Five elements of a true community police force



The tragic events in Ferguson have placed police practices at the center of a debate in the United States over their model and whether the police have become too militarized. In fact, the White House is seeking to promote community policing tactics and President Obama has created a special commission to make recommendations for a 21st Century police force.

The same debate has been going on for some time in Latin America and the Caribbean. Until recently, the prevalent focus in Latin America and a good part of the world was the “firm hand,” which saw the police as an agent of social control and citizens as potential enemies of the state.

But this focus has been changing thanks to the development of new paradigms more in line with the growing democracy in the region. Many countries are seeking to implement the so-called community or neighborhood policing models. But what does that mean? During our work in various countries and after reviewing the available literature on the terminology, we have identified five elements required for a true community police model.

  1. ACTIVE PARTICIPATION BY THE COMMUNITY: A community or neighborhood police model requires police to start out from a participative, decision-making style and focus their work on service to the community. The service focus allows police to better understand and carry out the social and political responsibilities of their work and reduces confrontational attitudes between police and community.

Relationships with other state institutions and civil society organizations are keys to this model. It is a broadly inclusive model because it requires the participation of all social and institutional actors, in the national as well as local level, to implement programs that prevent violence.

The modern model for community policing also includes a change in the idea of a security service, from a “state-police” with the traditional concept of “public security” to a “co-creation” of the service. That is why in many cases the communities themselves participate in the design of the plans for the security of their neighborhoods. They participate actively by establishing channels of communications with police in order to provide them with information on crime or other events that allow police to better understand the dynamics of crime and the concerns of the community. In this new concept of “citizen security,” positive results depend on collaboration between citizens and the state.

In the case of Colombia, with its Quadrant Plan, everyone in the community has the mobile telephone number for the police chief – more evidence of the closeness between the two parts. In other cases, like the youth centers in Nicaragua, it is impressive to see how youths who once ran away when they saw a police car now run toward it because it takes them to their schools.

  1. AUTONOMY FOR MAKING DECISIONS: The community policing model gives professional autonomy to the officers so that they can develop their own knowledge and orient  their work toward their social responsibilities. Relations with the community are key, because they help to better understand and confront crime and the fears of citizens. This is in contrast with a police force based on a military structure, with more hierarchical rigidity and a requirement that police agents must follow the orders of their commanders.

This is also reflected on how a police officer is regarded. The color of the uniform, the use of rifles, of bullet-proof vests, of military ranks and other external signs affect the perception of the force. The use of light blue uniforms, a color that recalls school uniforms, rather than olive green uniforms that recall the military, are important signals.

Another signal is the method of transportation used. Motorcycles and even bicycles, rather than pickup trucks with detention cages, are more appropriate for community policing because they facilitate communications with citizens and give off a different signal on why the vehicle is there.

  1. INVOLVES THE ENTIRE POLICE FORCE: It is not enough for one police officer to have more autonomy. Community policing is a philosophy that must be embraced by all sectors of the police force. That is the case in Nicaragua, where the population is involved even in the administration of the human resources: people are asked to give their opinions on candidates for the police force. It is not enough to create some “community police units” if the rest of the force retains the confrontational model of “public security” and does not embrace the model of “co-creation” of security.

The implementation of this model requires changes at the political, institutional and above all the police personnel levels. The emphasis in the training of the new police men and women is not on the handling of weapons, but the handling of relations with the community and respect for human rights. This requires a change in the values, abilities and attitudes of police officers.

  1. PROACTIVE FOCUS: Another of the modern paradigms linked to community policing is that police work must be oriented toward problem-solving. This strategy seeks a more proactive and less reactive approach to incidents that require police intervention. In this way, the police agent can focus more on the “problems” than in isolated cases. These “problems” are incidents of similar origin that allow trained officers to find patterns, common causes that can be addressed in a more proactive manner. This strategy implies a radical change in the traditional police work of responding to complaints.
  2. PROGRAMS BASED ON SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE: The paradigm of evidence-based policing refers to the requirement that police work be based on scientific evidence of what works best. Scientific investigations must be used to evaluate and guide police practices. One of the champions of this paradigm is Professor Lawrence Sherman, who argues that the best evidence possible must be used to define the guidelines, products, results and impact of police work. This also implies, however, a permanent evaluation of ongoing operations so that the police can improve their work constantly with constant feedback.

Some critics of this focus, such as Professor Malcolm Sparrow of Harvard University, argue that police work must be based on understanding and then “sabotaging” the dynamics of crime, and that since each case is so particular, it is difficult to find applicable evidence. Sparrow argues that the social sciences imply a restriction on police work because they focus on the question, “what works?” based on techniques for evaluating the programs. Methods based more on the natural sciences,which focus more on “how does it work?” which reach a better understanding of the dynamics and structures of specific risks, and then how to sabotage them, can be more useful and applicable to the challenges of police work.

The decision to opt for a community policing model falls within the latest trends in government reforms. It puts citizens at the center of police work and regards them as co-producers of a public service. I invite you to use these five elements as a kind of checklist to decide whether the police in your neighborhood use a true community policing model, in line with the requirements of a 21st Century police force.


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