Community Policing Essay

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Emerging from the tradition of locally organized police forces in the United States, community policing is a philosophy of police administration that focuses on cooperation and empathy between local police forces and communities. This style of policing embraces visible policing practices like foot or bike patrol and interactions with community members outside of emergencies, car accidents, or crime. Furthermore, this approach encourages substantive dialogue between police representatives and local organizations and sometimes goes so far as offering incentives for patrol officers to live in the communities in which they work. Based on the idea that police and the public should know each other as well as possible to be effective, community policing was a favorite buzzword throughout the late 1990s. While sometimes frustrating police officers because it was thought to be more style than substance and at other moments in contradiction to popular ideas of “zero-tolerance” policing, in fact community policing is thought, under the right circumstances, to improve quality of life. Today, community policing is in jeopardy due to budget retrenchment and the dictates of homeland security.

Examples of community policing efforts are police representation at Neighborhood Watch meetings and in civic organizations; police working with youth in athletic leagues or Explorer Clubs; police attending educational meetings at schools on drug education, violence, and abuse; and foot patrols that offer both police and the public opportunities to interact informally. Furthermore, community policing efforts are often equated with sustentative reforms such as civilian review boards and accountability on the neighborhood level for quality of life issues.

In 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice produced a report that recommended, among other things, “team policing.” This idea, informed by the riots in U.S. cities against urban police departments, called on local police forces to become better informed about community problems and sensitive to their concerns. A series of studies on expanded foot patrol in the 1970s led to an influential study of police and community relations, which was conducted in Newark, New Jersey, in 1981 and concentrated on what are now viewed as the major dictates of community policing. This study claimed that while increased foot patrols and everyday interactions between officers and community members did not decrease crime, it did make people feel better about their community and the police and generally less fearful of random street crime.

After several more studies of community-based policing reforms, a 1987 report on community policing efforts outlined substantial reforms in police administration and organization and found them to be largely successful. After the published report and accompanying conference in Racine, Wisconsin, that same year, community policing grew in popularity as a paradigm of police reform. The peak of public recognition of the movement may well be President William Clinton’s 1994 campaign promise to fund 100,000 police officers for community policing efforts. Throughout the late 1990s, community policing continued to be a very popular concept both within police organizations and in public discussions of policing.

However, as a result of the September 11 attacks, community policing has been largely usurped in the public imagination with police as “first responders” who respond to and protect communities from terrorist attack and work closely with the Department of Homeland Security. Furthermore, while sometimes thought to be positive but not necessary, community policing efforts are often the first to be cut as police departments deal with decreased revenues and increased responsibilities for the “War on Terror.”

Although sometimes used in tandem, the reforms of community policing should not be mistaken for the philosophy of “zero-tolerance” policing, where police forces arrest perpetrators of small-scale offenses such as vandalism, trespassing, and truancy in order to maintain public order. While zero-tolerance policing does concentrate on community knowledge, that information often comes from sophisticated computer geographical programs that track crime rather than community perceptions of crime problems. Further, community policing requires significant police discretion that arrest-driven, zero-tolerance policing cannot accommodate. In fact, some controversial aspects of zero-tolerance policing, such as stop-and-frisks, diminish community opinion of police activities. Furthermore, many critics connect zero-tolerance tactics with police brutality. For example, the New York police force, prior to September 11, 2001, was fully entrenched in zero-tolerance policing and was the target of five federal government investigations and one lawsuit.

While challenged by the dictates of homeland security, no study ever questioned the tremendous potential of community policing at the neighborhood level, and it remains popular throughout the United States. In fact, college campuses are some of the most successful sites of community policing activities, where campus police work closely with universities and their students in order both to respond to crime and to inform students about drug addiction, domestic abuse, and sexual violence. College campuses have, in the past 15 years, seen an increase of reporting of rape, thought to be partially due to police efforts on campuses to take the shame out of victimization and relate to the student population.


  1. Greene, Jack R. and Stephen D. Mastrofski. 1991. Community Policing: Rhetoric or Reality. New York: Praeger.
  2. Manning, Peter K. 2006. “Transformation: The Emergent Growth of Cooperation amongst Police Agencies.” Pp. 203-230 in Uniform Behavior: Police Localism and National Politics, edited by S. K. McGoldrick and A. McArdle. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  3. Oliver, Willard M. 2006. “The Fourth Era of Policing: Homeland Security.” International Review of Law, Computers and Technology 20:49-62.
  4. Thatcher, David. 2005. “The Local Role in Homeland Security.” Law and Society Review 139: 636-76.

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