A philosophy that combines traditional aspects of law enforcement with prevention measures, problem-solving, community engagement, and community partnerships.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, U.S. law enforcement relied on a professional policing model. This model was based on hierarchical structures, efficient response times, standardization, and the use of motorized patrol cars. Although this model improved efficiency, operations, and accountability, it proved inadequate when civil disturbances erupted in the late 1960s. Critics charged that police and the communities they served were alienated from each other, and a call came for community-oriented policing.
A first attempt was the team policing approach, which assigned responsibility for a certain geographic area to a team of police officers who would get to know the neighborhood, its people, and its problems. This harkened back to the early twentieth century when police walked a beat. The approach, however, proved ineffective because it placed more emphasis on long-term problem solving than on rapid response to crime incidents. Internally, team policing intruded on functional lines of authority, with patrol officers becoming involved in areas reserved to detectives and other specialists.
Community policing programs grew out of the failures of team policing. The goal of community policing is to bring the police and the public it serves closer together to identify and address crime issues. Instead of merely responding to emergency calls and arresting criminals, police officers in such programs get involved in finding out what causes crime and disorder, and attempt to creatively solve problems in their assigned communities. To do this police must develop a network of personal contacts both inside and outside their departments. This contact is fostered by foot, bike, or horse patrols—any effort that gets a police officer out of his or her squad car.
The community policing philosophy now dominates contemporary police work. The federal government promoted community policing through the passage of the violent crime control and law enforcement act of 1994 (Violent Crime Control Act), Pub.L. 103-322, Sept. 13, 1994, 108 Stat. 1796. Title I of the Crime Act, the Public Safety Partnership and Community Policing Act, provided $8.8 billion to fund local law enforcement agencies as they developed and enhanced their community policing capabilities. To assist in this effort the justice department created a new agency, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (the COPS Office), to develop, administer, and supervise new grant programs resulting from the act. By 2002, COPS had awarded grants to law enforcement agencies to hire over 116,000 community police officers, purchase crime fighting technology, and support innovations in policing. More than 12,000 law enforcement agencies have received COPS funding. COPS has also trained more than 130,000 law enforcement officers and community members through a network of Regional Community Policing Institutes and Community Policing Consortium.
A key element of community policing is an emphasis on crime prevention. The public has been encouraged to partner with the police in these efforts through the Neighborhood Watch Program. The National Sheriffs' Association (NSA) started the program in 1972 as a way to lower crime rates. The Neighborhood Watch has grown in popularity since the early 1980s and is now familiar to most people.
The Neighborhood Watch Program stresses education and common sense. It teaches residents how to help themselves by identifying and reporting suspicious activity in their neighborhoods. Most citizen groups concentrate on observation and awareness as the primary means of preventing crime. Some groups, however, look out for their neighborhood by actively patrolling on a regular basis. In addition, the Neighborhood Watch Program gives residents the opportunity to reinvigorate their communities. For example, some groups seek to address youth crime by creating activity programs, which range from athletic events such as "midnight basketball" leagues to tutoring and drug awareness programs.
One limitation of Neighborhood Watch Programs is that communities that need them the most are the ones that find them the hardest
to maintain. This is particularly the case in lower income neighborhoods where adults work multiple jobs with odd hours, thus making it more difficult to schedule meetings and organize events. It also makes it difficult for neighbors to get to know and care about one another in a way that makes them feel comfortable watching out for one another.
An effective Neighborhood Watch Program must follow certain steps to become an effective and ongoing crime prevention tool. The first step is to plan strategies that address the problems in the area. The second step is building a relationship and cooperation between law enforcement officers and residents. The third step is to assess the neighborhood needs and then to select and train volunteers. Finally, meaningful projects must be developed or else the group will lose interest.
The Neighborhood Watch Program has also been adapted for rural and sparsely-populated areas, and business districts. And, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Attorney General john ashcroft announced that Neighborhood Watch Programs would be furnished with information that will enable citizens to recognize and report signs of potential terrorist activities.
COPS Office. Available online at <www.cops.usdoj.gov> (accessed June 3, 2003).
USAonwatch.org. National Sheriffs' Association: Neighborhood Watch. Available online at <www.usaonwatch.org> (accessed June 3, 2003).