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 research paper 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, this research paper 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.