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Community Policing: Relations Between Law Enforcement and the Public

Community policing is becoming a way of life for more and more law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. The reason why? It works!

What is Community Policing?

Community policing is when police officers work in the same local areas, day after day, getting to know the residents and the area to provide more effective policing strategies. The idea is to form strong relationships with the people who live and work in those areas and rely on them to extend the law enforcement’s reach to keep everyone safer.

According to David Carter, Professor in the School of Criminal Justice and Director of the Intelligence Program at Michigan State University – “Community policing accomplishes many things – it helps the police understand the fears and safety concerns of community members; it establishes a rapport between the police and public so community problems can be addressed cooperatively; it increases information sharing from the public to the police that can significantly aid in solving crimes; it can help enhance the quality of life of community members through better and more targeted police service delivery; it helps eliminate distrust between the police and community. All of these points are supported by empirical research. Importantly, community policing is not a program or a project, it is an all-encompassing philosophy of policing and police service delivery.


Community policing is comprised of three key components: community partnerships, organizational transformation, and problem-solving. U.S. police departments must make an equal investment in each of the three components in order to be successful.


The goals of a community policing program are to engage the public to help stop crime before it happens, improve community safety, and build trust between law enforcement and the people living and working there.

community policing

The 3 P’s of Community Policing

The community policing project is built upon three P’s to make it all work.

Engaging People - both the law enforcement agents and the community need to be informed and on board in order to succeed. Some of the elements in this step are clearly defined leadership, measures and strategies for success, and cultural immersion and understanding.

Implementing Policies - the next step is designing policies that support the goals of the program. Some of the critical elements here are voice, transparency, fairness, impartiality, clear and consistent communication, and pillars of procedural justice.

Creating Sustainable Processes - The final piece of the puzzle is sustainable processes developed by leadership. These processes must be clearly communicated, enforced, and continually updated as things change. They must include elements of accountability, compliance, and measures for success.

Officer, Benjamin Costigan regales a heartwarming story of community policing in action – “Recently our Neighborhood Enforcement Team responded to a call of someone camping in a motorhome in a business parking lot. Officers contacted the elderly mother and adult daughter inside and instead of just telling them to move, they got to the root of the problem. The elderly woman had driven here with her husband from across the country to help their daughter who was experiencing mental health issues and living on the street. When they arrived, tragedy struck. Her husband died and her motorhome had flat tires and couldn’t move. She was literally stranded. The officers spent the time to help. They contacted the Les Schwab Tire Company with the intent to pay for a couple of new tires. Not only did Les Schwab respond immediately but they donated their time. Officers then bought food, new clothing, amongst other items to help get them on their way. This is a prime example of Police Officers and the community working together.

Examples of Community Policing Strategies

Across the county and in Canada, there are many success stories to tell of how community policing has improved the area and solved problems.

One example is in Ontario, Canada; the Regional Police Service implemented the SARA model to solve a variety of crime issues such as “drug trafficking, riots, social disorder, vehicle thefts, and damage to property within a five-block area.” As a result, crime in those areas was reduced by an amazing 75%.

In another example, police, insurance companies, government agencies, and the general public all combined their efforts to eliminate the problem of vehicle-deer collisions that was costing the region $1,000,000 annually.

Ray Smith, an Officer in the Public Information Office (Tuscon Officer for 13 years) describes his experience – “I feel that community policing is important because it fosters a relationship with the community, which we as officers are a part of. Our spouses work in this town, our children go to school here and many of us officers live in this city. So, for us to all work hand in hand helps everyone involved. Community involvement helps solve crimes faster as well.

Our representation on social media platforms has really bridged the gap. Since late 2017, we have kicked off several attempts to humanize the badge. We try to mix humor in our Public Service Announcements, as it is more accessible and less dry. We have noticed that the community members have been more vocal in identifying wanted/unknown suspects that we post to our social media outlets. We hold several Coffee with a Cop meetings a year, where community members can just kick back and chat over coffee and donuts. This year we held our very first Open House event where people from all over the city could come and visit us in our police stations. Last year we hosted an art gallery showcasing art from the Arts For All students. We host a Kids and Cops Christmas shopping spree for children in the community that are in need of toys and other things. Cops and Rodders is a car show where we showcase all of our police vehicles and spend time with community members. This year we worked closely with students at Toltecalli High School, and they interned with us over the summer. We have a robust volunteer program that gets community members to help train our rookie officers at our academy and also, the volunteers work throughout our department. This is just scratching the surface, but it's a great deal more than how we used to be in the past. We're moving in the right direction.

Myron Travis, Officer at Crime Prevention Division describes his community’s experience – “Mukilteo is a relatively small community with about 22,000 residents. The respect for police is evident from the support and acknowledgment of service to the community that is often provided by community members. It is very common to be anywhere in the City and be approached by someone who will tell you, “Thank you for your service.” Since the Youth Academy has been implemented, I can tell that the youth in the community are more relaxed around police officers and they don’t view those interactions as confrontational. I believe that our community policing and community engagement efforts have been a pivotal part of maintaining strong police-community relationships as we work together to keep the City fun and safe place to live.

Captain, Jason Stille explains – “As for projects that we implement bridging the gap between community and law enforcement, the examples are aplenty. Our city is divided into 5 geographic team areas. Each of those patrol divisions requires individual officers to develop and oversee Problem-Oriented Policing (POP) projects. These projects can be the shape of homeless outreach, addressing wild party concerns in a neighborhood, addressing an uptick in residential burglaries or larceny calls in a specific area, safety concerns in parks and on trails within the city, etc. We have staff that operates as board members or volunteers for a host of organizations, non-profits, and other community partners in our city in order to facilitate open communication and to ensure that our department reflects the goals and expectations of our community.”

Problem Solving and Prevention

Law enforcement uses a variety of techniques for problem solving and prevention as part of the community policing model. Some common ones used are the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), Problem-Oriented Policing (POP), and the SARA (Scanning, Analysis, Response, and Assessment) model.

Community Engagement

community engagement

Community engagement is critical to the success of these types of programs. Some of the ways that community engagement is achieved are through “Citizen Comment Cards,” a “Police Involving Parents Program,” along with other public education and awareness programs to get the communities involved and onboard.


Partnerships are at the heart of community policing. Aligning with community organizations and local businesses can spell success or failure for these types of programs. Local law enforcement work within the public, private, and non-profit sectors to form connections that will benefit all parties.

Organizational Development and Change

According to the department of justice, organizational change is the number one factor in making a success out of community policing. Some of the methods used are “training and cross-training, strategic planning, utilizing civilian volunteers, organizational change, program and resource development, and aligning officer performance measures with the community policing philosophy.”

An example might be teaching a civilian how to go online and perform an inmate search before contacting police to apprehend a suspect.

What is the SARA Method?

SARA refers to the Scanning, Analysis, Response, and Assessment model of community policing. It is essentially a blueprint for solving problems and starts with S for Scanning: identifying and prioritizing problems. The A stands for Analyzing: researching what is known about the problem. R stands for Response: developing solutions to reduce the number of issues. Then the final A stands for Assessment: a measure to evaluate the success of the process.

Keys to Successful Community Policing

The keys to a thriving community policing program are a commitment by the law enforcement agency and the community. All three elements of community engagement, partnerships, and organizational change must be leveraged equally and effectively by both sides for the program to be a success.

The Role of Technology in Community Policing

Technology has taken center stage as part of the community policing programs. In many areas, law enforcement sets up a website where residents can report crimes, provide tips, give feedback, and communicate with officers. Some precincts use texting for crime tip lines allowing users to provide anonymous information without exposing themselves. Encrypted two-way conversations and texting have increased community involvement enormously.

Community Policing Statistics

Many police departments across the U.S. are adopting community policing strategies. Most notably, NYPD is quite engrossed in the practice and has experienced a 5.3% drop in crime over a two-year period. Similarly, the University of California Berkeley Police Department witnessed a 12% drop in violent crime and a 24% decrease in property crimes as a result of their community policing programs.

Contacts Between Police and the Public

According to the DOJ, only 19% (43.5 million) of the American people report that the only time they have ever spoken with a police officer was after being stopped for a traffic violation. Surveys completed in 2002 and 2005 showed that whites, blacks, and Hispanics were all stopped at similar rates. The general public is simply not accustomed to interacting with law enforcement on any other basis except when in violation of the rules. It is no wonder these programs work so well by improving the connections between law officers and the public and breaking down the walls of isolation. 

Benefits of Community Policing

There are dozens of benefits to community policing in different areas that affect both law enforcement and the people living in the communities.

Direct Contact

Many Americans have never had a face-to-face conversation with a police officer. Direct contact through community policing programs helps citizens to feel more comfortable around law enforcement and builds trust in both directions.

Contentious Relationships

As evidenced in the news, the relationship between communities and the police has often been fraud with contention. These programs aim to dispel that discomfort and ease the tension between sides, helping to eliminate the “us” and “them” mentality. Police officers are people too.

Citizen Involvement

When citizens are involved in their own safety and feel that they have a voice, they are more likely to feel safe and secure. Plus, having dozens of extra pairs of eyes looking out for potential problems, extends the arm of the law considerably.

Other Benefits

Additionally, these programs increase the safety of both residents and law enforcement officers. Sharing information builds trust but also provides additional resources for problem-solving and cooperation.

law enforcement officers

Scott Hildebrand, Community Services Commander gives us this final word on the subject – “Crime and disorder is a community problem. Crimes that are committed happen within the community with every citizen potentially being a victim. The public must concern itself with prevention and solving the offenses.

The police can’t do the job alone. Information about the crime is obtained from the average citizen. Reports of negative issues need to be reported to law enforcement or a crime may never become known. Without the support of information from members of the community, crimes may never get solved. 

Community policing is a concept of police getting back into the community to deal directly with the public. Up until the mid-20th century police walked a beat in urban areas and a citizen only needed to scream out for help. With the post-war boom, population centers changed and crime increased along with the nation’s population. Police had to travel by car to respond to calls for service. When the matter was handled, police left to travel to the next issue. A physical separation took place between law enforcement and the public. Community policing attempts to reconnect the two.

Community policing is a partnership between police and everyone in the community. Crime and disorder should be the concern of both groups and needs to be solved with both sides working together. Each organization has a concept and concern of what is taking place and what needs to be done to solve the problems facing an area.

The Hickory Police Department participates in every neighborhood association. Officers and a supervisor for the area go to the meetings to talk to citizens to address concerns.

The police department participates in community meetings such as; the Council on Racial Justice, the Community Relations Council, and the Youth Council.

The police department also partners with community groups such as; The Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club, Safe Kids, the Council on Adolescence Lunch Buddy program, and the Coffee with a Cop program.

The police department runs a yearly Citizen’s Police Academy to introduce the general public to the department and policing concepts. The department’s school resource officers run a summer camp for at-risk youth. The department has come up with problem-solving concepts such as; the county safe communities initiative to combat gang and general violence issues, the law enforcement drug diversion program to deal with low-level drug offenders, and a community navigator to assist in the homeless population. All of these programs began at the police level, but partner with community organizations that take a stake in the problem and work together to solve it.