Overview: What is Community Policing?

Over the past decade, a shift has occurred in the nation's thinking about policing, the role of police officers, and their relationship to the communities they serve; specifically, the recognition among police and communities alike that "business as usual" cannot continue. New strategies are needed to increase police department effectiveness and community connectedness. New policing approaches must balance emergency response with a focus on addressing the persistent neighborhood problems linked to crime, recognize the role that communities play in ensuring public safety by engaging community residents as partners in preventing crime, and reintegrate police officers into the fabric of community to improve community-police relations.

Every Mother's Son - policingIn confronting persistent neighborhood problems, police must move beyond mere enforcement and conceive of their role more broadly, recognizing the importance of community-building in providing police services. A community-building approach to policing emphasizes measures that strengthen community ties and adopts community-based as opposed to criminal justice-oriented solutions whenever possible.

Problems are most often local in nature, making local knowledge and experience a key to effective problem-solving and sustained progress. Community engagement -- from identifying problems to establishing priorities and tailoring appropriate responses -- is essential. To achieve real inclusion as opposed to co-optation or mere community legitimization of police priorities requires police to move beyond their own agendas. This has implications beyond including the community in setting priorities and selecting strategies; it also goes to operations procedures such as designation of patrol boundaries and deployment of officers.

Iris Baez speaks at a candlelight memorial for her son Anthony. Iris Baez speaks at a candlelight memorial for her son Anthony.

The core of any institution is its people. With the mission of providing quality, fair, and responsive service to the public, police personnel processes should be designed to produce a corps of officers with community-oriented skills, characteristics, experience, and commitment. The process must recognize the importance of a department that reflects the communities served and identify individuals willing and able to interact, partner, communicate, and problem-solve with the community. This community-oriented emphasis must be integrated throughout the personnel process -- from recruitment and hiring to training, retention, promotion, and discipline.

Although studies have shown that police officers spend more time engaged in service activities than crime fighting, police academies have traditionally emphasized the technical, tactical aspects of policing, devoting far less time to the service-, people-oriented aspects. More time and greater depth must be devoted to developing community-oriented skills and knowledge in the academy.

The public must have confidence in the willingness and ability of the police to conform the behavior of police officers to the standards of the community. Just as the promotion process should reinforce the department's mission and the community's expectations by rewarding exemplary, community-oriented skills and behavior, so too must the disciplinary process serve as reinforcement by identifying, controlling, and correcting or punishing behavior that deviates from these values and expectations.

Democracy requires a publicly involved, accessible, and accountable system for reviewing the exercise of police powers. As a practical matter, public confidence in the fairness, objectivity, and legitimacy of the oversight process is greatly enhanced by community engagement, particularly for communities of color. It also provides an external mechanism of quality control and additional accountability of police conduct.

To achieve long-term solutions and sustained improvements, the role of community oversight representatives must be expanded to encompass a policy-making role in addition to individual complaint review. The accessibility and efficiency of the community oversight process has a direct impact on public perceptions of the credibility and openness of the process, as well as the commitment to meaningful oversight of the police department. For many, meaningful oversight of the police requires independent, external investigative and subpoena power.

Police departments can begin to break down the public perception of secrecy and build public confidence in policing by being more open about how they work. Increasing the public's knowledge in areas such as department policies and procedures, personnel, and performance are key starting points. Most people know very little about the mission and operations of their local police department. Attempting to bridge this information gap, some police departments make official policies and procedures available for public review.

Police department data collection efforts should include information geared toward improving policing, particularly with regard to police interaction with the community. Among the most common complaints about police performance, especially in low-income communities of color, are that police engage in racial profiling and acts of misconduct, from disrespect to excessive use of force. Data regarding these issues of public concern should be gathered and made available to the public.

There is no shortage of ideas and opportunities for community consideration, inclusion, connection, and participation in almost every aspect of policing. And yet, with all the promise that already exists, there is no simple, one-size-fits-all blueprint for police reform.

It is essential to any effort, however, that police departments, in collaboration with local communities, must implement change on several fronts, not just a few. A department can put unprecedented resources into recruiting a diverse applicant pool, but its efforts will fall short if it does not also address an aggressive policy of street sweeps in communities of color. Likewise, a police chief may indicate a willingness to change the department's approach to policing, but if there is a failure to structure personnel processes to hire and promote individuals willing and able to rise to the challenge, nothing will change. To be effective, strategies must be fully integrated throughout the spectrum of police services and functions.

From "Community-Centered Policing: A Force for Change" (Maya Harris West, principal author). Permission to condense and excerpt granted by PolicyLink. The full report is available at www.policylink.org.