Does Community Policing Prevent Crime?

A growing consensus within police circles is that community policing is the best strategy for fighting crime in residential neighborhoods. This strategy is based on police‐community reciprocity—the police and public cooperate to prevent and to solve crimes. An important premise of this approach is that police should fight crime locally rather than follow dictates from Washington, D.C. Community policing often features decentralization of command through substations to increase police‐citizen interaction. It also involves foot patrol so police can walk and talk with citizens. New York City and other metropolitan areas incorporate into community policing a zero tolerance attitude toward minor crimes and disorder to enhance feelings of community safety.

Community policing does prevent crime

To prove the effectiveness of community policing, proponents point to testimonials from police chiefs and mayors from various communities.

  1. Many chiefs of police and mayors credit community policing with lowering crime rates. They claim that community policing has restored order in neighborhoods where once open‐air drug markets thrived and gangs hung out. New York City is a prime example. The zero tolerance policy, which has been given a showcase in New York City, holds that no crime—not the breaking of a window, not the jumping of a turnstile, not drinking in public—is too insignificant to capture the swift, decisive attention of the police.

  2. Arrest more petty offenders and make more arrests for petty offenses today, goes the reasoning, and you will have fewer hard‐core criminals tomorrow. Under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the NYPD returned to a policy of proactive policing, frisking more than 45,000 suspects for guns and other weapons in 1997 and 1998. According to police officials, New Yorkers are getting results that range from fewer panhandlers to fewer shootings and murders.

Community policing does not prevent crime

Critics of community policing attack this approach to crime‐fighting from different angles.

  1. No one knows what community policing is, according to criminal justice professor Carl Klockars. Even though a majority of police departments in America claim to be doing community policing, the differences between the actual operations may be significant. Community policing as it is organized in New York is different from its practice in Chicago, Washington, and Philadelphia. The lack of precision in defining community policing makes it impossible to say with any certainty that community policing is causing crime rates to decrease.

  2. The evidence from particular communities used to demonstrate that community policing reduces crime is suspect. By appealing to anecdotal evidence to support the claim that community policing reduces crime, proponents make a hasty generalization on the basis of a very few and possibly unrepresentative cases.

  3. The correlation between falling crime rates and the establishment of community policing may be coincidental. The fact is that over the past few years crime has been declining and has done so in communities where there is no community policing.

  4. Police brutality can be an unintended outgrowth of aggressive policing. There is a thin line between law enforcement that is aptly forceful and law enforcement that is unduly brutal or abusive. The New York police stepped over the line in the 1997 sodomizing torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in a Brooklyn station house and in the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, in a fusillade of police fire in the Bronx. Underlying this problem is the recurring tension between public safety and civil liberties. If the police become more aggressive, the streets may become safer, but innocent people's rights may be compromised as a result.

Evaluating community policing

To date, no scientific evaluations of community policing are available. Until such evaluations become available, one would be jumping to conclusions to say that community policing does or doesn't work.