Kill Community Policing?

Literally on the eve of the IACP 118th annual conference (Chicago) an article posted on PoliceOne.com by chief Joel Shults (Adams State College in Alamosa, CO) argued that “If ‘community policing’ isn’t already dead, let’s kill it and move on.” Shults maintains that he is “by some measure” an expert in community policing and even made it the subject of his doctoral dissertation research.

He is very correct in pointing out that many police departments jumped on the community policing (CP) band wagon for the money (Clinton’s COPS program) and not for the concept it represented. He also correctly termed that behavior - including his very own - as “almost immoral.”  However, the way he outlines his understanding of CP is indicative of misunderstanding it.  

After all, CP is not about ‘officer friendly’ to school kids, public service announcement on local radio stations or being the face of the police department for frightened senior citizens.  Those examples he cites may be tools or means but they are not and should not be considered community policing.  Police departments have done that for years - well before the advent of CP in the mid 1980s -  yet it has not constituted CP.

He argues that while CP was not a “total wash” (because it “forced some police leaders to come out of their shell...”) it had ill effects by diverting police from real police work to picking up trash and that its “effectiveness has never been proven by research and that it was founded on weak presumptions.”

He must have missed the voluminous research by scholars such as Cordner, Friedmann, Greene and Mastrofski, Rosenbaum, and many others who have demonstrated CP’s effectiveness.  This despite objective evaluation difficulties such as program complexity, multiple effects, variation in program scope and research design limitations (Cordner, 1995).  Weak presumptions?  After years of reactive policing with limited success CP introduced an epidemiological understanding of the need to focus on crime causation and not only criminal outcomes.  If there is any value in CP it is precisely in providing a better understanding to the limitation of reactive policing and an opening to a far more comprehensive approach that should result in the production of less crime.

Shults’ conclusions are a bit more generous than his homicidal title: He argues that “collaboration” (partnership?) is “solid gold.” But then he argues that police need to do what they do best, namely use force.  One remains wondering how often did he and his department use force against students, faculty, staff and visitors in his college or if he can even recall if force was ever used and if so when was the last time.

Is community policing perfect? Has it achieved all its objectives? Has it been (well) implemented across all departments? Of course not. But to “kill” it because of less than perfect achievements? On the contrary, in the days of the “new normal” of severe budget cuts, CP is more important than ever before.  In the days of threats to homeland security the principles of CP are an integral part of homeland security (Friedmann and Cannon, 2007).

CP does not need mercy killing because it is not “completely dead” (it is either dead or it is not).  CP needs serious, thorough and professional implementation with systematic accountability and transparency.  Shults will be well advised to review the community policing efforts - and their effectiveness - of the departments around the US and the world that have won the IACP Community Policing Award since 1998. It will prove to be a rather educational and inspirational effort.

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