Today, experts see community-based policing as a well-intentioned failure. But what if that’s because it was never really tried? Few American departments have ever had true community-based policing. That’s no accident, and understanding how this happened could show us the way forward.
If you watch movies, you’ve probably noticed this kind of cop over and over again. Meet the friendly neighborhood beat cop. They know your name, frequent your local diner, and live down the block. But off-screen, a lot of police encounters actually look more like this.
So why are Hollywood’s friendly beat cops so hard to find, and how can we make them a reality? If your experience with police doesn’t look like the movies, you’re not alone. And to figure out why, we need to look at something called the consolidation movement.
Consolidation is when different providers of a public service, like policing, choose to combine their efforts in order to eliminate any potential redundancies or inefficiencies.
And the idea was that it was inefficient to have all these various communities have their own police departments, and we should centralize and consolidate into one large police department.
Support for consolidation first got its legs in the 1920s and ’30s, when federal agencies were having trouble enforcing prohibition. They argued that consolidated police forces were needed to enforce federal laws, some going as far as calling for nationalizing American policing. That never happened, but federal interest in consolidation continued to grow, and by the 1960s, those small, friendly, neighborhood departments across the country were unifying into large, city-wide forces. This had the effect of spreading officers thin, in part because these departments heeded federal recommendations that limited what a good cop looked like, through what were called professionalization standards, minimum requirements for employment on things like level of education or physical fitness. The same recommendations also called for relaxing residency requirements, meaning officers no longer had to live in the area they policed. Together, these new standards raised the bar for serving on many consolidated police forces. But they also raised the cost. And they encouraged consolidated forces to place serving officers in neighborhoods they weren’t familiar with, leaving areas with fewer officers patrolling communities they didn’t understand.
You have a kid out after curfew. Does he get hauled home to mom, or does he get hauled to jail? Maybe they might have a little bit different perspective living inside the community, about whether or not something is even a problem, than an outsider would. And they can actually choose, then, to take advantage of these alternative mechanisms.
One big reason the consolidationist movement was willing to overlook the loss of these community relationships was out of a belief that there was one best way to police all communities.
You don’t have to worry about there being diversity, you don’t have to worry about there being potential for experimentation. You just figure out what the one best way forward is, and you implement it. And if there’s only one best way, what’s the most efficient scale for that program to be implemented then? It’s gonna be at the largest scale possible.
Despite its serious flaws, consolidation continued to hold sway. The public administration literature just didn’t offer up convincing alternatives. And it wasn’t until the 1970s that consolidationists faced any real opposition.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am honored and delighted to introduce to you Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom.
Born into poverty in Depression-era Los Angeles, Elinor Ostrom was a dogged researcher, and routinely barred from male-dominated academia in her early career. Ostrom was undeterred, and went on to study how large structures of policing affected police quality, later becoming the first and only female to win a Nobel Prize in Economics for her broader body of work.
Elinor Ostrom’s research pushed from whether the consolidation movement was right, in that, is it more efficient, did it better serve community and the community needs? And she found that no, actually, communities that had their own police departments, or had smaller police departments, people in those communities were more satisfied with the police services.
Kind of, you know, poked a finger in the eye of that idea that the expert was always gonna be better than the person who was on the ground.
She literally rode in the back of police cars.
Tried to understand what the nature of the interactions between the police and the community residents were.
Ostrom’s qualitative research style was reflective of the qualitative gaps she saw in policing. She argued that consolidationists’ hard data approach to policing not only missed problems on the ground, but created them too. And many officers agree with her. Listen to this radio interview with a NYPD officer, criticizing ticket quotas back in 2015.
“I can tell my supervisors that I took three people to the hospital and I saved their lives. That the child that I helped deliver is healthy. I can tell them that, but that’s not gonna cut it. The culture of the department, the way they see it is that you’re not working unless you are writing summonses or arresting people.”
– Officer Adhyl Polanco
This mentality is what drove Ostrom to offer up a theory of how to provide public safety that recognized each community’s problems as unique, and not easily fixed through tickets and arrests.
This gets to the idea of co-production.
[Palagashvili] Co-production refers to citizens and the police sharing responsibility for achieving outcomes of safety.
[Lemke] It’s not just having a cop on the street. It’s having a cop on the street who has built relationships with that community, such that they’re comfortable going to that police officer with information and with problems.
Ostrom’s idea of co-producing public safety is important because it shifts the focus away from hard metrics, by creating a situation where police are forced to define safety on the community’s own terms. And the idea actually caught on, later getting published through the Department of Justice. The wider body of research on the topic even led the DOJ to attempt to federalize community policing, through a 1994 program called Community Oriented Policing Services, or C.O.P.S., which provided grants and training to local departments that complied with federally defined community policing tactics.
And were those effective programs?
[Palagashvili] So, not necessarily. The community-based policing programs were not that effective. Wasn’t this hoped-for revolution that they expected.
Part of the reason why has to do with the fact that these weren’t community-based programs at all, and instead, continued in the footsteps of consolidationists by mass-producing one form of policing. At the same time, C.O.P.S. and other federal incentive programs were making it increasingly attractive for local departments to prioritize federal issues. This graph shows a steep increase in participation by state and local law enforcement in federal anti-drug indictments from 1983 to 1999. And this level of local employment for federal goals causes some serious problems.
[Lemke] So it gets really funky when your paycheck’s actually coming from a completely different party. And if that paycheck is coming from somebody who has a really different set of goals than your community’s safety, then what happens is police departments instead direct their attention towards the accomplishment of those federal objectives, rather than the accomplishment of keeping a community safe on that community’s own terms.
These federal programs are not only a drain on local police, they also incentivize tactics that hardly have communities in mind.
[Palagashvili] So these are programs, like Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, that sends military equipment to the police. Again, it’s hard to get trust if the police look like they’re about to go to war with you.
All of these issues raise an important question. Why do we police our communities? Is it to meet quotas? To do work for the federal government? Or is it to keep communities safe for the people living in them? It’s easy for Hollywood to write scripts that get the friendly beat cop right every time. And it’s also easy to dwell on bad police work. But if we want humane policing that honors the dignity and diversity of our communities, it will mean removing the barriers to unique and diverse policing.