How to Have an Ethical Police Force
From the earliest days of the existence of the police, the question of how to have an ethical police force has been a very important part of law enforcement. When the Metropolitan Police were established in London in 1829, the public was largely against it, afraid of the idea of an armed force that could be used to suppress dissent.
In response, and based on the philosophies of Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel, the police’s General Instructions included what are now known as “The Nine Peelian Principles.” These principles outline what an ethical police force should do, including:
- Preventing crime, rather than just reacting to it.
- Recognizing that their power comes from the public; the community must consent to being policed.
- Earning community trust, approval and cooperation.
- Showing impartiality and serving all people equally.
- Using physical force only when other options have been exhausted.
The list still feels applicable and vital today; in fact, former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton referred to them as his Bible. Today, many of these ideals fit into what may be called community policing or community-building policing.
However, 21st century policing has not always lived up to these ideals, with a number of high-profile incidents in recent decades leading to eroding trust of law enforcement agencies. In fact, a 2021 Gallup poll found that only 56% of white adults and 27% of black adults had confidence in the police—some of the lowest numbers seen in the last thirty years.
To move forward into the future and regain public trust, 21st century policing must look to the past and apply some of these Peelian Principles in the form of community policing.
What are the basic principles of community policing?
Exactly what community policing is varies depending on who you ask, but a few ideas are always important:
- Police officers should focus on community engagement and improving police-community relations.
- Police officers should focus on preventing crimes, not just reacting to them.
- Police officers should think of themselves as guardians, not warriors.
What is the main purpose of community policing?
The Peelian Principles lay out a roadmap to what’s often called “policing by consent.” When policing practices focus on engaging with the community in a positive way, it builds public trust, and the community members are more likely to approve of the police force and therefore consent to be policed.
In short, community policing efforts improve community trust and strengthen police legitimacy. A public that trusts law enforcement officers and consents to be policed is going to be more cooperative with the police, making it easier for the police to do their job.
What are community policing strategies?
With all that in mind, let’s look at some community-building policing best practices. These could vary from place to place, based on buy-in from a police chief or from elected officials and also on the needs of community members.
It’s important to realize that this isn’t always an easy thing to implement; sometimes a state or national initiative meets resistance from a local police force. Some agencies have reported department members quitting when a community policing strategy is put into place. But the benefits—improved community trust, better community relations—are worth it.
Here are some community-building policing best practices.
Implementing a Prevention-Focused Philosophy
Community-oriented policing starts with changing the entire organizational philosophy of an agency. Policing should be seen as more than the act of stopping crimes; policing practices should involve proactively reacting to situations that might be conducive to crime.
How do law enforcement officers find such situations? One important practice is gathering input from community members and community leaders about police practices and the needs of the public. This may involve getting feedback via surveys or town meetings, and also simply getting to know the public through community events.
Assigning Officers to Geographic Areas
Rather than assigning officers all over the city, many law enforcement agencies have found success in assigning police officers to patrol a particular neighborhood. Some cities have even given officers responsibility over these neighborhoods, putting them in charge of analyzing crime rates and trends, developing action plans, and working with city officials to address issues in their sector.
This gives these police officers a chance for serious and prolonged community outreach.
Building Public Trust
This prolonged community outreach will help law enforcement officers build trust with the citizens they provide police service to. They’ll have time to really become aware of the issues facing their little part of the city and to do something about it.
Some agencies have had good luck with encouraging officers to focus on positive interactions with the community. This may include having officers attend communitypolic meetings and community events and encouraging them to have face-to-face interactions with local citizens; this may involve encouraging patrols to take place on foot, rather than in patrol cars.
Creating Community Partnerships
These informal interactions can do a lot to build public trust, but formal partnerships can be very useful as well: creating active and formal connections between the police, citizens, and other city agencies.
This may include school programs, citizen patrols, youth police academies, or neighborhood watches; some agencies find success creating partnerships with community leaders, such as groups of local clergy. Participating in events like Coffee With A Cop day can also create more trusting connections between police officers and citizens.
Thinking of Police Service as Customer Service
This is one that can be a little difficult for some police officers who are accustomed to thinking of themselves more as warriors than guardians. But as there’s a reason that the Los Angeles Police Department’s motto, “To protect and to serve,” has been adopted by so many other agencies and has resonated with so many other police officers.
When law enforcement officers are encouraged to think in terms of customer service, their focus will become ensuring that the community members they interact with go away from each encounter feeling satisfied, listened to, and respected. This builds that trust that is so vital to community-oriented policing.
Recruiting and Training Personnel
An easy place to start all of this is at the very beginning. If a police agency focuses on recruiting and hiring the right people—people who have a favorable view of community oriented policing practices—and then trains them from the beginning in these community policing strategies, it’s easier to get buy-in and see these strategies implemented.
What are some examples of community policing?
So far, everything we’ve been saying has been very theoretical. Have there been instances of community-building policing being successfully implemented?
Newark Foot Patrol Experiment
This experiment, reported on in 1981, set out to test whether having the police on foot for their patrols had an effect on crime. While it did not lower crime rates, it did decrease citizen fear of crime. Having police on foot, rather than in patrol cars—increasing face-to-face interactions between community members and law enforcement officers—had a positive effect on the community.
Reducing Fear of Crime in Houston and Newark
In the early 1980s, the Police Foundation received a grant to test methods of reducing fear of crime in communities. They implemented certain strategies in Houston and Newark and found that some of the policing practices associated with community policing had positive effects in reducing a community’s fear of crime and increasing their satisfaction with the police service they were receiving: creating neighborhood organizations, going door to door to make contact with community members and find out what issues they were concerned about, and creating neighborhood police centers where citizens could go to report crimes and get information.
Newark “Project Homestead” Evaluation
In 1991, the Police Foundation evaluated a a community policing program, the result of a collaborative effort between the New Jersey State Police and the Newark Police Department and done in response to drug-related crime in Newark. The researchers found that though there was not major change in reported crimes, the program did have number of positive results in terms of improvements in the perceptions of neighborhood conditions and attitudes.
Philadelphia Foot Patrol Experiment
In the summer of 2009, Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia police commissioner, tried an experiment to see if foot patrol that was focused on crime hot spots could reduce the level of crime. The experiment ended up being very successful; the law enforcement officers assigned these foot patrols developed relationships with the communities they were walking and came to know the citizens there, and the areas that had foot patrols saw a 23% decrease in crime.
Starting in 2009, the city of Belton, Texas implemented community oriented policing services, using a philosophy where police officers were given responsibility for a geographical area of the city. The law enforcement officers are held responsible for those areas and are expected to build relationships with the community and solve problems that arise. The result has been decreases in crime rates and all-time high levels of community trust in the police department.
The evidence is clear: community-building policing can have a positive impact on both crime rates and on public trust of police departments. Implementing these practices can make police agencies more effective and more trusted by the people they are meant to serve.