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WHO IS KILLING COMMUNITY POLICING?


December 29, 2014
By Robert Lunney

The philosophy of community policing was introduced as a replacement for the professional model about 35 years ago. The primary components are partnerships, organizational transformation and problem solving. The public welcomed the change in focus, as it offered closer collaboration between communities, individuals and their police and reform of police organizations through evidence based decision making.

Currently, for a combination of reasons, community policing appears to be falling out of favour, even with services who were early adopters. Let’s examine a short list of suspect interests that will slowly strangle community policing unless rolled back by resolute professional leadership with support from policing authorities and governments.

{Resistance to change}

In the absence of progressive leadership, insecure organizations retreat to their comfort zone. Imagination, determination and courage can overcome resistance to change.

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{Misunderstanding the concept}

Community policing was mistaken by some for a strategy in parallel or in competition with intelligence-led policing, rather than an all encompassing philosophy that heralded a new way of thinking. In many ways, it was back to the future, because community policing is the ideal template for the practice of the nine principles of Sir Robert Peel, the foundation of our policing culture.

The community policing philosophy is the cradle for cultivating and shaping art and craft and those attributes that are the essence of policing at the local level: Humanity; transparency; a sense of justice; empathy; and compassion. These qualities build trust and confidence.

{Organizational tension}

Some believe that an obsessive focus on investigation inhibits the practise of prevention, as if the investigative services were in competition with community policing because prevention, when it works, reduces case loads and thus makes investigation less critical to success. This seems farfetched but cannot be dismissed. When investigative functions are also committed to prevention, criminal intent can be deftly thwarted or diverted.

It is best to remind ourselves of one of the most important of Peel’s Principles, “To recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.”

{Political leadership and police governance}

Few political interests and governance boards have bought into the importance of prevention. The result is that preventive services such as crime prevention through social development and environmental design are under funded and first on the chopping block when cutbacks are threatened.

Governing bodies cannot be expected to take results on faith. Policing must share responsibility because of a failure to develop convincing indicators of performance. Senior governments have failed to do their share of properly educating policing authorities on the concept of community policing and the monitoring of results.

{Militarism}

The image of police is increasingly that of the oppressive and threatening robo cop, typified by dark shirts, black gloves, identity-shrouding balaclavas, externally worn body armour, black and white cars and militarist rituals. The friendly cop on the beat has morphed into a terrapin turtle. This is not about the need for protection in riot situations; it’s about everyday appearance. The trappings of militarism are seductive, but they create barriers to public acceptance of police legitimacy.

{Anti-intellectualism}

Over reliance on experience-based craft leads to denial of evidence-based research and the discounting of crime analysis and other evidence-based methodology. In an era when the educational level of police officers is rising, organizations must shake off bias, invest in research and establish a balance between these complimentary, not conflicting, approaches.

{Bureaucracy}

Bureaucracy is the enemy of community policing. Complexity, an overabundance of internal policies and a justice system that places almost unbearable demands on front line police officers all contribute to the processing of minutia of questionable value, gobbling up time that should be spent in contact with the public.

{Unthinking, uncaring cops}

Bad attitudes must be changed or the actors removed from office for the good of the service. They are a threat to developing positive relationships with the public and a hindrance to the vast majority of officers who strive to do the right thing.

Careerism is another threat. This applies to those who pursue professional advancement as their sole aim, often at the expense of personal integrity. A commitment to community policing requires selfless devotion to the cause of public safety.

{Legalism}

The justice system often seems intent on criminalizing minor misbehaviour, making crimes of acts that might reasonably be dealt with through education or diversion. At the same time, strict command and control systems and legal judgements are whittling away at the ability of front line officers to use discretion to solve minor problems, disorder or minor offences that could be disposed of through warnings or voluntary penalties.

Front line officers should have the discretion to settle minor disputes and incidents without resort to criminal process. Training curriculum and policy must support the concept of procedural justice.

{Over-reliance on technology}

Red light cameras and photo radar has its place, but impersonal methods have alienated the public in a way that never happened with manned speed radar operations, targeted enforcement or seat belt enforcement. The problem relates to a perceived lack of empathy and engagement, leading to resentment.

Enforcement tactics in the absence of personal engagement disaffects the public and is judged as excessively punitive or at worst, viewed as a money-grabbing tactic.

Body worn video (BWV) is currently in vogue as a panacea for everything from collecting evidence to reducing complaints against police, but as adoption proceeds agencies are encountering sizable challenges on issues ranging from unanticipated costs to conflict with privacy legislation. The promised advantages are worth pursuing, but technology will never take the place of face-to-face human relations.

{Bean counting efficiency experts}

In today’s increasingly tense competition for funds, boards and councils are resorting to calling in consultants with little experience in policing.

Agents of a major consulting firm looked at the San Jose, CA police department’s allocation of available patrol time and noted that while 60 per cent was dedicated to call response, another 40 per cent was tabbed for community policing (prevention; engagement; collaborative community problem-solving). Because the department could not produce outcome statistics supporting this time allocation, the consultant recommended the patrol strength could be cut by 40 per cent.

Municipalities are at risk when they place their faith in consultants that work out the cost of everything but know the value of nothing. While fire fighters no longer pluck cats from trees and police officers seldom help old ladies across the street, community policing is a retail service. Democratic policing exists to serve the needs of the public. The products are crime prevention, order maintenance, crime suppression and community service.

Policing through collaborative partnerships serves to build up public support to carry out activities in the common good. If services beyond “response to call” and “investigations” are to be funded, police leaders must produce convincing results in the form of measurable outcomes.

{We have seen the enemy and he is us}

Community Oriented Policing (COP) is the core philosophy of policing in a democracy. The principles embodied in COP are the vital centre, motive force and spirit of policing and the dynamic on which strategies play. It is also the cradle for cultivating and shaping the art and craft of policing, and the vehicle for demonstrating humanity; transparency; a sense of justice; empathy; and compassion. These qualities build trust and confidence in the police.

In an organization practicing community policing, every officer is a community officer. It is not a speciality to be practiced by a few designated people. For those who need reassurance, community policing is tough policing – tough because the focus is on solving problems of crime and disorder in every dimension through rigorous attention to performance. It focuses on root causes rather than repetitive incidents.

If the best promise of democratic policing is to be delivered to a deserving Canadian public, it is the responsibility of governments, governance bodies and police leadership to halt the slide towards de-construction of community policing.