Police–Community Relations

B. Community Service

A second strategy that has been used to address police– community relations is community service, which is similar to public relations but provides the addition of a more tangible public safety benefit for communities. Community service efforts recognize that a substantial obstacle to better police–community relations is the public’s perception that the police are not doing enough to address their public safety concerns. Community service has been especially pronounced in the community era as police departments have broadened their role in recognition of the significance of order-maintenance concerns. Community services that police provide are both directly and indirectly related to public safety. For example, police frequently engage in crime prevention activities by assisting residents in organizing neighborhood watch groups, attending community meetings to share crime statistics, providing tips to businesses in an effort to prevent theft, or establishing Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) programs in schools. In addition, it has also been common for the police to provide services that may be indirectly related to crime or public safety outcomes. Some of these services include activities for youth (e.g., police athletic leagues), general neighborhood improvements (e.g., working with residents to clean up a community park), or actively referring citizens to other public and private agencies that can address non–law enforcement problems.

The goal of community service activity is to increase the positive interactions that communities have with the police, to improve public perceptions of the police, and to meet real needs that are expressed by community members. The strength of the community service approach is that, unlike public relations models, community members receive a more tangible benefit from these interactions and the efforts by the police are more likely to reach a broader audience. There are a number of limitations associated with community service. First, some people have been concerned that the simple delivery of services to communities may not have the same effect as collaborating with community members to jointly make improvements. They argue that there is value in having the police empower communities to work toward collaborative solutions; in other words, fostering dependence on the police is not as desirable as fostering opportunities for mutually beneficial police–community partnerships. Although this criticism is not true of all community service activities, it certainly applies to a large number of them. The second limitation is a criticism shared with public relations efforts: that officers assigned to community service are frequently not representative of the department as a whole. This is especially true in departments where a specialized community service unit is responsible for carrying out all community service activities. Community service activities have the biggest impact on police–community relations when the entire department adopts a community service orientation. One effort used to accomplish this department-wide orientation is community policing.

C. Community Policing

Community policing borrows many of the same ideas and concerns addressed by public relations and community service activities; however, community policing represents a far more comprehensive approach that demands some substantial changes to the organization, mission, and activities of entire departments. According to Cordner (1999), community policing contains three critical dimensions: (1) philosophical, (2) strategic, and (3) tactical. The philosophical dimension represents a new way of thinking about policing that is consistent with the community era as opposed to previous professional era models. The philosophy of community policing is characterized by a broad vision of the police function, increased attention to the unique needs of individual communities, and a recognition that communities should have input into the police services they are receiving. Community policing recognizes that there is more to policing than simply fighting crime. The police have recognized that they need to be involved in mediating conflicts, providing services, and helping communities solve a wide variety of problems. This philosophy also rests on the recognition that neighborhoods and communities are unique and require different strategies and approaches. Finally, a community policing philosophy has meant that police must consult with community members and draw on their knowledge and insight. The strategic dimension represents the means by which this philosophy is translated into practical operational concepts. For community policing this has meant a more proactive preventive approach rather than a reactive one. Police are more aggressive at identifying and addressing long-term community problems rather than simply responding to dispatched calls for service. Police departments have relied on foot patrol, permanent beat assignment, and regular community meetings as a means to increase the interactions they have with the public. Finally, the tactical dimension represents specific programs and actions that departments take to meet the new demands of community policing. Two of the more common examples are (1) the development of strategic partnerships with other criminal justice agencies and community-based organizations and (2) the development of a problem-solving approach to public safety. These two activities help ensure that complex problems are addressed by a network of individuals and organizations that possess the knowledge and resources to tackle them.

Community policing, like other strategies to improve police–community relations, is not without limitations. First, community policing is very ambitious, because it requires that police departments completely reorient and reorganize themselves. For example, it is not easy for departments or individual officers to move away from a very reactive, 911-driven, law enforcement approach and adopt a more proactive, preventive, problem-solving model. The second challenge is that community policing is often most difficult to implement in the very neighborhoods that have the greatest need for improved police–community relations. Developing partnerships with community-based organizations and engaging residents can be very difficult in neighborhoods where there has been long-standing distrust and dissatisfaction with the police.

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