The US Has Spent $14B on Community Policing—What Have We Learned So Far?

Gauging whether a community policing program has been successful ultimately depends on how you define success.
A police officer speaks with kids in North Charleston. Photo by Ryan Johnson.

A police officer speaks with kids in North Charleston, South Carolina. Photo by Ryan Johnson / Flickr.

It’s been nearly 10 months since a fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, ignited a vigorous debate on the need to reform policing practices. But the path to reestablishing community trust in law enforcement seems no less fraught with obstacles now than it did on that transformative day last August when 18-year-old Michael Brown fell dead in the street.

In a span of just three weeks this spring, a police officer in South Carolina, a reserve deputy in Oklahoma, and a veteran police officer in Pennsylvania were charged with criminal homicide in the deaths of unarmed suspects.

These events take their place on a growing list of controversial police killings that have focused national attention on the need to bring law enforcement back to its original mission: “protect and serve.” To this end, no fewer than three national bodies—the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the Department of Justice (DOJ)—have issued reports this year calling for expanded investments in so-called community policing.

Community-oriented policing is not a new concept, nor has it lacked strong federal advocacy since the DOJ adopted it as a formal strategy in 1994. To date, the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) has distributed more than $14 billion in grants to thousands of law enforcement agencies to advance a broad range of strategies ostensibly organized around community policing principles.

While many of these initiatives have borne fruit, the program has challenges. Since community policing is more a philosophy than a standardized set of practices, departments have a lot of flexibility in how the term gets translated on the street. And they don’t always get it right.

Still, it’s hard to find a police department today that doesn’t at least pay lip service to the ideals of community policing. A few stand out as notable success stories; however, even among successful agencies, many have learned the hard way that community policing is not an end in itself, but an ongoing process that requires regular fine-tuning.

“Nobody changes the police from the outside”

Community policing operates on the core principle that citizens are most likely to respond positively to law enforcement efforts that mesh with their own concerns—in other words, something that is being done for them, rather than done to them. The philosophy is grounded in the belief that an emphasis on procedural justice and responsive problem solving leads to improved public perceptions of the police, and that leads more generally to better law enforcement outcomes. The agencies that get it right invariably share one thing in common: progressive leaders who are committed to thinking outside the box.

"The only people that can change the police are police themselves."

“Nobody changes the police from the outside,” says David C. Couper, who spent 21 years as the chief of police in Madison, Wisconsin, a college city of just under 250,000 people. “The only people that can change the police are police themselves and their leaders, and absent that, not much is going to happen.”

Couper was an early pioneer of decentralized policing, and by the mid-1980s had used his tenured leadership post to transform the core mission of his department. On his watch, the department walked back an emphasis on code enforcement and started dedicating officers long-term to specific neighborhoods, giving them the discretion to work with community members to choose which crimes to prioritize. At one point, he says, the result was the de facto decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana.

“Community policing is about how officers define themselves,” says Couper. “If police see themselves solely as law enforcement officers, then they’ll spend all their time looking for some broken laws to enforce.”

Madison’s community policing strategy was expanded and formalized after Couper’s departure, largely under the tenure of his protégé, Noble Wray, who led the Madison Police Department (MPD) from 2004–2013. A survey of community partners conducted in the months before Wray’s departure showed an above-average level of trust in law enforcement and a high degree of two-way interaction between police and citizens.

By all accounts, Madison stands as one of the nation’s community policing success stories. But it also serves as a warning against the dangers of complacency. The city’s decision in December 2012 not to file charges against a Madison police officer with a history of recklessness who shot an unarmed drunk man angered many in the community.

The city began deploying officers trained to handle interactions with the mentally ill.

According to Sue Williams, Madison’s assistant chief of police, the department has been taking proactive steps to repair the rift. She says Madison’s new chief, Michael C. Koval, meets regularly with a Community Advisory Council, and the department has a “living” document outlining its trust-building initiatives posted on its website that is updated four times a year in response to community feedback. This year, the city began deploying an officer in each of its five districts who is trained to handle interactions with the mentally ill.

Nevertheless, the MPD faced yet another setback in March when the fatal police shooting of an unarmed 19-year-old biracial man named Tony Robinson put Madison in the national spotlight and sparked a series of #BlackLivesMatter protests in the city. As of this writing, the district attorney had yet to decide if charges would be filed against the officer, a 12-year veteran of the force with a checkered history.

Williams says the crisis offers an opportunity for the department to prove its commitment to community policing.

“We need to be out in our community, engaging with citizens, actively breaking down those barriers some are trying to build,” Williams says. “We have to be open and accessible.”

“The journey of problem solving”

To Lieutenant Tim Schmidt, a district commander in Anaheim, California—another early adopter of community policing—Madison’s experience underscores the provisional nature of community policing programs.

Crisis lets the department to prove its commitment to community policing.

“Community policing is not a destination, it’s a process you have to keep working each day,” he says. “It’s the journey of problem solving.”

Anaheim launched a limited community policing pilot in 1995 that emphasized code enforcement and crisis intervention over long-term relationship building. The city has seen its COPS efforts evolve over the years and continues to refine them.

Anaheim is a larger, more ethnically diverse city than Madison. Since 1980, the percentage of residents of Latino heritage has grown from 17 percent to 53 percent. The changing demographics have challenged the Anaheim Police Department (APD) to reinvent its community policing program over the years with an eye toward improving community engagement.

A 2009 report commissioned by the DOJ found that the APD’s community policing efforts, combined with a citywide effort to facilitate community governance, had succeeded in fostering improved levels of neighborhood leadership and sustainability.

In the wake of violent protests in 2012 incited by a pair of controversial police shootings, the department doubled down on its community policing effort. The APD hired 13 new officers and assigned them to community policing “teams” that concentrate on proactive relationship building instead of responding to calls.

"The key is listening to the community to determine what their problems are."

“I’m not talking about a guy just getting out of his car and just talking to people,” says Schmidt. “It has to be constant two-way interaction, and that feedback needs to find its way back to our regular patrol officers.”

In 2013 Anaheim hired its first Latino police chief, Raul Quezada, who promised to prioritize civic engagement. He started by establishing a program called “Coffee with a Cop,” designed to facilitate informal police-community interaction, and says he is committed to seeking civilian input on important issues.

“The key is listening to the community to determine what their problems are instead of having us tell them what their problems are,” said Quezada, in an interview with an Orange County policing blog in 2014.

Fighting crime or building trust?

Gauging whether a community policing program has been successful ultimately depends on how you define success. For the DOJ, community policing sits at the nexus of three primary elements: “organizational transformation,” “community partnerships,” and “problem solving.” But federal auditors, as well as many police agencies themselves, tend to overemphasize the latter of these variables, which, in practice, frequently gets simplified into “crime solving” at street level. That’s probably because it’s the easiest metric to track.

In Schmidt’s view, for instance, community policing is primarily a crime-fighting strategy that has the added benefit of building good will with residents. When asked for examples of community policing in action, he tends to cite standard law enforcement metrics like reductions in call volume and drops in nuisance crime. For Couper, and many other early community-oriented policing pioneers we spoke to, community policing begins with officer discretion and civic engagement and ends in increased public safety.

"It’s about satisfaction and trust."

While the difference between these two approaches may seem like one of semantics, in practice they often manifest in contradictory policing strategies. There are lots of ways to solve the problem of crime, and not all of them facilitate healthy police-community relations. As the nation faces the crisis of a breakdown in community trust for law enforcement, departments will face more pressure to measure their community policing programs against something other than crime data.

“It’s about satisfaction and trust—that’s the first place we should be looking,” says Charlotte Gill, a community policing researcher at George Mason University.

The COPS office has already begun this evolution. Since the launch of its Collaborative Reform Initiative for Technical Assistance in 2011, the DOJ has been gradually realigning its mission to prioritize trust-building initiatives.

Ronald Davis, the current COPS director, calls this a critical component of effective community policing.

“Earning the trust of the community and making those individuals stakeholders in their own safety enables law enforcement to better understand and address both the needs of the community and the factors that contribute to crime.”

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