Strategic Policing Essay

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Strategic policing refers to proactive measures that police take to prevent crime, control disorder, improve citizens’ quality of life, and resolve community problems. To achieve these goals, the police employ tactics within a general, community-oriented strategy commonly known as “community policing.”

While community policing is the dominant paradigm of policing, police strategies have evolved since the origin of modern police departments in the United States. For example, local politics heavily influenced U.S. police departments in the second half of the 19th century, and officers served largely at the discretion of ward politicians. Officers then provided a variety of community services to the public and generally had an intimate knowledge of the beats they patrolled. However, poor training, questionable standards regarding hiring and promotion, and political influence led to corrupt, incompetent, and often brutal practices.

Reformers in the early and mid-1900s, in an effort to improve policing and elevate the status of officers, sought to separate police from the corrupting influences of local politics. They attempted to accomplish this goal by shifting the police strategy from one that addressed a broad array of community issues to one that focused on “law enforcement”—especially the enforcement of serious felonies. Police agencies essentially removed officers from neighborhood beats and instead organized around centralized dispatch systems, whereby officers could respond quickly to calls for service. Their superior officers discouraged police from proactively handling minor community problems and providing other social services to the public. Instead of an intimate relationship with citizens, officers received encouragement to remain professionally remote “crime fighters.” The popular 1950s television show Dragnet effectively depicted this image of the impartial law enforcement officer with Sergeant Joe Friday’s famous line, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

This law enforcement strategy did much to enhance the image of police, develop better training and supervision of officers, and improve internal management and organizational concerns. Questions remain, however, as to the extent to which this strategy improved the quality of policing services overall. Crime rates, as well as citizen fear of crime, continued to rise despite the emphasis on the police “crime-fighting” image. Empirical research studies conducted during the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated that the preferred police patrol and investigative tactics of the time had little impact on crime prevention or on arrest rates. Supreme Court cases, such as Mapp v. Ohio of 1961 and Miranda v. Arizona of 1966, pointed to the inadequacies and inappropriateness of police procedures. Finally, tensions between police and minority communities—often the result of unfair or heavy-handed practices on the part of police—escalated to the point of rioting in several major U.S. cities.

In light of the deficiencies of the “law enforcement” strategy, several ideas on police practice emerged during the 1970s and 1980s that influenced the development of the community policing model. Building on the results of foot patrol experiments, for example, analysts criticized the remoteness of police officers and suggested that citizens desired more intimate contacts with police. They revealed that citizens greatly valued the broadly based, order maintenance and service functions that police can provide, which police administrators had been actively discouraging.

In addition, they were critical of the reactive nature of police work, arguing that police can control crime through more proactive, problem-solving techniques.

Although community policing is difficult to define, most agree that the strategy involves a combination of enhanced partnerships between police and citizens as well as a more proactive approach to solving community problems. As community policing evolved, police departments across the United States altered their structures and operations to better fit the goals of the community-oriented approach. For example, many departments now assign officers to regular geographic beats, with foot and bicycle patrols growing in popularity. These efforts seek to increase officer familiarity with specific community problems on their beats, foster order maintenance and problem management activities by officers, and enhance relationships between police and citizens.

From the operational perspective, police strategists now attempt to shift away from the reactive approach to crime control that dominated during most of the 20th century. In an attempt to return to the more proactive notion of crime prevention, they now address specific crime problems with more focused initiatives utilizing modern analytical techniques. Through the analysis of crime data, for example, agencies are often able to identify specific, crime-prone “hot spots” and determine the specific situational circumstances that generate crime at those locations. With a better understanding of neighborhood problems, utilization of special preventative techniques can reduce future opportunities for criminal activity. Police programs designed specifically to reduce gun carrying in “hot spots” of violent crime, for instance, have been effective in reducing violence in those locations. Another popular technique calls for officers to pay more attention to minor offenses, such as prostitution and public alcohol and drug use. The idea behind this tactic suggests that a linkage between minor disorders and serious felonies exists. Therefore, by controlling minor offenses, police may prevent occurrences of more serious crime.

Although responses to community problems often involve traditional police tactics such as arrests or citations at a specific location, simply making arrests or issuing citations may not resolve a recurring problem. More innovative methods draw upon the resources of the community or other government agencies. It is not unusual, for example, for police to partner with prosecutors to enhance civil penalties for violators or to work with environmental engineers and architects to “design out” opportunities for crime in public places.


  1. Kelling, George L. and Catherine M. Coles. 1996. Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities. New York: Free Press.
  2. Kelling, George L. and Mark H. Moore. 1988. “The Evolving Strategy of Policing.” In Perspectives on Policing, no. 4. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.
  3. Sherman, Lawrence W. and Dennis P. Rogan. 1995. “Effects of Gun Seizures on Gun Violence: ‘Hot Spots’ Patrol in Kansas City.” Justice Quarterly 12(4):673-93.
  4. Weisburd, David and Lorraine Green. 1995. “Policing Drug Hot Spots: The Jersey City Drug Market Analysis Experiment.” Justice Quarterly 12(4):711-35.

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