Police–Community Relations

C. 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 research paper, 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 community-based 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.

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