Community-oriented policing has emerged as the dominant model of democratic policing in the world. The core notions of partnership with communities, orientation to service, problem solving and crime prevention, organizational decentralization of personnel, and permanent deployment of officers to a defined area (leaving aside the devolution of authority to lower echelons within the organization) have an ideological resonance and legitimating utility that transcend national boundaries, especially for countries that are democracies or are seeking to democratize. Additionally, non-state security providers, for example, private and corporate police, community groups, and self-protection militias, have expanded dramatically in all societies. The decline of state capacity and the expansion of informal social control raise the question of how the state can harness the energy and normative power of informal control efforts to state-centered policing. Community-oriented policing (COP) does that.

The COP model has been adopted in domestic settings in Western democracies for similar reasons: dissatisfaction with police performance and negative police relations as the consequences of prior models, a decline of government resources available to support policing services, changes in the political climate favoring local governance, and technological advances in communications and information processing. The ideology of COP has been diffused around the globe by scholarly writings, the missionary activities of advocates and reformers, the growing networks of interactions and exchanges among police from different countries, the international legitimacy of reform commission recommendations (such as those from the Patten Commission in Northern Ireland), the efforts of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) promoting reforms (such as the Justice Initiative of the Open Society Foundation), and by international policing missions and assistance programs.

COP has many ideological parents, ranging from traditional and socialist ideologies of the need for both informal and formal social control to social science-based performance evaluations of specific policing practices, and is reborn in many organizational permutations in its global travels, in effect rendering the ideology of COP, except for core values and themes, an illusory guide to policies and tactics. Currently, it is not readily apparent, beyond the rhetoric, what it means to do COP and how COP can be recognized in practice. The specific ways in which the goals of partnership, crime prevention through problem solving, and decentralization have structured the activities of the police have varied significantly, shaped by the historical trajectory of how policing developed in different countries. New ideas and practices have been fitted into existing policing patterns. In addition, the desire by individual police organizations to be acknowledged by other police organizations elsewhere as modern, efficient, and up to date has led to the adoption of competitors, or variations on the COP model, such as zero tolerance policing, COMPSTAT, or the marriage of soft and hard (militarized) policing to suit local conditions. In the end, every variation of COP is still a variation of policing—that is, the use of coercive persuasion to maintain social control. That justification for state policing still dominates the social control discourse in all countries, and policing will continue to be judged by communities on how well it protects the safety and sense of security of the public.

Policing systems all over are continually being reformed in ways that fit changing local political and social conditions. In the United Kingdom, which has a long political tradition of central control of the police combined with local input, advice, and supervision, policing has always been based on community support and consent, a tradition that goes back to the Peelian origins of the police. Recent reforms have both centralized control over local policing through oversight, performance demands and direction from the Home Office and expanded community participation by parceling out some aspects of police work to volunteer constables who are entitled to report deviations from community norms.

In the Netherlands community policing policies have been integrated into a tradition of interagency cooperation in municipalities and are now elaborated in contracts between the central government and municipalities on how to incorporate all local agencies, which have some responsibility and can make a contribution to the quality of life and well-being of the community, into a joint effort. In France, ”proximity policing” is the national version of COP. Local communities were allowed to create local police forces (to supplement the existing two national police forces) as a way of bringing policing closer to the local level and under the influence of local governments. Cooperation among the three police forces has been institutionalized in local security contracts, which require that the national police share information and responsibilities with the local police.

Policing practices in Asian communities are surrounded and supported by a vast system of volunteerism and respect by communities for the authority of the police and the power of the government. The most widely cited example of a COP practice, the koban in Japan, along with the street policing units in China have integrated the police into the everyday lives of their communities and have provided an inspiration for one of the few common organizational changes anywhere—local police-community forums, such as community policing centers (Israel), community policing forums (South Africa), storefronts (United States), or district policing boards (Northern Ireland).


The rhetoric of COP dominates national and transnational policing discourses among police officials, academics, and policy makers. It is less clear whether that rhetoric is being translated into practice on a consistent basis. In many countries, for example, South Africa and Hungary, the COP model has lost its luster under the onslaught of organized local and transnational crime against which it seems too soft and ineffective a model. People demanded more repressive policies than those delivered by COP.

Because the model has little organizational and policy specificity, it has been fairly easy for some police to claim that they are doing COP by pointing to specific programs or by symbolic changes such a relabeling themselves a police service, when in reality they are continuing conventional and nondemocratic practices. Policing in China has been organized by streets and small neighborhoods and the police routinely and systematically collect and evaluate information on everyone who lives or visits their territory. This looks like COP, and clearly the Chinese police and their communities know each other intimately, but the ideology that drives familiarity is not partnership but state control. Assisting the police is an obligation, not a choice. In Singapore, intimate police-community relations serve an authoritarian state and harness the communities to state-approved self-control activities. In Japan the police are supported in their invasion of privacy (such as twice annual census visits) by a cultural values system based on respect for authority, tradition, and the dominance of group identity over individual wants. In many developing countries in which the state and the police are under-resourced, ineffective, and perceived to be corrupt, much of policing has drifted toward community and vigilante forms of enforcing social order, which are condoned or encouraged by the state, with the formal police being minor and distant partners. This looks like community-based policing but partakes little of the sprit or the practices of problem solving or respect for the rule of law. Where the police and society have become habituated to corruption—giving and receiving as a normal part of life— community policing will only enhance corruption’s salience and intensity.

Some scholars and police have questioned whether COP is suited to all political, cultural, and economic environments into which it is being introduced. COP assumes particular environmental conditions to be workable, such as the level of social capital and trust to enable communities to partner with the police; a progressive police leadership willing to devolve more authority to its street police, and a street police sufficiently trained and capable of doing COP work; access to other governmental agencies or civic society organizations, which can be called on and are willing to participate in problem-solving programs; a minimum level of social order and safety (when insecurity is massive and pervasive, it is quite unlikely that the police or the community will support COP); or a history of police submission to the demands of the powerful and the state and the repression of society. New COP practices will lack meaning and legitimacy for the police and the public. Such legacies of distrust cannot be overcome, except (possibly) in the long term, by shifting the rhetoric and some policing practices to a COP model.

Next post:

Previous post: