to institute innovation must first establish ways to capture the interests of various agency subcultures and capitalize on the divisions among them. Current urban policing finds police departments embodying largely fragmented organizational cultures with a variety of approaches to police work that pulls officers in contradictory directions. Police leaders charged with implementing community policing or other reform models with such an environment risk diving into a “morass of cross‐cutting pressures.” Wood, Davis, and Rouse suggest this morass may quickly become quicksand, suffocating reform efforts. It will be the interplay between police leaders, agency culture, and the structural conditions set by political and legal dynamics that will ultimately determine the future course of urban policing.

The conflicting answers to questions presented thus far in the book, lead to the question “Can it work?” Dissatisfaction with the professional model of policing led to the emergence of community policing. Rapid response, specialization of police work, and deterrent effects of visible patrol and arrests were not seen as having much effect on the crime rate.

Three chapters in this book examine whether community policing can work. Nick Tilley addresses the issue of “community” and problem‐solving policing. Tilley presents an atypical perspective in suggesting the concept of “community” must be expanded to include nongeographical virtual communities as sites for problem solving. He suggests that community policing cannot be done without adopting problem solving, although problem solving can function as an autonomous police function. From the perspective of efficiency, effectiveness, and equity, Tilley argues that community policing and problem‐oriented policing have failed to deliver on their promises and potentials. Community policing has taken far too long to deliver measurable results, and has been most successful where it is least needed ‐ in low crime, low disorder areas. It has been slow to deliver measurable benefits overall. Problem‐oriented policing is a lot easier in theory than in practice. It has delivered only small‐scale successes usually at the neighborhood level, most often as an extension of response policing rather than as an alternative to it. Tilley's main argument is that problem‐oriented policing has suffered by being tied to neighborhood‐based community policing. The tendency to frame and respond to all problems in terms of neighborhood dynamics limits what can be achieved. He suggests that community policing and problem‐oriented policing should decouple, and focus more on the police‐centered problem‐solving process. For police to become more effective, equitable and efficient, they should separate problem‐oriented and community policing and make community policing a contingent vehicle for dealing with only some forms of some problems.

John Eck, in Chapter Eight, takes the examination of police mediocrity at problem solving a step further. Eck suggests that many of the problems associated with neighborhood problem solving derive from the fact that police do not know how to do problem‐solving, how to manage it, or how to encourage more of it. Eck evokes a theme found elsewhere in this book when he suggests the police do not like change, and they think they are just too busy to try new things. Eck recommends that more attention be paid to the nature of problems themselves to determine insights into their causes and why they are concentrated in some places but not others. Effective police strategies must derive from careful evaluation of what works and what does not in solving problems.

The final chapter examines the question of whether community policing works in the eyes of the public, and whether neighborhoods are better off because of community policing initiatives. Michael Reisig and Roger Parks examine the impact of community policing in two large cities (Indianapolis, Indiana and St. Petersburg, Florida). Comparing community policing across neighborhoods, they find alternative patrol strategies advocated by community policing reformers are associated with higher levels of perceived safety and more positive feelings regarding neighborhood surroundings. These results support the use of informal modes of policing that seek to strengthen ties between community members and the police. Such initiatives are associated with positive outcomes not only in affluent residential settings, but also in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Consequently, community policing appears to hold promise in the eyes of the public. Reisig and Parks conclude that community policing can have a positive impact on the psychological processes responsible for citizens' quality of life judgments.

Can community policing work? Skogan comments that taken as a whole, the chapters of this book raise the possibility that community policing can be adopted, that it may increase the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the public, and that it may help them more effectively target problems that are of priority concern to the community. He concludes his comments with the thought that if community policing is to succeed, it has to be a city's program and not just the police department's program. Community policing is not cheap and it is labor intensive. When money and resources are tight, it may be at risk. But if supporters can build broad public and political support for it, the budget for community policing may survive. Political support for community policing can become a tool to overcome resistance to community policing within a department. If the program (community policing) is good, then it is good politics. Building political capital with a community can pay dividends when instances of brutality or corruption occur because the promise that it will not happen again may have some credibility. Finally, political support signals other agencies within the political jurisdiction that this is not just the police department's program, it is something that requires buy in from all agencies because it is service delivery on a grander scale and requires their participation and involvement. Community policing can work; but, in order to work, community policing must be the city's program.

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