Community Policing: Where Do We Go From Here?

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Police officer at Children's Festival in North Charles, SC. Photo by Ryan Johnson via Flickr

Police officer at Children's Festival in North Charles, SC. Photo by Ryan Johnson via Flickr

Police officer at Children’s Festival in North Charleston, SC. Photo by Ryan Johnson via Flickr

This summer,  Philadelphia took a critical step towards reimagining the role of police when its City Council voted on June 23 to decriminalize a raft of public nuisance offenses—including disorderly conduct, obstructing a highway and public drunkenness. Instead of a misdemeanor arrest, officers now have the discretion to issue citations with fines of $50-$100 for some minor offenses.

That’s a departure from the aggressive enforcement of so-called “quality of life” offenses associated with “broken windows” policing—blamed by some for contributing to a breakdown of trust between law enforcement and many of the communities they serve. Like vagrancy laws of old, disorderly conduct statutes, in particular, have been criticized for being overly broad and disproportionately applied in poor and minority neighborhoods.

Under the new strategy,  Philadelphia expects to eliminate 10,000 cases a year from the criminal justice system. The city’s police officials say these statutory changes lay the groundwork for a new approach to policing, in which law enforcement is just one avenue for addressing social problems that affect public safety.

“We’re telling officers that they can’t arrest their way out of every problem,” said Capt. Francis Healy, legal adviser to Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, who is overseeing the changes.

“The future of community policing is happening here in Philadelphia.”

Whatever one chooses to call it – and community policing seems to be the buzzword of the day – giving cops tools other than handcuffs to do their job is essential to addressing the breakdown in public trust in police.

Philadelphia Commissioner Richard Ross, Jr.

Philadelphia Commissioner Richard Ross, Jr.

But community policing, or its more formal name—Community Oriented Policing (COP)—is not a new concept. And it has a checkered past. This has prompted a predictable backlash of criticism around the renewed interest in its potential.

Writing last month in The Crime Report, former NYPD officer-turned criminologist Eugene O’Donnell of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice all but dismissed the concept as a fanciful pipedream. He wrote:

Community policing — which is ill defined and amorphous — is once again being offered up as an ameliorative in the midst of our current crisis It is never quite clear what it is or how it works in a poor or high-crime community, but it advances the notion that if the police are nice to everyone the world will truly shine.

O’Donnell’s skepticism is not without merit.

It’s been 22 years since the Department of Justice established its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to advance a public safety model built around community partnerships, problem-solving and organizational transformation. Despite pouring nearly $15 billion of taxpayer money into that effort, it’s hard to turn on the TV news and conclude it’s been a success.

Nearly every local law enforcement agency in America boasts a “community policing” program. Yet public trust in law enforcement is now lower than it was in 1994, the year COPS grants were authorized.


The good news is the current push for more community policing has three things going for it that were absent in the 1990s: It coincides with a national effort to reverse the tide of mass incarceration; parallels a growing hostility to zero-tolerance “broken windows” policing; and is operating in a political climate amenable to intelligent alternatives to the “War on Drugs.”

More than 30 cities—including Philadelphia —have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, and nearly two dozen have launched, or are in the process of launching, a pre-booking diversion pilot for other drug offenses based on Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program. LEAD is grounded in the principles of harm reduction, which focuses on mitigating the negative consequences of drug use through community interventions other than prosecution.

These are positives signs. However, fixing the problems that plague many of America’s policing establishments presents a number of challenges — beginning with unravelling the factors that doomed the first wave of community policing.

A Troubled Legacy

At least six of the cities where the most controversial police killings have occurred since 2014 — New York, Chicago, Baton Rouge, Cleveland, Tulsa, North Charleston, S.C., and Baltimore – have received generous federal grants to establish community policing programs:  Several have even been recognized for their efforts (Chicago, Tulsa, North Charleston).

Research suggests that inconsistent messaging about the overarching goals of community oriented policing is largely to blame. A comprehensive survey of community policing research published in 2014 concluded that “a lack of fidelity to the ‘ideal’ model of [community-oriented policing] and the resulting morass of strategies that have come to define the approach” have produced stark variations in its application.

What makes community policing look so good on paper is also what makes it difficult to implement in practice. By emphasizing a flexible, individualized approach to law enforcement, there is no single playbook for departments to follow. This can lead to broad variations in COP initiatives, some of which have little resemblance to what early theorists envisioned.

That assessment is shared by early architects of the COP philosophy, who say the transformative principles they envisioned became grossly distorted in the years following the creation of the COPS Office by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

“What happened to community policing is a tragedy,” said Bonnie Bucqueroux, a former Michigan State University professor who helped create the first federally funded community policing pilot project during the administration of George H.W. Bush.

I interviewed Bucqueroux last year shortly before she passed away at the age of 71. She didn’t mince words in describing how the strategy got derailed by the law-and-order mentality that drove criminal justice policy making in the late 1990s.

“The COPS movement was started by this progressive group of [police] chiefs and redefined by a conservative administration that insisted on an ‘arrest-first’ policy,” she told me. “The federal government, as far as I’m concerned, destroyed community policing.”

The late Prof. Bucqueroux was a protege of  criminologist Robert Trojanowicz, who, in 1983, founded the National Center for Community Policing at Michigan State. In the early 1980s Trojanowicz devised ten principles of community-oriented policing —among them, decentralized and personalized policing; community empowerment; proactive problem-solving; and grassroots creativity and support.

These feel-good phrases are now part of the common language about policing, but they shared a street-level approach: placing more discretion in the hands of street cops to collaborate  with community members on finding solutions to public safety challenges.

For what it’s worth,  many of the problems that afflicted community policing can be chalked up to bad timing.

Wars on Everything

The introduction of COPS grants in 1995 coincided with the passage of some of the toughest anti-crime measures in decades, along with an aggressive expansion of the “War on Drugs” and—after 9/11—the “War on Terror.”

Wars need foot soldiers, so for most of its existence the COPS Office prioritized the placement of more cops on America’s streets. (The DOJ has funded the hiring of more than 127,000 new police officers since its inception, and has spent $1 billion just since 2010 on hiring grants.)

Ostensibly, these new officers were hired to engage in community policing activities. In practice, however, many police agencies took advantage of Washington’s largesse to flood neighborhoods with aggressive, “zero-tolerance” enforcement operations.

For example, in 2006 the International Association of the Chiefs of Police presented a community policing award to the Jacksonville Police Department for its “Operation Intensive Care Neighborhood” —a zero-tolerance enforcement sweep that resulted in over 2,850 arrests, most of them for minor offenses.  Departments misusing community policing resources to conduct “homeless sweeps” have become so problematic that the COPS Office issued a memo last year encouraging alternative approaches.

Photo by Marcela via Flickr

Photo by Marcela via Flickr

The conflation of community policing with broken windows policing has been compounded by the absence of reliable metrics for assessing community policing outcomes. Although crime control is just one goal of COP, crime statistics have become the gold standard for measuring its success. The introduction of CompStat by the NYPD the same year the first COPS grants were authorized helped further frame this numbers-driven approach to policing.

“There were people in the COPS Office who really wanted to focus on substance, but when the federal government started throwing lots of money out there it undercut any useful efforts,” said John Eck, who spent 17 years as research director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and now teaches criminology at the University of Cincinnati.  “The emphasis was ‘get the money out first, and ask questions later,’ which shifted discussion to quantities of cops instead of quality.”

Community Policing 2.0

For better or worse the ongoing national dialogue on police reform has breathed new life into the idea of community policing. The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing dedicated one of its six “Pillars” of reform to a recommitment to COP principles. Police departments around the country have responded by experimenting with new strategies to improve policing outcomes, or else are polishing off old ones—like the expanded foot patrols that defined community policing efforts in the 1980s.

Just this month, the New York Police Department expanded its Neighborhood Coordination Program, which divides precincts into smaller geographical units with the intent of building stronger partnerships between police and the communities they serve. The program has been operating as a pilot in the Far Rockaway section of the city since last year, with some reportedly positive results.

Similar initiatives that employ dedicated beat cops in smaller geographical units known as “Police Service Areas” (PSA) have already been underway in several municipalities— including Philadelphia and the District of Columbia—and smaller jurisdictions such as Allentown, PA, Fairfax County, VA, and Grand Rapids, MI.

A district commander of D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department announced last week that the city would begin to consolidate the city’s PSAs into larger sectors as a result of staffing shortages, but assured concerned residents at a community meeting that they would not feel the impact of the changes.

In Philly, each PSA is headed by a police lieutenant and staffed on average by three sergeants and 39 officers  who focus on patrol and community engagement, rather than call-driven services.

These early efforts have shown promise in repairing frayed police-community relations.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. Photo by Neon Tommie

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. Photo by Neon Tommie

In a recent New York Times op ed, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and civil rights attorney Connie Rice touted the Los Angeles Community Safety Partnership for its measurable success at lowering crime and improving police-community relations. Now in its fifth year, the program—which placed dedicated community engagement officers in four of Los Angeles housing projects—has been lauded by civic groups.

Photo by Luke Ford via Creative Commons

Connie Rice. Photo by Luke Ford via Creative Commons

More law enforcement agencies are acting proactively to head off problems before the boil out of control. Efforts at training police in de-escalation tactics, implicit bias and crisis intervention are underway in a number of cities.

Madison’s ‘Mental Health Officers’

Last year the police department in Madison, WI, began employing specially trained “Mental Health Officers” who work closely with citizens that are either dealing with issues of mental health themselves or within their families.

These officers work closely with mental health care facilities and organizations to try to proactively get individuals in need of services in contact with the appropriate organizations. The Madison Police Department (MPD) was chosen by the Council of State Governments Justice Center as one of six national law enforcement/mental health learning sites dedicated to expanding the practice.

This month the MPD turned its commitment to mental health care inward to address how the psychological trauma experienced by officers affects their tactical decisions.

“We have to be our best selves,” said Kristen Roman, captain of community outreach at MPD, and leader of a pilot program with the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the effect of ‘mindfulness training’ on officer stress. “We need to take care of ourselves to take care of others.”

The results, she noted, impact every level “from an individual officer  all the way through the organization and into the community.”

These reforms can have a compelling impact on the way police officers deal with crises. But the transparency of the process is also critical.  With the entire nation focused on policing practice, law enforcement agencies are opening themselves to an unprecedented level of public scrutiny.

As part of that development, a dozen police departments (including Philadelphia) have invited the DOJ to assess their practices under its recently established “Collaborative Reform” initiative—which seeks to head off problems before they become crises.

These efforts all provide evidence of a renewed commitment to reforming police practices. But even some of community policing’s strongest supporters view the recent emergence of Community Policing 2.0 with caution.

Frank Straub

Frank Straub

“I think we are moving in the right direction,” said Frank Straub, Director of Strategic Studies at the Police Foundation.  Prior to joining the Washington-based think tank, Straub helped develop community-oriented policing programs in Spokane, Indianapolis and White Plains, NY, where he served as police chief.

“My concern is that we don’t stay committed to this process for the long haul and that we allow ourselves to get sucked into a series of prophylactic solutions,” he said.

Straub’s concerns are well founded.

Why ‘Coffee With a Cop’ Doesn’t Help

By and large, community policing over the past decade has fallen into the category of “prophylactic solutions,” with departments shifting between broken windows-style enforcement initiatives and mostly cosmetic citizen engagement activities— typically involving some form of food or beverage and a folksy name (“Coffee with a Cop” being especially popular).

“We’d have police departments host community picnics where they hand out hot dogs and soda to people and call it community policing, but once all those hot dogs are handed out, it’s back to traditional policing practices,” said Bruce Benson, who served as deputy chief in Flint, MI, before becoming a consultant on community policing.

The DOJ is seeking an extra $42 million next year add more cops to America’s streets, bringing it total COPS Hiring Program budget to $229 million. To ensure that money is well spent and has enduring impact will require better oversight practices.

As recently as 2013, the Government Accountability Office estimated that fewer than 20 percent of the applications funded under the COPS Hiring Program contained data  showing how additional officers would be deployed in community policing.

At the direction of its Office of Inspector General, COPS has been working on better monitoring of its grantees to ensure they are using funds properly, but it’s too early to tell how effective that will be.

Where’s the Political Will?

Unless the COP model is linked to systemic changes in the policing profession its impact will be minimal. The official in charge of the DOJ’s COPS Office acknowledged as much in a recent agency newsletter.

“There is no question that rank-and-file officers must be held accountable for their actions,” wrote Director Ronald L. Davis. “However, if the systems in which they operate are flawed, even good officers can have bad outcomes.”

But identifying the structural impediments to reform is far more complex that revamping training models or weeding out so-called “bad apples.”

“The system itself is remarkably resistant to reform,” said Norm Stamper, who served as chief of the Seattle Police Department during the tumultuous 1999 World Trade Organization gathering. “Policing culture is paramilitary, bureaucratic and command and control influenced. As long as that structure doesn’t change it’s going to produce isolation and in-group solidarity.

“So even when you do get a committed chief you have cops who are willing to wait out those change agents. We need to ask hard questions and experiment with new organizational structures.”

protect and serveIn June, Stamper released a new book titled “To Protect And Serve” that calls for a radical transformation of American law enforcement. He supports the idea of concentrating COP efforts into small geographical areas, but proposes establishing citizen councils to work directly on a day-to-day level with police. In Stamper’s view, citizens should be involved in all aspects of police operations, from hiring decisions to oversight of police misconduct and lethal-force investigations.

There is some movement in that direction. In March, Newark’s Municipal Council voted unanimously to create what the American Civil Liberties Union calls “one of the strongest police oversight boards in the country.”

Newark’s new Civilian Complaint Review Board has the authority to subpoena police officers, audit policies and practices, and oversee police disciplinary processes.  Similarly, city leaders in Chicago are pushing to replace the scandal-plagued Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) with a more powerful Civilian Office on Police Accountability.

This kind of strong legislative action is necessary for reforming the police, because when left solely to the discretion of departments themselves, unpopular changes to practice, policy or management protocol are likely to get diluted, misunderstood or simply ignored before they ever reach street level.

“In many cases community policing is about changing the whole philosophy of the police department, changing the whole organizational structure so that officers have more discretion and can be more proactive,” said Charlotte Gill, a researcher at George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy.

“That’s a really, really big change from the traditional reactive model of the policing.”

The Unions Push Back

Frank Straub’s experience before joining the Police Foundation this summer reveals the level of pushback such efforts are likely to meet without robust political will.

In 2010 Straub was hired by the City of Indianapolis as Director of Public Safety with a mandate to reform the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. His efforts met with stiff resistance, mostly from the city’s Fraternal Order of Police. Within two years, the union triumphed and he was forced out of the post.

Straub was subsequently named chief of the police department of Spokane, WA, where his reform efforts were even less appreciated. He was forced to resign that post last year under strong pressure from police union officials and subordinates, and amid allegation of sexual harassment that were later determined to be unfounded.

Asked to reflect on the experience, Straub said municipalities often underestimate the level of political will it takes to enact real reform.

“Organizing a number of programs is relatively easy. But when it came time to fundamentally address the culture of the police department… that’s where the disconnect happens,” he said. “In Spokane and in other police departments there is considerable tension between officers who want to hold on to that enforcement-minded tradition and believe that the community support roles should be handed off to someone else.

“Sometimes when push comes to shove it’s easier to push the chief out than have a conflict with civil service employees.”

As chief of the Seattle Police Department, Stamper spent six years locking horns with the Fraternal Order of Police over his reform efforts. He says any effort to reform police practices will be doomed unless public officials are willing to play hardball with police unions.

“I have no problem with [union] advocacy, but by statute many states have granted management prerogatives to unions and dismantling those is a real challenge,” he said. “You’re talking about conditions that are enacted in labor contracts. I mean we got a separate set of due process rights for police officers.”

If there is a lesson to be learned from the failure of first-wave community policing programs to facilitate reform it’s that society placed too much responsibility on police to change themselves.

Avoiding a repeat of past failures means embracing an amalgam of proven strategies that includes problem-oriented policing (which addresses the root causes of public disorder) and a harm reduction approach to illicit drug use. And this will require the combined efforts of law enforcement, legislators, community groups, social service organizations, and—perhaps most importantly in this election year—voters.

Law enforcement is, after all, ultimately a reflection of society’s mores. If we want more conscientious police, we need to start by electing more conscientious public officials. Last month voters sent this message in Florida when they voted out controversial “tough on crime” prosecutor Angela Corey in favor of her more reform-minded opponent.

The stars may be aligned for community policing to finally generate the returns it once promised, but first we must reassess the laws we ask police to enforce—and the environment we ask them to do it in.

Christopher Moraff

Christopher Moraff

“Community policing is about more than the police and it’s about more than the community,” said Eck. “Policing is ultimately a political endeavor. Cops have very little direct control over the environment in which they operate, [so] what we want out of cops has to be consistent.

“The first step is to ask what the public thinks as a community: Why is this a problem? And that leaves it to legislators to draft solutions that address these things.”

Christopher Moraff is a Philadelphia-based journalist and a contributor  The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.









2 thoughts on “Community Policing: Where Do We Go From Here?

  1. Very insightful piece. I think most of us take community policing at face value, and fail to see or attempt to measure the actual benefits of COP.

  2. Decriminalizing certain minor crimes and offenses is not the best approach to Community Policing. Although doing so would reduce the amount of incarcerations, there are more efficient ways of implementing Community Policing. For example, dividing larger precincts into smaller geographical units, such as New York’s Police Department did with their Neighborhood Coordination Program, would be an excellent start. The implementation of dedicated beat COPS also seems like a step in the right direction for Community Policing. When it comes to Community Policing there is no right or wrong answer, just trial and error.

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