When Does 'Community Policing' Work?

Apr 20, 2017

Dr. Cara Rabe-Hemp talking about "Community Policing" in the GLT Studio.
Credit Jon Norton / WGLT

Dr. Cara Rabe-Hemp of Illinois State University's Department of Criminal Justice said there is little debate about what constitutes "community policing." The general idea is that citizens take an active role in co-producing crime control with law enforcement. How police have transferred that philosophy into strategies and tactics is where the debate continues. 

For example, a common strategy of community policing includes the use of foot patrols, in that officers have greater access to the public when they're not encased in their cars. Does that alone constitute community policing? What if another community policing core tenant is added, such as assigning officers to geographical locations for long periods of time? The idea is to give them responsibility for crime control in specific neighborhoods, so that combined with foot patrols, officers will get to know neighbors on a more personal level and thus be more likely to be invested in, and take ownership of that neighborhood.

"Or can a police department create a citizen advisory board and not change anything else about what they're doing and now being a community policing department?" asked Rabe-Hemp as a demonstration of some of the questions being bandied about in academia and law enforcement as to what constitutes community policing.

The increased militarization of the police also seems at odds with the philosophy of community policing. Rabe-Hemp said there has been virtually no oversight of the use of this militarization, and that data shows 80% of the use of SWAT or SRT teams are for ordinary law enforcement purposes.

"That would be things like serving warrants on people's homes," said Rabe-Hemp. "Only about 7% of those were for genuine emergencies, or what those teams were created to do, such as barricades or hostage situations."

She said one of the consequences of the para-militarization of police under the guise of community policing is that people of color have been disproportionately affected. 

"That has led us to this point we're at today, where there is a legitimacy crisis in policing, where police departments specifically and the communities they're sworn to protect and serve are at a disjoint," said Rabe-Hemp.

But does community policing work? Yes and no says Rabe-Hemp. She said most empirical research over the last four decades show community policing does not reduce violent crime. But what community policing does very well is acknowledge that police cannot do their job, at least well, without citizen help, either formally or informally. Informal social control essentially consists of acquaintances you don't want to disappoint: family, friends, neighbors, church peers. As an example, Rabe-Hemp recalled driving her new Ford Mustang for the first time as a teen she was a teen in her small hometown of Onarga, Illinois. She was pulled over for speeding by the town police officer.

"When I got home that night, my Dad was standing in the front yard with his hand out for my keys," said Rabe-Hemp. "He had already heard that that had happened within an hour of it occurring. So those types of controls on our behavior are really strong."

Law enforcement on the other hand, represents formal social control. Rabe-Hemp said what community policing attempts to do is replace informal social control found in especially low density areas and small towns with formal control.

"The reason this matters is there are communities where community policing is naturally occurring. They have high levels of informal social control. They are already interested in co-producing crime controls in those communities. They look out for one another, they pay attention to things that are suspicious. In those places, community policing is wildly successful because it's naturally occurring." said Rabe-Hemp.

Click "Listen" below to hear Rabe-Hemp explains more about other components of successful community policing, including the importance of "problem solving policing" and the need for involving partnerships with non criminal justice agencies. She also talks about the divide between citizens and law enforcement on the perceived increased use of force by law enforcement.

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