A Discourse on Policing a Free Society | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

“The police, by the very nature of their function, are an anomaly in a free society. They are invested with a great deal of authority under a system of government in which authority is reluctantly granted and, when granted, sharply curtailed. The specific form of their authority—to arrest, to search, to detain, and to use force—is awesome in the degree to which it can be disruptive of freedom, invasive of privacy, and sudden and direct in its impact upon the individual. And this awesome authority, of necessity, is delegated to individuals at the lowest level of the bureaucracy to be exercised, in most instances, without prior review or control.

Yet a democracy is heavily dependent upon its police, despite their anomalous position, to maintain the degree of order that makes a free society possible. It looks to its police to prevent people from preying on one another; to provide a sense of security; to facilitate movement; to resolve conflict, and to protect the very processes and rights—such as free elections, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly—on which continuation of a free society depends. The strength of a democracy and the quality of life enjoyed by its citizens are determined in large measure by the ability of the police to discharge their duties.” (Herman Goldstein, Policing in a Free Society, 1977)

These words above, from Herman Goldstein ring as true today as they did when he wrote them, some 40 years ago. They demonstrate the paradox of policing a free society. Herman Goldstein’s words speak to the importance of policing while balancing persuasion and force, discretion and rote enforcement, letter of the law verses spirit of the law, controlling events verses reshaping circumstances and keeping the peace which at times means using reasonable force. To do this effectively we must learn to police on purpose. How do we do this? We must adapt and learn how to remedy community problems. Personally I call it old school policing because it’s how prior to the mid 1960’s policing was done but, in modern times, most in our profession call it “community policing.”

Community Policing requires both a philosophical shift in the way that we think about our mission as well as a commitment to the operational changes this method of policing demands. Community policing is about understanding the mental and moral aspects of human behavior in conflict, and crisis. It is also about recognizing patterns of behavior and conditions that lead to crime and quality of life conditions. Community policing is about developing and using people, their ideas and technology, in that order. Community policing understands that technology should reinforce behavior, not drive it. Community policing mindset understands machines don’t fight crime, people do, and they use their minds to remedy problems.

For the most part over the past 40-45 years and in response to the 1972 Knapp Commission Report on Police Corruption policing has been a respond to crises, gather information, and investigate crimes profession. Mainly policing became a reactive force. Ironically the report stated that police were too close to the community which led too corruption. Hence the police needed to be kept away from the community except in times of need. This is when we began to see the shift in how we police to the still prevalent system of random rapid patrol.

A few years after the Knapp Commission Report was finalized and its recommendations implemented the philosophy of community policing was born as Herman Goldstein and others began to see the unintended consequences of the police divided from its people. Herman Goldstein in his 1977 book, Policing a Free Society, is among the most frequently cited works on the police. He first described the problem-oriented approach to policing in a 1979 article, which he expanded upon in his 1990 book, Problem-Oriented Policing. Professor Goldstein’s research and writings have inspired many efforts to implement and advance problem-oriented policing in police agencies around the world. Herman Goldstein and his book inspired police agencies across the country to take a second look at how we police. The main outcome of Policing a Free Society is illustrated in the quote above and speaks to the importance of police connecting with the community in an effort to build trusting and meaningful lasting relationships.

Fear of crime was at or near the top of the list of police priorities in the United States more than 2 decades ago, in the early 1980s. Many police executives had accepted the premise that reducing fear of crime was an important objective, and several promising practices had been identified. This situation helped spur the development of community policing in the 1980s and 1990s but, paradoxically, the importance of fear of crime within the explicit missions of most police departments seemed to recede even as community policing expanded. Now there were some exceptions and some police department’s implemented community policing type programs i.e. school resource officers, school mentors, car seat installations, drug awareness programs, bike patrol, crime prevention, crisis intervention, etc. Most of these programs were a great addition to communities; however these initiatives were most often facilitated by specialist, a few individuals who took the time to acquire the knowledge and then apply it, sparingly throughout the community, while the rest of the department continued random rapid patrols. What police departments lacked, was a holistic view of and, the commitment too what community policing actually is.

What is community policing?

While community policing has come to mean many things to many people, the spirit of community policing was something quite specific, not nearly the catchall phrase it has become today. Whether community policing is described as a philosophy, a paradigm shift, a new model for policing, or a collection of strategies and tactics, community policing was a vehicle for the articulation of values that should guide policing.

The idea of community policing is a radical departure from traditional notions of policing. Community policing is a paradigm shift that challenges long-standing conceptualizations of the police and fundamental assumptions about doing police work. As a philosophy, community policing is grounded in a defined set of values that serve as its ethical and moral foundation, values that sought to change both the nature of the tasks police perform and the number of people responsible for determining the desired means and ends associated with policing. The assumptions upon which community policing rest represent a dramatic departure from the past that threatens the values and beliefs embraced by traditional culture of policing.

Community policing focuses on crime and social disorder through the delivery of police services that includes aspects of traditional law enforcement, as well as prevention, problem-solving, community engagement, and partnerships. The community policing model balances reactive responses to calls for service with proactive problem-solving centered on the causes of crime and disorder. Community policing requires police and citizens to join together as partners. Department-wide adoption of community policing is evidenced by the integration of the philosophy into mission, vision and core values, policies and procedures, performance evaluations and hiring and promotional practices, training programs and other systems and activities that define organizational culture. Organizational systems support and value a service orientation, and stress the importance of different units within the department working cooperatively in support of community policing. Implementation of the community policing philosophy may occur incrementally and within specialized units at first, but a defined path leads towards full, department-wide implementation.

Defining the Path to Community Policing

Defining the path to community policing is based on Sir Robert Peals, nine key principles of policing he offered up back in 1829. It’s my humble opinion that these Principles are universal and timeless.

  • Principle 1 – “The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.”
  • Principle 2 – “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.”
  • Principle 3 – “Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.”
  • Principle 4 – “The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.”
  • Principle 5 – “Police seek and preserve public favor not by catering to the public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.”
  • Principle 6 – “Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.”
  • Principle 7 – “Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”
  • Principle 8 – “Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.”
  • Principle 9 – “The test of police efficiency (i.e., effectiveness) is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.”

Sir Robert Peel and Herman Goldstein have nailed it when it comes to understanding the people and the essence of good policing. If you look at these principle’s from 1829!!! It focuses efforts holistically; the community working together with the police is paramount to be effective. These principles combined with a police organizational culture that possess a common mission, vision and values along with strategic community-wide interaction, help to shape and reshape our community culture to one that permits vitality and growth and creates harmony. This is the exact opposite of cops in patrol cars waiting to take calls that isolates them from the community and all too often, leads to decay and disintegration between the police and the community. The expected payoff is vitality and growth, in the community, with the opportunity to shape and adapt to unfolding events thereby influence the ideas and actions of stakeholders in the community.

Images and Impressions: Toward a new Breed of Police Officer

What image comes to mind when someone says police officer? Some people conjure up Norman Rockwell’s version of the friendly cop offering a lost child an ice cream cone. For others its Dirty harry looking down the barrel of his .44, begging some scumbag to “make my day.” Some of us grew up being told police officers are our friends, someone to turn to for whenever we are in trouble. Others were raised with the warning to be good or “the police will take you away.” Many of us remember disturbing TV images of the police decades ago letting loose dogs and firehoses on civil rights protesters, then a few years later clubbing protesters outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Younger generations are more likely to recall the graphic images of Las Angeles burning after the senseless beating of motorist Rodney king or LAPD officer beating protesters at the 2007 May Day immigration rally at MacArthur Park. (Kappeler & Gaines, 2009) We more recently vividly recall the Ferguson Missouri protests and burning of that small town after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. Even fresher, in our minds, is, Baltimore erupting in protest and violence after the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody. Still others may see the police as battling drug gangs or trying to protect school children under siege from gun wielding lunatics. Or perhaps, we recall gun wielding people and police at Ruby Ridge and Waco, Texas. Maybe our most vivid memory is the police officer who gave us a speeding ticket or arrested a family member.

Police officers, peace officers, law enforcement officers, cops, warriors or guardians, no matter what term we attached to the job, most people have a vivid, if not always accurate, image of what police work entails, one might blend admiration, respect, contempt and fear. Our personalized picture is the end result of cumulative exposure to the police in real life and “reel” life the officers we have not met, the ones we have seen in the theater and the ones we learn of from the media.

In American society, where there is great tension between a desire to allow police the power to protect us and, at the same time, a fear that we must circumscribe their role to protect civil rights, the police have always played and ambiguous role. In Policing a Free Society, Herman Goldstein wrote about the basic pervasive conflict between crime fighting and constitutional due process which is inherent in the police function in a free society. This means the police may be seen by the public in paradoxical roles. To many segments of society, the police represent what has been termed the ‘thin blue line’ that separates anarchy from order. Seen in this light, the police represent a governmental body whose ultimate mission is to protect civil liberties of citizens. This responsibility is paradoxical in the sense that police also represent one of the greatest threats to these liberties. This is especially true when police abuse the authority of their office.

The police have the power to put people away. The police are also the only agents of formal social control with the right to use force, including deadly force. By phasing the police role as crime fighters, people see the police as the thin blue line protecting the forces of light from the powers of evil. Not only does this narrow view ignore the complexity of policing, it reinforces the perception of society as divided into the Good Guys in the White Hats versus a smaller pool of Bad Guys in Black Hats. Though it provides convenient shorthand for both the police and the community when referring to crime situations to divide the world into law abiding people who must remain vigilant against predators, the real world is blessed with only a handful of saints above reproach and an equally small number of unregenerate monsters. In between are the vast majority of people. (Kappeler & Gaines, 2009)

In community policing, individual line officers are given the authority to solve problems and make operational decisions suitable to their roles, both individually and collectively. Leadership is required and rewarded at every level, with managers, supervisors, and officers held responsible for decisions and the effects of their efforts at solving problems and reducing crime and disorder with the community.

The goal of this section was to examine traditional police culture and the police role, to separate myth from realty, to see what it takes to have the right stuff for the real job of policing and to ask and answer critical questions as to what a shift to community policing means. Does the job of being a community police officer require attributes that differ from what we have traditionally associated with being a police officer? Do we need a new breed of police officer to handle the challenges of the job in the twenty-first century? Can such a dramatic change in the very culture of policing be achieved?

Changing Traditional Police Culture

Many traditional departments have responded to the challenge posed by these dramatic changes in the overall make up of their line officers by making at least tentative steps toward broadening the police mandate from crime-fighting to community problem solving. Officially and unofficially, police officers have been exploring ways to employ problem-solving techniques. Many departments still restrict their application primarily to crime incidents, insisting that other problems are beyond the proper purview of the police. This plays into the hands of traditional police culture because it allows the organization to maintain its unrealistic crime-fighting orientation and further solidifies the negative aspects of traditional police culture.

In community policing culture, citizens are viewed by the police as partners who share responsibility for identifying priorities, and developing and implementing responses. Accurate surveying of community needs and priorities is required under community policing to determine the problems that drive police services, and give the public a voice in the problem-solving process.

We have been evolving more robustly as a department towards the community policing philosophy recently. Our departmental mission, vision and core values and most importantly, its member’s all exemplify a department that can robustly adopt and implement, the community policing philosophy, in the way it was meant to be applied, when it was first developed as a valuable policing strategy in the mid 1970’s.

Community policing provides a widespread way for the police to provide decentralized and personalized service that offers every community member an opportunity to become active in the police process. In this way people who have been isolated or disenfranchised, can have both a voice in police activities and an interest in the development and health of our community. Community policing can help mitigate some of the harsh realities of modern life. Community policing is more than involving police in crime control, it is active involvement in enhancing the health of the community.

As you all know we do a lot of this already from time to time, but we must make this a fundamental part of how we police. This model differs from the type of policing predominant at the end of the twentieth century in which law enforcement is expected to develop priorities and strategies without community involvement and in which “social problems and other neighborhood issues are not of police concern unless they threaten the breakdown of public order.” Equally, in community policing, legitimacy and procedural justice rather than just the law build police authority in the eyes of the community. Thus, community policing necessitates building relationships of trust between communities and their police organizations.

For us police, community policing requires going beyond a reactive strategy. It means not waiting to be called, but instead identifying and targeting problems and implementing solutions. We must use conventional and unconventional problem solving and crime fighting methods; foot patrols, bike patrols, surveys and alternatives to random patrol to target community problems. In other words community policing requires we adapt and tailor services to community needs. We must ensure we have an intensified police presence through larger number of positive community contacts.

In community policing, police authority stems not only from the law but also from its legitimacy in the eyes of the community. Legitimacy secures the cooperation of community members in identifying the most pressing issues of law and order within neighborhoods, including those related to violent radicalization. Thus, legitimacy is key to efficacy in community policing.

What Community Policing Offers: “Do No Harm”

My good friend, Marshall Wallace was Director of the Do No Harm Project from 2001 through 2013. He joined the Local Capacities for Peace Project at the Collaborative for Development Action in 1997 as the Project Coordinator. In 2001, Mary Anderson stepped down as the project director and named Marshall as her successor. He renamed the project “the Do No Harm Project” based on requests from colleagues working on the concepts. Over that time, he contributed several papers, articles, and manuals to understanding Do No Harm, as well as training several thousand people to use the Do No Harm Frameworks and techniques. He is the author with Mary Anderson of Opting Out of War: Strategies to Prevent Violent Conflict (Lynne Rienner, 2013).

In his book From Principle to Practice! A User’s Guide to Do No Harm Marshall Wallace illustrates the positive effect community policing has on both the police and the people. The “Do No Harm” principle, first put down by a Hippocratic writer 2400 years ago, has a long history as a basis and guide for ethical behavior in several traditions. (Wallace, 2014)

The wellbeing of the people we are trying to help must be the focus of our efforts to help them. In other words, the cure must not be worse than the disease and the intervention must not destroy (or harm) that which it is meant to help. Wellbeing is not some brief thing, existing only in the moment we offer assistance. It is not a photograph of a school or a rebuilt house or a successful surgery or of feeding a child. The principle, “do no harm” demands that we consider their wellbeing apart from and beyond our intervention. (Wallace, 2014) This speaks to the effects policing has on the moral, mental and physical levels of conflict and the importance in considering how our strategy, operations and tactics effects these levels. This is why I believe “do no harm” is a crucial strategy, that helps to build trust and police legitimacy in the eyes of the public and fits perfectly into the community policing philosophy.

The physical level – using physical force, killing people and breaking things – is the least powerful, the moral level is the most powerful, and the mental level lies between the other two. This leads to the central dilemma of policing a free society: what works for you on the physical (and sometimes mental) level often works against you at the moral level. It is therefore very easy to win all the tactical engagements in a conflict yet still lose the war of public opinion. To the degree you win at the physical level by utilizing force that causes casualties and property damage to the community, every physical victory may move you closer to moral defeat, and the moral level is decisive. (Lind & Thiele, 2015)

What succeeds on the tactical level can easily be counter-productive at the operational and strategic levels. For example, by using their overpowering force at the tactical level, police may in some cases intimidate the community into fearing them and leaving them alone. But fear and hate are closely related, and if the local population ends up hating the police, that works toward their strategic defeat.

Misunderstanding the principle of “do no harm”

Two misunderstandings of the “do no harm” principle have caused harm. These confusions are not to be taken lightly.

First, some believe the principle focuses solely on the potential harm and negative impacts of an intervention. They believe the principle is unconcerned with how to improve a situation or with positive impacts. This is completely mistaken. (Wallace, 2014)

The principle of do no harm is a holistic perspective that is equally focused on both harm and benefit. The concept of “harm” in the phrase has no meaning without an effort to provide benefit. The warning of the words “do no harm” reminds us to think before rushing to do good, not to stop us from considering the good altogether.

The result of this belief is that people and organizations who claim to be using do no harm as a principle miss the important and crucial positive factors that exist. This ignorance leads to interventions that disable and destroy local capacities. This too is harm of the worst sort. This we can see illustrated currently in Ferguson Missouri and Baltimore Maryland, not to mention the major city riots the United States of America has seen in the 20th and 21st centuries all started over a police action perceived to unjust.

Second, some have used the words “do no harm” to justify their avoidance of action. They have concluded that if there is the slightest possibility that they may do harm, then they should do nothing at all. Again, this is completely mistaken. We do not avoid harm by failing to act. Doing nothing when people are in need is clearly to do harm.

Who receives the benefits of an intervention?

Community policing offers the opportunity to provide services, while protecting the community. Policing a free society affects all three classical levels of conflict, the moral, mental and the physical. An example comes from Colonel John Boyd’s definition of grand strategy. He defined grand strategy as the art of connecting yourself to as many other independent power centers as possible, while at the same time isolating your enemies from as many other power centers as possible. The key is getting people to understand and go along with our way of thinking. Not because they are forced to, but because they want to, because it’s fair and impartial and just. When we are careful and consider the moral, mental and physical dimensions effects on the community, we choose strategies; operations and tactics that help us win at low or minimal cost on all levels. Police interactions that understand the moral, mental, and physical levels of conflict and how they move people will consider their strategy, operations and tactics more judiciously, fairly and justly. The philosophy of community policing, breeds harmony and trust and inspires vitality and growth benefiting the whole community.

Developing Meaningful and Lasting Change That Values People and the Police

The job of leading a local law enforcement agency has always been a complex one, requiring skills in mastering complex policy issues, developing organizational structures and systems, managing employees, and addressing the various and sometimes conflicting expectations of the community, political leaders, agency employees, and the news media.

The 21st Century has brought a trend toward even greater complexity in their jobs. New types of technology are revolutionizing how police departments operate, and often the challenge is to make sound decisions about how to integrate multiple forms of technology. The widespread adoption of community policing has resulted in community members having higher expectations of accountability and efficiency in their police departments. National and international economic conditions have strained local police budgets. The workforce is changing in ways that affect police recruiting and retention. These are just a few of the challenges that must be understood and constructively managed by today’s leaders in policing.

In fact, perhaps the greatest job qualification for today’s police leaders is the ability to recognize and respond to the swiftly changing issues and opportunities facing them. Police leaders often speak of their role as being “agents of change.” Never before has managing change been a larger element of our jobs.

As we strive to maintain the progress in reducing crime while serving as effective adaptable police officers, it’s time we take on a new challenge: applying the concepts of “legitimacy” and “procedural justice” as they apply to policing. Because the effectiveness of police operations often depends at least in part on the public’s willingness to provide information to and otherwise help the police, police leaders increasingly are seeing legitimacy and procedural justice as necessary conditions of success, and as worthy goals in themselves.

I understand this threatens the status quo, which always generates resistance and spawns controversy within police departments. This is because community policing challenges basic beliefs, which have become the foundation for traditional policing. It requires practical changes in the way we think about police work. This makes us uneasy. My belief is once we all step outside our comfort zones and implement the problem solving/community policing approach, and begin to see successful results we will all realize the value of community policing. “Success is only achieved when the community feels they have received the most outstanding service experience they have ever received from any police department.” (Scott, 2000)

Police departments all too often get caught up in the idea of doing what they think they are supposed to do, without actually measuring their actions against the community response. It is critical to success that you look at the community and judge their responses and reactions to our service so that we can measure whether or not our policing practices are leading us to successes or driving us away from them. In policing, there is no standing still. How a police department measures itself is not solely based in numbers (arrests, citations, etc.), it is about how people feel about the healthiness of their community. Do they fear crime? Or. Do they recognize that they, working together with their police department have a handle on crime? Look to the community to measure this. “It doesn’t matter if we did everything we were ’supposed’ to do, we didn’t accomplish the mission unless we can clearly see that the community feel that way.”

Most important, is police leadership committed to establishing throughout the department that a strong relationship with the community is a top priority and that treating every person with respect, is, key to effective policing. Committing to working together with the community in determining policing strategies and tactics is also a necessary ingredient of community policing. In the end we as a department and as a community, enhance our abilities, because of the sincere change in the way we interact with people. We are certainly more than capable, the pool of officers we have here are smarter, more eager to learn, and more inquisitive about policing than any I have seen in my nearly 30 years of policing.


Works Cited

Goldstein, H. (1977). Policing a free Society . Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Publishing.

Kappeler, V. E., & Gaines, L. K. (2009). Community Policing A Contemporary Perspective. Newark, NJ: Anderson Publishing.

Knutsson, J. (2003). Problem Oriented Policing: From Innovation To Mainstream . Devon, UK: Criminal Justice Press.

Lind, W. S., & Thiele, G. A. (2015). 4th Generation Warfare Handbook. Castalia House.

Scott, M. S. (2000). Problem Oriented Policing: Reflections on The First 20 Years. Washington D.C. : U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services .

Wallace, M. (2014). From Principle to Practice! A User’s Guide to Do No Harm. Cambridge, MA: Collaborative Learning Projects!

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