Community policing and variations on it have become the operating philosophy and underlie much of police practice today. Moreover, community policing has become a powerful organizing theme that continues to shape how police departments deliver services, particularly at the local level of government. The range and complexity of programs associated with community policing are broad and have often evaded systematic scientific investigation. Nonetheless, community policing has and continues to transform modern policing in the United States and elsewhere. This article reflects on how community policing came about and was originally formed. Most importantly, this assessment is focused on the historical roots of community policing, and how it has set a premise for a more ”user-friendly” and community-sensitive form of local law enforcement.

Historical Roots of Community Policing

Since their earliest inception in the nineteenth century in the United States and England, the police have struggled with balancing the need to be efficient and effective, while also being lawful (Walker 1994). Police practice is indeed rooted in Western political philosophy, which emphasizes equity, fairness, and justice (Critchley 1967). The police originally started as ”thief takers,” but their more traditional role has been to preserve local order. In their historic role of maintaining the public peace, the police have focused their efforts mostly on maintaining social order, controlling violence, and minimizing civil unrest. More recently the police have also been associated with reducing the public’s fear of crime and improving community ”quality of life” .Although the goals of the police to preserve the public peace and maintain order are indeed laudable, in practice policing has often been criticized for its negative impacts—being inefficient, brutal, corrupt, and political.

This has led in the United States to several efforts to reform the police. Such reforms have shaped policing over many years, and have set the precedent for what is now called community-oriented policing. These reforms, however, were not always associated with ”good policing”; rather they sought to minimize and control what was seen as ”bad police behavior.”

In a review of the shifts in police strategy in the twentieth century, Kelling and Moore (1988) suggest that the earliest organizational strategy of the police was essentially political. Police were primarily concerned with maintaining the political power of those in office (who appointed the police), and were consequently corrupted by their close association with those in power. At the time, policing was directly associated with the rise of political machines in the late 1800s and early 1900s and their dominance in large American cities (Fogelson 1977).

During this era police were directly tied to the political patronage systems of the times, and their actions helped those in power, often by punishing political enemies and the underclass, generally defined as those of a different ethnic heritage. At this time, the police problem was not one of the police overenforcing the law, but rather one in which the police selectively underenforced the law, particularly within political patronage systems of the era. In many respects it was the police who were ”lawless” (Walker 1977); they were often seen as an adjunct to the local political machine, using violence and brutality against those who were not in political favor, and were themselves otherwise lazy and corrupt. During this same period (roughly, 1890 to 1930) the local police, particularly in large urban cities, encountered several waves of immigration. How immigrants were to be socialized to their new living arrangements, most particularly to the political processes that shaped those living arrangements, was often left to the uneven hand of the police—and the police nightstick.

Reformers in the early 1900s began to challenge the political corruption of much of local government. A ”good government” movement followed these efforts and the strategy to reform the police was to ”take the politics out of policing.” This strategy was built on efforts aimed at administrative reform (Fogelson 1977), wherein administrative control, distance from political and social communities, and law and professionalism guided the police response, not political partisanship or party loyalty. Today this idea of police reform still dominates much American police administrative thinking.

The reform era sought to first make the police legally accountable; it was not so much a concern with public accountability, but rather in having a lawful police. The ”lawlessness of the police” had become legend by the beginning of the twentieth century. Reformers sought to divide the police from political control and subject their actions to greater administrative review. All of this was done in the name of controlling the political tendencies of the police, while introducing efficiencies into police administration.

During this reform era of policing (roughly the 1920s to 1960s), the police expanded on their models of organization and administration (typically borrowed from the military); improved response technology through the introduction of telephones, radio cars, and dispatch systems; and attempted to instill uniformity in police practice through more uniform training. These reforms all sought to build a foundation for policing and to raise the status of the police from political hacks to professionals.

Perhaps the success of these reforms was also their failure. In embracing administrative reform, the police drifted away from the public, often seeing the public as an unnecessary interference. Institutionally, the police became inward looking, and cloaked their business in secrecy. Speed of response overtook policing neighborhoods, and secondary measures of effort eclipsed those of effectiveness. Routinely the police presented themselves as uniformed, selectively organized, and capable of rapid response to emergencies. Such a presentational strategy was thought to help maintain the public legitimacy of the police (Crank and Langworthy 1992) and is still an important way the police present themselves to the public, but such a presentational strategy may actually be one of the major obstacles to overcome in the implementation of community-oriented policies.

Beginning in the late 1950s and continuing into the 1970s, the institution of policing encountered its most formidable challenge—a direct and frontal assault on the legitimacy of the police and indeed of the legal system itself. The civil rights and Vietnam antiwar movements effectively merged two groups who had heretofore been socially and politically separated: minorities, particularly blacks, and urban and suburban middle-class white youth. The convergence of these two social and political movements confronted American policing in very direct ways.

In response to these confrontations, the police, generally speaking, became militant. They were often so confrontational when dealing with these groups that they produced what Stark (1972) has termed ”police riots.” The nationally televised Chicago Democratic Convention and the riots that ensued for the first time portrayed the police as institutionally unaccountable. Moreover, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder concluded that the spark of most urban riots occurring in the late 1960s was poor or aggressive police action, generally taken in a minority community. Riots in Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, Newark, and elsewhere portrayed a disintegrating social structure, often precipitated by police action. The police were at once the cause and the solution to social unrest. Liberals saw them as the cause of problems, conservatives as the solution. The country was divided on these issues, and the police were caught between significant ideological shifts occurring in American political and social life (National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder 1968).

The American police were sorely in need of reform yet again. Beginning in the early 1970s, the police began to experiment with ways that put them into closer interaction with the public. The community relations movement, begun in the late 1940s and into the 1950s (Pelfry 1997), influenced this transition for policing, as did the rise of alternative forms of policing such as team policing (Sherman, Milton, and Kelly 1973). In both the community relations movement and team policing, there was an attempt to create more public support for the police, while at the same time providing them with a clearer role in community public safety. Police-community relations programs sought to sensitize the police to neighborhood ethnic and cultural differences, while team policing was an import initial attempt to change the focus and structure of the police. It is from these early roots that the community-oriented policing movement in the United States can trace its roots.

The more current trends in U.S. police reform, falling under the broad label of community policing, began in the mid-1980s and continue to the present. These trends stress a contextual role for the police, one that emphasizes greater interaction with the community toward the resolution of persistent neighborhood crime and disorder problems (Wilson and Kelling 1982; Goldstein 1987; Kelling and Moore 1988). This newest in a long tradition of reforms has many implications for police role definitions, strategic and tactical operations, and understanding about the limits of formal and informal social control.


The organizing themes of community policing suggest that law enforcement can be more focused, proactive, and community sensitive. Moreover, community policing portends significant changes to the social and formal organization of policing. On the level of social organization, community policing is thought to break down the barriers separating the police from the public, while inculcating police officers with a broader community service set of

ideals. Organizationally, community policing is thought to shift police decision making from what was a traditional bureaucracy to one emphasizing greater organizational-environmental interaction. Simultaneously, the shift to community policing is said to be accompanied by a flattening of the police hierarchy and the development of coordinated service delivery with any number of agencies that affect public safety. These are indeed profound changes to policing, as they continue to be implemented and shape the institution of American policing.

Next post:

Previous post: