Policing strategies have evolved and experienced elaboration over time. During the political era of American policing, decentralized organizational structures were favored over centralized ones. In big-city police departments, the real power and authority belonged to precinct captains, not to chiefs or commissioners. Detectives usually reported to these precinct captains, rather than to a chief of detectives at headquarters. The reason for this decentralized approach was to protect local political influence over the police. Local political leaders (”ward bosses”) picked their own precinct captains, who were in turn expected to be very responsive to the bosses’ needs and demands. A strong central headquarters might have interfered with this politically based system.
Patrol officers operated on foot and without direct communication with the precinct house or police headquarters. Because of the difficulty of communicating with patrol officers in the field, special squads responding from the precincts were often used to conduct raids and react to major crimes. Police training was nearly nonexistent and personnel standards in general were minimal. Little supervision was provided. Police work was seen as nontechnical physical labor and as suitable reward for political loyalty, not as a profession or even a skilled craft.
From the Political Era to the Professional Model
Although complaints about police abuses and inefficiency were common in the 1800s, widespread criticism of the political model of policing, including its decentralization and acceptance of mediocre personnel, did not emerge until the beginning of the twentieth century. Since then, however, police practitioners, academics, and investigating commissions have decried the poor quality of police personnel; pointed out the need for intelligence, honesty, and sensitivity in police officers; called for stricter organizational controls; implemented preservice and in-service training; and significantly upgraded police technology.
Standard operational elements came into place in the professional model that remain relevant to this day. Most police officers are assigned to the patrol function. At the beginning of their workday, they are assigned to patrol areas, often called beats. Each officer patrols his or her beat, usually in a patrol car, until assigned a call by the police dispatcher. The officer responds promptly to the call; it could be a crime, a traffic accident, or a neighborhood dispute. The officer is expected to handle the call. This may involve writing a report, conducting a preliminary investigation, giving first aid, directing traffic, arresting or ticketing a citizen, breaking up an argument, giving advice, providing information, or even getting the proverbial cat out of a tree. As soon as the officer finishes handling the call, he or she returns to patrolling until the next call. If the call involves a crime or other serious matter, sometime later a detective may conduct a follow-up investigation to try to identify and arrest a perpetrator or recover stolen property. This brief description includes the three cornerstones of the professional police strategy for dealing with crime: preventive patrol, immediate response to calls, and follow-up investigation.
These three operational components were subjected to evaluative research in the 1970s and 1980s and were found to be less than effective. The Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment found that altering levels of routine patrolling between no patrol and two to three times the normal level of patrol had no effect on reported crime, victimization, fear of crime, citizen perceptions, or anything else that was measured. Studies of rapid response found that it rarely leads to on-scene arrests, mainly because most crimes are not discovered until after the fact, and even when citizens are aware of crimes while they are in progress, those citizens typically delay several minutes before calling the police. Studies of criminal investigation revealed that most crimes are never solved, most crime-solving success is more attributable to victims and witnesses than to detectives, and most detective work is mainly clerical.
The lack of effectiveness of its operational components was a tough blow to the professional model. In addition, reported crime rose throughout the 1970s during the very time period when the professional approach was in its heyday. Also, questions began to arise about whether the professional model might have a tendency to isolate the police from the community. In the 1950s and 1960s, many police departments established community relations units in response to perceived problems in police-community relations. Initially, these community relations units engaged mostly in public relations by presenting the police point of view to the community. This one-sided approach was soon recognized as inadequate and expanded to provide the community with a forum for expressing its views to the police. The two-way police-community relations philosophy emphasized the importance of communication and mutual understanding.
In the 1970s it became apparent that police-community relations officers and units were not effective in guaranteeing smooth relations between a community and its police department. A community experiences its police department through the actions of patrol officers and detectives more so than through the presentations of a few community relations specialists. Efforts were undertaken to train patrol officers in community relations and crime prevention techniques and to make them more knowledgeable about community characteristics and problems. Team policing programs were also implemented, in part, as a means of improving police responsiveness to community concerns.
From Professional to Community Policing
Many observers now believe that the abandonment of foot patrol by most American police departments by the mid-1900s changed the nature of police work and negatively affected police-citizen relations. Officers assigned to large patrol car beats do not develop the intimate understanding of and cordial relationship with the community that foot patrol officers assigned to small beats develop. Officers on foot are in a position to relate more intimately with citizens than officers driving by in cars.
The results of two research studies, together with the development of small police radios, gave a boost to the resurgence of foot patrol starting in the 1980s. Originally, the police car was needed to house the bulky two-way radio. Today, foot patrol officers carry tiny, lightweight radios that enable them to handle calls promptly and to request information or assistance whenever needed. They are never out of touch and they are always available.
An experimental study conducted in Newark, New Jersey, was unable to demonstrate that either adding or removing foot patrol affected crime in any way. This finding mirrored what had been found in Kansas City regarding motorized patrol. Citizens involved in the foot patrol study, however, were less fearful of crime and more satisfied with foot patrol service than with motor patrol. Also, citizens were aware of additions and deletions of foot patrol in their neighborhoods, a finding that stands in stark contrast to the results of the Kansas City study, in which citizens did not perceive changes in the levels of motorized patrol. A second major foot patrol research program in Flint, Michigan, reported findings that were similar to the Newark findings, except that crime decreased, too.
These studies were widely interpreted as demonstrating that, even if foot patrol did not decrease crime, at least it made citizens feel safer and led to improvements in police-community relations. Why the difference between motorized patrol and foot patrol? In what has come to be known as the broken-windows thesis, foot patrol officers pay more attention to disorderly behavior and to minor offenses than do motor patrol officers. Also, they are in a better position to manage their beats, to understand what constitutes threatening or inappropriate behavior, to observe it, and to correct it. Foot patrol officers are likely to pay more attention to derelicts, petty thieves, disorderly persons, vagrants, panhandlers, noisy juveniles, and street people who, although not committing serious crimes, cause concern and fear among many citizens. Failure to control even the most minor aberrant activities on the street contributes to neighborhood fears. Foot patrol officers have more opportunity than motor patrol officers to control street disorder and reassure ordinary citizens.
Geography plays a large role in determining the viability of foot patrol as a police strategy, of course. The more densely populated an area, the more the citizenry will travel on foot and the more street disorder there will be. The more densely populated an area, the more likely that foot patrol can be effectively used as a police strategy. Although foot patrol may never again become the dominant police strategy it once was, it can play a large role in contributing police services to many communities.
Starting in the 1980s an even broader approach than community relations and foot patrol began developing. More and more police departments began employing foot patrol as a central component of their operational strategy, rather than as a novelty or as an accommodation to downtown business interests. Crime prevention programs became more and more reliant on community involvement, as in neighborhood watch, community patrol, and crimestoppers programs. Police departments began making increased use of civilians and volunteers in various aspects of policing, and made permanent geographic assignment an important element of patrol deployment. This came to be called community policing, entailing a substantial change in police thinking involving increased citizen involvement, engagement, partnerships, and tailoring of policing to neighborhood needs and preferences.
Research on the effectiveness of community policing has yielded mixed results. Foot patrol seems to make citizens feel safer, but it may not have much of an effect on the amount of crime. A small study in Houston, Texas, which involved patrol officers visiting households to solicit viewpoints and information, did report both crime and fear decreases in the study area. A study of community constables in England, however, found that the constables actually spent very little of their time in direct contact with citizens, despite role expectations that emphasized community contact. An ongoing study of department-wide community policing in Chicago has similarly discovered some officer resistance to working closely with citizens, but nevertheless has yielded promising effects on public satisfaction, fear, disorder, and crime.
From Professional to Strategic Policing
Community policing has not been the only stream of development in the wake of dissatisfaction with the professional model. Another alternative that has developed is strategic policing, represented by operational refinements and increased technical sophistication. In the patrol arena, strategic policing incorporates directed patrol, saturation patrol, targeted patrol, crackdowns, hot-spot policing, and other techniques designed to apply patrol resources and energy in a more focused manner. Call-driven 911 policing has been replaced by differential responses, in which rapid response is reserved for in-progress situations, while other calls are handled through delayed response, telephone reporting, non-sworn personnel, and a variety of other methods. Traditional criminal investigations have been refined through the use of solvability factors, case screening, major crime teams and task forces, and a more managed approach to detective work.
One of the most celebrated manifestations of strategic policing has been COMPSTAT, a system developed by the New York Police Department primarily to establish command accountability. Headquarters staff utilize up-to-date crime data and crime maps in order to hold area commanders (precinct captains) accountable for having identified and responded to current crime problems. Commanders are encouraged to use their resources strategically to address immediate problems, instead of merely spreading their officers around the community and waiting for calls and crimes to happen.
The latest development in strategic policing is intelligence-led policing. This approach seems to have had several sources: (1) COMPSTAT; (2) the growing availability of crime analysis, crime mapping, data mining, and similar tools; (3) impressive national-level police initiatives in England and Australia; and (4) renewed police emphasis on intelligence collection and analysis in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Intelligence-led policing, perhaps better termed information-led policing, calls for all police resources to be deployed and directed on a continuous, real-time basis according to careful analysis of the latest intelligence and other data. It is a much more command-directed and demanding approach to police management than the traditional approach of assigning each officer to a beat and reminding him or her to ”be careful out there.”
The evidence in support of directed and focused policing is fairly strong. When police patrols and other resources are carefully targeted at hot spots and similar problems, crime is typically reduced. Some of the impact may be mere displacement, but some usually represents real reductions, and the bonus of diffusion of benefits is also frequently experienced. Targeted policing seems clearly superior to nontargeted policing, all other things being equal. COMPSTAT and intelligence-led policing, though, have not been adequately evaluated in their own rights to determine what additional benefits they provide, if any.
From Professional to Problem-Oriented Policing
The third major contemporary strategy to develop in the wake of the professional model is problem-oriented policing. Simply put, problem-oriented policing (POP) posits that police should focus more attention on problems, as opposed to incidents. Problems are defined either as collections of incidents related in some way (if they occur at the same location, for example) or as underlying conditions that give rise to incidents, crimes, disorder, and other substantive community issues that people expect the police to handle. By focusing more on problems than on incidents, police can address causes rather than mere symptoms, and consequently have a greater impact. The public health analogy is often used to illustrate this difference in conceptualizing the police role, with its emphasis on prevention and taking a proactive approach. This analogy is useful, too, because it reminds us that even with a strong public health approach, people still get sick and need medical attention— that is, police still need to respond to calls and make arrests, even as POP prevents some problems and reduces the demand for reactive policing.
One of the fundamental tenets of POP is that law enforcement, that is, using the criminal law, should be understood as one means of policing, rather than as the end or goal of policing. This is much more than a subtle shift in terminology. It emphasizes that police pursue large and critically important societal goals: controlling crime, protecting people, reducing fear, maintaining order. In every instance, police should choose those lawful and ethical means that yield the most efficient and effective achievement of these ends. Sometimes this may involve enforcement of the criminal law, and sometimes it may not. Thus, the words policing and law enforcement are not synonymous, and law enforcement is not the only, or even necessarily the principal, technique of policing.
In place of overreliance on the criminal law, POP recommends a rational and analytical approach to problem solving using a process best known in police circles as the SARA model (scanning, analysis, response, assessment). According to this approach, police should continually scan their areas of responsibility, drawing on a variety of sources of information, in order to identify apparent problems. Next, they should carefully analyze those problems, in order to verify, describe, and explain them. Only after this analysis stage should police turn their attention to responses, and when they do, they should identify and consider a wide range of responses before narrowing their focus down to the most promising alternatives. After implementing these responses, they should then carefully assess impact, in order to determine whether they need to try something else, and also to document lessons learned for the benefit of future problem-solving efforts.
Evaluations of the impact or effectiveness of POP have been generally positive, although most such evaluations have used rather weak research designs. Countless individual case studies have been completed with fairly convincing evidence that the problems that were targeted were substantially reduced. In some instances, it is clear that POP analysis led to a new understanding of the problem, and subsequently to innovative responses, which apparently “caused” the beneficial effect on the problem. In many other cases, however, the problem got better but it is not clear that it was careful analysis or innovative and tailor-made responses that made the difference. Often, in these cases, responses rely primarily on enforcement, and it seems that the POP terminology and process are merely used to “dress up” or legitimize a much more traditional approach to policing.
The most consistent criticism of POP-as-practiced is that analysis is often cursory or nonexistent. In the same vein, few documented POP projects reflect anything more than the most superficial assessment of impact. Even simple before-and-after comparisons are often omitted, and the utilization of any type of comparison or control group is rare. It is perhaps not surprising that POP-in-practice is not as analytical or scientifically rigorous as its proponents would like—most police officers are probably more prone to action than to research.
Even in the arena of action, though, there is some disagreement over whether the implementation stage of POP, that is, the identification and selection of responses, is as wide ranging and creative as it ought to be. Some observers have been disappointed that POP responses often emphasize enforcement and other conventional police practices. One careful study, though, found that most POP examples utilize multiple responses (five on average) and that enforcement is often employed to supplement more innovative responses, rather than as the main response.
One last major criticism of POP-in-practice is that it has lost focus and become trivialized under the umbrella of community policing. Under community policing, POP has drifted in two ways. First, in keeping with the broad mission of community policing, it has often been used to address the whole panoply of a neighborhood’s problems—crime, fear, disorder, and so on—thus blunting the preferred sharp focus on a specific problem. Second, in keeping with the notion of empowering individual police officers to effectively serve their communities, POP has gradually migrated to ”problem solving,” something that individual police officers do, hopefully in conjunction with their constituents. Problem solving, in turn, has often come to be seen as what good police officers do when confronted with a particularly challenging complainant, call for service, or address. Thus, problem solving often amounts to creative handling of individual incidents, a far cry from taking a problem-oriented approach to a substantive problem of some significance. To be sure, this kind of problem solving probably represents improved police practice, but in scope of the problem, depth of analysis, or breadth of responses, it pales in comparison to ideal conceptions of POP.
The Contemporary Situation
Community policing, strategic policing, problem-oriented policing, and even the professional model all have their adherents and supporters today. Many police agencies would say that they implement all four of these strategies. In a situation of limited resources, however, agencies must inevitably emphasize one or two strategies over the others. In the current era of heightened concern about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, strategic policing seems to have a certain advantage because of its connection to intelligence and its emphasis on enforcement and ”no-nonsense” techniques. However, many police executives have asserted that community policing is the strategy most likely to produce the community-based intelligence that will identify hidden terrorists, as well as the strategy best suited to striking the difficult balance between civil liberties and safety from terrorism. Not to be overlooked is problem-oriented policing. Its analytical and preventive approach may be best suited to reducing the risks of both terrorism and ordinary crime.
The individual police agency may want to choose its primary strategy based on a careful analysis of the needs of its community. For the police field as a whole, it may be some years before experience and further research lead to additional elaboration or sorting out of the contemporary repertoire of policing strategies.