Police-Community Relations

Jason Scott. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009. Sage Publications.

Police in any democratic society are faced with an inescapable dilemma: Their role requires that they adequately balance the legal authority they have been granted by the public (through government) with their responsibility to protect individual rights and contribute to public safety. Police officers are a walking symbol of government authority. They have the power to stop, detain, question, arrest, and even use deadly physical force when necessary. At the same time, police have to be responsive to the wishes of the public. They must carry out complex tasks while respecting important legal and constitutional protections. The police are occasionally called upon to enforce unpopular laws while attempting to foster or maintain public support. How the police balance these concerns often determines the quality of the relationship that they have with the public. The actions of individual police officers (e.g., the use of excessive force), or policies enacted by a department that emphasize the coercive legal authority of the police (e.g., zero-tolerance policing) may jeopardize public satisfaction. In addition, the quality of police-community relations often contributes to the ability of the police to accomplish goals of public safety. When the public is satisfied with and has confidence in the police, they are more likely to contribute information that may assist the police in solving crimes. When community residents trust the police, they are more willing to work collaboratively with the police to make improvements to neighborhoods. Therefore, there are very real and practical concerns that should serve to encourage police departments to work on improving the relationships they have with local communities.

This chapter examines these police-community relations. It begins by examining police-community relations from a historical perspective. This discussion centers on an understanding of how the relationship between the police and the public has changed over time. Next, specific approaches that police departments have used to improve police-community relations are explored. Some of these approaches have included specialized police-community relations units, public relations campaigns, and community policing models. Finally, the chapter discusses what is currently known about the state of police-community relations in the United States with a particular focus on resident and community-level surveys that examine public satisfaction with police service.

Modern Police History and Police-Community Relations

It is difficult to fully appreciate the modern challenges facing police-community relations without first understanding how the relationship between police and communities has evolved over time. At the same time, in many respects the relationship between police and communities is central to the history of policing. For this reason, this chapter begins by examining how police-community relations have taken on a different meaning and significance over the past 150 years. Scholars have generally agreed that modern American policing can be divided into three distinct historical periods: (1) the political (mid-1800s-1930s), (2) the reform or professional (1930s-1980s), and (3) the community (1980s-present; Kelling & Moore, 1991). Although no specific event or date can be associated with the transition across these historical periods or eras, they do represent general shifts in the strategies and roles of the police. Consequently, these eras also signify changes in the way police relate to communities.

The Political Era (1840-1930s)

Beginning in the mid-1800s, there was an explosion of municipal police departments in the United States. These early police departments were organized around the neighborhoodor ward-based political systems that dominated this period. It was the local neighborhood politician who provided leadership and oversight over a substantially decentralized system of policing. Employment decisions within police departments were made at the ward level, and jobs were granted based on a system of political patronage. This system rewarded citizens with police work in exchange for their loyalty to the local ward politician who provided them with the job.

The localized nature of policing during this period had very profound consequences for police-community relations. First, it meant that police officers lived and worked in the same neighborhoods as civilians. Police officers and residents tended to share the same socioeconomic, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. As a result, police officers were well acquainted with the local customs, expectations, and values held by that community. Because of their familiarity with their neighborhood, officers were intimately aware of criminal as well as other social problems that plagued their communities. Officers were involved in foot patrol, crime prevention, and general order maintenance, and they also took on important social service activities during the political era. Because of rapid urbanization, officers frequently worked with ward politicians in assisting newly arriving European immigrants with housing, employment, and other social supports. This social service function contributed to the general satisfaction with and support of the police by the community. In fact, fostering a perception of police and political responsiveness among community residents was a goal central to policing during this period.

Although the political era is generally thought of as a period characterized by positive police-community relations, it was not without its problems. Two of the more significant problems during this period were (1) the involvement of police in corruption and (2) limited oversight and supervision of patrol officers. During this period, police involvement in corruption took on a number of different forms. First, because of their close relationship with communities, officers were susceptible to involvement in criminal activity or the acceptance of bribes in return for the nonenforcement of laws. The later part of the political era coincided with Prohibition and created opportunities for officers to gain financially by protecting illegal drinking establishments or speakeasies. A system of political patronage and the close connection officers had to local ward politicians also made them highly vulnerable to political corruption. Because they provided oversight at neighborhood polling locations, it was not uncommon for officers to have undue influence over public voting decisions or in some instances to intentionally rig elections. The problem of corruption was complicated by the limited forms of managerial oversight and supervision of patrol officers. Unlike the historical periods that would follow, the availability of technologies to monitor and track the location and activities of officers was limited to nonexistent during this era. Patrol officers were afforded considerable discretion in their daily activities, and there was limited motivation to supervise and punish them for wrongdoing given the complicity of managers in political corruption as well. The inefficiency and disorganization that resulted comprised a direct target and impetus for the next historical period, the reform/professional era.

The Reform/Professional Era (1930s-1980s)

In 1931, the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (known as the Wickersham Commission) presented its final report to President Herbert Hoover. Among the report’s recommendations was a call for increased reliance on civil service to improve the credibility of police hiring and the integration of scientific evidence processing to assist law enforcement. The reform and professionalization movement that occurred during the 50-year period following the Wickersham Commission would profoundly change the face of policing in America. Three of the more significant changes included (1) a shift in the organizational structure of police departments, (2) a new role orientation of policing, and (3) changing demographic characteristics of large U.S. cities. All three of these changes produced new and unique challenges to police-community relations.

A struggle over the control of police departments characterized much of the early reform era. This struggle represented a tension between local ward politicians who wanted to maintain control of their neighborhood precincts and urban reformers who were trying to bring greater structure, organization, and efficiency to policing and government in general. These reforms were part of a larger Progressive movement in American politics that sought to wrestle control from ward-based political machines, centralize decision making at the city level, and eliminate police corruption that was perceived to be a result of political patronage. Although the impact of these reforms was not immediate, the result was a far more centralized, top-down bureaucratic organizational structure. Within this environment decisions were increasingly made by professional administrators who were more distanced from the realities of the problems and concerns of local communities. In some cities, neighborhood precinct stations were closed in favor of more centralized downtown stations. In other locations, specific policies were developed in an attempt to completely isolate patrol officers from the negative threat of political and criminal influence that had previously existed. For example, during a period of time in Philadelphia it became illegal for patrol officers to live and work in the same beat (Kelling & Moore, 1991). Although many of these reforms laid the groundwork for increased professionalization within policing, these gains were frequently accomplished at the expense of police-community relations. The centralization of police departments created more isolation and social distance among police administrators, patrol officers, and residents of local communities.

During the political era, a central function of the police was the provision of social services. The professional era marked a transition to a period when the law enforcement functions of the police began to be paramount to what the police did and how police were viewed by the community. The shift to a law enforcement orientation was caused by an interaction between new organizational structures emphasizing professionalism and technological advancements. Some evidence of the emerging professionalism in law enforcement included the adoption of formal qualification standards and specialization. Civil service standards and an increased reliance on recruitment and training ensured that officers were hired not because they were integral members of a community but because they were the most technically qualified for the job. Prior to the professional era, police officers could be considered “generalists” who were required to perform a variety of tasks (e.g., solving interpersonal problems, enforcing laws, providing services). Professionalism, on the other hand, encouraged specialization around specific law enforcement tasks. It was now the function of patrol to respond to emergencies and engage in street-level enforcement of laws. It was the responsibility of investigative units to follow up and solve crimes through good detective work. Vice units now used undercover techniques to investigate illegal narcotics and gambling markets. Police officers were now hired and trained with the expectation that they would be “crime fighters.” The implication of this shift was the de-emphasis of the previously important community-service functions. For many new police recruits the service function was now cynically viewed as social work and as outside of the technical law enforcement responsibilities for which they had been trained and hired.

A number of technological innovations also contributed to the newly emerging and dominant law enforcement orientation of policing. The professional era marked the advent of the automobile, the two-way radio, centralized 911 dispatch, and investigative tools such as latent fingerprint technology. During the professional era the primary tool or mechanism for policing was preventive patrol in a vehicle coinciding with the quick and rapid response of patrol to dispatched calls for service. An emphasis on efficiency over personal connections with communities signaled the rapid decline of foot patrol. The standardized reporting of crime represented another technological innovation that contributed to the increased law enforcement orientation of policing during the professional era. The Uniform Crime Reports,clearance rates (percentage of crimes resulting in arrest), and response time (the time it takes for officers to respond to the location of a call) were now the benchmarks by which police departments were to be evaluated.

This new law enforcement orientation had a profound impact on police-community relations. Police service was now delivered in a one-size-fits-all approach that emphasized efficiency and standardization of response. This changed the way officers viewed citizens and their problems. Police were no longer encouraged to develop intimate relationships with residents in an effort to help them solve individual or collective neighborhood problems. As crime control experts, police now began to simply view citizens as a means to information that would allow them to process criminal cases and return to service as quickly as possible. Outside of this passive role, police required very little of citizens and were provided little incentive to engage them. Some of the very technologies that made policing more efficient created a barrier to the continued development of positive police-community interaction. The vehicle represented a physical barrier to police-community interaction, making officers less approachable. Reliance on 911 dispatch meant that the limited interactions that citizens had with police tended to revolve around negative experiences such as criminal victimization or being the subject of a police investigation.

The reorganization of police departments and a changing role orientation emphasizing law enforcement took place during a time when American cities were experiencing significant demographic changes and American society in general was undergoing profound social transformations. The conflict and challenges that emerged in the face of these transformations would ultimately push police departments to reorient themselves once again.

One of the more significant transformations during this time was the emergence of a young counterculture brought on largely by the post-World War II “baby boom” generation. This generation posed a challenge to police on two fronts. First, the emergent young age structure of American society meant that crime rates began to increase in the 1960s and 1970s. Second, police were often called to regulate civil disobedience and protests associated with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. As symbols of government authority, police were naturally pitted against a generation that viewed them as part of the problem.

By the middle of the professional era, American cities and the relationship police had with communities looked substantially different than they had 50 to 100 years earlier. At the end of the 19th century, American cities were characterized by increased urbanization, substantial European immigration, and concentrations of poverty and other social problems. Sixty years later, America was becoming increasingly urbanized; however, inner cities were beginning to lose population to burgeoning white middleclass suburban areas. These same inner-city communities were experiencing a new second wave of immigration represented largely by African Americans arriving from rural southern states and showed a continuation of concentrated poverty and social problems. The most substantial difference between these two periods was the role of the police in mediating these problems. During the political era, police came largely from poor working-class backgrounds, lived and worked in the same neighborhoods, and shared the same racial and ethnic characteristics as neighborhood residents. Because of changing urban demographics, by the 1960s police officers increasingly lived outside of the inner-city neighborhoods that were experiencing increases in crime and urban unrest. Because of professionalization, careers in policing were increasingly viewed as legitimate, middle-class professions. As a result, by the end of the professional era the increasing social, cultural, and racial distance between police and communities emerged as one of the most pressing issues facing the justice system. Public distrust of the police and allegations of racial discrimination and abuses of force were common. From the perspective of the police, an us-versus-them mentality was solidified during a period when officers felt underappreciated as they worked in regularly inhospitable environments. The tension between police and communities came to the forefront during a number of significant race riots in the midto late 1960s. As a result, the 1960s marked a period when police-community relations would become synonymous with race relations.

The challenge of race and policing was addressed in two important reports released in the late 1960s. The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (whose report was released in 1967) and the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (commonly referred to as the Kerner Commission, whose report was released in 1968) both highlighted the need for police departments to bridge the widening gulf between officers and minority communities. Although some efforts to improve police-community relations were made toward the end of the professional era, it was only a signal of more significant changes on the horizon. As police departments moved into the 1980s, new organizational structures, questions about the efficacy of professional models of policing, and recommitments to communities represented a new orientation and a shift into the community era of policing.

The Community Era (1980s-Present)

The professional era successfully accomplished many of the reformers’ concerns. Officers were now substantially more removed from the influence of machine party politics and criminal corruption. Police department functions were more centralized, and they operated with greater efficiency. Recruitment standards and training ensured that officers were better equipped to deal with the technical and legal aspects of law enforcement activities. However, by the end of the professional era it was clear that there were limits associated with the professional model. Research and experiments with different forms of policing began to reveal some challenges to the common assumptions held by the professional model. First, it became clear that a concern for traditional crime (e.g., homicide, assault, robbery, burglary) during the professional era had come at the expense of attention to other problems that police considered less serious. Surveys of community residents revealed a deep concern for physical and social disorder within neighborhoods. Residents and community leaders expressed frustration over the inability of police to address problems such as graffiti, prostitution markets, and drunk and disorderly persons. Coupled with this was the realization that what made residents feel safer and more confident in the police was the more visible and interactive experience of having officers patrolling communities on foot (Wilson & Kelling, 1982). Second, the efficacy of the popularized law enforcement approach—random preventive patrol in a vehicle, rapid response, and follow-up investigation—began to be called into question. Research suggested that this strategy was unrelated to reductions in crime rates or improved apprehension of suspects. Furthermore, critics argued that this strategy limited the ability of officers and departments to appreciate the underlying problems connecting criminal incidents (Goldstein, 1979). Finally, it became apparent that the police were ill equipped to deal with crime and neighborhood disorder problems alone. The professional era encouraged the police to view themselves as experts over a narrow range of legal problems; however, it became readily apparent that the range of problems with which the police were dealing was neither narrow nor strictly legal. In addition, both police officers and police administrators began to realize that their efforts to address these problems were limited without the broad support of community members and other nongovernmental organizations. These recognitions culminated in the development of a new philosophy of policing that is reflected in the community era.

Since the 1980s, policing has been characterized by at least three broad changes: (1) organizational restructuring, (2) a broadening of the police role/function, and (3) greater collaboration with communities. In many respects, some of these developments reflected the ideals of policing that had existed during the political era but had since faded in light of the reform movement. Although the community era represents a new philosophy and way of thinking about policing, it is clear that many police departments continue to cling to remnants of the professional era. In this respect, some police departments have been more successful at incorporating fragmented elements of community era reforms but less successful at adapting policies, practices, and coordinated strategies consistent with this new model (J. R. Greene & Mastrofski, 1991).

One of the most significant changes in the community era was a shift toward a more decentralized organizational structure of police departments. Decentralization has been accomplished in at least two different ways: (1) the physical restructuring of police departments and (2) the decentralization of decision making. In an effort to increase resident access to police, many departments have reversed the centralization trend popularized during the professional era. In some locations this has been accomplished by opening neighborhood-based storefront police stations. These locations provide a venue for residents to personally contact police officials with concerns or serve as a host location for police-community meetings. Some police departments have accomplished physical decentralization by restructuring police beats or areas of patrol responsibility so they more closely align with neighborhood boundaries. This, in conjunction with the permanent assignment of patrol officers to the same beats, has ensured that officers and communities become more familiar with one another. In the community era, not only are police departments more physically decentralized but also the organizations themselves have become more decentralized. This has meant that more discretion and decision making have been transferred from those at the top of the organization to those closer to the bottom. This change reflects recognition of the great variation in problems, needs, and assets experienced across urban neighborhoods. In the professional era, policies and decisions tended to be standardized and made by administrators who were too often removed from the unique challenges of individual communities. In an effort to be more responsive to the individual needs of communities, patrol officers and middle managers assigned to specific geographical areas have been given far more responsibility and discretion.

The community era has also forced police departments to broaden their focus and to elevate order-maintenance concerns as a priority activity. Police departments are increasingly recognizing that problems of order maintenance are often a precursor to more traditional crime and frequently create more fear and dissatisfaction within communities than do traditional crimes. Order-maintenance issues can include physical disorder such as abandoned buildings, graffiti, and landlords who ignore municipal housing codes. Order maintenance also includes social disorder such as loud parties, open-air drug markets, and teenagers who are skipping school and hanging out on the streets. An increased focus on order maintenance has required police departments to get far more creative in how they go about solving these problems. As discussed later in this chapter, oftentimes this requires the police to consult with residents and community groups in an effort to determine which disorderly problems are most troublesome and what nontraditional responses might be best suited to addressing them. Alternatively, police have also been experimenting with more traditional law enforcement approaches to deal with order-maintenance issues. Zero-tolerance policing, which has also been referred to as aggressive order maintenance, is an approach that has been associated with some reductions in these problems but may also generate more complaints from the public (J. A. Greene, 1999). Therefore, how police departments go about addressing order-maintenance problems represents a critical determinant of police-community relations.

The final defining characteristic of the community era is increased attention to the relationship that the police have with communities. The urban unrest that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s provided dramatic evidence of the need for police departments to take more seriously the relationship they had with communities. With the focus on law enforcement during the professional era there was little incentive for police departments to be concerned with fostering a positive relationship with communities. As experts in crime control, police certainly did not view residents and community groups as equal partners in their fight against crime. An emphasis on order maintenance, the decentralization of police departments, and an increased appreciation for the complexity of crime and urban disorder encouraged police departments to challenge these patterns in the community era. Police are increasingly beginning to view community engagement as a central component of their mission. Within this framework, partnerships and collaboration between police and communities allow these two groups to jointly produce crime control and public safety. Some scholars have referred to this as the coproduction of social control (Scott, 2002). Instead of treating crime as isolated incidents, police in the community era have engaged residents and communitybased organizations in long-term collaborative problem solving. In accomplishing this effort, police have turned to members of resident-based organizations, such as block clubs and neighborhood associations. Because of their central location within communities, and because they are frequently most vocal in expressing their concerns about neighborhood problems and the quality of police service, these resident-based organizations have been at the forefront of police-community partnerships. Also during the community era police have broadened their partnerships to increasingly include noncriminal justice government and nongovernment agencies. Examples of government agencies involved in these types of partnerships include school districts, municipal code enforcement, youth services bureaus, parks and recreation, and municipal waste management. In the community era police have also increased partnerships with nongovernment agencies that are working directly with local neighborhoods and communities. Examples of these agencies include community development corporations, private corporations, and nonprofit social service agencies.

Strategies to Address Police-Community Relations

Police-Community Relations Movement

Efforts to improve police-community relations have intensified during the community era, but attention to this challenge preceded this period by decades. As discussed earlier in this chapter, by the late 1960s American policing was facing a significant community relations crisis; however, the police-community relations movement got its start at least a decade earlier. In 1955, the National Institute on Police and Community Relations was held at Michigan State University. This 5-day conference was cosponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Michigan State University School of Police Administration and Public Safety (Carter & Radelet, 1998). This conference, the discussions that it spawned, and the annual conferences that would follow moved the discussion of police-community relations to the forefront of the police agenda. Since the 1950s, a number of specific approaches have been taken in an attempt to address this problem and bring police and communities closer together. These strategies have been as simple as the development of police athletic leagues to support youth development and as complex as completely reorienting the philosophy of entire police departments. Taken as a whole, these strategies can be classified into three broad categories: (1) public relations efforts, (2) community service activities, and (3) community policing.

Public Relations

Some of the earliest efforts to improve police-community relations can be considered public relations efforts. Although public relations models differ in their scope and approach, they share a number of common characteristics. First, public relations approaches make a common assumption about the cause or origins of poor police – community relations. It is assumed that problems with this relationship exist because the public fails to fully understand the complexity and challenge associated with the job the police are trying to accomplish. Alternatively, poor police – community relations could simply be due to the fact that the public has an inaccurate or unfavorable perception of the police. This underlying assumption lays the foundation for the next characteristic of the public relations strategy. The second common element of the public relations approach reflects efforts to improve the public’s perception of the police. In some respects, this involves reeducating communities about what reasonable expectations they should hold of the police. This strategy has been carried out in a number of ways. Some police departments have created specialized police-community relations units to carry out these efforts. These units are composed of officers who have received special training in police-community relations, and their focus, in part, is on developing and maintaining a more favorable public image of the police. Other police departments have engaged in media campaigns, hosted open houses at local police precincts, developed civilian ridealong programs, and operated citizen “police academies.” The shared purpose of these activities is to create an environment in which to play host to more positive interactions between police and residents and to assist the police in educating the public about police work. If the public perception of the police is to blame, public relations models simply try to modify these perceptions to ones that are more favorable of the police.

There are a number of problems or limitations associated with the public relations approach. Some critics have argued that the public relations approach simply represents one-way communication between police and communities (Carter & Radelet, 1998); in other words, the police explain to the public what they should expect or how the police can best realistically meet their needs. The trouble with this approach, it is argued, is that it fails to provide an opportunity for residents to voice their concerns to the police. It is important to note that what the police are telling residents they should be concerned with may be completely different from what residents are truly concerned about, or the expectations the police think a community should have of them may be inconsistent with what the community actually expects of the police. The problem with this limitation is that it usually fails to provide an avenue for discussion of the real issues that represent barriers to more positive police – community relations.

A second, but related criticism of some of the public relations strategies is that they may be most effective at reaching an audience that already shares a favorable opinion of the police. This criticism is commonly associated with evaluations of strategies like civilian ride-along programs and citizen police academies. These evaluations have found that civilian participants tend to be individuals who are already overwhelmingly supportive of the police. Also, civilian participants in these programs tend to come from neighborhoods where police-community relations are not serious or challenging issues. In this respect, the residents and communities that the police need to reach out to the most fail to be engaged in any meaningful interaction or dialogue with the police. As a result, the problems of poor police-community relations go unaddressed in the very communities where these issues are most pronounced.

Finally, some critics of the public relations model have observed that the officers who are most active in these efforts frequently are not representative of the typical officer on the police force. Officers selected for police-community relations units, or similar activities, typically receive special training, may already have a more positive rapport with citizens, and are less likely to have had civilian complaints filed against them in the past. This can be problematic for at least two reasons. First, it may encourage the average police officer to be less motivated to develop positive police-community interactions in his or her day-to-day activities. After all, it can be argued, there are specific officers designed to deal with the hard work of developing these relationships. The second reason this is problematic is that it fails to address the conduct of specific officers who are arguably the target of most civilian complaints. In this respect, the officers engaged in the targeted interactions with citizens are not the officers on the force who are problematic from the police-community relations standpoint. This cosmetic approach frequently fails to deal with the small percentage of the police officers who are generating the majority of citizen complaints and therefore the biggest impediment to more positive police-community relations.

Community Service

A second strategy that has been used to address police-community relations is community service, which is similar to public relations but provides the addition of a more tangible public safety benefit for communities. Community service efforts recognize that a substantial obstacle to better police-community relations is the public’s perception that the police are not doing enough to address their public safety concerns. Community service has been especially pronounced in the community era as police departments have broadened their role in recognition of the significance of order-maintenance concerns. Community services that police provide are both directly and indirectly related to public safety. For example, police frequently engage in crime prevention activities by assisting residents in organizing neighborhood watch groups, attending community meetings to share crime statistics, providing tips to businesses in an effort to prevent theft, or establishing Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) programs in schools. In addition, it has also been common for the police to provide services that may be indirectly related to crime or public safety outcomes. Some of these services include activities for youth (e.g., police athletic leagues), general neighborhood improvements (e.g., working with residents to clean up a community park), or actively referring citizens to other public and private agencies that can address non-law enforcement problems.

The goal of community service activity is to increase the positive interactions that communities have with the police, to improve public perceptions of the police, and to meet real needs that are expressed by community members. The strength of the community service approach is that, unlike public relations models, community members receive a more tangible benefit from these interactions and the efforts by the police are more likely to reach a broader audience. There are a number of limitations associated with community service. First, some people have been concerned that the simple delivery of services to communities may not have the same effect as collaborating with community members to jointly make improvements. They argue that there is value in having the police empower communities to work toward collaborative solutions; in other words, fostering dependence on the police is not as desirable as fostering opportunities for mutually beneficial police-community partnerships. Although this criticism is not true of all community service activities, it certainly applies to a large number of them. The second limitation is a criticism shared with public relations efforts: that officers assigned to community service are frequently not representative of the department as a whole. This is especially true in departments where a specialized community service unit is responsible for carrying out all community service activities. Community service activities have the biggest impact on police-community relations when the entire department adopts a community service orientation. One effort used to accomplish this department-wide orientation is community policing.

Community Policing

Community policing borrows many of the same ideas and concerns addressed by public relations and community service activities; however, community policing represents a far more comprehensive approach that demands some substantial changes to the organization, mission, and activities of entire departments. According to Cordner (1999), community policing contains three critical dimensions: (1) philosophical, (2) strategic, and (3) tactical. The philosophical dimension represents a new way of thinking about policing that is consistent with the community era as opposed to previous professional era models. The philosophy of community policing is characterized by a broad vision of the police function, increased attention to the unique needs of individual communities, and a recognition that communities should have input into the police services they are receiving. Community policing recognizes that there is more to policing than simply fighting crime. The police have recognized that they need to be involved in mediating conflicts, providing services, and helping communities solve a wide variety of problems. This philosophy also rests on the recognition that neighborhoods and communities are unique and require different strategies and approaches. Finally, a community policing philosophy has meant that police must consult with community members and draw on their knowledge and insight. The strategic dimension represents the means by which this philosophy is translated into practical operational concepts. For community policing this has meant a more proactive preventive approach rather than a reactive one. Police are more aggressive at identifying and addressing long-term community problems rather than simply responding to dispatched calls for service. Police departments have relied on foot patrol, permanent beat assignment, and regular community meetings as a means to increase the interactions they have with the public. Finally, the tactical dimension represents specific programs and actions that departments take to meet the new demands of community policing. Two of the more common examples are (1) the development of strategic partnerships with other criminal justice agencies and community-based organizations and (2) the development of a problem-solving approach to public safety. These two activities help ensure that complex problems are addressed by a network of individuals and organizations that possess the knowledge and resources to tackle them.

Community policing, like other strategies to improve police-community relations, is not without limitations. First, community policing is very ambitious, because it requires that police departments completely reorient and reorganize themselves. For example, it is not easy for departments or individual officers to move away from a very reactive, 911-driven, law enforcement approach and adopt a more proactive, preventive, problem-solving model. The second challenge is that community policing is often most difficult to implement in the very neighborhoods that have the greatest need for improved police-community relations. Developing partnerships with community-based organizations and engaging residents can be very difficult in neighborhoods where there has been long-standing distrust and dissatisfaction with the police.

Conclusion: Public Opinion and the Police

As police-community relations have become more of a concern in recent decades, police departments and social scientists have become more systematic in measuring and assessing these relationships. These assessments have increasingly been made through public opinion polls in which residents are asked about their relationship with the police and their level of satisfaction with police service. Understanding public opinion concerning the police is important for at least two reasons. First, as an outcome, public opinion can help police departments gauge how they are doing in terms of police-community relations. Monitored over time, public opinion can be used to evaluate specific programs designed to improve police-community relations. Second, public opinion research can be used strategically by police departments to identify areas that are a direct impediment to better police-community relations. In this way, police departments can use this information to help inform the approaches they take and to better address the needs and concerns of communities. This research has explored a variety of dimensions of public support and satisfaction and has revealed a number of important characteristics and determinants associated with both positive and negative police-community relations.

Dimensions of Public Support

In general, public opinion research has distinguished between general or global attitudes towards the police and specific satisfaction with direct experiences and interactions citizens have had with police officers. Surveys that have addressed the first outcome variable have asked residents to report general impressions of or attitudes toward the police. These surveys have measured citizen trust of the police, perceptions of police responsiveness, confidence in the police, general satisfaction with police service, and perceptions of police misconduct and other problems associated with abusive police behavior. Other public opinion surveys have assessed direct interactions that citizens have had with the police. These surveys have addressed interactions that citizens have initiated (e.g., crime victims who call the police) as well as interactions that the police have initiated (e.g., citizens who have been stopped for a traffic violation). This research has measured citizen satisfaction with the police response; citizen perceptions of police effectiveness in handling the situation and whether the police were fair, polite, and helpful in their interaction.

Individual-Level Factors

According to public opinion research, citizens are for the most part supportive of and satisfied with the police. However, this research has also revealed a number of individual citizen characteristics that have been shown to be related to differences in support and satisfaction with the police. Some of these factors are related to demographic characteristics, and others are related to the nature of the direct experiences citizens have had with the police. In addition, some research has demonstrated the importance of vicarious experiences reported by friends and family members who have interacted with the police. Some of the most important demographic characteristics that have consistently been shown to be related to public opinion of the police are age, socioeconomic status, and race. Older adults and senior citizens generally hold more favorable opinions of the police compared with young adults and teenagers. Individuals who earn more income, have higher levels of education, and who own their homes are generally more satisfied with the police. One of the most consistent findings is that an individual’s race and ethnicity are strong predictors of his or her satisfaction with the police. White community members are generally more supportive and hold more favorable views of the police compared with African American and Hispanic community members. Some research has suggested that these race/ethnicity differences are due to differential experiences of minority members as well as differences in communitylevel characteristics. If minority citizens are more likely to have negative interactions with the police (e.g., the focus of a police-initiated stop or investigation), differences in their satisfaction with the police are only indirectly related to race and ethnicity. Likewise, if minority citizens are more likely to live in communities experiencing high levels of crime and disorder, differences in their confidence in the police are only indirectly related to race and ethnicity. These important community-level factors are discussed next.

Community-Level Factors

Much of the individual-level differences in citizen satisfaction with the police can be explained by community level factors; in other words, where people live is a more powerful predictor of satisfaction than individual demographic characteristics and at least as important as direct experiences residents have with the police. Some of the community-level factors that appear to contribute to differences in public opinion include neighborhood-level poverty, perceived neighborhood disorder or incivilities, violent crime, and perceptions of social disorganization (e.g., willingness of neighbors to collectively address public safety concerns). Residents who live in neighborhoods experiencing high levels of poverty, neighborhood disorder, violence, and limited collaboration between residents generally report lower levels of satisfaction and attitudes less favorable to the police. This suggests that residents place a high degree of responsibility on the police for the physical and social conditions of their neighborhoods.

Implications for Police Service

The research reported in this chapter has a number of implications for police departments seeking to address and improve police-community relations. First, it suggests that an important first step is to decrease the number of negative interactions between police and community members and provide avenues for more positive interactions. This applies to both voluntary citizen-initiated interactions as well as involuntary interactions initiated by the police. Research suggests that the on-scene behavior of officers has an important influence on citizen perceptions of the police (Skogan, 2005). Ensuring that officers take steps to explain their actions, respond in a fair and polite manner, and provide opportunities for citizens to express themselves represent vital steps to improve citizen satisfaction. The second important implication of this research is that the police need to understand that the community context of these interactions matters greatly. Regardless of the demographic characteristics of communities, the presence of visible social and physical incivilities limits the quality of police-community relations. Police departments must address these concerns in ways that are visible and transparent to community members. In this way, police can improve public satisfaction to the extent that community members perceive the police to be seriously addressing these order maintenance problems. Increasingly, the real challenge for the police is to find ways to engage in aggressive order maintenance activities while not jeopardizing the quality of interactions they have with members of those communities.