The Origins of Community Policing

Picture: Flickr: cwwycoff1

The origins of community policing lie in research that took place in the USA from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, necessitated by the social upheaval of the time.

Without the intensity of social pressure at that early point, the UK has naturally been slower on the uptake. Taking on-board the conclusions of these reports is to undo many of the changes that police forces had undergone in the early 20th century. There is a realisation that police tactics that worked in one time period may not work in another.

The Problem:

Starting in the 1990s, police forces had moved to professionalise themselves. It was the reform era of government, and the policy priority was to stamp out corruption, meet certain minimum standards, and appear impartial. These aims are laudable, but the effect was in fact perverse.

Professionalising meant centralising management structures. To prevent corruption, managers assigned rotating shifts and moved officers around. This may have meant less opportunity to form relationships with local criminals, but it also led to a breakdown in the relationship between the police and the public.

Random patrolling was meant to trick criminals, but prevented officers from concentrating their efforts on where it was needed most. The increase in the use of police cars put a clear dividing line between the patrolman and the public. Eventually, communities did not know how and when they could interact with their local police.

The police force was now detached, and an “us and them” attitude was emerging. The nadir was reached in the late 60s when rising crime rates and a wholly inadequate response to urban and Civil Rights unrest combined. Police themselves were targeted as representing the establishment holding back progress.

The Solution:

Presidential Commissions found that many crimes were unreported. Reengagement with the community would be needed to reverse this. The recognition that something had to be done was so great the Department of Justice funded civic institutions to undertake comprehensive research. Several key studies emerged in the 1970s and still form the basis for community policing now:

  • The Kansas City Preventative Patrol Study (1974) debunked the idea that routine randomised patrols were useful for crime prevention. When not handling calls, police time would be better spent addressing specific problem crimes in each area.
  • The Rand Investigation Experiment (1975) found that detectives had large caseloads, but only solved only a minority of the cases they got, and most of them hinged on information gathered by patrolmen. The answer was to train officers in early evidence gathering to lighten the workload of detectives.
  •  In San Diego, the Community Orientated Policing project (1975) was the first empirical study of suggested practices. The direct impact on today’s policing is clear. COP required officers to become knowledgeable about their beat through beat-profiling study, and to tailor their patrols to the concerns of the community. In effect, it demanded of officers an input into their job that would decentralise decision-making process.
  •  Later, the Problem Orientated Policing and Crime Prevention (1979) report found that rapid response neither helped solve, nor deter crime. Prioritising rapid response for all 911 calls was a drain on resources, the community would accept a non-immediate response if they understood the alternatives. The Newark Foot Patrol Experiment (1983) told us that foot patrols reduced the fear of crime. That is not to say that it reduced crime, but fear of crime is an element of standard of living and can perpetuate crime if people are so afraid they stay off the streets and become insular.

These studies were quite radical at the time. But many police commissioners were on-board early and the findings are now widely accepted to point toward more intelligent policing.

It’s clear that PCSOs play a major role in community policing imported to the UK. It is an attempt to build trust with communities that have undergone changes similar to those that prompted action in the US forty years ago. Stable, small, well-known neighbourhood police teams make them approachable and able to engage with the community to provide a reassuring presence.

Community institutions – thought of as the “fist line of defence” against crime – are involved in liaison meetings in wards. Rapid response does not need to be used for each problem. Their patrols should be tailored to the most concerns of the community. By taking on some of the more low-level responsibilities they allow fully trained police officers to concentrate efforts properly.

Community policing is all about tailoring an approach to an area, involving the community, and augmenting to crime control priority with the effort to improve the life of the public.