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Back to Archives | Back to October 2009 Contents 

Policing in Local Law Enforcement: A Commitment to Getting Out-of-the-Car

By Steve Dye, Assistant Chief of Police, Garland, Texas, Police Department

olice technology must serve the community and advance the mission of community policing, not merely make internal processes more efficient. Community policing is most effective and most sustainable when meaningful partnerships develop between police departments and the community. The development of partnerships and collaborative efforts are largely dependent on officers and administrators who connect with residents through personal interaction. By stopping the car and getting out and speaking with people, officers can connect with the public, identify problems more quickly, and forge stronger partnerships. In spite of the growing list of duties of patrol officers, the surge of technological advancements in law enforcement, and the arrival of a new generation of technologically proficient officers, it is imperative that personal connections between officers and the people they serve remain at the forefront of departmental expectations, training efforts, and policies.

Cars Reshape Patrols and Priorities

In the early 1800s, policing experienced a shift from the omnipresent centralized systems to the formation of London's Metropolitan Police Force, widely considered the first modern police department. The decentralized force delivered services by focusing on specific problems in specific geographical areas. Sir Robert Peel’s main principle—“The police are the public and the public are the police”—highlighted the importance of connecting with the people served. American policing followed this English model and the early foot patrols relied heavily on interaction with citizens and familiarity with the patrol area. But after the automobile was introduced into policing, departments enlarged geographical areas, turned their attention to reducing response times, and generally adopted a more reactive and enforcement-driven approach. The civil unrest of the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated that although policing efficiency may have increased, an important connection between many officers and the communities they served had been lost.

Emergence of Community Policing

By the 1980s, dissatisfaction with the effects of this diminishing interpersonal contact between the police and the public led to the birth of community policing and a renewed focus on community interaction and partnerships. The realization started to take hold that policing could not survive on mere efficiency of operations, and a return to connecting with the community, at all levels, was necessary for effective crime prevention, problem identification, and collaborative, innovative problem solving.

Initially, the moniker community policing was misconstrued as “soft policing” by some officers and agencies who believed that responsibly aggressive enforcement could not be a part of community policing. However, most departments now understand that the best practices in policing must be community based and that community policing is at its best when it is the philosophy of an agency and not merely a set of programs.

Furthermore, community policing is a comprehensive approach that incorporates problem identification and mutual problem solving with the use of real-time crime data and appropriate proactive enforcement strategies. The commitment to community policing must start with the head of the agency and be engrained in the mind-set of officers throughout the department. By creating community partnerships that result in collaboration, departments have been able to construct effective preventive measures and comprehensive tactics to lower crime rates and make neighborhoods safer.

One of the primary components of both community policing and crime reduction is the personal connection between officers and residents, business owners, civic groups, and community visitors, to name a few. These relationships are often initiated through officers’ observations, which is why it is so critical that officers are familiar with their beats and constantly scan their work environments for anomalies or variances. Ongoing interaction then becomes crucial in strengthening these ties with the citizenry.

Community Policing Challenges

The patrol officer’s job is much more complex and challenging than ever before. Society is demanding, more than ever, that police officers be immediate problem solvers. Public expectations have continued to push police officers’ roles beyond crime prevention, response, enforcement, and problem solving and into such areas as mental health care, assumption of parental duties, and monitoring adjudicated offenders. Local law enforcement has been intricately involved in homeland security issues, which has resulted in an increased emphasis on critical infrastructure security. Finally, local law enforcement agencies have recently taken on additional responsibilities regarding immigration management and enforcement.

These supplemental duties often fall to local agencies when no one else is available or able to accomplish the mission. It is imperative that department leaders address these current challenges while implementing, developing, and reinforcing clear departmental expectations and policies committed to a community policing philosophy through partnerships and collaboration with the public.

Historically, one of the major obstacles in establishing lasting community partnerships has been overcoming the perception that the police alone are responsible for the implementation of community programs and entirely accountable for the results. Department administrators must continually work to instill the mind-set among their officers that police forces cannot achieve success without encouraging the community to be an active participant in prevention, problem identification, problem solving, and evaluations of effectiveness.

What Can Police Do to Foster Connection and Collaboration?

At times, reaching the departmental goal of full acceptance of a community policing approach involves changing a police culture based on traditional enforcement methods. But what does that require?

For starters, chiefs must encourage external involvement and the creation of active and meaningful partnerships that allow for substantive community engagement. These joint efforts should be educational in the sense that both the police and the public understand that each group has certain roles and responsibilities and that safe neighborhoods cannot thrive without active participation from both community stakeholders and police employees.

The community and the police agencies must share accountability for results, and the community must contribute to innovative community policing tactics. Police departments and community members must jointly evaluate the effectiveness of community policing efforts, reexamine approaches when necessary, and share in successes when positive results are achieved.

Traditional organizational structures need to be reviewed and changed as necessary so that departmental processes improve communication between the public and the department. Performance evaluations must be tailored toward community policing practices and involve the measurement of outcomes as opposed to outputs, including some form of community input to fully gauge officer-community involvement.

A failure to fully commit to collaboration and partnerships can result in ineffective problem solving, a lack of community support, and minimal involvement with the community. Conversely, proactively managing and addressing community policing challenges by allowing and encouraging officers to get out into the neighborhoods will culminate in an increased level of trust and a more focused philosophy that retains relevancy to current community issues.

Over Reliance on Technology Can Keep Officers in Their Cars

New police technology, much of it installed in patrol cars and much of it useful, has added to the complexity of a patrol officer’s job and created a new challenge for administrators who embrace the community policing mission.

Whereas the inside of a police car previously contained a radio and maybe a high-tech office. Many patrol officers receive their calls through in-car computers and enter their reports electronically while monitoring cell phones, speed enforcement technology, and automated license plate readers. No longer is the task of a patrol officer as simple as responding to calls over the radio, completing simple handwritten reports, and looking out the window for suspicious activity or circumstances. Technological proficiency is now an expectation in law enforcement just as much as physical fitness and sound decision-making skills.

Technology overall has given officers new tools for accomplishing community policing objectives, but it has not come without a certain degree of consternation for some veteran officers. Many of these officers did not grow up around an immense amount of technology and worked in law enforcement before law enforcement embraced computers. This lack of familiarity means that they sometime spend too much time focused on the technology while performing police operations. Many officers still working the streets today were trained at a time when most of their daily activity was generated through personal observations and contacts and knowing every detail of their assigned areas of the community.

By contrast, many younger officers grew up making technology a part of their education and their hobbies. They are proficient computer users, but they are vulnerable to becoming driven by the receipt of electronic information instead of generating activity through observations and community interaction. And a reliance on technology has, at times, lessened the development of people skills for some younger officers.

Regardless of an officer’s familiarity with technology or his or her level of expertise, it is clear that technology consumes a great deal of officers’ attention as they work the streets each day. This technological time consumption is important to monitor as it may have a tendency to take away from proactive community policing activities in the form of personal contacts and observations.

Administrators Must Watch Out for Technology That Isolates Officers

There is no doubt that technological advancements have aided responsiveness in policing and allowed personnel to address problems and trends more quickly and efficiently. At the same time, police administrators must carefully scrutinize each new technology to ensure that it increases efficiency in terms of serving the community, creating a safer environment, and accomplishing community policing goals.

Upon reviewing any new technology, police leaders should ask themselves whether it will actually help officers do their job or only expedite the administrative processes. While making the internal processes more efficient, it must also enable the officers to use their time effectively contacting the public.

Technology should not move officers away from the interpersonal contact with the community that is vital to developing collaborative partnerships and solving neighborhood problems. Departments need to train officers to use technology as a tool and not to rely on it to the point that they lose focus on getting out of their patrol cars and interacting with the community.

Technology has demonstrated that it can enhance community policing efforts through timely electronic notifications regarding crime trends, alerts, and police-community meetings and events. Online offense reporting can free up more discretionary time that can be used for face-to-face community interaction and attacking the root causes of crime and disorder, while electronic interaction with the public can expedite measures to prevent offenses from occurring.

But departmental leaders must be mindful not to allow technology and technology-savvy young officers to remove the interpersonal communication aspect from police work that is so vital to community policing. Departmental expectations, policies, and training programs must be designed and monitored to ensure that technology does not lead to any of the same isolation problems with the public that were experienced with the introduction of the automobile into policing. Departmental missions and the training of officers must continue to focus on partnerships and the use of technology to supplement these human interfaces and not become a substitute for getting out of the car. A reliance on technology can perhaps lead to complacency, reduce familiarity with surroundings, and limit opportunities to talk with residents.

The input of useful information starts with human interactions, and a balance must exist between the use of technology and the retention of people skills. Training programs must continue to emphasize the importance of proactive field work and the delivery of effective community policing. An emphasis must be placed on preventing officers from becoming accustomed to “watching the box” and being driven primarily by information received on their mobile data computers.

Retaining Community Focus
The culmination of additional responsibilities for police officers, misconceptions of community policing, a newer generation of officer that is more technology based, and an increased emphasis on in-car technology in policing can easily contribute to a decrease in time spent outside the patrol car and interacting with the community. As a result, police administrators must remain attentive to any factor that is keeping officers from getting out of the patrol car and speaking with people.

A continuous review of departmental practices and priorities must occur in order to keep everyone focused on community interaction. Although community partnerships and collaborations are alive and well in many police departments and law enforcement initiatives, a continued emphasis must be placed on constant community contact at the street level. If a police culture of minimized citizen interaction is developing, then departments must reiterate the importance of continuing to train officers, in both the academy and the field, to engage in effective community policing through personal observations and contacts while employing technology to supplement these endeavors.

Police administrators should take note as they pass a squad car on the street and see how often an officer is able to make eye contact with them as opposed to being focused on some piece of technology or talking on the cell phone. Police leaders should carefully review technology to ensure that only the technology that facilitates a patrol officer’s core tasks of community policing are installed in squad cars—as opposed to technology that results only in benefiting administrative processes. Officers must be continually encouraged to interact with the community, and their tasks and processes must be structured to achieve this objective. Performance evaluations and departmental expectations must align with the principles of community policing and effectiveness measured through outcomes of innovative problem solving and collaboration rather than quantitative outputs. As Sir Robert said years ago, “The police are the public and the public are the police,” and it will always be so.■

The author thanks IACP Community Policing Committee Chair Todd Miller and committee members Dr. Robbie Friedmann and Dr. Don Loree for their comments on early drafts of this article.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 10, October 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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