Community Policing and Crime Reduction (Pillar 4 in Pillars of Justice Series)

Pillars of Justice is a six-part series covering the recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The full report can be viewed here.

By Vanessa Cunningham West

Pillar 4 of the report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing focuses on community policing and crime reduction strategies. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) defines community policing as “the philosophy that promotes organizational strategies that support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime.” The emphasis is on law enforcement agencies and community residents working together to identify area problems and collaborate on producing solutions to these problems.

Current media reports clearly reveal the disconnect between police officers and minority groups and their neighborhoods, many of which do not trust the police. We see this in the news that flashes across our televisions, mobile phones, and computer screens (media blitzes that also intensify our perception of the problem, but that is another issue). We see and hear this in headlines and commentary blaring the latest about police brutality, policing violence, and police-involved killings. These media reports help to fuel community distrust with police and make the police targets, which means officers will in turn use more force to protect the community and themselves.

The Task Force noted that “people are more likely to obey the law when they believe those who are enforcing it have the right to tell them what to do.” The Task Force’s mission was to examine ways of developing stable partnerships between local law enforcement and the communities they protect and serve. The Task Force came up with seven recommendations for community policing and crime reduction. Here I will only focus on four of their seven recommendations, because I think these are vital to the success of community policing and will help curb future crime and any disconnect between the community and the police.

Task Force recommendations four and five discuss the need for communities to support the “culture and practice of policing” and how the police should “emphasize working with neighborhood residents to identify problems and collaborate on implementing solutions.” These two recommendations reflect one of the most important aspects of community policing: collaboration. The police must work with and understand the community, and the community must work with and understand the police.

Fostering this mutual understanding is vital to one of the most important aspects of community policing: problem solving. COPS rates problem solving second in their three tiers of “primary elements of community policing” and defines it as the “process of engaging in the proactive and systematic examination of identified problems to develop and evaluate effective responses.” Instead of responding after a crime occurs, COPS recommends that police and community together “proactively develop solutions to the immediate underlying conditions contributing to public safety problems,” so they can address community crime problems before they occur. This will only help the image of both the community and the police and foster their mutual goal of making each neighborhood a safe place to be. Working together also encourages civil engagement, offering an opportunity for citizens to improve their own neighborhoods, quality of life, and “sense of safety and well-being.”

The final two recommendations deal with children and youth in the community. The first recommendation addresses the problem of “stigmatizing youth,” while the second focuses on “recognizing the voices of youth in the community” and developing “positive youth/police collaborations and interactions.” Recent juvenile justice research has shed new light on youth and crime. Old practices in juvenile justice, such as upholding “zero tolerance” rules or pushing children out of schools and into juvenile detention centers, have been shown to have a negative effect on our youth.

Youth interactions with police can have two widely different outcomes. One way can instill fear and trauma in youth, which can and will continue through their adult lives, promoting a distrust of police and the criminal justice system. But there is another way. Youth can have positive interactions with police, which creates the “opportunity for coaching, mentoring, and diversion into constructive” activities. The positive-interaction approach will help to enforce the Task Force’s main point: that “people are more likely to obey the law when they believe those who are enforcing it have the right to tell them what to do.” Positive interactions will also make youth more likely to work with police to resolve community-crime issues and report crime, because of the trust that has been built up.

For community policing to work within the community, these four recommendations from the President’s Task Force Report must be met, with an emphasis on youth interactions. Having positive interactions between police and citizens (particularly young ones) will only enhance their feelings of mutual trust and respect. Trust and respect will encourage collaboration. Then and only then can the shared goals of neighborhood safety and crime reduction finally be met.

Vanessa Cunningham West is a senior criminal justice research analyst with CSR, Incorporated. After completing her master’s degree in criminology at the George Washington University, she worked as a researcher at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Her criminal justice expertise includes criminological theory, behavioral analysis, corrections, and mental health and substance abuse issues.