Dissecting Community Policing: The Contemporary American Perspective

Patryk F. Jaroszkiewicz, University of New Haven

Although the development of American policing is deeply rooted in the first modern police force in England, created by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, the United States initially did not adhere to the innovative Peelian virtues. In particular, the notion that “the police are the public, and the public are the police,” which stressed the importance of continuous partnership between the community and law enforcement, did not fit the controversial reality during the early creation stages of modern police organizations in America (Williams, 2003). Given that all citizens are a vital part of the community-oriented policing (COP) model, it was not until late 1980s when the paradigm of police work shifted towards the police-citizen partnership approach. Williams and Murphy (1990) noted that minority communities across the nation, previously omitted by the benefits of policing, played a critical role in triggering the era of community policing (p. 2). However, not only does the existing community-oriented approach emphasize the crucial aspect of collective efficacy within the public safety arena, but it also stresses the need for progressive transformation of law enforcement agencies and the implementation of problem-solving strategies (COPS, 2016).

Despite some scholars challenging its effectiveness, the community policing model has become a particularly accepted strategy across the nation, in which 98% of police cadets receive various training courses in this approach (Reaves, 2016, p.7). However, the subsequent mechanics of how police officers implement community policing strategies to address community problems are often omitted in today’s research, as most studies focus on the quantitative results pertaining to crime reduction. Therefore, it is important to continue the evaluation process of this strategy from various perspectives, as community collaboration is a complexly structured phenomenon. While COP has various interpretations, Thomas (2019) highlights the fact that its true definition must not be adulterated by subjective oversimplifications.

In a context of recent nationwide civil unrest, protests against police brutality, and calls for defunding police organizations, this paper explores public perceptions and attitudes toward community policing, with an eye toward healing the currently heavily bruised relationship between minority communities and the police. Constructive dialogue and genuine partnership between law enforcement and their constituents need to be reinvigorated. Given the nationwide heightened tensions, it is important to remind both sides that police do not have enemies – police have communities.


 While some scholars have challenged community-oriented policing, with common skepticisms such as “old wine in new bottles” (Thurman, 2002) and “a failed attempt at change” (Thomas, 2019, p. 51), COP continues to evolve and adapt to the rapidly changing dynamics of society. Additionally, critics point to the ambiguity of interpretation when it comes to implementation of COP tactics, in which various jurisdictions can disguise other aggressive policing strategies under the same definition (Fielding, 2005; Thomas, 2019). Many scholars, especially those involved in the initial creation of COP strategies, argue that the flexible definition of COP intentionally acknowledges that policing is composed of several different internal dimensions, simultaneously affected by various external factors (Trojanowicz & Bucqueroux, 1994). However, the general framework of COP philosophy, which is meant as a guiding principle, consists of three pivotal elements: citizen involvement, organizational transformation, and a problem-solving approach (COPS, 2016). The strong emphasis on police-citizen partnerships is what distinguishes COP from the traditional policing approaches seen in the previous eras.

In 2015, the President’s Task Force Report on 21st-Century Policing once again recalibrated community-oriented policing, and in the era of police militarization (triggered by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001), stressed the importance of guardianship. The President’s Task force attempted to address the contemporary “us-versus-them, black-and-white, and drug-war mentality” (Balko, 2014, p. 321), while aiming to extend original ideas and promote collective efficacy in crime reduction. This approach is the ultimate reflection of the “Peelian Principles,” in which citizens are viewed as vital allies of the police.

Given the proactive nature of COP strategies, in 2018 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) examined proactive interventions and programs of multiple police agencies across the nation (NAS, 2018). The results indicated that proactive policing efforts, particularly focused on high-crime areas, not only exhibit consistently effective outcomes on crime reduction, but also improve police-citizen relations. Moreover, Weisburd and Majmundar (2018) added that such strategies reduce fear of crime, increase police legitimacy, and promote problem-solving tactics. Therefore, positive police-citizen relations are essential to prevent disharmony and assure effective partnerships throughout communities.

Current Research

The various dimensions of COP strategies and their impact on communities have been explored in countless studies since the origin of this approach. However, it is crucial to continuously evaluate whether the field of policing is adapting to various dynamic changes within society. That is why the current literature presents and discusses modern findings, while concurrently exhibiting the areas that need further attention. Rather than operating with unsubstantiated assumptions, the contemporary research not only informs policy makers, but also provides current data and a more evidence-based perspective of the situation.  

Given that trust in police and police legitimacy are necessary factors for effective community policing, Kahn et al. (2019) examined residents’ attitudes about the police in Portland, Oregon, in a study of community engagement patrols (CEPs) across 60 crime-dense areas. In this experiment, Portland’s CEP’s aimed to secure positive police-community partnerships and prioritized non-investigative contacts with the citizens in high-crime areas, rather than engaging in traditional enforcement strategies. It was an innovative approach, as hot spot policing is often synonymous with the “crime control model” (Packer, 1968), and aggressive tactics such as drug raids, “stop and frisk,” and zero tolerance policing may increase police-citizen contact but simultaneously yield fear of police.

Based on the city’s crime reports and previous calls for service, Kahn et al. (2019) identified 90 “neighborhood involvement locations” (NI-Locs) and randomized CEPs into three groups: 30 scheduled to include two CEPs per day, 30 assigned four CEPs per day, and the remaining 30 locations as the control group with no special treatment applied (p. 919). The intervention was active for over 6 months, whereby each target location received treatment for 90 consecutive days, involving 16,213 households within the 90 NI-Locs. Considering the non-investigative nature of police-citizen interactions and increased police visibility, the authors hypothesized that areas with CEP treatment would reflect a positive image of police and enhanced interactions.

Kahn et al. (2019) used a survey instrument to collect data and mailed questionnaires to 11,760 household immediately after each intervention sequence was completed (p. 921). However, despite the initial large sample, only 1,537 surveys were returned, of which 1,423 were used as the final sample (constituting a roughly 13% response rate). The survey instrument focused on residents’ perceptions of the CEPs and asked the respondents to assess the quality of police performance, based on exposure to officers, perceptions of police duties, visibility of officers throughout NI-Locs, and perceived police legitimacy. While the results indicated that community members from CEP districts reported a higher number of positive police-citizen contacts, residents’ attitudes towards police were not affected. Interestingly, all of the findings regarding attitudes toward police were insignificant within the three groups, indicating that police-community relations were not improved as a result of the intervention. The authors noted that these findings could be due to all-too-brief interactions with community members, yet they stressed that the reported increase in positive contacts can be perceived as an important building block for future community policing models.

Some scholars argue that community policing strategies are “soft on crime” and fail to present empirical data on successful crime reduction and clearance rates (Frydl & Skogan, 2004; Reisig & Kane, 2014). With this in mind, Tillyer (2018) examined the impact of community-oriented policing (COP) on violent crime arrest rates. In this comprehensive study, the author collected and linked data from the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) and Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS), which included 402,786 reports of violent incidents across 603 jurisdictions (p. 533). The sample was composed of municipal police departments, sheriff departments, and state police agencies, which policed “cities of approx. 79,000 residents… with an average of 859 violent crime incidents per 100,000 population” (p. 534). Based on each agency’s involvement in various COP strategies, Tillyer conducted a multilevel analysis of various factors that may affect the likelihood of arrest. Offender characteristics and crime types, such as murder, kidnapping, and robbery, were exported from the NIBRS data and coded as dichotomous dependent variables, distinguishing whether an arrest was made for each individual crime. In addition, organizational variables, including the education requirements of each agency, technological advancements, and various COP strategies pursued, were extracted from the LEMAS survey.

To generate his findings, Tillyer (2018) created a series of multilevel models that examined potential relationships between COP strategies and arrests. The results indicated that arrests occurred in nearly 45% of all violent crimes, where simple assault accounted for the majority of incidents (71%). Moreover, 85% percent of the agencies reported engagement in at least one of the COP activities, and the average department engaged in between two and three of these tactics (p. 540-543). Based on the analysis, the author found that departments that implemented multiple COP models had slightly higher, statistically significant arrest rates for all violent crimes, compared to the agencies that were marginally engaged in COP. Interestingly, agencies that used the Scanning-Analysis-Response-Assessment (SARA) model did not display significantly better arrest rates. Overall, while the findings suggested a positive relationship between arrest rates and COP tactics, Tillyer (2018) concluded that engagement in a single COP activity will not have any meaningful impact on arrests. Therefore, departments must implement a diverse and comprehensive approach, which ensures a combination of various crime-specific and targeted tactics.

Given that community policing philosophy emphasizes the partnership between the communities and the police, stressing the civic engagement as a crucial element of public safety (Skogan, 2006), it is also imperative to examine police officers’ perspectives toward such strategy. This is particularly significant, as some scholars commented on “the paradox of the simultaneous emergence of community policing and militarism” (Koslicki & Willits, 2018; Balko, 2014), which suggests that it is challenging to implement community policing strategies when law enforcement officers view themselves as warriors, rather than guardians.  With this in mind, Gau and Paul (2019) surveyed 203 officers in a mid-sized police department in Florida, to analyze officers’ “attitudinal adaptation” (p. 947) towards three dependent variables: community-policing orientation, order-maintenance orientation, and law-enforcement orientation. Central independent variables consisted of community and organizational elements that influence officers’ job-related attitudes, such as stress, job satisfaction, and danger.

Most importantly, the authors found that officers were inclined toward community policing, but did not fully endorse order-maintenance and traditional law-enforcement strategies. Interestingly, Gau and Paul (2019) noted that few independent variables were found to relate to the dependent variables, which suggests that specific role orientations are not associated with officers’ job-related viewpoints. Moreover, statistically significant results were observed among Black officers, who favored a community policing approach more than white officers, and in general, officers with a college education exhibited modestly more positive attitudes toward community policing compared to those without higher education (p. 952). While the obtained results cannot be generalized to the entire law enforcement population, the data imply that despite the visible militarization of police forces across the nation, the controversial warrior-mentality is not ubiquitously embedded within the police culture.

Based on the findings, Gal and Paul (2019) also offer a few important implications for future police policies. First, police leaders should further encourage and promote officers’ involvement in community policing by implementing various activities and programs, which would allow for more opportunities to enhance the police-citizen partnership. Second, additional efforts must be introduced to encourage officers to address disorder, so that initially minor incidents will not escalate to major issues that negatively affect peoples’ fear or crime. The authors note that order-maintenance can be achieved through problem-oriented policing, which is one of them main pillars of COP. Third, the findings indicate that cynicism and job stress discourage police officers from carrying out their duties effectively. For instance, those working in high-crime areas and those displaying early warning signs of emotional exhaustion should be transferred to lower-crime districts to prevent potentially disastrous consequences. Such an empathetic approach promotes a healthy environment and assures supportive organizational atmosphere.

Conclusions and Implications

The existing empirical literature shows that harmonious police-community relationships and mutual trust are vital elements of COP. However, a collaborative partnership style requires genuine and considerably comprehensive efforts to yield the anticipated results. Given today’s anti-police sentiment and distrust of police across the nation, especially within minority communities, regaining the public’s trust is an extraordinarily challenging task. Some activists openly lament, “The only way to diminish police violence is to reduce contact between the public and the police” (Kaba, 2020), which suggests difficulty in continued implementation of COP strategies that rely primarily on close civic engagements. Alienation from the police will encourage the “us-vs-them” mentality, thus damaging much-needed bonds with the public. Therefore, while various voices of stakeholders are important in criminal justice policies, policymakers should be guided primarily by empirical findings, rather than anecdotal evidence. For instance, the public should be informed that unlike other policing styles, the partnership element of COP also aims to enhance police legitimacy (Skogan, 2006).

There are certainly several nuances within COP philosophy that require further empirical research, but the current findings indicate that when implemented correctly, COP strategies are mutually beneficial. Given the large array of definitions of COP, agencies must be specific when implementing these measures, as organizational changes from the top down require endorsement by all police personnel to be effective (White, 2007). Similar to the findings above, other scholars also emphasize that “community policing without a clear focus on crime risk factors generally shows no effect on crime” (Sherman & Eck, 2006, p. 295), which is why specific problem-oriented approaches should be encouraged.

One aspect that consistently stands out from the existing research is education among police officers and its promising potential for adequate implementation of COP tactics. While the training and education of law enforcement officers is a highly debated subject, Gau and Paul (2019) found officers with college education displayed more positive attitudes toward COP efforts. Therefore, raising the minimum education requirements for police officers holds promise for creating more erudite guardians. A more comprehensive analysis would enrich these findings and allow for greater generalizability of the results.

Overall, policing is facing yet another challenging evolution, since escalating racial tensions and incidents of police brutality have negatively affected COP. However, rather than promoting further isolation from the police, policy makers should seek solutions that enhance integration between police and their constituents. Populist slogans such as abolish or defund the police are not an effective recipe for pragmatic and realistic reform, as they provide an incomplete assessment and solution to the problem. Effective reforms should be rooted in scientific research and empirical evidence. Some important scientific evidence already has been generated, but more is needed to guide and evaluate future efforts in this area.


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