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Calls for reform bring renewed focus to community policing, but does it work?

Amid protests over racial injustice spurred by the killing of George Floyd by police in May, the concept of community policing is getting a new look as lawmakers, reform advocates and some law enforcement consider whether it could help promote systemic changes in policing.

In a June column for USA Today, former Vice President and Democratic nominee Joe Biden discussed his proposal for a $300 million investment in community policing initiatives aimed at “getting cops out of their cruisers and building relationships with the people and the communities they are there to serve and protect.”

That same month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order calling for legislation that would enhance existing federal grant programs to help police agencies grow community engagement.

For about 60 years, law enforcement agencies have turned to the community policing philosophy to serve a variety of purposes, including crime reduction and changes to how police interact with the residents they serve. Despite funding from the federal government and support among many police departments, community policing has become a broad, amorphous concept that encompasses a myriad of tactics that departments use to engage civilians. The outcomes of these strategies will differ depending on a particular department’s implementation, as well as the specific needs of the residents, researchers told the PBS NewsHour.

These differences mean some community policing efforts may build community trust, change officer behavior or reduce use of force against civilians, while others may not.

The origins of community policing

Interest in community policing in the U.S. dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, a period of high tension and clashes between law enforcement and protesters against the backdrop of the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements. By the 1980s, the more formalized concept sought to train officers to police and interact with communities in new ways, said Tracey Meares, a professor and founding director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School.

In its early iteration this included officer foot patrols, knocking on doors, counseling crime victims and setting up neighborhood police stations, according to a 1988 paper by criminologists George Kelling and Mark Moore.

Kelling and Moore wrote that the key elements of community policing are organizational decentralization, such as neighborhood police stations; developing an intimate relationship between police and residents; and fostering communication that encourages people to bring issues within the neighborhood directly to officers.

But community policing that advanced alongside other crime fighting approaches, critics say, disproportionately targeted poor people and communities of color. One of these was the broken windows theory, popularized by Kelling, which asserted that smaller signs of crime or disorder, like a broken window in a neighborhood building, will lead to further deterioration, or more frequent crimes. Therefore, Kelling argued, swiftly addressing small instances of disorder like panhandling or loitering, will in theory, promote lawfulness and order in a city.

During this period, the country’s “tough on crime” approach included the War on Drugs that led to laws establishing minimum sentences for possession of controlled substances like cocaine, heroine and marijuana.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which Biden played a lead role in writing, is frequently criticized for mandating the three-strike sentencing rule and contributing to increased incarceration. It also allocated $8.8 billion over six years and established the federal Community Oriented Policing Services office to manage and distribute these funds.

Between 1980 and 2000, the total U.S. prison population increased from 329,000 people to more than 1.3 million, with 46.2 percent of those serving sentences longer than one year being Black, 35.7 percent being white and 16.4 percent being Hispanic.

Despite the push for community-based approaches to law enforcement in the 1980s and 1990s, policing in practice showed “extreme inequality,” said Daniel Lawrence, a principal research associate in the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. “Individuals from communities of color – specifically Black communities – instead experience dehumanizing behaviors repeatedly in their interactions with police officers.”

As crime rates decreased and public support for criminal justice and policing reform evolved, so did approaches to community policing. In 2011, President Barack Obama’s administration established the Collaborative Reform Initiative (CRI), under which departments could request a Justice Department assessment of its policing practices that included recommendations. Departments could also receive federal funding and training to help implement the changes.

In 2014, the Justice Department under Obama also provided $4.75 million in funding for a three-year pilot program called the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. Through the initiative, six police departments received guidance and training from experts on addressing implicit biases, improving public interactions and building trust.

During his time in office, Trump has repeatedly called for “law and order” and shown public support for law enforcement, particularly amid a series of sustained protests across the United States that have called for racial equality and an end to police brutality. Trump’s administration has provided military equipment, tactical training and some financial support for police.

But, the administration discontinued funding for the National Initiative, restructured the Collaborative Reform Initiative to scale back federal oversight of local departments and has repeatedly proposed large budget cuts to a COPS office program meant to provide funding to hire more local officers.

The 2021 White House budget proposal released in February included a 58 percent cut to the hiring program from $235 million to $99 million to reallocate funds to federal law enforcement. The administration stated that resources for the program “are spread thin and are not well targeted to achieve public safety outcomes.”

Jacob Belay Barack Smith from New York City, 10, stands in front of a police line around Black Lives Matter Plaza during racial inequality protests near the White House in Washington, U.S., June 23, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott

Community policing approaches vary

Lawmakers frequently discuss community policing as if it is a cohesive set of recommendations that can bring about police reforms. In reality, community policing can mean whatever individual police departments decide.

In the 1980s, Houston police set up “storefront” police stations at malls to give people more accessibility to officers, said Jihong Zhao, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Sam Houston State University in Texas. In Spokane, Washington, in the 1990s, Zhao said he shadowed police officers who were assigned to monitor apartment complexes in a lower income neighborhood with higher volumes of 9-1-1 calls.

In 1991, the Elgin Police Department in Illinois established the Resident Officer Program of Elgin (ROPE), which placed nine officers in residence in different areas of the city where the department had determined crime rates were higher, in order to build partnerships between police and residents, said Commander Adam Schuessler, who became an early ROPE officer.

“We put officers in those neighborhoods to work with the community, not run the community,” Schuessler said. “We are going to let them know we live in this neighborhood with you. We’re here with you. We’re here for you. We’re here to listen to you. We’re here to help solve the problems that you see.”

A 2014 FiveThirtyEight analysis determined that of the 75 U.S. cities with the largest police forces, 60 percent of officers lived outside city limits. ROPE now has just four participating officers, but has become a model for similar efforts in other cities. Elgin police also run other community programs and events, including assigning neighborhood officers, holding camps for children and a civilian police academy to recruit community members.

A different community policing approach in Grand Rapids, Michigan, designates community policing “specialists” who work to make nonenforcement “informal” contacts with the residents of a specific region or neighborhood. This can involve anything from playing basketball with kids, to attending community events. The goal is for the officers to develop relationships with residents to address any neighborhood problems based on their particular needs, Sgt. John Wittkowski of the Grand Rapid Police Department said.

Beyond these specialists, Wittkowski said his department makes the principles of community policing part of the entire department’s culture. An acceptance of that culture is something they look for when hiring new personnel, he added.

“Over the last few years we have made a push to ensure that officers realize that those informal contacts — those community contacts getting out of your car, shooting hoops with a kid, speaking to parents at an event — are hugely important to developing relationships and most importantly, developing a level of trust in the community,” Wittkowski said.

Neither Elgin nor Grand Rapids could provide metrics showing the effects of their community policing efforts on crime levels, arrests or community satisfaction. Policing researchers said the inconsistency in how departments use certain community-based policing approaches creates challenges for isolating the outcomes of a particular strategy.

“There certainly have been studies that try to figure out if policing under the guise of community policing leads to particular outcomes you might expect like lower levels of crime, increased citizen satisfaction with police, lower fear of crime. … but the research is mixed,” said Christopher Harris, associate professor of criminology and justice studies with the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

One 2019 study examined how positive nonenforcement interactions affect public perceptions of law enforcement. The study worked with police in New Haven, Connecticut, who knocked on doors and briefly engaged with residents in a nonenforcement capacity. The study found significant improvements in the civilians’ feelings toward the officers, with the biggest positive effect among Black residents.

In a 2014 report, researchers conducted a systematic review of 25 reports containing 65 independent tests of community-oriented policing. It determined that these efforts had positive effects on citizen satisfaction, perceptions of disorder and police legitimacy. But the impact on crime and fear of crime was limited, the study concluded.

Among the body of research, it’s unclear what effect community-focused strategies have on officer behavior and use of force — a primary concern for reform advocates. “Certain kinds of community policing can improve the community’s perception of police legitimacy and trust … that is not the same thing as enhancing public safety,” said Michael Sierra-Arévalo, an assistant professor with the University of Texas at Austin who co-authored the 2019 New Haven study. “You can have people trust the police, and the police can still violate their rights. They can still uphold unjust laws.”

Use of force data can be a challenge to collect from police agencies generally, and there is no mandatory nationwide database for such information. A number of researchers and news organizations have collected figures looking at police killings, shootings or use of force against civilians, which indicate racial disparities. One analysis from The Guardian found that in 2016, police killed Native Americans at the highest rates (10.13 per million people), followed by Black people (6.66 per million). The rate for Latino people was 3.23 per million, and 2.9 per million for white people.

To assess the potential effects of community-oriented policing programs, an Urban Institute report from last year, co-authored by Lawrence, looked at the Obama administration’s National Initiative and its outcomes on five of the six participating cities: Birmingham, Alabama; Fort Worth, Texas; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Stockton, California.

Only three of the cities provided data on use of force by police officers. While two of the cities did experience decreases in the number of instances in which police used force, none saw a change in racial disparities in the use of force that existed prior to the program. Beyond police use of force, the researchers found a reduction in violent crime during the program period in just one of the five cities: Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, there was an increase in violent crime in Fort Worth and no changes for Birmingham, Minneapolis and Stockton.

Researchers, lawmakers and activists consider what will bring about reform

The makeup and needs of communities vary, which means the goals and results of community policing tactics will look different. One important step is for residents to determine what purpose policing should serve in their communities, Meares of Yale University said. “Citizens of the United States need to come to a consensus about the meaning of public safety that includes the perspective of those most affected by both the problems that the state deploys police to solve, and the way that the state responds to those problems,” Meares and Tom Tyler, a professor and founding director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School, wrote in The Atlantic.

Daniel Lawrence of the Urban Institute said empirical evidence indicates that the principles of procedural justice can have positive outcomes for civilians. Procedural justice focuses on how police interact with people through dignity and respect, transparency, impartiality and giving individuals a voice. That concept is “grounded in the idea that people’s perceptions of police legitimacy will be influenced more by their experience of interacting with officers, than by the end result of those interactions,” Yale’s Justice Collaboratory wrote.

The Obama administration’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing released a report in 2015 outlining key recommendations for reforms that have been embraced by numerous policing scholars. One of the pillars calls for procedural justice and another emphasizes the importance of community policing.

But many activists demanding structural changes to law enforcement argue that community policing strategies will not help historically marginalized populations. “Community policing is based on this false notion that knowledge keeps people safe, that if the police just knew the people who they were surveilling and harassing, that they could somehow police safer,” said Derecka Purnell, a human rights lawyer, activist and writer. Purnell argued that enhanced proximity to law enforcement would instead be detrimental for vulnerable groups and would lead to more frequent interactions that could turn aggressive.

Purnell and other supporters of the Defund the Police movement are calling for money to be reinvested in services that will address the roots of crime and inequality in the country, such as financial instability or the lack of adequate mental health services.

Ultimately community policing will not fix systemic racism within law enforcement, Sierra-Arévalo with UT Austin said, noting the importance of residents’ lived experiences with discrimination and excessive force.

“That’s a conversation that I think academics are interested in having,” Sierra-Arévalo said about the defund movement. “What policing we do keep, what facets of the policing system do remain as we move towards something smaller should keep in mind what we know about these positive nonenforcement interactions.”