The History of Police-Community Relations: Analysis & Strategies

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  • 0:00 Police-Community Relations
  • 0:30 The Reform Era of Policing
  • 2:48 Problem-Oriented Policing
  • 4:03 Community Policing
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The relationships between police and communities have changed several times across history. Explore some major policies, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Police-Community Relations

This is a police officer. . . and this is a community.

police community

Now the relationship between this police officer and this community has changed over time, and that relationship has defined their ability to interact. Sometimes the relationship is strong, and sometimes it is not, but it's always important. Let's take a look back through this community's history, and I'll show you what I mean.

The Reform Era of Policing

The history of community-police relations really goes back to the early 20th century and the rise of the reform era in American policing. This era was characterized by the development of professional police departments, something we didn't actually have until roughly the 1920s-1930s. Before that, police departments were corrupt, inefficient, and focused on preventing crime by walking around. The reform era changed that by creating professional departments with strict hierarchies of leadership and a system of scientific management. In this theory, success could be statistically measured. How many arrests did an officer make? What is the average length of time spent on each incident? How many reports did they file? Numbers defined everything, and policing became pretty impersonal. Between this scientific mindset, as well as new technologies like phones and cop cars that reduced physical interaction, police became detached from their communities and focused completely on crimes that people reported to them.

That system of policing was in place for a while, which leads us into the 1960s. This was a decade of crisis where the reform era style of policing really broke down, especially in terms of community relations. The police were focused on being impersonal, detached, and objective enforcers of the law in an era when people were protesting over extremely personal topics, such as civil rights. On multiple occasions, police clashed violently with protesters. In Birmingham, Alabama, for instance, peaceful civil rights protests were broken up with hoses and police dogs. The police claimed to be impartially upholding the law, but that's not what the American people saw. The American people saw police officers brutally attacking unarmed men, women, and children, and across the nation, the relationships between officers and citizens fell apart. Neither side trusted the other, so neither side worked together. The police system had to change.

Problem-Oriented Policing

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, police departments started to re-evaluate their relationships with the community. In 1979, Wisconsin professor Herman Goldstein proposed an entirely new mindset for police, called problem-oriented policing. In this system, police focus on results by identifying root issues. According to Goldstein, reform-era policing failed because it was more about the means, the ways we police, than the ends, actually being effective. Problem-oriented policing tried to fix this by looking beyond the simple incidents of crime occurring to underlying issues that create crime. This was elaborated on in 1987 with the SARA program, an acronym defining effective problem-oriented policing. The 'S' stands for scanning, which means identifying and prioritizing problems. The 'A' is for analysis, or figuring out what these problems really indicate. The 'R' is response, developing and implementing a strategy; and the last 'A' is assessment, evaluating whether or not the response worked.

Community Policing

Problem-oriented policing got officers back in touch with community members and began to repair relationships. But, it was focused on the ends, on the result of reducing crime, so we needed a separate policy to fix the means of policing, the way that policing was done. The idea that emerged in the 1980s was community policing, a policy focused on improving mutual support between officers and the community. This policy was designed to combat the impersonal nature of the reform era by making officers responsible for a specific community.

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