Police are the Public and the Public are the Police: Building Trust in Twenty First Century Community Policing

October 6, 2016 

Sir Robert Peele, who in 1829 established the first modern policing agency in London England, stated, “The police should at all times maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police...” Peele envisioned policing as a public endeavor requiring the consent and cooperation between those hired as peace officers and the remainder of the citizenry. While policing approaches have evolved and adapted over the years, the undergirding philosophy of policing in a democratic society has remained the same: citizen-driven and service-focused.

Prior to the advent of wireless communication systems and expanded automobile use, law enforcement policed their local neighborhoods often without back-up support systems. Police relied on the bonds they developed with the people in the neighborhoods they served for both assistance in maintaining order and in protecting themselves and others from harm’s way. Generally, officers were assigned to the same areas for extended periods of time and developed familiarity with community members and their public safety and social order challenges; a form of personalized policing.

Non-enforcement contact between residents and police began to diminish as technology — such as wireless communications that promoted greater automobile utilization — coupled with larger areas to cover increased. Technology led to incidence-based operations that rely on continuing communications between officers and a central dispatch, and a capability to respond in a relatively short period of time to crisis situations. In addition, fewer police officers reside in the neighborhoods and communities they patrol.

Opportunities for trust building have greatly diminished and both community perceptions of police and police perceptions of community members have become jaded, mostly driven by the experiences of police enforcement activities. Goals and performance measures for this generation of policing primarily deal with response times, arrests and crime reduction.

Policing agencies find themselves often having to perform their jobs in environments where they are not trusted and where there are high rates of violent victimization. The lack of trust between police and some community members affects crime-fighting capabilities, community safety and the health and well-being of police officers.

Now 21st century policing agencies are challenged to imbue the concept of citizen driven and service focused in their organizational culture, policies, practices and rewards. It is of equal importance that trust and support of police be advanced and nurtured in the communities they serve.

Lessons from past policing practices can be applied today. Efforts should contain a renewed national priority for expanding and improving community policing that brings back a more personalized policing approach to foster the development of mutual trust between police and members of the communities they serve. These practices include: police athletic leagues; police boys and girls clubs; officers assigned to the same neighborhoods for extended periods of time; problem-oriented policing projects; representation at the full range of community meetings, partnerships and regular interface with community-based organizations; and improved coordination with other government and justice system elements.

Policing agencies need to fully embrace and establish the need to build community trust as a mission goal. They need to be more willing to increase non-enforcement police community contact, provide training that advances procedural justice policing and fair and impartial practices, provide for citizen input in policing approaches and strategies and engage in partnerships with other local public service and non-profit agencies and businesses.

Incentivizing organizational change by realigning policing operational objectives, accompanying performance measures and providing rewards to best capture and promote the proactive and relationship-building core of community policing will each help advance this goal. 

For more information visit http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/