Police–Community Relations

II. 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 research paper 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.

A. 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 neighborhood- or 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.

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