by Jeffrey Patterson
[Sgt. Patterson serves with the Clearwater, Fl, Police Dept.]
An old saying holds that those who cannot remember the past are
condemned to repeat it. Unfortunately, many officers seem to think the
history of police work began the day they first pinned on a badge and
strapped on a gunbelt. For this reason, each emerging movement in law
enforcement tends to be seen as something completely new, without
historical context. Such is largely the case today with community
To better understand today's debate over community policing, law
enforcement administrators should study their history. History debunks
the more outrageous claims made by some of the proponents of community
policing and cautions against forgetting the important lessons of the
past. It shows us that calls to change the way the police operate have
been a constant theme from the very beginning of municipal policing.
And, it reminds us that our problems today--while serious--are really
SIR ROBERT PEEL'S INNOVATION
The history of modern law enforcement began 166 years ago with the
formation of the London Metropolitan Police District in 1829. By
creating a new police force, the British Parliament hoped to address the
soaring crime rate in and around the nation's capital, attributed at the
time to rapid urban growth, unchecked immigration, poverty, alcoholism,
radical political groups, poor infrastructure, unsupervised juveniles,
and lenient judges. The principles adopted by Sir Robert Peel, the first
chief of the London Metropolitan Police, for his new "bobbies" have
served as the traditional model for all British and American police
forces ever since. These principles include the use of crime rates to
determine the effectiveness of the police; the importance of a centrally
located, publicly accessible police headquarters; and the value of
proper recruitment, selection, and training.
However, perhaps the most enduring and influential innovation introduced
was the establishment of regular patrol areas, known as "beats." Before
1829, the police--whether military or civilian--only responded after a
crime had been reported. Patrols occurred on a sporadic basis, and any
crime deterrence or apprehension of criminals in the act of committing
crimes happened almost by accident.
Peel assigned his bobbies to specific geographic zones and held them
responsible for preventing and suppressing crime within the boundaries
of their zones. He based this strategy on his belief that the constables
* Become known to the public, and citizens with information about
criminal activity would be more likely to tell a familiar figure than a
stranger * Become familiar with people and places and thus better able
to recognize suspicious persons or criminal activity, and * Be highly
visible on their posts, tending to deter criminals from committing
crimes in the immediate vicinity.
To implement fully the beat concept, Peel instituted his second most
enduring innovation: The paramilitary command structure. While Peel
believed overall civilian control to be essential, he also believed that
only military discipline would ensure that constables actually walked
their beats and enforced the law on London's mean streets, something
their nonmilitary predecessors, the watchmen, had failed to do.
EARLY AMERICAN POLICING
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, American policing developed along lines
roughly similar to those of the London police. Most major U.S. cities
had established municipal police departments by the Civil War. Like the
London police force, these departments adopted a paramilitary structure;
officers wore distinctive blue uniforms and walked assigned beats.
However, unlike the bobbies, American officers carried guns and were
under the command of politically appointed local precinct captains. Lax
discipline led to abundant graft.
While the British quickly embraced the bobbies as one of their most
beloved national symbols, Americans held their police in much lower
esteem. "Of all the institutions of city government in late-nineteenth-
century America, none was as unanimously denounced as the urban police,"
wrote sociologist Egon Bittner. "According to every available account,
they were, in every aspect of their existence, an unmixed, unmitigated,
and unpardonable scandal."1
REFORM AND PROFESSIONALISM
By the turn of the century, the progressive movement began to promote
professionalism in law enforcement as one of the basic components of
rehabilitating municipal politics. Concern about corruption and
brutality in local police forces resulted in State takeovers of some
city departments and led to the creation of new State police
organizations removed from the corrupting influences of local ward
Reformers sought to insulate the police from political inter-ference
while retaining local government control. The International Association
of Chiefs of Police (IACP), founded in 1893, immediately called for the
adoption of a civil service personnel system and the centralization of
authority in strong executive positions, which could control the
politically aligned precinct captains.
Reformers also sought to change the role of the police in American
society. In the 19th century, American police enforced health and
building codes, secured housing for the homeless, built and supervised
playgrounds for children, and even found jobs for ex-convicts. Reformers
believed that these duties provided too many opportunities for political
favoritism and squandered too many resources that could be better spent
fighting crime. They called for the police to give up social work and
concentrate on law enforcement.
But while "good government" ideals spurred the quickly emerging
professional model, its real driving force was technology--the forensic
sciences of ballistics, chemistry, and fingerprinting to some extent,
but mostly the automobile, the telephone, and the radio. The radio-
equipped patrol car allowed officers to respond to calls for service
received by the police switchboard. At the same time, it took officers
off the sidewalk and put them on the street, racing from incident to
incident observing the crowd only from a distance.
For half a century, proponents lauded professionalism in law enforcement
as the solution to the crime problem. Innovative police chiefs across
the country worked to implement the professional model in their
agencies, while J. Edgar Hoover promoted professionalism through the FBI
National Academy. Several major universities also established programs
in professional police administration.
With the passage of time, professionalism yielded some serious,
unintended consequences for local police. Agencies became divided
between the oldtimers and more progressive college-educated officers.
Formal education contributed to higher levels of disenchantment with the
more mundane aspects of the job. Demands for efficiency, objectivity,
and autonomy led to detached, impersonal attitudes toward the community
and resistance to any direction from elected political leaders.
Critics also questioned whether professionalism really was being
practiced at the local level. Police departments installed civil service
merit systems for hiring and promotion. They adopted a general code of
ethics and formed a professional association. They supported their
practices through knowledge based on experience. But these local law
enforcement agencies conducted no true scientific research, nor did
they require a college degree to work in the field.
The failure of professionalism became apparent during the urban riots,
assassinations, and gang violence of the last 30 years. Police,
politicians, and the public alike bemoaned the ineffectiveness of crime-
fighting efforts. Leaders of minority communities cited the lack of
police responsiveness to their needs. Everyone agreed that the police
had somehow fallen out of touch with the citizens they were supposed to
serve and protect.
One of the earliest articulations of what would later evolve into the
community policing philosophy can be found in Skolnick's case study of
the San Francisco, California, Police Department's Community Relations
Unit. This case study also documents the first organized resistance to
the basic concepts of community policing.
In 1962, the San Francisco Police Department established a specialized
unit based on the concept that "police would help to reduce crime by
reducing despair--by acting as a social service agency to ameliorate
some of the difficulties encountered by minority group persons."2 Almost
from the outset, the unit found itself hampered by its ambiguous
mission. Members were not sure what methods they should apply to serving
which minority population.
The unit also faced the dilemma of "how to maintain its identity as a
police organization and at the same time to win the confidence of the
minority group population...ordinarily considered a police problem."3
Eventually, the relationship of trust between the unit and the community
led to formal complaints of misconduct against other police officers,
sealing the unit's alienation from the mainstream of the department. The
program soon perished in the politically charged environment it
inadvertently helped to create.
In the 1970s, a new strategy emerged--team policing. Advocates of team
policing recognized that "in recent years, due in part to changes in the
social climate and in part to changes in police patrol techniques (more
patrol cars, less foot patrol), many police agencies have become
increasingly isolated from the community. This isolation makes crime
control more difficult."4 The team policing concept assigned
responsibility for a certain geographic area to a team of police
officers who would learn the neighborhood, its people, and its problems-
-much like the old cop on the beat. But because authority would not be
concentrated in one person, the team policing model posed less danger of
corruption. Different American cities tried various forms of team
policing, but none ever got beyond the limited "pilot-project" stage,
and all eventually fell by the wayside.
A primary reason for team policing's failure rested with its
contradiction of the basic tenets of professionalism. It placed more
emphasis on long-term problem solving than on rapid response to
incidents, making quantifiable performance measurements difficult. It
also crossed functional lines of authority, violating the chain of
command and trespassing on the turf of detectives and other specialized
Community policing is the most widely used term for a loosely defined
set of police philosophies, strategies, and tactics known either as
problem-oriented policing, neighborhood-oriented policing, or community-
oriented policing. However, perhaps "postprofessionalism" or
"neotraditionalism" would be more descriptive labels.
Like the police-community relations movement, community policing stems
from a view of the police as a multifunctional social service agency
working to reduce the despair of poverty. Like team policing, community
policing is rooted in the belief that the traditional officer on the
beat will bring the police and the public closer together. At the same
time, it maintains the professional model's support for education and
Instead of merely responding to emergency calls and arresting criminals,
community policing officers devote considerable time to performing
social work, working independently and creatively on solutions to the
problems on their beats. It follows that they make extensive personal
contacts, both inside and outside their agencies. All of this flies in
the face of a police culture that values crimefighting, standard
operating procedures, and a paramilitary chain of command.
Although supporting evidence is largely anecdotal, community policing
apparently has received widespread support at the conceptual level from
politicians, academicians, administrators, and the media. It also has
strong intuitive appeal with the general public. Yet, community policing
has encountered significant stumbling blocks at the operational level
nearly everywhere it has been tried.
Indeed, not all the anecdotal evidence has been positive. In fact,
community policing initiatives have been severely scaled back in two of
its most prominent national settings_Houston, Texas, and New York City.
MISTAKES OF THE PAST
After more than a decade of community policing experiments, several
major errors become apparent when viewed against the historical context.
Perhaps this explains some of the difficulties that have been
Lack of Planning
Although intended as an overarching philosophy, community policing
programs in many cities developed incrementally, determined more by the
availability of grant funding and the need to appease certain
neighborhood groups than according to any strategic management plan. As
professionalism was rushed along pell-mell by technology, so is
community policing being pushed forward by the uneven flow of Federal
dollars. Significantly, after 50 years of reform, the distribution of
police resources appears in danger of being openly repoliticized.
Like the members of the San Francisco Police Department Community
Relations Unit, many practitioners of community policing seem unsure of
who to serve and how to serve them. Approaches range from ardent
neighborhood advocacy to aggressive street crime suppression. In their
confusion, agencies have settled for the superficial program components-
-police ministations, bicycle patrols, and midnight basketball games--
that define community policing in grant applications.
As with police-community relations and team policing, cities often
attempt to implement community policing through small, specialized units
in well-defined neighborhoods. Unfortunately, this approach often leads
to the alienation of some officers and to claims that the police are
ignoring other residents. Stalled implementation can aggravate
organizational conflict; the perception that community policing officers
play by different rules and do not have to answer calls for service
angers other officers who believe that they do more work under more
difficult conditions. It also can lead to resentment between those
neighborhoods that receive the special attention of community policing
and those that do not.
Community policing advocates the evaluation of officers not on
traditional indicators of performance, such as calls handled and arrests
made, but on more creative, problem-solving efforts. Yet, cities have
been slow to change their appraisal systems, most of which still call
for traditional, quantifiable performance indicators that are
irrelevant, at best, and contradictory with the community policing
paradigm, at worst. Similar disparity between the nontraditional
behaviors desired by top administrators and the standardized
expectations of middle management contributed to the failure of team
policing 20 years ago.
Lack of Efficiency
True community policing represents a highly labor-intensive approach.
Foot patrol--a key component--was abandoned by prior generations because
it was not a cost-effective way to deliver police services. The City of
Portland, Oregon, determined that it needed to add 200 officers to its
existing force of 750 to implement community policing properly. In the
early 1990s, the City of Houston scrapped its equally ambitious plan
when budget cutbacks forced it to lay off 655 of its 4,500 officers. The
shrinking tax base in cities and public demands for leaner government
allow little room for the expansion needed to make community policing
Two of the key elements of community policing--decentralization and
permanent assignments--conflict with the professional model's
prescription for controlling corruption and limiting political
influence. Centralized authority was one of the first reforms called for
by the IACP a century ago, and the idea of mandatory rotation of
assignments followed not long thereafter. An unintended consequence of
community policing may be the development of the same close personal and
political ties between individual officers and citizens along their
beats that historically served as the breeding ground for petty
corruption and undermined management's control of the rank and file.
Problems of Evaluation
Finally, in the absence of valid research findings, "community policing
is advancing because it seems to make sense, not because it has been
shown to be demonstrably superior."5 Just as professionalism appeared
to be the "one best way" for half a century, so now is community
policing the orthodox doctrine. However, community policing's emphasis
on social work conflicts with today's conservative political climate.
One of the programs that conservative legislators targeted for
elimination in the 1994 crime bill was midnight basketball--a common
component of community policing's outreach efforts toward
underprivileged youth. Demands for less social work and more crime-
fighting seem likely.
The time may have come for defenders of community policing to conduct
legitimate program evaluation. Its continued status as the established
dogma is now in doubt.
LESSONS OF HISTORY
While administrators can glean much from the specific lessons of history
that relate to the evolution of community policing, these lessons should
be considered within the context of two somewhat more generally
applicable principles. First, the crime problem appears to have changed
little since the Industrial Revolution drove the urbanization of Western
culture in the early 1800s. Objective measures of the true prevalence of
criminal activity in our cities remain as elusive today as they were
when the British Parliament began debating the "Act for Improving the
Police In and Near the Metropolis" in the late 1820s.
Similarly, modern surveys of public opinion, like 18th century accounts,
still have difficulty "separating fear of crime from disapproval of
conduct deemed immoral or alarm at public disorder."6 Nevertheless,
descriptions of London's problems early in the last century would sound
strikingly familiar to residents of American cities near the end of the
Second, organizational change in police agencies has been a constant
theme of academicians, policymakers, and practitioners from the very
beginning_perhaps only because it is one factor among the many complex
issues facing the police over which these groups can exercise some
control. However, changes in policing strategies are not always
determined through rigorous testing.7 Every new movement in law
enforcement--from the establishment of the first organized police
forces, to the reforms of the Progressive era, to community policing--
has been touted, with little supporting evidence, as the one true
solution to the problem of crime in society. To date, none of them has
lived up to such unrealistic expectations.
Police administrators should acknowledge that crime is a natural
condition of society, not a problem to be solved, so that neither they,
their personnel, their political leaders, nor the public will be deluded
into unrealistic expectations by new programs. They must recognize that
changes in their operations and their organizations are inevitable, but
that few--if any--of these changes will be completely unprecedented
journeys into uncharted territory.
Administrators should learn the lessons of history--from the conditions
that led Sir Robert Peel to introduce the paramilitary structure, to the
development of centralized authority, to the limited crime-fighting role
advocated by the reformers, to the factors that led to the failure of
police-community relations and team policing. Those who learn from
history will be better prepared for the leadership challenges in the
difficult times ahead.
1 International City Management Association (ICMA), Local Government
Police Management, 3d. ed. (Washington, DC: ICMA, 1991), 4.
2 Jerome H. Skolnick, "The Police and the Urban Ghetto," The Ambivalent
Force: Perspectives on Police, eds. Arthur Niederhoffer and Abraham S.
Blumberg, 2d ed. (Hinsdale, IL: Dryden, 1976), 222.
3 Ibid., 222-223.
4 National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals,
Report on Police (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1973),
5 Skolnick and Bayley, quoted in Gordon Witkin, "Beyond 'Just the Facts,
Ma'am,'" U.S. News & World Report, August 2, 1993, 30.
6 Thomas A. Reppetto, The Blue Parade (New York: Free Press, 1978), 6.
7 Alvin W. Cohn and Emilio C. Viano, Police Community Relations: Images,
Roles, Realities (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1976), 3.
from the FBI's 11/95 monthly magazine
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