History shows that many great ideas, discoveries, or breakthroughs began with a question. Therefore, it seems reasonable to begin this discussion with one: Who is responsible for community safety, security, and quality of life? An answer might exist, but, if so, it might not be simple. After all, safety and security are complex elements that are vital to the quality of life in any community.
For decades the term “community policing” has been used and misused, understood and misunderstood. In 1992, Dr. Robert Friedmann of Georgia State University and the founding director of the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE) was one of the first to formally define it. He offers this definition:
Community Policing is a policy and a strategy aimed at achieving more effective and efficient crime control, reduced fear of crime, improved quality of life, improved police services and police legitimacy, through a proactive reliance on community resources that seeks to change crime causing conditions. This assumes a need for greater accountability of police, greater public share in decision making, and greater concern for civil rights and liberties.1
Long as it might seem, Dr. Friedmann’s definition is meant to be a comprehensive definition that covers the intent, purposes ,and goals of community policing. Community policing has often been—and continues to be—regarded as a philosophy and practice of building partnerships to solve problems long term. Between that common interpretation and Dr. Friedmann’s definition, one might have the impression that the primary responsibility for safety, security, and quality of life falls on the police.
To understand who has responsibility for quality of life in a community, it must first be known what constitutes “quality of life.” The term is understood differently by different people and professions, but it can often be seen as a general well-being of individuals and societies, including factors such as physical health, family, education, employment, wealth, the economy, and environment, among others.2
Where do the police fit into that description? Think of all the aspects in an environment (community) that are not safe or secure. Therein lies the important role of community governance, and the police department is a vital component of any government.
Where is community governance without departments that provide services such as fire and EMS; public works; and community development, planning, finance, and administration? If effective community policing within a police department should be a working philosophy practiced by all members, does it not make sense that the key to effective community governance should also be accepted and practiced by all members of the government—including law enforcement?
The Community and Trust Building
Accepting that the law enforcement agency and other government departments play important roles in the quality of life through community police and community governance, what about those being served? Does the community have a role or even a responsibility? What is it?
If one of the primary responsibilities of a police department and all other departments of a city government, is to “serve the public” in a variety of ways and methods, is it not reasonable to assume that there is a role for those being served?
However, despite this shared responsibility, there are regular reports of police and other government agencies at odds with or engaged in conflict with community members. This complication brings the discussion to a key element of effective community policing and community governance. That element is trust. If trust exists between the community and the agencies providing community policing and governance, then these entities all play roles in identifying, articulating, and solving problems.
In order for this mutual responsibility to exist, it is essential that real partnerships be formed and maintained. Where does it begin? One place for it to begin is being aware of and acknowledging that the public needs to regard the police and government and what they do as being legitimate. Part of community trust building involves the police being willing to communicate; being transparent; and establishing an open, trusting relationship, so when issues arise, the public is at least willing to listen.
The importance of listening goes both ways. Community members should try to understand what the police do and why. This involves the willingness of police and the government to share information with the public and to be open to listening to the occasional criticism. Building “political capital” will be a relationship benefit when the time comes for a police department, for example, to take extraordinary action.
At times when extraordinary measures are necessary that may alarm the community, an established trusting relationship is invaluable. It could be vital for the community members to accept that their police department is trained and professional and to understand the need and reasons for certain emergency responses or measures. This assumes a high level of clear communication with the community on a regular basis, before an emergency occurs. Simply put, if police departments and units of government consistently engage in trust building, the community will provide understanding and support during the occasional times of crisis, stress, and extraordinary circumstances. If the community does not regard its police department or government entity with a level of trust, it won’t matter how tactically or operationally competent the agency is. To re-emphasize, trust is a process built over time—it cannot happen all at once when a crisis is imminent.
Today, in the fishbowl in which many law enforcement and other government agencies operate, a sometimes less-than-objective media frenzy can misrepresent well-planned and well-executed operations. However, media bias can often be mitigated if the various media outlets and others observe and sense the community understanding and support for law enforcement operations and government decisions. With trust comes partnership and support.
In essence, effective community policing, community governance, and trust building is the building of bridges between the police, the government, and the communities they serve. Hopefully, some “product” can come from that process. One of those products should be a partnership. This might sound simple, but it is far from it.
Community-government partnerships take time to develop and must be based on a sustained and trusting commitment to a common goal. Herein lies the value and shared responsibility of making the community part of the problem identification and problem-solving process.
Some of the positive outcomes and results of such a partnership have been highlighted by law enforcement consultant Robert Boehmer. He distills the value of a positive community-police relationship into five key benefits.
1. Increased organizational accountability. Partners have the ability to hold each other accountable.
2. Reduced fragmentation and duplication. Working together can help to ensure that efforts are coordinated and resources are used effectively.
3. Increased awareness of public safety strategies. Transparency can lead to more trust and participation.
4. Strengthened organizations. As organizations work together to solve problems, they leverage each other’s strengths and effectiveness.
5. Permanently altered ways of doing business. Stakeholders realize that engaging in partnerships is an efficient and effective way to address different types of issues and problems.3
Sustained partnerships and their effectiveness are clearly linked to the level of trust that has been established. This trust is gained with work and shared responsibility. It takes a long time to gain this level of trust—and almost no time to lose it. Community trust comes after debate, argument and even conflict, with all stakeholders eventually reaching common ground that can result in a collective vision and common goals. That vision and those goals often point directly to improving safety, security and quality of life. In other words, problem identification and solutions are clearly linked to shared values. It should be obvious that community values must be understood, acknowledged, and even shared by law enforcement and other government entities.
Community policing and community governance rely heavily on an articulation of values. These values should incorporate community member involvement on matters that directly affect safety and quality of life. It should be emphasized, however, that to be credible, there must be a clear link of values to behaviors. This is essential if the trust discussed herein is to be established and sustained. What this means is that the maintenance of trust requires linking values to behaviors. Simply put—all members in a trust partnership need to do what they say they are going to do!
Community policing, community governance and partnerships require trust, transparency, communication, and shared responsibility. The credibility of all the stakeholders is essential. It has been said that if you choose law enforcement or government as a career, you will be often misunderstood and underappreciated. Acknowledging the vital roles of trust, transparency, communication, and shared responsibility can certainly go a long way to mitigate that misunderstanding and lack of appreciation.
The Power of Partnership and the Force Multiplier of Volunteerism
An additional product of trust-based partnership building with the community is the possibility and potential of community volunteers. Police agencies and units of government continue to benefit from the variety of services provided by volunteers. It is not surprising that most agencies experience funding challenges that at times make it difficult for them to meet all of their goals and priorities. Sometimes these challenges involve shortages of adequate personnel. Community volunteers can work in almost all government departments, not only the police department. In law enforcement, volunteers can provide services ranging from citizen patrols to administrative duties to having retired officers working cold cases, among other tasks.
One example of a successful volunteer program is the partnership among the public safety agency, the community members, and the Village of Itasca, Illinois. In 2007, The Village of Itasca, the Itasca Police Department and the Itasca community won the Governor’s Hometown Award for its Citizens on Patrol (COP) and Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) programs. Trained volunteers provided thousands of hours of service including assisting with special events, traffic control, crime prevention notices and sweeps, emergency call outs, office duties, and a variety of other activities.
One of the primary factors that led to the award was that, over and above the significant volunteer work done, there was a clear partnership among the city, the police department, and members of the community. This and other volunteer programs continue to serve as positive examples of real partnership at work. These committed community members, who willingly accept and understand their civic responsibility, not only become additional eyes and ears for their local law enforcement, but, as these trusting relationships strengthen, they become new hearts and minds.4
By way of summary, it is helpful to understand that community policing and community governance subscribe to a comprehensive philosophy. The value and effectiveness of community policing and community governance are outcomes of a process that has multiple stages. The sequence and evolution may vary, depending on circumstances and individual communities. Often, however, the process begins when police departments and units of government are open to working with community members to identify problems. This openness can lead to a partnership that is developed with the goal of solving mutually identified problems. Openness to individual ideas, initiative and innovation strengthen the potential for positive outcomes and results. And the value of partnerships lies in positive outcomes such as enhanced safety, security, and quality of life. It might not always seem as simple as stated, but, over time, these partnerships bring incalculable benefits through building trust and discerning long-term solutions. Building partnerships and solving problems together translates into responsible service and citizenship.
So, who is responsible for community safety, security, and quality of life? Everyone!
1Robert R. Friedmann, Community Policing: Comparative Perspectives and Prospects (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 4.
2IESE Insight, “Quality of Life: Everyone Wants It, But What Is It?” Forbes, September 4, 2013.
3Robert Boehmer, “The Value of Police-Community Partnerships,” Hillard-Heintz, November 1, 2016.
4David C. Williams, “The Power of Partnership and the Force Multiplier of Volunteerism,” (PowerPoint presentation, IACP Annual Conference and Exposition, New Orleans, LA, 2007).