Community Policing

Author:Daniel Donnelly

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A review of law enforcement strategies throughout the Western world reveals the majority of police forces and departments embracing community policing. Whether they are encouraged by government pressure, public pressure, or police policy is immaterial, as community policing has become an integral part of contemporary policing. Community policing has become more than a philosophy and concept, it is now an organizational strategy that promotes a partnership between people and their police. It is based on the premise that both the police and the community work together to identify and prioritize those problems that concern the community—for example, crime, drugs, fear of crime, neighborhood decay, and social and physical disorder—with the objective of improving the overall quality of life in the area.

Since the mid-1970s, more discussion and debate have centered on the topic of community policing than on any other aspect of police work. The topic has engulfed police literature, has spiraled across the Internet, and has been the main focus for a number of criminal justice departments in universities, colleges, and research establishments in the Western world. Community policing has also been the subject of major research funding, ultimately being hailed as the "archetypical model" of modern policing. It purportedly has won over police management and working police officers, as well as police commentators, academics, politicians, and the general public. But what is community policing? When did it start? Does it work? Does it have a future? This essay attempts to answer these questions, with a specific focus on policing in the United Kingdom and United States, with some relevant information about the wider world.


The advent of industrialization and the introduction of interventionist liberal policies in the nineteenth century led to a broad definition of policing. For example, the "policing" of education, factories, and commerce, and the increase in social welfare-oriented policies, coupled with the expansion of the civil service and local authority bureaucracies, all added to the policing of the community for the benefit of the community. The new police evolved as part of this social policy, inextricably linked to both social control and executive enforcement.

With striking similarity to the development of policing in the United States, the police organization in the United Kingdom changed its approach to general policing in the 1950s and 1960s, with the assistance of technology, specialization, and mobility. This end of the so-called golden era of policing led to police isolation from their communities through the regular use of police cars, increased utilization of radio communication, and growing telephone ownership within the community, which negated the traditional personal contact with the local police. This dichotomy was further exacerbated by the need for more instant response to calls for service from an ever-demanding community. Over time, policing took on a demand-led stance that distanced the service from the community, causing a shift from "preventive" to "reactive" policing. Community policing slowly emerged as the savior of the foot-patrol officer, the sole community interface with the increasingly isolated police service.

Close scrutiny has revealed that contemporary community policing does not have a single identifiable

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historical source, but grew and developed out of a need to fill a vacuum between policing and communities in modern twentieth-century society that resulted from the alienation of the police from the community. The intellectual leap from the social role of the police to that of a facilitator in community improvement is not so difficult, and, indeed, highly visible within the United Kingdom and the United States from the 1960s onward.

This said, however, the idea of community policing found its roots in the United Kingdom and United States as far back as the 1950s, with its source lying in two main areas: first, as part of an increasing call for citizens to become involved in community problem solving, and second, to satisfy a growing awareness of the need to tackle juvenile crime and delinquency within the community. A comparative-literature search into community policing in both Britain and North America dating back to the 1950s continually highlights similar concepts and philosophies surrounding community policing in both countries. For example, in 1957 in the town of Greenock in Scotland, the then chief constable, David Gray, started what was to become known as the Weir Street-Ladybank Project. Being particularly concerned about juvenile crime in the area, Gray suggested that concentrated attention be given to it by local authority services—the churches, teachers, police, and others—to produce a better environment for the children to play and grow in. He posted three constables to the area with a remit to support the residents and the statutory agencies in the wide range of structural, environmental, and sociological improvements that were being implemented. Gray believed that improving the neighborhood environment through a multiagency approach, with the police playing a central role, would increase the overall quality of life in the area and eventually reduce crime.

Officers were further instructed to become familiar with the area and develop useful and constructive relationships with local people. The police took the role of initiator and facilitator; a residents' association was formed and clubs were set up. Refuse collection was improved, and the landscape planted with trees. The key to David Gray's philosophy was that the maintenance of order and the prevention of crime could not be dealt with in isolation or by one agency, but rather had to be addressed within the wider spectrum of social issues that affected a community and its people, and more especially, by the wide range of skills, responsibilities, and resources vested in what has now become known as the multiagency approach. Gray was undoubtedly ahead of his time—his appointment of a group of dedicated police officers with specific instructions to liaise with the public is an obvious prototype of community policing, and installs him as one of the founders of community policing and a commendable legacy to Scottish policing.

A further example of innovative community action and problem solving can be found in the United States during the 1950s, as depicted in a study of community members engaged in a health survey in a Midwestern county. There, the importance of "insiders" having ownership of community problem solving is stressed: they "must be local residents. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for non-residents to become an initiating set for local community action" (Sower 1957, p. 67); that is, engaging the community in problem solving by focusing in particular on interventionist policies and the role of the community worker, whose job it is to highlight social problems within a community while encouraging citizens to do something about them. It is clear, by tracking the evolution of community policing and community problem solving in the United Kingdom and the United States, that there exists strong parallels in the development of community policing in both cultures, emerging out of social conflict, coupled with a fierce community-led drive for additional influence and control in the running of their own communities.


A better understanding of community policing has been hampered at times by the difficulty of defining and articulating the concept of "community" itself. For most people, community relates to a small local area, while others see it in national or international terms—for example, the Jewish or Catholic community, and there are those who even perceive an "Internet community." To fully understand community policing, one has to agree on what community means and how it dovetails into policing, or for that matter, how policing merges into community. For example, one could start from a base position and suggest that, if an ideal model of community existed, there would be little, if any, need for formal policing. In other words, the concept of community policing is ultimately tautological; if "community genuinely existed then policing in a formal sense would be otiose" (Reiner 1995, p. 164). A broader view suggests that any form of policing is community policing as long as it has community support and encouragement, as definitions of community and policing vary from place to place.

Similar to community policing, the term community can mean different things to different people—there is no universally accepted definition, but there are various interpretations. The term commonly refers to the relationships and experiences people have with each other in...

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