Colin McCallin Dec. 5, 2018

A Turning Point

For decades, experts in law enforcement, many of them active or former police officers, have pointed out the deficiencies of police strategy as it has come to be across the country. Bound up in a vicious cycle, most of these deficiencies both result from and exacerbate distrust between law enforcement agencies and the public. Of the many answers to this problem that have been suggested, perhaps the most promising is community policing, a multi-sided approach whose highest goal is drawing police forces and the people they serve closer together, so that both groups may work energetically for the common good.

What Has Gone Wrong?

But how is this not the case already? Where did things go wrong? Unfortunately, as explained in the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s 1994 report Understanding Community Policing (available here), the distrust police face now in their work derives in large part from useful advancements and well-reasoned policies—an irony that many would argue defeats the purpose of those advancements and policies. For example, while police officers within the current system take rotating shifts across multiple geographical areas so as not to be corrupted, they remain strangers to the people they police, and those people remain strangers to them. Authority in law enforcement agencies has shrunk away from the margins, away from agents on the ground, who receive from on high all sorts of standard operating procedures to follow. This gives their conduct the appearance of impartiality it was intended to give, yes, but also inevitably removes the appearance of shared humanity and removes their human discretion. An officer sent to a domestic disturbance, say, now has a mandate to make an arrest, even if in his or her mind the situation calls for none. Meanwhile, changes to reporting and dispatch methods have pursued efficiency at any cost; those methods now allocate resources with exquisite thrift and give citizens little chance to make a relationship with those responsible for their safekeeping. Police officers must address calls one after another regardless of urgency, their response times tabulated and used as an index to performance. The thread running through all these problems is that they promote unfamiliarity. Unfamiliarity is the soil distrust grows in, and unfamiliarity is what a model like community policing is designed to counter.

A New Approach

The principal change community policing would require is breaking police jurisdictions into smaller pieces and assigning officers to provide a visible, consistent presence within those pieces. At first view this is not a sensible way to do things; it takes far more personnel per square mile than the existing system. However, studies have shown that the more familiar residents are with the police in their neighborhood, the more the residents themselves contribute to law and order, to the point that despite the initial inefficiency there is a net gain in the lawfulness of communities. Community policing marshals a dormant advantage in the fight against crime—the public itself, which can be more places at once than the police, see more, hear more, and work more quickly to remove the conditions that conduce to criminal activity. Perhaps all that has been missing, for many years and in many neighborhoods, is a human touch, a single strong link to the police that would encourage residents to help themselves. The neighborhood law enforcement ambassadors that community policing relies on could be the solution. After all, who would you rather collaborate with to stop crime? A faceless, mysterious bureaucracy or a person who walks by your house every week and asks how your day is going?