Community Policing: Perspectives From the Field

Community Policing: Perspectives From the Field

John Riley

"Community Policing: Perspectives From the Field" by John Riley. Alaska Justice Forum 14(2): 2-3 (Summer 1997). Community policing is a philosophy of policing that requires police officers to act with increased levels of autonomy and professional discretion to solve problems and to develop partnerships with the community. This article summarizes the results of interviews with Anchorage Police Department officers assigned to a community policing project in the Mountain View neighborhood of north Anchorage.

Like many other departments, the Anchorage Police Department is moving from an emphasis on traditional law enforcement practices toward community-oriented policing, an approach that relies on officer-initiated efforts to reduce crime and public disorder. Community policing is a philosophy of policing that requires police officers to act with increased levels of autonomy and professional discretion to solve problems and to develop partnerships with the community.

While community policing promises an expansion of the professional role which will be appealing to many police officers, it also requires experimentation with major changes in the way in which officers and their departments think about and organize their work. A successful transition to community policing requires fundamental changes both in the way officers are encouraged to think about their work and in the way that work is organized and facilitated by administrative superiors. Because changes in philosophy and organization are key elements in the transition to community policing, it is appropriate to begin to evaluate these efforts by focusing on the subjective orientation of participating officers. Officers who do not perceive genuine opportunity for change within their departments are unlikely to successfully implement the kind of changes posited by community policing. Police departments must convince their patrol officers that it makes sense for them to take community policing seriously, if a successful transition is to take place. In this context, administrative decisions about organization, resource allocation, and the promotion of individual officers shape the understanding of patrol officers in important ways.

Evaluation of small scale projects, such as the one undertaken by Anchorage's Community Action Policing Team in Mountain View, plays an important role in the development of community policing and can provide police administrators, policy makers, and the public with important information as the department moves toward citywide implementation of community policing in the near future. This article focuses on the perceptions of patrol officers involved in the initial implementation of community policing in Mountain View. Because their perceptions are critical to the successful implementation of the project, it is important that they be taken into account in any effort to improve and extend community policing in Anchorage.

Evaluation

Between May and July 1997, Justice Center researchers interviewed 28 of the 31 officers associated with the Anchorage Police Department's community policing project. The Justice Center interviewed both current members of the team and former members now on other assignments. The interviews were intended to help identify problems and possible solutions associated with the transition to community policing. Structured interviews using open ended questions elicited individual information on the officers' professional experience, their project participation, daily routine, perception of the community, and training. Officers were also asked to identify issues that seemed important to them in their work on the community policing team. The interviews ranged in length from 30 minutes to three hours, with an average length of one and one-half hours.

Planning and Coordination

Problems associated with planning and coordination which characterize the beginning of any organizational change were among the most frequently expressed concerns of the officers interviewed by the Justice Center. The majority of the officers indicated a need for greater and more detailed organizational planning prior to the initiation of projects such as this. A few were extremely critical when asked about the organization of the project. Several officers indicated that they felt a "lack of direction" and one veteran officer responded to a question about the team's structure by saying, "There isn't any." While most of those interviewed were less critical than this, many indicated concerns about planning that caused them to question the strength of the department's commitment to the project.

Many of those involved would have liked a clearer articulation of the project's goals, greater attention to issues of training and orientation for new team members, and clearer standards of evaluation for team members. The majority of the officers interviewed could not give a consistent department definition of community-oriented policing. When asked how their department defined community policing many officers responded by saying "I don't know" or "I have no idea." When asked about the department's expectations and performance evaluation standards, similar and sometimes identical responses were common. Some officers suggested that without a clear definition community residents might also find it difficult to adjust to the changing orientation of their police force.

A need for improved coordination between community police officers and representatives of other local, state, and federal agencies was another recurrent theme expressed by Anchorage's community police officers. In the first 18 months of the project, officers frequently found themselves working with representatives of city government, federal agencies like Immigration and Naturalization, and other public and private organizations. Some of this work involved a level of frustration and inefficiency which might have been avoided through better formal coordination of efforts. Several officers have been involved in working with the city in municipal building code enforcement and traffic management, for example. Because patrol officers themselves are not always in the best position to enlist cooperation from organizations that may place law enforcement interests as a low priority, commitment to collaboration from administrative leaders in the private and public organizations involved is necessary.

Support for Community Policing

In spite of concerns about planning and coordination, members of the team were nearly unanimous in crediting the program with improving the situation in Mountain View. While the project was only a little more than half completed when the interviews were begun, the majority of those interviewed felt that the community had benefited from police efforts to address the problems associated with gangs, drug dealing, prostitution, and other issues of public order. Most of the participating officers found something of value in their experience with community oriented-policing, and many expressed strong support for its underlying philosophy.

This support was, in general, linked to three themes: a desire for professional development, a desire for detailed knowledge of the assigned service area, and an interest in problem solving. These themes had some appeal for all of the officers interviewed and substantial appeal for those who expressed the greatest interest in community policing. Those who expressed the most favorable attitudes toward this project usually indicated an interest in opportunities for acquiring professional experience and skills. Because team officers provide a wide range of police services in their assigned service areas, they were able to gain experience in a variety of areas including investigations, interviewing, community relations, warrants, search procedures, traffic control, crime prevention, and intervention with juveniles. Mountain View was an attractive assignment to some of the officers because persistent and serious crime problems represented a challenge. For one officer, Mountain View was "a target-rich environment," offering many opportunities to make arrests for serious offenses. As another officer said, "If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere." Participation in the Mountain View project permitted relatively new officers to do things and to master skills that typically come more slowly in the careers of officers with traditional assignments.

Those officers who expressed favorable attitudes toward the project were also more likely to be interested in getting to know the neighborhood where they work. This is particularly important in neighborhoods like Mountain View, where few of the assigned officers have lived, attended school or church, or participated in activities which are not related to their work as police officers. When asked to compare Mountain View to the communities where they now reside, officers indicated that there was "no comparison" or used phrases like "night and day" to describe the difference between Mountain View and the South Anchorage and Eagle River neighborhoods where most of them live.

"Getting to know the neighborhood" means different things to different officers, but most officers who express support for community policing focus on geography, personalities, and community resources. The project has placed officers in relatively long term assignments in a small service area, allowing them to learn the streets quickly and thoroughly, to learn about the "problem people" who take up a large portion of the workday, and to learn about the resources available to people experiencing problems within the community. The officers believe this knowledge translates into improved intelligence capability, more effective law enforcement efforts, and better community relations.

Those officers who indicated the greatest support for community policing were also more likely than other officers to express an interest in innovative problem solving. This reflects a frustration with traditional patrol-based assignments which many officers believe allow too little time to address too many problems. Assigned to regular patrol duties, officers may spend entire shifts going from call to call with little time to do more than take a report or make an arrest that they know will only temporarily alleviate the problem. The officers, who refer to this problem as "chasing the radio" or "the tyranny of 911," indicated an appreciation of the way in which scheduling flexibility and an emphasis on partnerships allow more follow-up and more opportunity to "encourage people to solve their own problems."

Whether the policing project in Mountain View is actually facilitating the development of lasting solutions to problems and reducing unnecessary repetition in calls for service is an open question. It is clear at this time that a majority of the officers participating in the project find it useful to have more time to follow-up on calls for service in innovative ways. They are now trying to address cases that have not proven amenable to traditional law enforcement solutions through landlord education efforts, enforcement of city codes, and programs in the schools. Officers have also extended their efforts to off-duty projects such as those intended to improve housing for the elderly or to provide recreational opportunities for juveniles. Officers who have left the team to take on new assignments feel that their work in Mountain View helped them to develop new skills and innovative approaches to the problems they face in their new assignments.

Officers expressed the belief that widespread involvement in public affairs is a critical component of an orderly community and that traditional policing strategies have had little to offer in this area. They feel community-oriented policing allows officers to work to build a sense of community by modeling responsible public involvement. While it is too early to be certain of the success of these efforts, it seems clear that the experience gained in Mountain View has some benefit for the entire city.

Have the officers found genuine opportunity to improve service in the Mountain View project? While concerns about the implementation of community policing are widespread, a sense of enthusiasm for more involvement with the community emerged from these interviews.

John Riley is an assistant professor with the Justice Center.