Testing your investment in community policing

With the current administration’s CHRP COPS funding for police staffing we may be seeing the ghost of Clinton past. Although the first round of money evaporated as soon as the gate was opened, more programs may be in the works. It might be a good idea to review your department’s commitment to community policing if funding is contingent on it. My functional definition of community policing is an organizational awareness that the use of police power and coercion is not the only or best way to solve a problem.

Here’s a quick test of your department’s real investment in the principles of community policing:

1) Do your patrol officers have discretion to coordinate with other entities to solve problems?
Use of police power is embedded in every academy class and is a reality of survival for patrol officers. Street officers need encouragement to consider community alternatives. Only when officers know what community resources exist and are encouraged to engage those services can the collaborative process begin.

2) Are your community policing efforts more listening than talking?
Do meetings always happen at the police station? Do community meetings look like a press conference with chairs all facing the police who are lined up behind a desk or podium? Are answers to questions filled with excuses and explanations of why the police can’t do this or that? Active listening in a non-threatening context and thinking from fresh perspectives is crucial to community problem solving.

3) Is your community policing plan just an insertion of officers into the community?
Foot patrol and school resource officers do tend to increase communication and problem awareness but those efforts aren’t necessarily focused on community policing. The mere exiting of a police officer from a patrol car does not create community policing.

4) Are your officers schooled in collaboration?
My research shows that most are not. Police officers are wired to get things done by directing, ordering, and exercising formal and informal power. For these independent problem solvers the shift to collaborative problem solving is anything but natural. Pure collaboration starts well before working together to solve a problem. Before getting everybody on the same boat, true collaboration determines if there is a need for a boat, what the boat will look like, and where and when the boat will sail!

5) Do your patrol officers dialogue with supervisors about community problems?
If your department has a community policing office or a group of officers dedicated to community policing, the risk is that the department has implied that community policing is a specialty, not a set of concepts and practices infused throughout the organization. Just as every patrol officer must be a first line investigator, every patrol officer must be a community policing officer.

6) Do you value community policing activity?
A look at your agency’s evaluation forms will likely betray the claim that the department values community policing. An officer who spends half a shift communicating with neighbors while her cohorts are writing traffic tickets should look just as productive on paper.

While the current administration is providing law enforcement with much-needed fresh funding, the next few years will still likely be defined by doing more with less. Your department’s commitment to the principles of community engagement and collaborative problem solving is a key component of delivering efficient, effective police work during these lean times.


Joel Shults is currently serving as a campus police chief in Colorado. He can be reached through his website at www.joelshults.com.

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