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Community Policing and Public Safety

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Agustin Leon-Moreta
September 29, 2017

Community policing is a local government innovation that promises to increase public safety and trust in police. It is a program, or set of programs, increasingly used by local governments across the country. In its broader conception, community policing involves policing efforts with community participation. The extent of citizen involvement in community policing will depend, of course, on a variety of factors. Of particular importance is how community policing programs are actually structured. Some community policing programs basically try to learn from residents about their needs and preferences. More comprehensive programs broadly incorporate residents in public safety efforts.

community

Local governments can employ community policing to achieve public safety while increasing trust. The basic goal of community policing is for local governments to design and employ mechanisms of policing in which the community is also involved. This involvement may be achieved in a variety of ways. First, local governments can approach their communities and get to know more deeply their needs and preferences for public safety. Greater knowledge of their community’s needs and demands for services can provide local governments with better information for decision-making. In turn, better information can help local governments make better decisions. Additionally, collecting information from citizens would be helpful as citizens will perceive that their local governments are truly interested in involving the community in the public safety efforts.

While community policing typically calls for engagement of police officers with the communities, residents should also be responsible for public safety efforts under community policing. There are multiple ways in which residents can participate in programs of community policing. First of all, communities can actively participate in public safety by providing prompt and consistent information to police agencies. This form of participation is extremely important, as police effectiveness depends to a great extent on the quality of information shared by citizens. If police agencies receive good information, they will be more effective in preventive efforts. If police agencies do not receive good information, they will not be as effective.

Community policing may be particularly helpful in ethnically diverse communities. In these communities, misperceptions may exist when the police force is white-majority, whereas the population is ethnically diverse. Thus, community policing may be helpful in additional ways. Above all, if the police force is more diverse, it will create and reinforce positive perceptions in the community. Second, community policing practices themselves may be useful to allow for greater communication and understanding between diverse communities and police forces.

Adopting community policing may be costly, however. First, it would require training the police force to adopt community policing practices. But the costs go beyond training. It may require an increased police force, as community policing might need to draw resources from traditional policing programs. In other words, increased police staffing might be necessary to adopt community policing programs, while keeping traditional policing programs in place. Some communities have dealt with this challenge in part by hiring part-time officers. Other communities contract with other local governments for the provision of policing services. In general, however, any additional police staffing (even if part-time or contracted out) will draw resources from a municipality adopting community policing innovations.

How should community policing be paid for? There are of course several possibilities. At a basic level, community policing can be paid for by taxes. In other words, community policing initiatives can be supported as traditional policing programs are. Traditional police programs rely primarily on tax sources, such as the property tax. Of course, other tax sources could also support community policing. Beyond taxes, local governments can seek federal and state assistance. In effect, some intergovernmental grants are already available for this purpose. Also, local governments can seek unrestricted support from the state government, which can then be deployed to support a variety of services, including community policing. Beyond these sources, local governments can also rely on interlocal cooperative arrangements. By cooperating with other local governments, joint community policing can be provided. These joint initiatives could take advantage of economies of scale by providing policing with other police units.

In conclusion, local governments can increase trust in policing by emphasizing prevention. Community policing may be particularly useful for that purpose. But trust in policing may require more than community policing innovations. Citizen engagement also means that neighbors are actively involved in sharing information and collaborating with police agencies. If neighborhoods are actively involved, crime risk may be mitigated. Finally, citizen involvement can produce benefits beyond public safety, such as a higher quality of community life in general.


Author:  Agustin Leon-Moreta, PhD, Assistant Professor, School of Public Administration, University of New Mexico https://spa.unm.edu

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One Response to Community Policing and Public Safety

  1. K Finkenbinder Reply

    September 29, 2017 at 5:41 pm

    Community policing should not be a set of programs – it should be the norm, standard for good policing – it should be the way we police. It is what many international colleagues call police service.

    Too often, by giving it a name as a program(s), we let many police officers and departments off the hook. Community policing is not what we do to the public, it is what we do with the public. Citizens/communities should be helping police agencies drive priorities, determine objectives, etc.

    Our first job is not law enforcement but rather crime prevention and service. If we only think of “law enforcement” – it lends itself to outputs (numbers arrested) which lends itself to DAs measuring their success by convictions (and increases plea bargains) and moves toward turning people into commodities (increasing revenue/fines, prisons, etc.). This in turn leads toward lack of trust, particularly in disenfranchised communities.

    In the end, community policing is no more than treating everyone with dignity, listening to and engaging with the community/ies, and putting the priority on service and solving problems – not numbers. It is problem-oriented policing.

    Interestingly, a federal agency described a community policing project that it is doing in an African country. It had stalled because they could not get the electric power to the new community police stations. I was incredulous and said, “You do realize you can do community policing under a tree? You don’t need special equipment, buildings, or technology….”…

    The problems we have in today’s policing are not the lack of community policing but a lack of GOOD policing… We need the fundamentals – hire the right people, train them the right way, and supervise them appropriately and engage appropriately with those we serve. Not doing community policing should be an aberration – not the other way around.

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