Community Policing – Theory & Practice

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from Community Change: Theories, Practice, and Evidence (pdf). Amie M. Schuck and Dennis P. Rosenbaum. Edited by Karen Fulbright-Anderson and Patricia Auspos. The Aspen Institute.

The community policing era, roughly 1970 to the present, is arguably only the third period in the history of American police reform, following the political era, 1840s–1920s, and the reform era, 1920s–1960s. Emerging from the ashes of the urban riots of the 1960s and from the failure of urban police to develop meaningful and respectful relationships with African-American neighborhoods, community policing was an attempt to recognize and respond to the needs of the community. The debate over the definition of community policing has been contentious at times, and police departments have implemented hundreds of diverse programs under this one label. Nevertheless, there is some agreement in the literature about common elements.

Community policing can be distinguished along four basic dimensions: philosophical, strategic, tactical, and organizational. At the philosophical level, community policing encourages strong citizen input into police decision making, and offers a broader view of the police function that extends beyond crime fighting to solving problems, preventing crime, and generally improving the quality of neighborhood life. Citizen input in the form of advisory boards, community meetings, and surveys is encouraged. Citizens are expected to have some say in the prioritization of neighborhood problems, the deployment of police resources, and the type of policing they will receive.

At the strategic level, community policing often results in a reorientation of street-level operations to increase face-to-face contact between police and citizens, such as more foot patrol, door-to-door contacts, and community meetings. Other operational changes include geographic-based deployment of personnel, which requires individual and group responsibility for smaller geographic areas on a 24-hour basis rather than larger areas for an eight- to ten-hour shift.

One component of this new emphasis on place rather than time is the use of permanent assignments. The potential benefits of this approach are many: Officers and citizens become familiar with one another, begin to develop trust, and establish the basis for a mutually respectful working relationship. Other benefits include officers’ increased knowledge of local problems, troublemakers, and resources. While permanent beat assignments are very popular among citizens, they are problematic for the police. Officers are promoted to new assignments or elect to move elsewhere. As officers become more familiar with the neighborhood, the risk of police corruption increases, although good supervision can be preventative. As a result of these and other problems, permanent assignments are difficult to implement. Ultimately, responsibility for neighborhoods occurs at the command level. At a minimum, to address the problem of officers being unfamiliar with the neighborhoods and the residents they police, many cities are establishing residency requirements. Requiring that officers live within the city boundaries will help, but in larger cities, this will not solve the problem at the level of beat assignment. Officers are likely to live and work in different places.

Community policing at the strategic level also includes an emphasis on preventing crime and solving neighborhood problems. This model encourages police officers to go beyond responding to individual incidents and taking reports to address underlying problems and conditions in the neighborhood. This requires careful problem analysis, good data, and community involvement. Community policing could involve a new relationship between police and youth—one not based on conflict and hostility. For younger children, police can serve as mentors and role models. For adolescents, police can begin to bridge the gap by facilitating an open dialogue about concerns and prejudices.

At the tactical level, where philosophies and strategies are translated into real action, community policing can take on many faces. In addition to creating more opportunities for positive interaction with citizens (which requires the police to get out of their cars), community policing calls for mobilizing citizens, building partnerships with other organizations, and engaging in systematic problem solving. In the more progressive police departments, mobilization and problem solving are intimately linked, and the long-term goal is to establish self-regulating neighborhoods.

Smart community-oriented police organizations do not define their range of partnerships exclusively in terms of total community membership (e.g., Neighborhood Watch) or total law enforcement membership (e.g., FBI-DEA­local police task force). They recognize that linkages must be created with other institutions and agencies (ranging from local churches to other city departments) to leverage resources for local problems. These smart police organizations recognize something that traditional police agencies do not, namely, that the police alone cannot achieve public safety.

Finally, community policing can be conceptualized as a series of potential changes at the organizational level. Various changes within the police organization are considered necessary to achieve a new style of policing at the neighborhood level. Among these are: (1) changes in organizational structure, decentralizing, flattening, creating teams, and civilianizing, (2) changes in management, a mission statement that reflects new policing values, strategic planning, supervisory coaching and mentoring, and empowering of officers, (3) changes in information management to establish new systems for evaluating personnel, units, and programs, and new systems for crime analysis, mapping, and resource deployment. Whether new information technology will be used to further the goals of community policing or to move policing in another direction remains to be seen.

How effective?

Is community policing effective and beneficial for neighborhoods? The jury is still out, and the evaluation findings to date have been mixed. Some reasonably good evidence suggests that community-policing tactics can reduce fear of crime, improve police-community relations, and stimulate more positive attitudes among police personnel. We have less evidence that community policing can reduce levels of crime and disorder or change the actual behavior of citizens or police. As an exception, one of the more rigorous evaluations has shown positive results in Chicago neighborhoods on many of these outcomes. [ed: for a more recent evaluation, see  Community Policing in Chicago - An Evaluation of Chicago's Alternative Policing Strategy]

Community policing is attractive in theory, but has faced an uphill battle to convince police officers and citizens to accept new roles and responsibilities. Despite these constraints, many determined police executives and community leaders have persisted in their reform efforts and, consequently, have recorded some notable successes. The larger problem lies in the changing landscape of policing and the challenge posed by competing paradigms.

Community policing offers a real solution to this growing problem. Joint police-community problem-solving initiatives—with open, two-way communication and a focus on building comprehensive partnerships that attack the problem from all sides—hold considerable promise. This approach has been effective in addressing other social problems, and there is no compelling reason to believe that it cannot be applied to the problem of public safety.

Related resources:
DOJ Office of Community Oriented Policing
Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Strengthening the Capacities and Connections of Community Residents

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Highlights from Voices From the Field II: Reflections on Comprehensive Community Change, by Anne C. Kubisch, Patricia Auspos, Prudence Brown, Robert Chaskin, Karen Fulbright-Anderson, and Ralph Hamilton. Washington, D.C.: Aspen Institute.

Community capacity: the interaction of human capital, organizational resources, and social capital existing within a given community that can be leveraged to solve collective problems and improve or maintain the well-being of that community. It may operate through informal social processes and/or organized efforts by individuals, organizations and social networks. (Chaskin, Brown, Venkatesh & Vidal, 2001).


The key features of communities with capacity are a sense of community among residents, a commitment by residents to organize and act to improve the community, an ability to act to solve problems, and access to resources within and beyond the community.

Because residents are the core of a community’s assets, they represent the first level in the ecology of community change. As both agents and beneficiaries of community change, they can play a central role in shaping, implementing, and sustaining the change agenda. In many low-income communities, however, residents lack opportunities and support for those roles. Efforts by recent community-change ventures to increase residents’ capacity involve developing them as leaders, creating social connections, and organizing people to participate in change.

Developing Leaders

Our definition and discussion of leadership development draws heavily from a recent publication on community capacity (Chaskin, Brown,Venkatesh & Vidal, 2001), which describes the following characteristics: [Leadership development] attempts to engage the participation and commitment of current and potential leaders, provide them with opportunities for building skills, connect them to new information and resources, enlarge their perspectives on their community and how it might change, and help them create new relationships.

Methods range from formal training programs, which convey information or develop particular skills, to on-the-job training in which participants become members of boards or planning teams, serve in apprenticeships or co-staffing positions, and receive coaching or other training that prepares them to assume new roles. These approaches can be used to cultivate individual leaders or cadres of individuals who can participate in any stage of the community-change process: developing the overall vision, creating the plan for change, performing activities to implement the plan, tracking progress, and spreading the news about results.


Neighborhood Watch and Citizen Patrols: Evaluation

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from Community Change: Theories, Practice, and Evidence (pdf). Amie M. Schuck and Dennis P. Rosenbaum. Edited by Karen Fulbright-Anderson and Patricia Auspos. The Aspen Institute.

Neighborhood watch/block groups. Neighborhood Watch or Block Watch programs have been the primary form of collective citizen crime prevention over the last twenty-five years. Neighborhood watch-type activities are intended to provide an organizational framework for citizen participation in local crime prevention activities. These programs are based on the belief that neighborhood residents are in the best position to monitor individuals and activities in their communities. Such programs typically involve “citizens coming together in relatively small groups (usually block clubs) to share information about local crime problems, exchange crime prevention tips, and make plans for engaging in surveillance (‘watching’) of the neighborhood and crime-reporting activities.”

Neighborhood watch-type programs across America involve a wide variety of activities. James Garofalo and Maureen McLeod’s national survey, which collected information from 550 neighborhood watch programs, found the most popular activity was a property-marking program called Operation Identification (80.6 percent), followed by home security surveys by local police identifying security weaknesses (67.9 percent). Interestingly, 38 percent of the groups reported participating in more general community-oriented activities, such as insurance premium deduction surveys, quality-of-life measures, and medical emergency measures.

Theoretically, neighborhood watch-type activities address crime through the causal processes of informal social control and opportunity reduction. Through increased social contact and interaction, these programs are intended to reduce crime and fear of crime by increasing residents’ social bonding, support, and cohesion. Additionally, through increased surveillance and monitoring of the neighborhood, these social groups seek to reduce opportunities for crime.

Evaluations of neighborhood watch-type programs have shown mixed empirical support.  The best data on the effectiveness of neighborhood watch-type programs comes from four large-scale evaluations in Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, and London. The general pattern of results can be summarized as follows:

  • An increased awareness of and participation in program
  • No change in crime rates
  • No change in resident’s fear of crime
  • No change in resident’s social cohesion
  • No change in other intermediate social processes

Further, mobilizing and maintaining citizen participation is most difficult in neighborhoods where it is most needed. Participation levels remain low in high-crime, low-income, predominantly minority, heterogeneous neighborhoods, even after substantial organizing efforts. Additionally, in neighborhoods defined by high levels of disorder, crime, mutual distrust, transience, and a history of poor police-community relations it seems unrealistic to ask residents to work together as a team, keep an eye out for suspicious persons, and report crime to police.

Citizen patrols. Another community mobilization strategy is the active patrolling of neighborhoods by citizens who are not sworn law enforcement officers. Citizen patrols represent a straightforward attempt by neighborhood residents to increase surveillance and send a message to deviant residents, especially drug dealers, that “we control this area.” Today, citizen patrols address a wide range of problems, function in a variety of neighborhoods, and can be distinguished along several dimensions:

  • Function: protection of individual residents, deterrence of crime and disorder, identification of problem areas, reporting of incidents to the police
  • Surveillance area: buildings, neighborhood streets, public transportation, and college campuses
  • Mode of transportation: foot, bicycle, horse, scooter, or motorized patrol
  • Policies about responding to incidents: reporting versus intervention or arrest
  • Size: local, citywide, national

Evaluations of citizen patrols have produced mixed results. In the only national study, Yin (pdf) and his colleagues concluded that citizen patrols “may be” effective in increasing residents’ perception of safety. However, the study relied primarily on anecdotal evidence. In an evaluation of a well-organized paid citizen foot patrol in Columbus, Ohio, Edward Latessa and Harry Allen reported that the targeted areas experienced a reduction in crime. More recently, citizen patrols appeared to have reduced violence and increased feelings of safety in the Netherlands. In contrast, evaluations of the Guardian Angels in San Diego neighborhoods (and on New York City subways) revealed little impact on levels of crime. Caution must be exercised when interpreting these findings because of limitations in the research designs.

Another important question is how the public and the police view citizen patrols. In general, local citizens have given favorable ratings to citizen patrols, while local police have been less accepting. Although the reservation of police administrators to endorse citizen patrols is due, in part, to turf issues and control of the crime-fighter role, they also voice legitimate concerns about vigilantism, and the more subtle racism possibly generated by citizen patrols. With a long history of vigilantism, the United States has plenty of room for concern that certain subgroups of the community will attempt to enforce norms that are prejudicial to other groups. When citizens organize to stop crime and crime nonetheless continues to get worse, they naturally ask why. The answer may often be ill-informed, leading citizens to stereotype and blame certain groups and individuals for the problem.

Nonetheless, citizen patrols can be a positive force in the community. For those citizens who are invested in the neighborhood and care about maintaining its quality of life, patrols offer a vehicle for deterring crime and establishing social control over contested physical space. Yet local organizers must be ever mindful of the purpose and methods of the patrol. They must also be careful to avoid cooptation by the police or risk becoming indiscriminate defenders of police actions. The problem of racial profiling among police officers applies equally well to citizen patrols.

Is it worthwhile? Despite growing participation in neighborhood watch programs and citizen patrols, scientifically rigorous evaluation has failed to find consistent crime reduction benefits or significant increases in quality-of-life measures. While these programs may provide additional eyes and ears for the police, improve police-community relations, reduce crime and disorder, and strengthen social control and social support mechanisms, evaluators have yet to document such results. The lack of scientific evidence for surveillance-type programs may be attributed to poor evaluations. There have been very few scientifically rigorous evaluations of these types of crime prevention activities. A series of well-controlled experiments might well produce more promising results.

The failure of neighborhood watch programs, however, may reflect a deeper problem with the underlying theory. That is, these programs may be based on false assumptions about the social ecology of high-crime neighborhoods. The cookiecutter approach to neighborhood crime prevention has promoted watch-type organizations widely, even in neighborhoods where they appear to be inappropriate. In heterogeneous neighborhoods where there is high population turnover, for example, asking residents to come together in mutual support and trust to develop a system of surveillance against strangers and suspicious persons makes little sense.

Even in neighborhoods where neighborhood watch programs seem more appropriate, organizers need to address factors that contribute to the maintenance of successful programs. Stated simply, most watch-type programs do not last. They are organized to respond to a public safety crisis, and members generally lose interest when the crisis is over. Successful maintenance of collective community action requires leadership, continuous group structure, resources, a full agenda, and regular rewards for members. For this reason, multi-issued community organizations that address a wide range of neighborhood problems are encouraged over single-issue surveillance programs.

Core Principles of Community Building

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Excerpts from Voices From the Field II: Reflections on Comprehensive Community Change, by Anne C. Kubisch, Patricia Auspos, Prudence Brown, Robert Chaskin, Karen Fulbright-Anderson, and Ralph Hamilton. Washington, D.C.: Aspen Institute.

Anne C. Kubisch

Community building—the process of strengthening the ability of neighborhood residents, organizations, and institutions to foster and sustain neighborhood change, both individually and collectively—is vital to the work of Comprehensive Community Initiatives and many other community-change efforts. The belief that community residents can be agents of change, rather than just beneficiaries or clients, is probably the quality that most distinguishes community building from traditional programs and activities.

Practitioners believe that community building is a democratic process and that the people who are most affected by what happens in a community have the right to be included in discussions and decisions about what and how things should be done. This dimension of the work often is what truly motivates leaders, staff, and residents as they carry out their daily activities. It underscores the values of equity, self-determination, social justice, and respect for diversity that they believe are fundamental to healthy communities.

Prudence Brown

Prudence Brown

The community-building principle also recognizes that strong communities are built on the strengths of their residents and the relationships among them. The isolation of poor neighborhoods can undermine residents’ emotional, psychological, and social supports and sap the energy and the will they need to produce changes. Community building tries to weave or repair the social fabric of a neighborhood by expanding and strengthening informal ties among residents. It also aims to link community members with supportive individuals, organizations, and resources outside the neighborhood.

Community building, as the name suggests, is an ongoing process. In the words of one funder, “Is there such a thing as a ‘built’ community? I don’t think so. There’s always room for improvement.” The goal is to put in place the will, resources, and capacity needed to sustain local improvement beyond the life of an initiative.


Robert Chaskin

Although successful Community Development Corporations and other community-based organizations began putting the philosophy into practice well before it went by the name “community building,” CCIs played a pivotal role in placing the principle front and center, backing it with financial and technical resources, finding ways to implement it, and attempting to measure it. Community building’s position within recent community-change initiatives spans the spectrum from being a means to an end to being the end itself.

Community building as a means to an end

Some CCIs undertake community building as a means for reaching or enhancing programmatic goals (e.g., increasing employment, building better housing, improving health outcomes). From the perspective of these practitioners, community building is one of many instruments for change—something that occurs in the service of the initiative. According to one CCI director, “Community building must be done around real projects designed to revitalize the neighborhood in response to the needs and issues articulated by the community. It’s not just a matter of holding meetings. It must be outcomes oriented … it must be intertwined with programs. It’s not an approach by itself: it feeds on and is fed by outcome-oriented projects”.

Advocates of this view are sometimes impatient with the process oriented, “touchy-feely” community builders who, they believe, are lax about linking the work to outcomes. As a representative from one neighborhood-based employment effort explained, “If we find out that the neighborhood residents didn’t get jobs, we will not have succeeded. If we find out that they increased their self-esteem but didn’t get jobs, we just won’t accept that.”

Community building as an end in itself

Other practitioners believe that community building is an end in itself, a goal to pursue. Their initiatives use community building to drive all strategic decisions, and they assume that community-building outcomes—resident leadership, social capital, and neighborhood empowerment—are both valuable in their own right and essential for producing other types of change. People who subscribe to this view would argue that a community improvement effort that builds housing or increases employment but does not engage or empower residents is not successful.


Improve the Community, Deter the Criminal

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Crime is a serious and costly social problem that touches every neighborhood in this country. The knowledge base for developing effective neighborhood crime prevention initiatives has expanded significantly in recent years. When targeting these processes, certain interventions have been fairly successful in reducing the prevalence of crime in specific areas. Whether this knowledge can be used to produce sustained reductions in neighborhood crime rates is an important social policy question.

Since the mid-1960s, the United States has been embroiled in a war against crime, and has sought to control crime though the traditional responses of deterrence, incapacitation, and (occasionally) rehabilitation. The results of this law-enforcement approach are apparent. Expanded criminal codes and enforcement have produced huge jail and prison populations, disproportionately persons of color. While many policymakers have sought to justify these actions by citing reductions in crime rates, regardless of the merits of this argument (which are debatable), the financial and human costs of these policies are enormous and underestimated.

Although the criminal justice system is a necessary component of neighborhood crime prevention, it is not sufficient and can easily be overused. Clearly, the criminal justice system, as currently structured, is extremely limited in its capacity to prevent neighborhood crime. Hence, the best bet for promoting safe and healthy neighborhoods is to achieve broad understanding of the causes and impacts of violence and work to develop a broad array of preventive responses.

One important insight to emerge from scientific inquiry into neighborhoods in the past few decades is that problem behaviors tend to cluster in geographic areas and within individuals and families. Consequently, these behaviors tend to reinforce one another. Delinquency, violence, dropping out of school, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse often co-vary. As a result, new models are emerging for improving neighborhood safety and health, beginning with the premise that organizing around broad goals at the neighborhood level will result in improved quality of life for local residents. Inherent in these new models is the belief that traditional approaches to improving social conditions are not effective at the neighborhood level and that communities and regions play a much larger role in producing real change. These new models are diverse, but mutually supportive.

  • Individual and family interventions are now giving greater attention to early intervention in the life cycle.
  • Community models now recognize the need for achieving justice through harm reduction and offender reintegration rather than through isolation and retribution.
  • Restorative and community justice models are enticing because they offer justice by linking community and agency resources through a process that may strengthen collective efficacy at the neighborhood level.
  • Technology models are seeking to empower communities with web-based information networks, while pursuing resources to close the “digital divide.”
  • Macrolevel interventions are needed to regulate the economic and government forces that have historically resulted in community decline and disinvestment and provide new opportunities that can discourage crime.

Despite gaps in knowledge, progress has been made in designing successful neighborhood crime prevention initiatives. The recent developments in neighborhood-based programming have ignited hope—a hope that crime-ridden neighborhoods can become safe and healthy places for residents to raise children and achieve a reasonable quality of life. Comprehensive community programs have shown some success and are being replicated in many locations. However, there is much more we need to understand and much more we need to do. To take the lead from Penelope Tricket and her colleagues, today’s residents deserve the best we can offer with our current knowledge; tomorrow’s deserve better.

from Community Change: Theories, Practice, and Evidence (pdf). Amie M. Schuck and Dennis P. Rosenbaum. Edited by Karen Fulbright-Anderson and Patricia Auspos. The Aspen Institute.