Community Policing: a Review of the Evidence

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Part 2: The historical development of the concept of community policing

The concept of CP has, on the one hand, proved to be popular and widely used - in the sense that it has been characterised as the 'new orthodoxy' (Eck and Rosenbaum 1994: 3) and 'preferred policing style' (Williamson 2005: 153) amongst senior police officials and leaders all around the world (even if its status with rank and file officers has remained less certain - Reiner 2000: 75). On the other hand, CP has also long been recognised as an ambiguous term, and one that has become used in such general ways (referring to almost anything that could feasibly have a bearing on police-public relations) as to be largely meaningless (Bayley 1994: 104; Manning 1984: 211; Tilley 2008: 376-377).

This part of the review will identify the roots of this successful 'orthodoxy' by examining the historical development of the concept of CP and the different, and sometimes overlapping, explanations that have been put forward for its emergence and subsequent popularity. This discussion will serve to illustrate some of the ambiguity that lies at the heart of CP. Part 3 aims to identify and outline some of the most influential scholarly definitions of CP, the various iterations of it (such as 'reassurance' and 'neighbourhood' policing), and related but by no means identical models of policing (problem-orientated policing and intelligence-led policing) that have also shaped debates about policing and the role of the public police over the last thirty years or so. The key point to be extracted from this latter discussion is that although the conceptual landscape of CP is complex and cluttered, which adds to its ambiguity, a consistent set of what might be viewed as 'generally accepted dimensions' of CP can be drawn from the literature. Part 3 will conclude by summarising the generally accepted dimensions of CP.

The historical development and roots of CP will be examined here by identifying some of the main ways in which the emergence of CP is explained or characterised in much of the literature (for broader overviews of the historical development of policing and the role of the police, which are highly relevant to, but which also go far beyond the development of CP specifically, see: Emsley 1996, 2002, 2008; Newburn 2008; Rawlings 2002, 2008; Reiner 2000: chapters 1 and 2). The five key explanations/characterisations of the development of CP identified here are as follows:

  1. CP as a response to specific crisis events involving the police
  2. CP as a response to general crises in police legitimacy and effectiveness
  3. CP as a response to changes in the nature of 'community'
  4. CP as a return to 'traditional' policing
  5. CP as rhetoric and CP as practice

1. CP as a response to specific crisis events involving the police

The emergence, development and rising salience of CP over the last thirty years has been understood by some commentators as being related to its use and value as a response to specific crisis events. Wesley Skogan cites the Rodney King beating at the hands of the LAPD as being a key moment in the history of CP in the US (Skogan 2006: 11). Similarly, Reiner notes the importance of the race riots that flared up around several cities in England in the early 1980s (most famously in Brixton), and the subsequent inquiry into the causes of those riots by Lord Scarman, to the development of CP as guiding philosophy amongst police leaders in the UK (Reiner 2000: 75; Tilley 2008: 373). These commentators are not arguing that these crisis events 'created' the concept of CP. There is evidence of these ideas pre-dating these crisis events in the US (Manning 1984; Sherman and Milton 1973), and perhaps even more explicitly in the UK where there has been a longer tradition of the police being seen as part of the community (Alderson 1979; Banton 1964; Cain 1973; Reiner 2000; Schaffer 1980; Donnelly 2008; Donnelly and Scott 2005). John Alderson, the former Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall, and, according to Tilley (2008: 376), key inspiration behind what would become known as CP in the UK, was already publishing and promoting his ideas (see Alderson, 1979), and also gave evidence to the Scarman Committee. What is argued, however, is that these specific crises were important in the history of CP because the ideas underpinning it were lent currency by crises which were emblematic of deeper erosions in police-public relations (particularly, but not exclusively, amongst ethnic minority groups - see Smith 1997, 2005) that had taken place in the decades following the Second World War (see point 3, below). These specific crises were important in raising the status of CP as a possible means of improving community relations (see point 3 below), or at least as a means through which it could be claimed that something was being done (see point 5, below).

2. CP as a response to general crises in police legitimacy and effectiveness

The rise of CP in the latter half of the 20 th century is, for some commentators, explainable in terms of the wider crisis of legitimacy and effectiveness facing the police in the UK (Reiner 2000; Loader and Mulcahy 2003; Smith 2007; Newburn 2008). There are three interrelated points to be made here. Firstly, ever rising post-war crime rates and the 'nothing works' critique of rehabilitation, raised serious questions about whether the modern criminal justice state, dominated by police, courts and prisons, was effective in controlling the crime problem (Garland 1996, 2001; Martinson 1974). The efficacy of reactive, legalistic criminal justice was, in general, being called into question. Secondly, in the same period social scientific studies of policing were directly calling into question the effectiveness, albeit sometimes by quite crude 'crime control' criteria, of much-valued police strategies, from visible patrol to fast response times (see Reiner 2000: chapter 4; Bayley 1998; Sherman 1992). A particular concern that was emerging was that attempts to 'professionalise' policing through an emphasis on fast, responsive, 'fire brigade' models of policing (Unit Beat Policing in the UK) had not only proved to be of limited effectiveness in terms of crime control, they also had the effect of drawing officers further away from the communities they served (Lea and Young 1993; Morgan and Newburn 1997) - because in such a model of policing, officers tended to be taken off foot patrol in order to be placed in squad cars where their community contact would be limited to the crisis points to which they were responding. CP thus gathered status as a potentially more effective model of policing that also involved police officers more directly with members of their community - both of which were argued to be ways of improving police legitimacy and public relations (see Smith 2007 for a contrary view to this).

3. CP as a response to changes in the nature of 'community'

Another explanation of the rise in popularity of CP relates to how wider changes in the nature of 'community' itself makes such an approach to policing necessary. Although communities have never been homogeneous, and the police have long had very different relations with different constituencies in the community (the 'policed' and the 'protected' - see Shearing 1992; Reiner 2000), it is nonetheless argued in the literature that the police in the UK were successful in establishing particularly high levels of legitimacy with the public through the course of the 20th century, in part, because of broadly held consensus about the value of the police amongst the public (Reith 1956; Reiner 2000; Rawlings 2002; Emsley 2002, 2008). However, following the second world war it is argued that communities have become much more individualist and fragmented along numerous lines - socio-economic lines, race and ethnicity, sexuality, political and ethical values and interests etc - making it much more difficult for the police to rely on broad public support (Reiner 1992b; Bauman 2001). More diverse communities create more complex, overlapping, and sometimes contradictory, public expectations for the police to deal with (Smith 2007; Reiner 1992b). CP is one possible means of engaging with more diverse communities in order to secure legitimacy amongst them.

4. CP as a return to 'traditional' policing

CP is sometimes hailed as a return to more 'traditional' policing, either of the 'golden age' of the 1950s, or of the style of preventative policing envisaged by the architects of the modern police in the 19 th century (Sir Robert Peel being the most renowned). Manning (1984: 207-8) warns against the nostalgia of bygone ages, noting that the evidence of a rose-tinted past is not always to be found (for other critiques of the 'golden era' of policing and its mythology see: Reiner, 2000; Loader and Mulcahy 2003). Tilley also notes that the level of proactive community engagement envisaged in much contemporary CP goes rather beyond what Peel had in mind (2008: 374). The claim that CP is simply a return to 'traditional' policing can thus be worrisome as it rings of nostalgia, without any evidence of a 'better' past, and how that better past might have been produced. Such a claim is often found where there is ambiguity about what CP should entail in practice and where it can thus be argued that it is nothing new, or that it is something that has always been done anyway (a problem in Scotland where CP is often assumed to be the driving philosophy of the police but where there has recently been found to be little clarity or agreement about what that means: HMIC 2004; Scottish Parliament Justice Committee 2008, and see also the discussion of CP as rhetoric, below). However, the claim that CP marks a return to more 'traditional' forms of policing is worthy of some consideration. For example, in The Policeman in the Community (described by Reiner as the "starting point" of serious police research in the UK: 1992a: 439) Banton argued that the police officer as 'peace officer' drew their authority and capacity for social control from the wider web of informal and communal controls in which they were enmeshed (1964: 6-7). He associated the peace officer with the patrolman, not the 'law officers' in specialist investigation and enforcement departments, and argued that the peace officer working within the 'moral consensus' of the community was the 'ideal' police officer. This chimes with contemporary definitions of CP (see below). Related to this, Banton's recognition that 'the police are only one among many agencies of social control' (1964: 1) is also a reminder that it is not new to think of the police as working in (to use contemporary parlance) 'partnership' with other public, private and communal agencies. Many contemporary scholars are drawing attention to the fact that CP and things like situational crime prevention, because they tend to draw attention to the broad range of actors beyond the public police service who nonetheless contribute to 'policing', do mark something of a return to 'older' forms of policing (see Colquhoun 1797), including ones that predate the birth of the modern public police service (Crawford 2008; Emsley 2008; Zedner 2006; Garland 2000).

5. CP as rhetoric and CP as practice

Some commentators have argued that CP has evolved into a popular and powerful concept precisely because of its ambiguity (McLaughlin 1994, 2007; Greene and Mastrofski 1988). Because CP can potentially 'mean all things to all people' (Kelling and Coles 1996: 158) and, most importantly, because 'it wraps the police in the powerful and unquestionably good images of community, cooperation, and crime prevention', CP acts merely to gloss over the fundamental role of the police (the exercise of the legitimate use of force - Bittner 1970) which liberal society finds uncomfortable (Klockars 1988: 257-8; also reprinted in Newburn 2005: 457-8). Perhaps one of the most damning expressions of the view that CP is rhetoric comes from McLaughlin - a view partly shaped by his study of community involvement and police accountability in Manchester under controversial Chief Constable John Anderton in the 1980s (1994):

Community policing was defined as part of a 'totalising policing' initiative geared towards: persuading people to allow a seemingly benign police presence back into their communities; gathering community information on extremists and trouble makers; and co-opting other social agencies into the policing function because the police had lost their legitimacy (McLaughlin 2007: 66).

However, in contrast to this view CP also became associated with a specific set of policing practices and philosophies and some scholars did actively encourage thinking about CP in practical and operational terms, rather than vague generic ones (Alderson 1979; Skolnick and Bayley 1988; Bayley 1994; Skogan and Hartnett 1997; Skogan 2006). The following practices, initiatives and organizational reconfigurations are now commonly associated with CP (this list is not exhaustive):

  • visible foot patrol
  • public/neighbourhood meetings and liaison
  • partnership working
  • establishing local substations
  • public satisfaction surveys
  • neighbourhood watch coordination
  • youth work

In developing thinking about CP as a practice it is necessary to move the review on to the many definitions of it (and related models of policing) in order to document and clarify what is, and what is not, understood as CP in the literature. This will be the focus of Part 3 that will, following a review of some of the most influential definitions of CP, aim to identify and summarise the consistent and common features of these definitions in order to at least begin the process of fleshing out what might reasonably be viewed as 'generally agreed dimensions of CP'.