Community Policing: An Introduction

October 13, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

A majority of contacts between law enforcement officers (LEO) and the public only happens during emergencies, or situations that are highly charged and emotional. But these are not the most ideal circumstances for LEOs and the community they serve to use as a platform to develop a relationship. Some members of the public may even feel that LEOs are unapproachable when they meet them on the streets while handling an emergency. That’s where a national initiative called “Coffee with a Cop” comes in, through which a longer term relationship can be established between LEOs and the public using community policing.

In Iowa, for instance, the Cedar Rapids Police Department said it would host Coffee with a Cop on Oct. 6, which happened to fall right in the middle of the National Community Policing Week. The event was meant to give members of that community a chance to discuss issues, build relationships, and learn more about the department’s work in Cedar Rapids neighborhoods. Similar events were planned to be held across the country. Coffee with a Cop is a national initiative supported by the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). The program aims to advance the practice of community policing by improving relationships between LEOs and communities, one cup of coffee at a time.

On Oct. 1, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation to kick off National Community Policing Week. In his message, he said: “I have long been an advocate for community policing […]. It is especially important now, as State and local governments across the country continue to climb back from the once-in-a-century economic crisis triggered by COVID-19 last year. With their budgets decimated, countless communities were forced to cut essential services in 2020, including law enforcement and social services, just as a second public health epidemic of gun violence threatened the safety of their cities and towns.”

“Evidence and experience tell us that strong neighborhood relationships, the use of problem-solving to address crime systematically, and improvements to policy and training — key tenets of community policing — are all tools that help make our communities safer,” he added.

A lot has been written about community policing in news reports, covering both the pros and challenges of it. But what exactly is community policing? When did it begin in the United States, and what is the role of the COPS Office when it comes to community policing? We give you an introduction to this broad ancillary system in today’s piece by answering those questions.

Community policing, or rather the modern form of it, is said to trace its roots back to the 1960s when riots and gang activities were on the rise. Law enforcement response to that increase in violent crimes dented police–community relationships and, hence, direct partnerships between the two were conceived as one idea to improve those relationships. The history of the COPS Office, though, goes back to 1994 when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act authorized an $8.8 billion expenditure over six years. The COPS Office was created to distribute and monitor these funds.

The funds, in turn, were used to train police officers and community leaders on community policing strategies, terrorism prevention, school safety, and crime control. The COPS Office, under the DOJ, is responsible for advancing the practice of community policing by the nation’s state, local, territorial, and Tribal law enforcement agencies through information and grant resources.

Community policing, as Biden put it in his proclamation, is simply “the practice of law enforcement professionals working side-by-side with members of their communities to keep neighborhoods safe.” It is meant to recognize that police rarely can solve public safety problems alone, and, thus, encourages interactive partnerships with relevant stakeholders.

According to a document published by the office titled “Community Policing Defined,” it can be defined as: “A philosophy that promotes organizational strategies that support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime.”

There are three key components of the program, per that document. We examine those three aspects, which together form the fundamentals of community policing in the United States, in some detail.

Community Partnerships

These are the collaborative partnerships between the law enforcement agency and the individuals and organizations they serve to develop solutions to problems and increase trust in police. The range of potential partners is large, and these partnerships can be used to accomplish the two interrelated goals of developing solutions to problems through collaborative problem solving and improving public trust.

For instance, LEOs can even partner with various other government agencies like legislative bodies, prosecutors, probation and parole, public works departments, neighboring law enforcement agencies, health and human services, child support services, ordinance enforcement, and schools.

Individuals who live, work, or otherwise have an interest in the community — including volunteers, activists, formal and informal community leaders, residents, visitors and tourists, and commuters—are a valuable resource for identifying community concerns. Advocacy and community-based organizations that provide services to the community and advocate on its behalf can be powerful partners. For-profit businesses and the media could be other key stakeholders.

Organizational Transformation

This is the alignment of organizational management, structure, personnel, and information systems to support community partnerships and proactive problem solving. The community policing philosophy focuses on the way that departments are organized and managed and how the infrastructure can be changed to support the philosophical shift behind community policing.

Under the community policing model, police management infuses community policing ideals throughout the agency by making a number of critical changes in climate and culture, leadership, formal labor relations, decentralized decision making and accountability, strategic planning, policing and procedures, organizational evaluations, and increased transparency.

Other structural changes include, for example, a shift to the long-term assignment of officers to specific neighborhoods or areas. Geographic deployment plans can help enhance customer service and facilitate more contact between police and citizens, thus establishing a strong relationship and mutual accountability. Another example is infusing the principles of community policing throughout the entire personnel system of an agency, such as recruitment, hiring, selection, and retention of all law enforcement agency staff, from sworn officers to civilians and volunteers.

Problem Solving

This is the process of engaging in the proactive and systematic examination of identified problems to develop and evaluate effective responses. Community policing emphasizes proactive problem solving in a systematic and routine fashion. Rather than responding to crime only after it occurs, community policing encourages agencies to proactively develop solutions to the immediate underlying conditions contributing to public safety problems. Problem solving must be infused into all police operations and guide decision-making efforts. Agencies are encouraged to think innovatively about their responses and view making arrests as only one of a wide array of potential responses.

A major conceptual vehicle for helping officers think about
problem solving in a structured and disciplined way is the SARA (scanning, analysis, response, and assessment) problem-solving model. Scanning involves identifying a basic problem, determining the nature of that problem, determining the scope of seriousness of the problem, and establishing baseline measures.

Analysis by definition, of course, involves developing an understanding of the dynamics of the problem and finding out as much as possible about each aspect of the crime triangle by asking who, what, when, where, how, why, and why not in regards to the victim, offender, and crime location. Response is about developing and implementing strategies to address an identified problem, while assessment attempts to determine if the response strategies were successful.

The entire process should be viewed as circular rather than linear, meaning that additional scanning, analysis, or responses may be required.

“America’s law enforcement officers play an essential role in protecting our communities and enforcing our laws. Every time an officer pins on their badge and walks out their front door, the loved ones they wave goodbye to are forced to wonder if they will return home safely,” President Biden said at the inauguration of National Community Policing Week. And, as the COPS Office put it, LEOs alone cannot solve the country’s public safety problems. Other services like mental health, drug treatment and prevention programs, services for people experiencing homelessness, and community violence intervention programs are equally important. It is important that all these various groups work together towards building safer communities.