Community Policing Essay

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Community policing (CP) initiatives can be broadly understood as a more or less coherent response to the ethical tension, inherent in a democratic society, of using an elite cadre of professionals (the police) to distribute the use of coercive force across the social body. Over the past 30 years CP, sometimes known as community oriented policing, has become a frequent point of reference in police public relations press releases and local and city government policy statements.

Despite this ubiquity CP has been notoriously difficult to define, a fact that is reflected in the voluminous scholarly debates surrounding its core principles and practical applications. For example, to the dismay of many, the term is often used interchangeably with such alternative labels as “problem-oriented policing,” “broken-windows policing,” “hot-spots policing,” and even “zero tolerance policing.” In part, this difficulty may be a result of CP’s very nature as an open and adaptable approach to policing; a common feature of CP approaches is that, while they may operate under a set of organizational goals, the task of deciding upon the means of achieving those goals is left to lower-level practitioners. As such, there is—by design—no set tool kit of techniques that are deemed applicable across the diversity of situations encountered by community police forces.

Many scholars have attempted to identify a set of core principles that animate community policing initiatives, such as: a reliance on organizational decentralization; increased emphasis on “problem-solving”; facilitated communication between police and the public, including public input on both the proper goals of policing and the best ways to meet those ends; and finally, a broader sharing of policing prerogatives with community members and organizations so that they might be able to participate in their own security. Taken as a whole these principles suggest that, within the larger ethical debate about the proper distribution of force across the social fabric in a democratic society, CP strategies most often push toward a broader participation in decision making and against the narrowing focus of a community of experts.


As with all institutions of contested definition, the historiography of CP is in large part tied to the problem of its conception. While some authors emphasize the functional continuities between more ancient forms of social control and modern CP strategies, for example, in its emphasis on the use of informal social control mechanisms to enforce community norms outside of a formally legal context, most see CP as a strategy which emerges from the historically specific phenomenon of modern police institutions. Such scholars point out that key elements of CP can be traced to the original inception of modern professional police forces as a distinct group of technical experts claiming the special privilege to perform coercive violence legitimately. This special police legitimacy is based in part from authority delegated from the nation-state and in part on the police’s ability to use said force apolitically; that is, in a way that is at the same time legal, nonpartisan, and operating for the larger social good. Within the context of a democratic political system this formulation creates a special paradox: how to square democratic principles of widely shared governance with the politically sanctioned use of force by a small group of individuals? This framework sees CP initiatives as one example in a long line of attempts to resolve this paradox.

However, most authors identify the important shifts in police orientation at the core of community policing strategies as beginning in the mid to late 20th century. These authors suggest that the development of CP be read against the model of urban policing prevalent in the rapidly expanding urban milieu of the United States in the 19th century. This style of policing was directly “political,” they argue, in the sense that it was specifically invested—through the political patronage system—in the maintenance of power of certain political machines. This investment in turn led to extensive corruption, understood specifically to mean not only the punishment of political enemies but also the selective under enforcement of the law such that party favorites were allowed to conduct illegal businesses, which became the key municipal issue of the day. Out of these municipal scandals, such authors argue, emerged the general reform-era (roughly conceived as the time period between 1920 and 1960 in the concerned literature) momentum toward distancing policing policy and administrative decision making from local, or community, control in favor of ostensibly more transparent, and politically neutral, measures of bureaucratic accountability, often under the sign of a broader thrust toward “professionalism.”

By the 1960s, however, challenges to police authority—fueled mainly by urban racial tensions—made this distance untenably pronounced and encouraged the search for new, more viable, approaches to policing. Other factors that have been identified as influencing the rise of community policing include: the emergence of a Hispanic and African American electorate in big U.S. cities, and the consequent rise in politicians interested in assuring that police serve rather than target their constituents; the emergence of well-educated police administrators, with degrees in management and operations research that encouraged them to organize police work so as to “get more for less” at exactly the same time that the effectiveness of traditional approaches to police work were being questioned; the work of police intellectuals in cooperation with a network of federal agencies and think tanks; and wider societal trends toward decentralization, cutting of management layers, and the privatization of public services.

While this history has its merits and is therefore largely persuasive, it should be highlighted that the particular problematic outlined here is culturally, geographically, and historically specific to a degree not explained by CP’s international appeal. It also suggests that perhaps CP is best understood as a number of diverse reactions against a set of historically, geographically, and politically specific policing strategies rather than in a coherent approach in itself. For example, the role of urban police in the political patronage system was by no means globally universal in the 19th century, and its geography does not map perfectly onto the diffusion of CPstyle approaches in the 21st century. In this sense, CP initiatives can be broadly understood as a historically, geographically, and politically specific set of responses to the ethical perplexity of how to distribute the use of coercive force, or violence, across the social body in a democratic society.


Community policing strategies have also garnered a fair share of criticism. As mentioned above, one strain of criticism focuses on CP’s conceptual and definitional ambiguity. Defining what exactly “community policing ” means on a practical level has been a notoriously difficult, if not an inconsonant, task. Some scholars have argued that its intentionally open ended approach has led the term to be applied in describing widely disparate policing apparatuses or, at best, assemblages of policing practice that themselves need to be conceptually distinguished to understand the practical import of the particular policing apparatus under consideration. For example, “community policing” is often confused with other policing strategies such as “broken windows” and zero-tolerance policing, which, many argue, are anathema to the key democratizing principles of community input central to CP. Others have argued that the term’s wide application obfuscates how policing practices operating under its aegis have themselves evolved. Still others have highlighted the conceptual ambiguity associated with the formulation of “community” in “community policing.” A final important strain of criticism points out that while claiming to resolve, or circumvent, political consideration through deference to local or community interests, community policing initiatives are in fact the result—and crucial to the functioning—of the contradictions inherent in neoliberal governance by effectively “privatizing” police work.

On a practical basis, many observers have lamented the lack of institutional and fiduciary investment allotted to CP efforts, arguing that most support is rhetorical in nature and oriented more toward public relations than real organizational élan. A number of factors have been suggested as being at the core of this negligence, including CP’s supposed incompatibility with a masculinist police subculture, dissonance with folk theories of crime and social order, countervalence to neoliberal political economic transformations that divest socially oriented state programs toward more punitive measures, and penal administration trends that look myopically to actuarial measures as indices of “effectiveness” in criminal justice efforts.


  1. Correia, M. E. “The Conceptual Ambiguity of Community in Community Policing–Filtering the Muddy Waters.” Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, v.23/2 (2000).
  2. Greene, Jack R. and Stephen D. Mastrofski. Community Policing: Rhetoric or Reality. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1988.
  3. Herbert, Steve. Citizens, Cops, and Power: Recognizing the Limits of Community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  4. Skogan, Wesley G., et al. Community Policing, Chicago Style. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  5. Skolnick, Jerome H. and David H. Bayley. “Theme and Variation in Community Policing.” In Crime and Justice, M. Tonry and N. Morris, eds. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1988.
  6. Stenson, Kevin. “Community Policing as a Governmental Technology.” Economy and Society, v.22/3 (1993).

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