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Community policing has become a buzz phrase in recent years. For years we got used to only seeing police in patrol cars. Now, though, police departments are putting more and more cops back on the beat.
The question is, does community policing work? Does getting to know your local police officer have any real benefits?
In this post, we look at the pros and cons of community policing. And we look at whether community policing does have any impact on crime rates.
What is Community Policing?
Although the buzz and debate around community policing is new, the concept is not. Community policing is the type of policing that we used to have years ago.
Once upon a time, the only way a police officer could patrol an area was on foot. But then efficiency drives, and new technology led to the disappearance of the beat cop.
For a long time, people wanted the reassurance of police foot patrols. But we only ever saw police officers sitting in patrol cars.
Today, the trend has turned full circle. Police departments are putting more community police officers on the streets. And, in places like schools and colleges.
Community policing is about local policing. It means the same police officers patrolling the same areas. It also means the police and local citizens working together to fight crime.
The Pros and Cons of Community Policing
Of course, there are very good reasons why we need fast response police units in patrol cars. We also must accept that police departments have finite resources. It would be nice to have a police officer on every street corner. But that’s never going to happen.
So, does community policing have any advantages. Or, is it only pandering to those who yearn for a return to the old days? Let’s look at the pros and cons of community policing.
The Pros of Community Policing
One question that always comes up in debates about community policing is do we need it?
If you are being mugged, you will want help fast. You are not interested in a friendly cop being on the beat. You want an officer in a fast car who can be with you in no time at all.
So, do the benefits of community policing justify the costs? Let’s look at the pros of community policing first.
1. Greater Cooperation with the Community
Good community policing is a joint effort. It involves both police officers and members of the community.
Community police officers will patrol the same neighborhood every day. So, they become a face that is known and a person that who is trusted. That makes it more likely that citizens will provide police officers with information.
When the community and the police work together, it helps to build a strong community. A community that is less likely to tolerate crime.
2. Deters Crime
Visible policing deters crime. People are less likely to commit crimes if they know there is a risk of a police officer walking around the corner.
The increased cooperation between police and the community also helps to reduce crime. Increased cooperation means a greater likelihood that someone will tip off the cops.
3. Proactive Policing Rather than Reactive Policing
Community policing allows for more emphasis on crime prevention. It allows officers to be much more proactive. Building relationships with young people, for example, could help to deter youth crime.
The deterrent effect of community policing might balance the use of extra resources. The theory is that, the less crime there is, the fewer 911 calls there will be to respond to. So, proactive community policing “pays for itself”.
4. More Opportunities to Educate the Community
Community policing makes officers more approachable. That gives the police more opportunity to talk to citizens. Officers get more opportunities to talk to citizens about crime and crime prevention.
Something simple, like reminding people to lock windows and doors, helps prevent burglaries. Many burglars enter homes through unlocked doors and windows. So, more crime prevention advice should cut crime rates.
5. Builds a Stronger Community
Having a familiar face patrol a neighborhood creates a better community spirit. If you know that there is someone looking out for you, you are more likely to look out for other people.
Community policing encourages citizens to take their own steps to fight crime. One example of this is setting up a neighborhood watch program.
The Cons of Community Policing
Not everyone is in favor of community policing. Some people would say a police officer’s job is arresting criminals, not chatting to citizens.
Community policing can also bring challenges. A greater role for the community in policing can lead to citizens overstepping the mark. It could encourage a neighborhood watch to go too far towards vigilantism.
1. A Drain on Resources
One of the criticisms about community policing is that it is a drain on police resources. It takes a lot more officers to patrol an area on foot than would it would if the officers were in cars.
There is also the question of time. When community police officers are not responding to 911 calls, they will be engaging with the community.
The argument here is simple. If officers weren’t tied up talking to citizens, they would be solving crimes.
2. It Can Make Police Officers More Vulnerable to Attack
A police officer on a bike or on foot patrol is more vulnerable.
If a police officer follows the same routine, criminals could ambush the officer. Or, criminals could commit crimes at times of the day they know the police officer will be somewhere else.
3. Some Citizens Won’t engage with Law Enforcement Agencies
There are, of course, some elements of society who will never want to engage with a police officer.
In some neighborhoods, a visible police presence might seem like an intrusion. In such cases, regular foot patrols could make police-community relations worse.
4. Some Places Aren’t Suited to Community Policing
Some cities are so sprawling that patrolling on foot is not an option. Community policing will only have a chance of being effective if it is in a high-population area.
Response times would be way too slow in some areas if officers were on foot or on bike.
5. It Can Encourage Citizens to Take the Law into Their Own Hands
Getting citizens to become more involved in policing can backfire.
There is a fine line between helping your local police officer and getting too involved.
Some situations are better left to trained police officers to deal with. Have-a-go heroes are not always helpful to the police.
6. Sometimes, It Is Unnecessary
In some areas, community policing is unnecessary. If you have a police officer patrolling a low-crime area, the officer’s presence won’t make a lot of difference.
Often, though, it is the residents of low crime areas who are people who want a visible police presence. This can lead to an inefficient use of police resources.
Does Community Policing Work?
Many city mayors and police chiefs claim that community policing is effective. But there is little hard evidence to prove it. In fact, if you search online, you won’t find a definitive answer to this question.
Many people claim that the reduction in crime in New York as evidence that community policing works.
Many other people claim that falling crime rates in New York are a result of the city’s no-tolerance policy. Others say that it reflects a nationwide reduction in crime.
There is a growing consensus in police circles that community policing does work. Most citizens also welcome the return of the local beat officer.
The old tales of how the local beat cop helped an out-of-control teen back onto the right track must have some substance to them.
If those tales are true, then that’s one teen that didn’t become a career criminal. There may, then, be long-term benefits of community policing that don’t show up in the statistics. In which case, there is still a role for the beat cop after all.
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