Relationship-Based Policing

The relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve has come under scrutiny in light of recent events. In Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, New York, the law enforcement models and policing strategies employed are under review at the highest level of government. U.S. President Obama commissioned a task force to “strengthen community policing and trust among law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.” The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing sought to “identify best practices and offer recommendations on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.”1

Since the President’s Task Force published its report, additional events have again tested the public’s confidence in law enforcement. In two separate incidents in North Charleston, South Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, officers were criminally charged for the excessive use of deadly force.2 Additionally, an in-custody death in Baltimore, Maryland, sparked intense riots in that city.3 Questions were raised by multiple media outlets regarding law enforcement policies, procedures, training, and culture.4 At the same time that the President’s Task Force was preparing its report, many law enforcement agencies were also looking for ways to police more effectively.

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) believes that the next step forward in policing practices is relationship-based policing. Relationship-based policing intends to build upon the positive step forward of community-based policing in three specific areas: (1) building relationships rather than mere partnerships, (2) working in collaboration with the community, and (3) creating an atmosphere of trust between the police and the diverse communities they serve. Relationship-based policing is a transformative policing model wherein the police make a commitment to improve the overall well-being of their communities. This commitment is achieved by training officers to develop relationships with individual members in the community, in addition to maintaining relationships with the social, business, and other governmental institutions.

History of Community-Based Policing in Los Angeles

This is not the first time that law enforcement has needed to evaluate the way it polices the community. Throughout history, law enforcement agencies in democracies evolved to maintain the public’s trust. The current community-based policing model in the United States can be traced back to England in the late 1820s, when. Sir Robert Peel was credited for developing the principle that police officers were citizens in uniform, who came from the local area and are connected to the community they serve. Order was maintained because the citizenry trusted the police to act with integrity when enforcing the law, to use force only when necessary, and to not use force excessively.5 To maintain order, it was important to develop the public’s trust and belief that the police acted in the best interest of the community.

In the United States, these ideals carried over when urban police forces were formed. Over time, as organization improved and the ranks grew, the beat cop became a widely used form of policing. The beat cop walked his area (beat), getting to know the community in his beat through face-to-face contact. Unfortunately, during this era, politics dominated police departments. Politicians often determined the next police chief, along with controlling which laws were enforced. This era of policing is referred to as the political model.6

However, by 1950, the citizens of Los Angeles, California, had grown weary of inconsistent policing within the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). To distance the police from the influences of politicians and the public, the professional model of policing was introduced, in which the emphasis was placed strictly on enforcing the law.7 Instead of several officers walking a beat, two officers drove a radio-equipped car to respond to calls for service. Although more efficient, this model prevented officers from establishing relationships with the community to solve problems and developing partnerships to maintain public order.

In the 1970s, the concept of the radio car was improved, and officers were assigned to certain districts in their division. Known as the “basic car” concept, officers had a “territorial imperative” for a specific area and the crimes that occurred there. The position of senior lead officer was established to better understand the area, the people, and the causes of crime—and the agency was looking for ways to prevent crime, not simply to investigate criminal activity.8 The senior lead officers provided valuable information to the patrol officers in the area and acted as liaisons to the community. Their personal communications skills greatly improved the relationship between the police and the community, proving that one officer who genuinely cared about the community could have a positive impact and gain the trust of the residents and business owners.

After the civil unrest in Los Angeles in 1992 due to the Rodney King incident, the Christopher Commission recommended broad measures to change the way police interacted with individuals and groups to improve the relations between the police and the communities they served. Foot beat units and bicycle units increased as a way for officers to engage in regular contact with the community. Community-based programs, including community-police advisory boards (CPABs), were established so that members of the community could meet with police captains to advise them of community concerns.9 These new strategies mobilized community resources and strengthened ties within the community in the spirit of partnership. Leaders of the police actively listened to the community leaders, and the police and community worked together to resolve problems. Other successful community-based programs include ethnic-based forums, issue-based forums, religious-based forums, booster foundations, gang coalitions, legal foundations, neighborhood councils, youth programs, and more.

These reforms and community programs led to the community-based policing (or community-oriented policing) model. The U.S. Department of Justice defines community-based policing as

a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies that support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime.10

Several tenets of community-based policing emerged as the LAPD began instituting both organizational and cultural changes in the late 1990s. The LAPD created partnerships with the communities it serves to establish shared priorities and decision-making in order to solve community problems. The basic car expanded into the concept of “territorial imperative,” where officers were assigned to the same basic car, thus allowing for the stability of personnel assigned to the communities. Officers became familiar with crime trends, community problems, and social or cultural issues within their assigned community.11

LAPD’s Move to Relationship-Based Policing

Yet, even with all the interaction the police had with the community, some segments felt disconnected from the police. As Los Angeles entered the 21st century, a movement was required to bring in new stakeholders. It was incumbent upon the police to develop stronger relationships with the community that went beyond community-based policing. The solution, relationship-based policing, seeks to get not only the community’s input, but also its involvement in establishing best practices and training. By collaborating with the police, the community better understands police procedures and positively engages with the police to enhance the well-being of the community.

In a relationship, rather than a partnership, the parties share a greater commitment to each other. The two groups establish a bond of trust, which is called upon when unsettling incidents cause tension between them. In a partnership, both parties still operate independently, setting their own organizational goals separate from the other partner. As in a business partnership, the goal of all contracts or agreements is for the benefit of each party’s own interest. In a relationship, the interests of both parties are directly connected to each other’s investment and well-being. This model allows the police and the community to work through issues that previously created an “us versus them” mentality to find common solutions.

A main principle of community-based policing is relying on shared priorities to achieve common goals. This model is highly effective when working with established communities where there is a shared desire for community engagement in law enforcement tasks. However, when the LAPD responded to the Occupy Movement in Los Angeles, it became apparent that this community and the police did not have shared priorities or common goals. Yet, it was still incumbent upon the police to enforce the law in a way that reduced confrontations and kept the use of force to a minimum while protecting the constitutional rights of all involved. The LAPD did not want police response to the Occupy Movement to create mass public disorder or civil unrest; thus, the LAPD employed strategies that built relationships with the movement’s organizers, whereby an understanding of expectations and procedures were shared. This allowed the LAPD to enforce the law and restore order without the situation developing into a mass riot.12

Relationship-based policing moves the community-based policing model forward from transparency to collaboration. Whereas transparency resembles a glass window where the community can see into a department’s processes, collaboration acts as an open door, whereby the community becomes a stakeholder in the practices and procedures that the police implement. By working with the police in this manner, the community is directly involved in the procedures that affect their interactions with the police. When critical incidents occur and subsequent investigations are completed, the community will have the knowledge that the forthcoming investigation is the result of policing from within the community, rather than an imposition from the outside.

By developing collaborative relationships, the police gain the trust of the community, and the community gains the trust of the police. When the police establish trust within the community, the police can better investigate crimes and critical incidents. There is less concern about feeling the need to get out in front of the “story” and possibly releasing information before it is confirmed or denied by the investigation. At the same time, when the community gains the trust of the police, it allows the police to direct resources more efficiently during critical incidents or mass demonstrations. For example, if a particular community established a relationship with the police prior to a mass demonstration, then the police may know that this community had developed a strong culture of peaceful protest. The police would trust the protesters to “police themselves,” allowing the police to stage their officers out of sight, yet ready to respond.

The need to have these relationships in place prior to a crisis was succinctly stated by a former law enforcement policy advisor to the U.S. Department of State.

Trusting relationships must be established prior to a crisis so when a crisis occurs, the community will quickly come forth and offer assistance to the police agency. The experience of chiefs/sheriffs who have established such relationships have shown the strong impact those relationships can have when police actions inadvertently cause serious harm and the department is working to maintain community trust.13

Relationship-based policing improves a police organization’s ability to maintain public order during times of crisis. If the community feels that they collaborated in the procedures utilized by the police during times of crisis, then the community will be less likely to engage in destructive protests. The likelihood of civil unrest is reduced because the community is a stakeholder in the overall process. Often, it is not the crisis itself that causes the unrest; it is the belief that the process is biased and unfair. In forming relationships between the police and the community, each will develop a trust that both parties have the other’s interest at heart. There will always be disagreements, but, by forming collaborative relationships, all stakeholders would be assured that the procedures in place will provide for a fair and unbiased outcome.

Relationship-Based Policing Strategies and Application

A clear example of relationship-based policing is present within the program the LAPD established with the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) in conjunction with the Advancement Project. This new program is called the Community Safety Partnership (CSP). Before the CSP, officers would not venture into the Watts housing developments without back-up units ready to assist. Many residents often did not appreciate the police showing up because that usually meant a friend or family member was about to be arrested. The police often used a crime-suppression approach to community issues that involved flooding the area with police and arresting or citing anyone who broke the law, no matter how minor the offense—employing a zero tolerance policy. According to CSP,

Too often, overbroad suppression leads to the targeting of an entire community, disproportionate minority contact, and strained community relations, which further erodes public trust and the ability of law enforcement to effectively deter and investigate crime and promote safety.14

The LAPD decided to address this challenge in a unique way. Forty officers and six supervisors were handpicked to work in the housing developments on a long-term basis.15 These officers were tasked with addressing the root sources of crime in the neighborhood instead of making arrests to suppress criminal activity. Their goal was to establish relationships and demonstrate that the police cared not only about crime in the neighborhood, but also about the residents.

The success of CSP speaks for itself. In the first three years of the program’s operation in Watts, one of the historically most violent areas of Los Angeles, violent crime declined by more than 50 percent; comparatively, the number of arrests also declined by 50 percent. In one of the most violent gang-controlled areas of Watts, the Jordan Downs Housing Development, the community went three years without a murder. Also, in other areas of Watts, when a murder did occur, the investigations were often quickly solved due to public cooperation, which resulted from a relationship of trust within the community.16

The underlying principle of relationship-based policing is that the police, as an organization and as individuals, want to assist the public in creating safe, healthy communities. Many of the communities that need the police often view them less favorably than other communities who do not have as much interaction with the police on a daily basis. Historically, this perception was valid: The community did not believe that the police cared about their well-being, but rather wanted to look good in the “stat book.” Most of these communities suffered from systemic problems including poor schools, high unemployment, poverty, lack of economic development, a dearth of safe parks, and a shortage of basic resources.17

In an effort to address these issues, law enforcement must develop new strategies rooted in relationship-based policing. Law enforcement should address systemic issues by being more than suppression focused when it comes to high crime areas. The police must move away from a transactional relationship in which officers come to a neighborhood, conduct police business, leave when the business is finished, and come back later to repeat the process. Instead, the police should look to build transformational relationships where officers address the long-term problems and focus on the sources of the problems, while working within the community and, more importantly, with individuals. Officers should be trained to be brokers between people in the community and the community-based organizations (CBOs) that are equipped with the resources to assist the people with the needs they may have.

Some may wonder why brokering these relationships is a job for the police. While it is true that CBOs often already exist where they are needed, many people do not know the resources that are available in their own communities. These organizations are often located in nondescript buildings, with limited personnel and advertising. Conversely, the police are the face of city government and are visibly seen in the community 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When someone in Los Angeles calls the police, an officer will respond to provide assistance. They are the most available and recognizable government entity in the daily life of a city. It behooves the city, the community, and the police to train officers to use relationships with CBOs to assist people in getting the help they need.

Senior Lead Officer Deon Joseph is an outstanding example of the principles of relationship-based policing at work on the streets of Los Angeles. He took it upon himself to find the best drug treatment centers in the area where he worked in order to connect community members with the services they needed. The guiding philosophy by which he polices is to “create an environment conducive to change.”18 The way in which Officer Joseph does this most effectively is by utilizing the “foot beat” (foot patrol). He believes the foot beat is a force multiplier that assists the community on multiple levels. By walking the street, the officer gets to meet the community without responding to a specific call for service. This allows the officer to build a relationship with the residents, business owners, and people who otherwise may not have a positive encounter with the police. Additionally, having conversations with people on the street deters the criminal element from operating in the area of the foot beat while also making community members feel comfortable sharing information about criminal activity with the officer.

For relationship-based policing to create a cultural and structural change within LAPD’s organization, it must be a “bottom-up” approach rather than a “top-down” approach. This movement has to be about frontline officers showing the community how much they care about the community’s issues. This involves officers wanting to dedicate themselves to working a particular area for long-term assignments that will connect each officer to the members of the community in a way that randomized deployments cannot. To effectively form these long-term relationships within a community, the department’s command staff needs to allow the frontline officers a voice. It is important for the community to hear the department’s message from the heart of the frontline officers that they see every day. Officer Joseph credits Commander Andrew Smith, when he was the captain at Central Division, with allowing him to communicate freely and effectively with the community by posting flyers and writing a blog. This allowed the community to know him as an “LAPD officer”—Officer Joseph had always cared for the community, now the community cares about him. This is the essence of relationship-based policing.

In order for the police to accomplish successful relationship-based policing, the department will need a cultural shift in how success is measured. As mentioned earlier, some officers measure success by looking good in the “stat book.” Officers want to see their name at the top of the arrest and citation recap sheets at the end of each month. However, in order for all officers to see themselves as “relationship cops,” there must be ways to reward the relational approach. According to the Advancement Project,

To make this practice a part of LAPD and any law enforcement agency’s DNA, it will be necessary to formally integrate elements of relationship-based policing as a must-have criteria for professional development and promotion of officers (e.g., credit for diversion of young people, special recognition for developing community-driven safety solutions that become part of the official employment record, promotional criteria that incorporate key relationship-based policing indicators).19


While relationship-based policing is good for the community, it is also good for the police and good for the city. The development of community-police relationships leads to stability and resilience within a community. By investing and assisting in the development of healthy communities, police can rely on these strategies for a cost-effective solution to crime reduction. Assisting people in getting an education and finding a job is much more affordable and efficient to than deploying police resources for crime suppression, arresting, and housing and processing arrestees through the criminal justice system. Perhaps by employing this new model of policing, society can continue to work toward LAPD’s vision to, as closely as possible, achieve a city free from crime and public disorder.20

Chief Charlie Beck was appointed chief of the Los Angeles, California, Police Department in November 2009. Chief Beck oversees the third largest police department in the United States, managing 10,000 sworn officers and 3,000 civilian employees. Chief Beck was appointed to the Los Angeles Police Department in March 1977 after serving two years with the Los Angeles Police Reserve Corps.

During Chief Beck’s tenure as Central Area’s commanding officer, he formulated the original Safer Cities Initiative. While the commanding officer of Rampart Area, Chief Beck was also able to form an alliance of community and political groups to reclaim MacArthur Park for the citizens of Los Angeles. The project was the essence of community policing, received national recognition, and was awarded the IACP Webber Seavey Award for Community Policing.

1 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (Washington, D.C.: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2015), iii (accessed June 23, 2016).
2 Ashley Fantz and Holly Yan, “South Carolina Shooting: Officer Charged and Fired; Protesters Demand Justice,” Cable News Network, April 9, 2015 (accessed November 10, 2015); “Tulsa Reserve Deputy Charged with Manslaughter Turns Himself In,” CBS News, April 14, 2015 (accessed November 10, 2015).
3 Scott Calvert and Kris Maher, “Violence Breaks Out in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s Funeral,” The Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2015 (accessed November 10, 2015).
4 Eliott McLaughlin, Ben Brumfield, and Dana Ford, “Freddie Gray Death: Questions Many, Answers Few, Emotions High in Baltimore,” CNN, April 20, 2015 (accessed November 10, 2015).
5 John Dempsey and Linda Forst, An Introduction to Policing, 5th ed. (Clifton Park, NY: Delmar Cengage Learning, 2010), 8.
6 Ibid., 14–15.
7 Bernard C. Parks, The State of Community Policing: On the New Los Angeles Police Department, Management Paper (Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles Police Department, 1997), 1.
8] Christopher Warren and John Arguelles, Report of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, 1991, 101 (accessed November 10, 2015).
9 “Partnerships for Community Policing,” Administrative Order No. 10, December 3, 1993, Los Angeles Police Department.
10 DOJ, COPS, “Community Policing Defined,” 2014, (accessed November 10, 2015).
11 Parks, The State of Community Policing, 3.
12Un-Occupying L.A.,” Los Angeles Times, December 1, 2011 (accessed November 10, 2015).
13 Robert Wasserman, Guidance for Building Communities of Trust (Washington, D.C.: DOJ, COPS, July 2010), 28 (accessed November 10, 2015).
14 Community Safety Partnership Framework: A Partnership between the Housing Authority of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Police Department, The Advancement Project, 7.
15Memorandum of Agreement between the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Police Department,” 2011 (accessed November 10, 2015).
16 Constance Rice and Susan Lee, Relationship-Based Policing: Achieving Safety in Watts (Los Angeles, CA: The Advancement Project), 5 (accessed November 10, 2015).
17 Ibid., page 3.
18 Deon Joseph (senior lead officer, Los Angeles Police Department), interview, June 10, 2015.
19 Rice and Lee, Relationship-Based Policing, 6.
20 Los Angeles Police Department Manual, vol. 1, section 102, Department Manual, Third Quarter 2014.

Please cite as

Charlie Beck, “Relationship-Based Policing, The Police Chief 83 (July 2016): web only,