Police Reform and the Professional Era

Several important developments provided the rationale for the contemporary community policing and problem-solving era in America. First, reformers attempted to remove the police from political influences that prevailed from the 1840s to the 1930s by creating civil service systems to eliminate patronage and ward influences in hiring and firing police officers (Goldstein 1977). August Vollmer, a pioneer of police professionalism, also rallied police executives around the idea of reform during the 1920s and 1930s. Vollmer believed that police officers should do more than merely arrest offenders, and that they should actively seek to prevent crime by ”saving” potential or actual offenders. The focus on prevention instead of repression was an important step in police reform (Goldstein 1977).

During this reform period of the 1930s to 1980s, however, police organizations evolved into law enforcement agencies that primarily emphasized controlling crime. Thus, during this period the ”professional era” of policing was in full bloom, with officers expected to remain in their ”rolling fortresses,” going from one call to the next with all due haste (Manning 1971); officers were typically judged by factors such as the number of arrests they made or the number of miles they drove during a shift. The crime rate became the primary indicator of police effectiveness—personified by television’s Sgt. Friday on Dragnet: ”Just the facts, ma’am.” Citizens’ responsibility in crime control was limited, and police were the ”thin blue line” (Walker 1977) that separated residents from crime problems.

Problems Overwhelm the Professional Model

Problems with the professional model of policing began to arise during the late 1960s due to the following reasons:

1. Crime began to rise and research suggested that conventional police methods were not effective. The 1960s were a time of political and social unrest. Inner-city residents rioted in several major cities, protesters denounced military involvement in Vietnam, and many questions were raised about the role of the police and their ability to effectively control crime.

2. Increasedfear of crime. Citizens abandoned parks, public transportation, neighborhood shopping centers, churches, and entire neighborhoods. Researchers found that fear was more closely associated with disorder than with actual crime. Ironically, order maintenance was one of the functions that police had been downplaying over the years, choosing instead to focus on crime control.

3. Minority citizens did not perceive their treatment as equitable or adequate. They protested not only police mistreatment, but lack of treatment. The legitimacy of police was questioned: Students resisted police, minorities rioted against what they represented, and the public began to question the effectiveness of police tactics.

4. Some of the premises on which the reform era was founded could no longer be sustained. Police studies highlighted the use of discretion at all levels of policing and reported that law enforcement comprised but a small portion of police activities. Other research findings shook the foundations of old assumptions about policing (some of which are discussed below) (Skolnick and Bay-ley 1986).

5. Although managers had tried to professionalize policing, line officers continued to have low status. Police work continued to be routinized and petty rules governed officer behavior. Meanwhile, line officers received little guidance in the use of discretion and had little opportunity for providing input concerning their work.

6. Police began to acquire competition: private security and the community crime control movement. Businesses, industries, and private citizens began turning to private police agencies to protect themselves and their property, reflecting a lack of confidence in public policing.

Changing the Conventional Wisdom of Policing

As a result of the above-described problems, studies of policing provided a new ”common wisdom” of policing (Goldstein 1977). For example, it was learned that two-person patrol vehicles were no more safe or effective than one-person cars; response time had very little to do with whether or not an arrest was made at the scene; detectives were greatly overrated in their ability to solve crimes (Peak and Glensor 2005); and less than 50% of an officer’s time was committed to calls for service (CFS), and of those calls handled, more than 80% were noncriminal incidents (Cumming, Cumming, and Edell 1965; Bercal 1970; Reiss 1971). Such findings demonstrated that many ”sacred cow” beliefs about police methods were erroneous (Goldstein 1990). Officers who were glued to their police car radios, flitting like pinballs from one call for service to the next as rapidly as possible, were not effective in the long term, and learned very little about the underlying causes of problems in the neighborhoods on their beats.

Three Generations of COPS

The elements just discussed made it clear that police agencies had to change their methods, management practices, and how they viewed their work. First, they had to reacquaint themselves with members of the community by involving citizens in the resolution of neighborhood problems. The public, as well as other government and social services organizations, were to be considered ”a part of,” as opposed to ”apart from,” their efforts.

Crime control remains an important function, but equal emphasis is given to prevention. Police officers return to their wide use of discretion under this model, with decision making being shared across all levels of the organization, including line officers. Participative management is thus greatly increased, and fewer levels of authority are required to administer the organization. In essence, middle-management layers are reduced.

COPS is now the culture of many police organizations, affecting and permeating their hiring processes, recruiting academies, in-service training, promotional examinations, and strategic plans. Significantly, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 authorized $8.8 billion over six years to create the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) within the U.S. Department of Justice, in order to add one hundred thousand more police officers to communities across the country and to create thirty-one regional community policing institutes.

COPS has now moved through three generations (Oliver 2000). The first generation, innovation, spans the period from 1979 through 1986. It began with the aforementioned seminal work of Herman Goldstein concerning needed improvement of policing (Goldstein 1979) and with the ”broken windows” theory of James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling (1982). Early trials of community policing during this period—called ”experiments,” ”test sites,” and ”demonstration pro-jects”—were usually restricted to larger metropolitan cities. The style of policing that was employed was predominantly narrow in focus, emphasizing foot patrols, problem-solving methods, or community substations.

In its second generation, diffusion (from 1987 through 1994), the COPS philosophy and practice spread rapidly among police agencies. In 1985, slightly more than three hundred police agencies employed some form of community policing (Walker 1985), and by 1994 it had spread to more than eight thousand agencies (McEwen 1995). The practice of community policing during this generation was still generally limited to large- and medium-sized cities, and the strategies normally targeted drugs and fear-of-crime issues while improving police-community relations. Much more emphasis was placed on evaluating outcomes through the use of appropriate research methodologies. These evaluations demonstrated the benefits and pitfalls of various strategies, allowing more efficient and targeted police work.

The third generation, institutionalization, began in 1995 and continues to the present. Nearly seven in ten (68%) of the nation’s seventeen thousand local police agencies, employing 90% of all officers, have adopted this strategy (U.S. Department of Justice 2003). Today, COPS includes programs that address youth firearm violence, gangs, and domestic violence, and involves crime mapping techniques and applies the principles of crime prevention through environmental design.

In Sum: ”What Works?”

Following a systematic review of more than five hundred scientific evaluations of criminal justice and crime prevention practices, a prestigious team of researchers including Lawrence Sherman, John Eck, and others stated in their 1998 report to Congress that ”problem solving analysis is effective when addressed to the specific crime situation” (emphasis added).

While many more impact evaluations are needed before conclusions can be reached about COPS, it is clear that this strategy is now an established and accepted approach to policing for the twenty-first century.

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