Interviews: Best Practices in Community Policing

Wesley Skogan

Wesley Skogan, Professor of Political Science at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University

POV: What is community policing, and how is it different from traditional policing methods?

Wesley Skogan, Professor of Political Science at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern UniversityWesley Skogan: Community policing has several key characteristics. First is organizational decentralization: pushing authority and accountability to geographical units, precincts or districts. Holding commanders responsible for what goes on in those places, to make it more turf-oriented. It means involving the community in identifying problems and priorities. Part of that, for civilians, can mean involving neighborhood residents in neighborhood action projects. Chicago has done that.

POV: What were the most significant problems with the Chicago police department's approach to policing before it began its reform effort in the 1990s?

Skogan: The police in Chicago were widely seen as not very effective. There weren't more than the usual specific problems, compared to other cities. The police were not popular, and there was not much confidence, across all races. What happened here in the early 90s was the media and civic leaders began getting on the city's case about the extraordinarily high crime rate. The crime rate peaked in 1991. So there was this internal pain about what to do in response to this discontent over, a seemingly ineffective police department and, very high crime rates.

POV: Could you describe the steps the city took to initiate change? What part do policy changes and bureaucratic reforms play in improving relations between the community and the police?

Skogan: There were three parts to what Chicago did. First, there was administrative decentralization to districts and to beats. The city was divided into 279 beats, each of which was fairly small. Each beat was assigned a specific team of officers. It used to be that police drove around everywhere in their district. The beat team is ten officers, roughly what it takes to police a beat, and they are thought of as beat officers. The patrol cars have the beat number on top. And Chicagoans got to know their beat numbers; it become a part of our knowledge.

The second part in Chicago was community involvement, which included several subparts. There's the beat meeting. Every beat has a public meeting every month, with officers from the beat and representatives from a special office, like the gang office or the youth office. Typically it's three beat team officers and a couple of others. And they meet every month. There are an average of 250 meetings a month. At these meetings, police report back on what they've done since the last meeting. There is discussion of new problems. Attendance from the public is seasonal, but a good meeting in the summer is 33 people. On average about 6700 a month come to these meetings. My research team has discovered that beat meetings are best attended in high-crime areas. Then there's the neighborhood problem-solving part. The idea is to get people involved in problem-solving projects. An example of this is that when citizens complained about graffiti, they organized a Saturday morning paint-up. People from the city will come by with paints and brushes. This has not been as successful as a dreamer might think it is, but it's very useful in addressing certain kinds of problems. Next is the court advocacy part, to get residents to turn out in court as witnesses and bystanders, to show support for the prosecution effort. And the last part of community involvement is the district advisory committee. These include eighteen to twenty-two people on the district level, mostly movers and shakers, business development people. Those vary in their success. The most significant predictor of success for the district advisory committees is leadership, on the civilian side and the police side. Where the district commander takes it seriously, it does better.

The final part of Chicago's effort was interagency coordination. The Chicago Police Department is capable of triggering different city services. They will do a service blitz in an area; say at a street drug market. Rather than simply sweeping in and making lots of arrests, part of that blitz will be towing abandoned cars, trimming bushes, and relighting all the streetlights. There's also a civilian staff on the police department's budget, independent of the department leadership, in charge of turning out people to beat meetings and coordinating service blitzes. These civilians are assigned to police districts; each of the 25 districts has three organizers.

POV: What effects have reforms had on crime rates and the community's relationship to the police?

Skogan: Well, public confidence in the police is up and crime is down. There's been an enormous decline in the crime rate, and the bulk of that has been in poor African-American neighborhoods. For example, between 1991 and 2002, robbery went down by 63 percent. The way that works out, that means there were 100,000 fewer robberies over the 12-year period. So crime is down a lot. We monitor public confidence with surveys, and depending on the measure, there's been a ten to fifteen percentage point improvement between 1993 and 2003. The bad news is that among white Chicagoans, support has grown to be, overall, on the positive side. Meanwhile, for Latinos and African-Americans, opinion has now risen to neutral. So there's a difference between better and good. There's still plenty of room for improvement. While Chicagoans of all backgrounds have an improved view of the police, the department is still much more popular among white Chicagoans.

Now, it's not easy to say what caused the dramatic drop in crime rates, because there are many other factors. The best indication that we have is that for the first eighteen months of the community-policing program, it ran in only five of the twenty-five police districts, and then began to expand into the whole city. During those two years, we saw that it improved people's attitudes toward the police, especially African-Americans. And each of the five districts enjoyed substantial declines in crime. It's the strongest research design we can get.

POV: Who took the lead in reforming the Chicago police department?

Skogan: It came from the police department and Mayor Daley's office, in response to the media and public pressure I mentioned earlier. But it's very much about the process they set in place. What the citizens come to meetings about, what they bring up at beat meetings, is their business. The changes created a forum. City Hall didn't say that street drug markets are the problem, and we'll attack that. City Hall said that we're going to have 250 meetings a month. At the meetings, the police will come with crime maps; there will be discussion of new incidents, new business, and new problems. By keeping police officers assigned to their beats, and by going to beat meetings, the officers come to know people who aren't the bad guys or victims. And the meetings have become more effective at creative solutions. They didn't say everybody has to do foot patrol. They pushed it down to the beat level and said you guys do this, you guys solve the problems. And they put in place a local accountability process. Every month the officers working your beat are there, and report what's happened since the last meeting. What we have here is a little feedback loop between public servants and their clients that doesn't exist anywhere else in municipal government.

POV: Has Chicago's style been influential?

Skogan: Everybody has their own program, and the proper approach depends on what your problems are. There are two things that are unique about Chicago's program: one is the beat meetings. Every city has an advisory committee, but I don't know of any other city where, on average, ten times a year five officers come and talk to thirty-five people. Also, the way that Chicago operationalized the idea of citizen involvement is different from other places.

POV: What kind of political steps are necessary to make positive change in policing possible?

Skogan: Well, there's starting and there's succeeding. Everybody starts to reform. Everybody does something. I think that to have a really far-reaching program, the key is it has to be the city's program, not the police department's program. Take the service coordination in Chicago. When people come to Chicago, they're awestruck by the fact that police can get sanitation and maintenance to do things. That's usually two different bureaucracies. If it's the city's program, you can make things happen. That's the mayor's greatest contribution to this process.

POV: What are the remaining challenges for the Chicago police department's reforms?

Skogan: One is that there's a long way to go in terms of public enthusiasm. The gap between blacks and whites in how the police are perceived remains where it was before. The racial gulf over policing didn't narrow. Chicago continues to struggle on the recruiting side, in particular recruiting African-Americans and Latinos. Compared to many cities, Chicago's not bad, but it's not been improving. The city is changing a lot faster, and the department has not been able to catch up. Service coordination works really well, because this team of about seventy-five civilian organizers is quite effective. Decentralization has worked pretty well, and they've met their goals of keeping people on the beat. Over the long haul, attendance at beat meetings has been strong. Something that's unique about Chicago is that unlike most cities, in Chicago all city employees must live in the city. One of the things I've noticed is that where the police officers live, they're seeing the benefits. A lot of police officers told me that before, they had no way of knowing who the officer on the beat in their own neighborhood was. It's contributed to the success of the program.

Wesley G. Skogan is Professor of Political Science at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. He is the author of Community Policing, Chicago Style and On the Beat, two books based on his years of studying Chicago's Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS). He is a Fellow of the American Society of Criminology. In 1998 Skogan was awarded a Senior Fellowship from the Center for Crime, Communities and Culture of the Open Societies Institute. In 2000 he organized the committee on Police Policies and Practices for the National Research Council, and served as its chairman.