Police–Community Relations

B. 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 mid- to 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.

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