Community-Oriented Policing in the United States

Within the past decade there has been an extensive federally subsidized dissemination of community oriented policing (COP) as a major reform of law enforcement practices in the United States. The fundamental concepts underlying COP are that public order is a joint responsibility of citizens and law enforcement and that the creation and sustaining of a cooperative, mutually supportive relationship between citizens and the police ought to motivate a wide range of law enforcement activities and inform democratic police practices (Bayley, 1994; Toch & Grant, 1991; Walker, 1992).

Two principal justifications for placing an emphasis upon building relations between the police and their respective communities have been cited in the literature on COP. First, a strong positive relationship between police and community is arguably an important factor in the efficacy of law enforcement with respect to the apprehension of offenders and their effective monitoring upon release from correctional supervision. Second, this relationship can be a powerful factor in crime prevention and the engagement of the community as co-producers of public order (Skogan & Atunes, 1979).

Alpert and Moore (1993, 113) have described the changing role of the police in this new relationship as the following: “the essence of this new paradigm is that police must engage in community-based processes related to the production and maintenance of local human and social capital.”

Since the enactment of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (or Crime Bill) of 1994, substantial funds (over $7.5 billion) have become available to police agencies that have engaged in the following COP-sanctioned activities:

  1. to employ new police officers (100,000 nationwide) with the intent to implement COP objectives;
  2. to facilitate collaborative problem-solving efforts between police and citizens;
  3. to measure the outcomes of these efforts in a systematic manner
  4. to provide training in COP philosophy and methodology; and
  5. to study public reactions to COP practices (Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2001; Trojanowicz & Bucqueroux, 2001).

In order to understand the COP program, it is prudent that examine the historical changes which have taken place in American law enforcement. A progression of thought (or regression) over time with regard to preferred crime control strategies in the U.S. gave rise to COP. A brief retelling of this history is a major part of the COP training component of the federal government’s efforts to promote the COP philosophy of policing.

Prior to the colonization of the United States, highwaymen in the United Kingdom were employed by crime victims and were charged with apprehending suspected criminals. In 1692, passage of the Highwaymen Act provided rewards to citizens who were willing to offer assistance in apprehending criminals, which in turn led to numerous cases of blackmail and false accusations (Gaines, Kappeler & Vaughn, 1999). Prior to the development of formalized policing in the U. S., agents of social control in common law states most often worked for the courts and were compensated by the victims of crime who sought the apprehension and adjudication of offenders.

In the United Kingdom, King George II allowed the city council to levy taxes for the purpose of a paid watchman system, which is thought to be the first instance of formal taxation for the provision of law enforcement services (Gaines, Kappeler & Vaughn, 1999). Some scholars have noted that in many instances, these early agents of social control (bounty hunters or thief takers) may have also had criminal histories and were apparently primarily motivated by the prospect of monetary gain (LaGrange, 1998). In U.S. colonial times, police functions were performed by the constable and the watch, whose origins can be traced back to the middle-ages (Monkkonen, 1992).

In colonial America, constables were often ineffective and sometimes were characterized as “drunken, snoring fools” who were as apt to join crooks in the commission of a crime as confront them (Bittner, 1970). With only minor modifications, these practices continued until 1829 when Sir Robert Peel revolutionized the function of social control because of his advocacy for the passage of the London Metropolitan Police Act. According to Miller (1977), the legitimating of the London police was carefully orchestrated by Peel and his associates. Peel’s vision entailed adopting a new model of law enforcement featuring a philosophical foundation midway between that of a military regime and the watch system.

Peel envisioned a non-threatening police force able to relate to the public (e.g., less coercion and more emphasis upon utilitarian and normative power), and one that appeared to “win by losing” (LaGrange, 1998). The philosophies espoused in the COP model echo these principles, and represent a rather radical departure from what in time became the prevailing doctrine commonly labeled the “reactive” or “professional” approach to crime control requiring police to work with their respective communities to “develop and implement unified, information-based efforts to solve problems in the community rather than only to react to events or incidents” (Ford & Morash, 2002, 1).

With regard to the evolution of policing in the U.S., Monkkonen (1992) identifies four important innovations in American law enforcement which occurred during the 19th Century. The first of these is concerned with the establishment of a hierarchical organization and use of a military model to provide police organizational boundaries and set goals ensuring public order and assuring centralized control over police agent conduct The organizational control structure of the professional model established the practice that when a crime was reported to the police, that information was relayed to headquarters, and headquarters filtered the information back down the line via a newly established communication system.

This system of telephone line communication is well illustrated in a cartoon series entitled Top Cat.” In Top Cat officer Dribble was charged with keeping a neighborhood of felines in order, some of which were perpetually up to no good. It was implied that the neighborhood was co-responsible for order maintenance in an elaborate system of intelligence networks (or system of informants who would provide Officer Dribble with information about the antics and whereabouts of Top Cat and his group of wayward felines).

Even with the benefit of this special network of informants. Officer Dribble was seldom able to ascertain the identities of the wrongdoers, and most situations requiring some form of social sanction were handled informally. Some believe that the police have abandoned the community-based tactics portrayed in this depiction of borough policing with precinct-walking cops assigned to specific neighborhoods (Gaines, Kappeler & Vaughn, 1999).

Many scholars argue that the centralization of command in law enforcement was further entrenched by the introduction of the radio patrol car, which served to decrease the functionality and use of the local station house and displaced the accepted and trusted local patrol officer (LaGrange, 1998). In-depth critical analysis of the factors involved in U.S. social change and the evolution of the American democratic process in the administration of justice reveals an additional dimension to this account of the adaptation of American police to their societal environment

The second innovation in American policing is the progressive placement of the police as subordinate to the executive branch of government as opposed to elements of the courts deserves special attention in this regard (Monkkonen, 1992). This change in organizational placement served to free the police from civil court activities and placed far more emphasis on patrol functions aimed at controlling disorder and crime (Monkkonen, 1992).

It can be said that this shift contributed to the need for police to be paid fixed salaries, as they no longer collected their compensation from the victims in crime (Steinberg, 1989). Unfortunately, elected executives during the early era of policing too often used the police in their pursuit of a variety of partisan political interests (LaGrange, 1998). Parties in political power often fortified police forces with personnel who espoused and promoted their preferred partisan concepts and political agendas. This practice had the unfortunate consequence of alienating the police from a substantial portion of the public they served, and brought into question their honesty and fairness (Johnson, 1981) — ultimately forcing the police to change how they select their officers, perform their duties, and develop relationships with the community.

The third innovation in American policing according to Monkkonen (1992) is the uniform. The uniform made the police more visible and accessible to members of the community and visitors alike. Although uniforms were resisted by many officers who viewed them as derogatory, they have become a mainstay for American law enforcement Common terms such as “men in blue” have been used to denote the camaraderie within the ranks of law enforcement According to Monkkonen (1992, 551), this enhanced visibility in combination with a “centralized communication system, accounted for the sudden turn to police by parents of lost children; prior to police availability, parents had had to conduct frantic, random community searches to locate them.” In addition, the uniform also made it easier for supervisors to monitor the actions of their subordinates.

Monkkonen (1992) identifies the fourth development in the evolution of law enforcement as the creation of police as a line item in the city budget because police were now expected to be active in their pursuit of crime and deviance, regular salaries, lines in the city budget, and the free prosecution of criminal offenders mandated bringing a more regular and effective mechanism for managing crime and public order in communities across the nation.

As the police profession has progressed through the three eras of policing and has now become comfortable with the concept of COP, Thayer & Reynolds (1997) believe that the concept of community policing (above and beyond the strategies first espoused by Sir Robert Peel and his crime control orientation for police) can be traced to the ideas of Arthur Woods, police chief in New York City from 1914-1919 in response to the widely held view that the New York Police Department (NYPD) had become corrupt and unprofessional during the political era.

The Progressives and their agenda sought to transform policing from an arm of the political machine to one that was oriented towards much more sophisticated and evenhanded responses to problems of crime and disorder. The Progressive reformers viewed “rapid industrialization and the extreme class differentiation that accompanied it as a main source of problems for the criminal justice system, as well as what they called heterogeneity of the American population and the lack of a strong tradition of obedience to constituted authority.” The Progressives felt that these were factors that law enforcement must begin to deal with (Center for Research on Criminal Justice, 1975, 21).

A key idea in their approach was that since modern society was complex and highly diversified, it required more restraint and regulation (Pound, 1922). This more diversified society created a much greater potential for conflict and disorder. It was the job of the criminal justice system (according to the Progressive reformers) to harmonize and adjust potential class and ethnic conflicts within the existing system. During the reform era, there was an attempt to streamline police organization and practices in the service of class interests and business values and to turn the police into a technically proficient and politically neutral agency of social service.

The two main major results of the reform era were “the development of a conception of police as professionals that served to insulate police from any significant political and community influence; and, to promote new technologies and new strategies to enable the police to exercise a higher level of surveillance and control of oppressed communities” (Center for Criminal Justice Research, 1977, 28).

Due to the widespread perception that the police reform era had not accomplished its goals to make police more accountable to local constituents and oppressed communities, law enforcement agencies were forced to once again alter existing strategies and organizational arrangements.

With the development of the professional model of policing, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) came to be held in high esteem and many local agencies sought to replicate the organization and strategies employed by this federal police agency (LaGrange, 1998). The approach to law enforcement employed by the F.B.I, was that of a hard-core, crime fighting response to deviant behavior in society. The view held at the federal level emphasized the belief that such deviance should be well publicized and documented, and fugitives from justice should be hunted down at virtually all costs (LaGrange, 1998).

This message was translated in practice into a mandate to local law enforcement that the apprehension of dangerous criminals was the definitive trait of real police work. “Police leaders such as O. W. Wilson and J. Edgar Hoover cultivated the public perception of police as crime fighters” (Gaines, Kappeler and Vaughn, 1999, 90). In response, President Herbert H. Hoover established the list of the Top Ten Most Wanted suspects who were then relentlessly pursued by federal agents with the assistance of local law enforcement. Motels were raided, homes of relatives were crashed, and leads were vigorously pursued by the newly formed F.B.I., largely irrespective of the credibility of the tip (Center for Research on Criminal Justice, 1975).

Law enforcement was using information from the public to track criminals over a growing and expanding nation. Public safety was elevated to a heightened level of importance during the reform era, and law enforcement made strides to accomplish many goals relating to this important societal role primarily by the use of its coercive power during the professional era.

One of the consequences of this approach to crime control was that little effort was made to bridge existing gaps between the police and the disadvantaged in America’s local communities. Far too often, those at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale were the targets of intense police intervention. In their zeal to make communities safer from the hardened criminal, police tended to use their technology to pursue, identify, and monitor their suspects. In addition, innovations in communications and transportation technologies allowed the police to become highly mobile and provided the means to assess more types of criminal activities than ever before.

At the same time, the ability to communicate via wireless devices centralized police as never before, often removing law enforcement from direct contact with local residents (Gaines, Kappeler & Vaughn, 1999). Police now moved about in high-speed units and maintained continuous communication with command central – much like military units during wartime campaigns. With the spread of information technology and computerized record keeping, proactive police agencies began to arm themselves with an intimate knowledge of community demographics and computer-generated crime information.


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