Community Policing: Learning the Lessons of History
Unfortunately, many officers seem to think the history of police work began the day they first pinned on a badge and strapped on a gunbelt.12 min read
Community Policing: Learning the Lessons of History
by Jeffrey Patterson
[Sgt. Patterson serves with the Clearwater, Fl, Police Dept.]
An old saying holds that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Unfortunately, many officers seem to think the history of police work began the day they first pinned on a badge and strapped on a gunbelt. For this reason, each emerging movement in law enforcement tends to be seen as something completely new, without historical context. Such is largely the case today with community policing.
To better understand today's debate over community policing, law enforcement administrators should study their history. History debunks the more outrageous claims made by some of the proponents of community policing and cautions against forgetting the important lessons of the past. It shows us that calls to change the way the police operate have been a constant theme from the very beginning of municipal policing. And, it reminds us that our problems today--while serious--are really nothing new.
SIR ROBERT PEEL'S INNOVATION
The history of modern law enforcement began 166 years ago with the formation of the London Metropolitan Police District in 1829. By creating a new police force, the British Parliament hoped to address the soaring crime rate in and around the nation's capital, attributed at the time to rapid urban growth, unchecked immigration, poverty, alcoholism, radical political groups, poor infrastructure, unsupervised juveniles, and lenient judges.
The principles adopted by Sir Robert Peel, the first chief of the London Metropolitan Police, for his new "bobbies" have served as the traditional model for all British and American police forces ever since. These principles include:
- the use of crime rates to determine the effectiveness of the police;
- the importance of a centrally located, publicly accessible police headquarters;
- and the value of proper recruitment, selection, and training.
However, perhaps the most enduring and influential innovation introduced was the establishment of regular patrol areas, known as "beats." Before 1829, the police--whether military or civilian--only responded after a crime had been reported. Patrols occurred on a sporadic basis, and any crime deterrence or apprehension of criminals in the act of committing crimes happened almost by accident.
Peel assigned his bobbies to specific geographic zones and held them responsible for preventing and suppressing crime within the boundaries of their zones. He based this strategy on his belief that the constables would:
- Become known to the public, and citizens with information about criminal activity would be more likely to tell a familiar figure than a stranger
- Become familiar with people and places and thus better able to recognize suspicious persons or criminal activity, and
- Be highly visible on their posts, tending to deter criminals from committing crimes in the immediate vicinity.
To implement fully the beat concept, Peel instituted his second most enduring innovation: The paramilitary command structure. While Peel believed overall civilian control to be essential, he also believed that only military discipline would ensure that constables actually walked their beats and enforced the law on London's mean streets, something their nonmilitary predecessors, the watchmen, had failed to do.
EARLY AMERICAN POLICING
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, American policing developed along lines roughly similar to those of the London police. Most major U.S. cities had established municipal police departments by the Civil War. Like the London police force, these departments adopted a paramilitary structure; officers wore distinctive blue uniforms and walked assigned beats. However, unlike the bobbies, American officers carried guns and were under the command of politically appointed local precinct captains. Lax discipline led to abundant graft.
While the British quickly embraced the bobbies as one of their most beloved national symbols, Americans held their police in much lower esteem.
"Of all the institutions of city government in late-nineteenth- century America, none was as unanimously denounced as the urban police," wrote sociologist Egon Bittner. "According to every available account, they were, in every aspect of their existence, an unmixed, unmitigated, and unpardonable scandal."1
REFORM AND PROFESSIONALISM
By the turn of the century, the progressive movement began to promote professionalism in law enforcement as one of the basic components of rehabilitating municipal politics. Concern about corruption and brutality in local police forces resulted in State takeovers of some city departments and led to the creation of new State police organizations removed from the corrupting influences of local ward politics.
Reformers sought to insulate the police from political inter-ference while retaining local government control. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), founded in 1893, immediately called for the adoption of a civil service personnel system and the centralization of authority in strong executive positions, which could control the politically aligned precinct captains.
Reformers also sought to change the role of the police in American society. In the 19th century, American police enforced health and building codes, secured housing for the homeless, built and supervised playgrounds for children, and even found jobs for ex-convicts. Reformers believed that these duties provided too many opportunities for political favoritism and squandered too many resources that could be better spent fighting crime. They called for the police to give up social work and concentrate on law enforcement.
But while "good government" ideals spurred the quickly emerging professional model, its real driving force was technology--the forensic sciences of ballistics, chemistry, and fingerprinting to some extent, but mostly the automobile, the telephone, and the radio. The radio- equipped patrol car allowed officers to respond to calls for service received by the police switchboard. At the same time, it took officers off the sidewalk and put them on the street, racing from incident to incident observing the crowd only from a distance.
For half a century, proponents lauded professionalism in law enforcement as the solution to the crime problem. Innovative police chiefs across the country worked to implement the professional model in their agencies, while J. Edgar Hoover promoted professionalism through the FBI National Academy. Several major universities also established programs in professional police administration.
With the passage of time, professionalism yielded some serious, unintended consequences for local police. Agencies became divided between the oldtimers and more progressive college-educated officers. Formal education contributed to higher levels of disenchantment with the more mundane aspects of the job. Demands for efficiency, objectivity, and autonomy led to detached, impersonal attitudes toward the community and resistance to any direction from elected political leaders.
Critics also questioned whether professionalism really was being practiced at the local level. Police departments installed civil service merit systems for hiring and promotion. They adopted a general code of ethics and formed a professional association. They supported their practices through knowledge based on experience. But these local law enforcement agencies conducted no true scientific research, nor did they require a college degree to work in the field.
The failure of professionalism became apparent during the urban riots, assassinations, and gang violence of the last 30 years. Police, politicians, and the public alike bemoaned the ineffectiveness of crime- fighting efforts. Leaders of minority communities cited the lack of police responsiveness to their needs. Everyone agreed that the police had somehow fallen out of touch with the citizens they were supposed to serve and protect.
One of the earliest articulations of what would later evolve into the community policing philosophy can be found in Skolnick's case study of the San Francisco, California, Police Department's Community Relations Unit. This case study also documents the first organized resistance to the basic concepts of community policing.
In 1962, the San Francisco Police Department established a specialized unit based on the concept that "police would help to reduce crime by reducing despair--by acting as a social service agency to ameliorate some of the difficulties encountered by minority group persons."2 Almost from the outset, the unit found itself hampered by its ambiguous mission. Members were not sure what methods they should apply to serving which minority population.
The unit also faced the dilemma of "how to maintain its identity as a police organization and at the same time to win the confidence of the minority group population...ordinarily considered a police problem."3 Eventually, the relationship of trust between the unit and the community led to formal complaints of misconduct against other police officers, sealing the unit's alienation from the mainstream of the department. The program soon perished in the politically charged environment it inadvertently helped to create.
In the 1970s, a new strategy emerged--team policing. Advocates of team policing recognized that "in recent years, due in part to changes in the social climate and in part to changes in police patrol techniques (more patrol cars, less foot patrol), many police agencies have become increasingly isolated from the community. This isolation makes crime control more difficult."4 The team policing concept assigned responsibility for a certain geographic area to a team of police officers who would learn the neighborhood, its people, and its problems- -much like the old cop on the beat. But because authority would not be concentrated in one person, the team policing model posed less danger of corruption. Different American cities tried various forms of team policing, but none ever got beyond the limited "pilot-project" stage, and all eventually fell by the wayside.
A primary reason for team policing's failure rested with its contradiction of the basic tenets of professionalism. It placed more emphasis on long-term problem solving than on rapid response to incidents, making quantifiable performance measurements difficult. It also crossed functional lines of authority, violating the chain of command and trespassing on the turf of detectives and other specialized units.
Community policing is the most widely used term for a loosely defined set of police philosophies, strategies, and tactics known either as problem-oriented policing, neighborhood-oriented policing, or community- oriented policing. However, perhaps "postprofessionalism" or "neotraditionalism" would be more descriptive labels.
Like the police-community relations movement, community policing stems from a view of the police as a multifunctional social service agency working to reduce the despair of poverty. Like team policing, community policing is rooted in the belief that the traditional officer on the beat will bring the police and the public closer together. At the same time, it maintains the professional model's support for education and research.
Instead of merely responding to emergency calls and arresting criminals, community policing officers devote considerable time to performing social work, working independently and creatively on solutions to the problems on their beats. It follows that they make extensive personal contacts, both inside and outside their agencies. All of this flies in the face of a police culture that values crimefighting, standard operating procedures, and a paramilitary chain of command.
Although supporting evidence is largely anecdotal, community policing apparently has received widespread support at the conceptual level from politicians, academicians, administrators, and the media. It also has strong intuitive appeal with the general public. Yet, community policing has encountered significant stumbling blocks at the operational level nearly everywhere it has been tried.
Indeed, not all the anecdotal evidence has been positive. In fact, community policing initiatives have been severely scaled back in two of its most prominent national settings — Houston, Texas, and New York City.
MISTAKES OF THE PAST
After more than a decade of community policing experiments, several major errors become apparent when viewed against the historical context. Perhaps this explains some of the difficulties that have been encountered.
Lack of Planning
Although intended as an overarching philosophy, community policing programs in many cities developed incrementally, determined more by the availability of grant funding and the need to appease certain neighborhood groups than according to any strategic management plan. As professionalism was rushed along pell-mell by technology, so is community policing being pushed forward by the uneven flow of Federal dollars. Significantly, after 50 years of reform, the distribution of police resources appears in danger of being openly repoliticized.
Like the members of the San Francisco Police Department Community Relations Unit, many practitioners of community policing seem unsure of who to serve and how to serve them. Approaches range from ardent neighborhood advocacy to aggressive street crime suppression. In their confusion, agencies have settled for the superficial program components- -police ministations, bicycle patrols, and midnight basketball games-- that define community policing in grant applications.
As with police-community relations and team policing, cities often attempt to implement community policing through small, specialized units in well-defined neighborhoods. Unfortunately, this approach often leads to the alienation of some officers and to claims that the police are ignoring other residents. Stalled implementation can aggravate organizational conflict; the perception that community policing officers play by different rules and do not have to answer calls for service angers other officers who believe that they do more work under more difficult conditions. It also can lead to resentment between those neighborhoods that receive the special attention of community policing and those that do not.
Community policing advocates the evaluation of officers not on traditional indicators of performance, such as calls handled and arrests made, but on more creative, problem-solving efforts. Yet, cities have been slow to change their appraisal systems, most of which still call for traditional, quantifiable performance indicators that are irrelevant, at best, and contradictory with the community policing paradigm, at worst. Similar disparity between the nontraditional behaviors desired by top administrators and the standardized expectations of middle management contributed to the failure of team policing 20 years ago.
Lack of Efficiency
True community policing represents a highly labor-intensive approach. Foot patrol--a key component--was abandoned by prior generations because it was not a cost-effective way to deliver police services. The City of Portland, Oregon, determined that it needed to add 200 officers to its existing force of 750 to implement community policing properly. In the early 1990s, the City of Houston scrapped its equally ambitious plan when budget cutbacks forced it to lay off 655 of its 4,500 officers. The shrinking tax base in cities and public demands for leaner government allow little room for the expansion needed to make community policing effective.
Two of the key elements of community policing--decentralization and permanent assignments--conflict with the professional model's prescription for controlling corruption and limiting political influence. Centralized authority was one of the first reforms called for by the IACP a century ago, and the idea of mandatory rotation of assignments followed not long thereafter. An unintended consequence of community policing may be the development of the same close personal and political ties between individual officers and citizens along their beats that historically served as the breeding ground for petty corruption and undermined management's control of the rank and file.
Problems of Evaluation
Finally, in the absence of valid research findings, "community policing is advancing because it seems to make sense, not because it has been shown to be demonstrably superior."5 Just as professionalism appeared to be the "one best way" for half a century, so now is community policing the orthodox doctrine. However, community policing's emphasis on social work conflicts with today's conservative political climate. One of the programs that conservative legislators targeted for elimination in the 1994 crime bill was midnight basketball--a common component of community policing's outreach efforts toward underprivileged youth. Demands for less social work and more crime- fighting seem likely.
The time may have come for defenders of community policing to conduct legitimate program evaluation. Its continued status as the established dogma is now in doubt.
LESSONS OF HISTORY
While administrators can glean much from the specific lessons of history that relate to the evolution of community policing, these lessons should be considered within the context of two somewhat more generally applicable principles.
First, the crime problem appears to have changed little since the Industrial Revolution drove the urbanization of Western culture in the early 1800s. Objective measures of the true prevalence of criminal activity in our cities remain as elusive today as they were when the British Parliament began debating the "Act for Improving the Police In and Near the Metropolis" in the late 1820s.
Similarly, modern surveys of public opinion, like 18th century accounts, still have difficulty "separating fear of crime from disapproval of conduct deemed immoral or alarm at public disorder."6 Nevertheless, descriptions of London's problems early in the last century would sound strikingly familiar to residents of American cities near the end of the 20th century.
Second, organizational change in police agencies has been a constant theme of academicians, policymakers, and practitioners from the very beginning — perhaps only because it is one factor among the many complex issues facing the police over which these groups can exercise some control. However, changes in policing strategies are not always determined through rigorous testing.7
Every new movement in law enforcement--from the establishment of the first organized police forces, to the reforms of the Progressive era, to community policing-- has been touted, with little supporting evidence, as the one true solution to the problem of crime in society. To date, none of them has lived up to such unrealistic expectations.
Police administrators should acknowledge that crime is a natural condition of society, not a problem to be solved, so that neither they, their personnel, their political leaders, nor the public will be deluded into unrealistic expectations by new programs. They must recognize that changes in their operations and their organizations are inevitable, but that few--if any--of these changes will be completely unprecedented journeys into uncharted territory.
Administrators should learn the lessons of history--from the conditions that led Sir Robert Peel to introduce the paramilitary structure, to the development of centralized authority, to the limited crime-fighting role advocated by the reformers, to the factors that led to the failure of police-community relations and team policing. Those who learn from history will be better prepared for the leadership challenges in the difficult times ahead.
1 International City Management Association (ICMA), Local Government Police Management, 3d. ed. (Washington, DC: ICMA, 1991), 4.
2 Jerome H. Skolnick, "The Police and the Urban Ghetto," The Ambivalent Force: Perspectives on Police, eds. Arthur Niederhoffer and Abraham S. Blumberg, 2d ed. (Hinsdale, IL: Dryden, 1976), 222.
3 Ibid., 222-223.
4 National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, Report on Police (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1973), 154.
5 Skolnick and Bayley, quoted in Gordon Witkin, "Beyond 'Just the Facts, Ma'am,'" U.S. News & World Report, August 2, 1993, 30.
6 Thomas A. Reppetto, The Blue Parade (New York: Free Press, 1978), 6. 7 Alvin W. Cohn and Emilio C. Viano, Police Community Relations: Images, Roles, Realities (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1976), 3.
from the FBI's 11/95 monthly magazine
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