The Real Truth of Community Policing

I recently read another city's newspaper headlines where their police chief was terminated by the incoming mayor. The rationale for the chief's dismissal was that the new mayor wanted a police chief that was fully committed to community policing. This city in question did not have a crime problem; that police chief was doing a good job according to the story writer; so, what was the real reason here? I would suspect the "P" word (politics), but I waited. When the job announcement for the new chief was released, the answer was in the first sentence: "a chief that is totally committed to community policing." I still did not believe; yet I was dangerously close to the truth. What is the real truth today behind community policing today?

Going back to the reason for this article, I did not know this chief personally. Therefore, this is not some public defense. I did some deeper research. There was a change in political party affiliation with this new mayor. Those of us who have been in this business for several years know it all lies amongst political lines. During the Clinton administration, community policing was the catchword. It was the "cash cow" for every police agency and the city it served. Cities got money hand over fist. Equipment, personnel and overtime galore--this was a way to reach out and touch the masses. It was a good methodology to fill in some social gaps to the disadvantaged. Grants were the word of the day and it was community policing via any and every methodology known to mankind for a while. If you wanted foot, bike, or horse patrols, or substations--you got it! Then, when the new toy wasn't so shiny and cute anymore, some departments were called in to actually validate and bring in their grants within reason.

Now, it's post-9/11, and the Bush administration has had redirected most all law enforcement monies towards homeland security. All of the "feel good" programs have withered up and many have died because of a lack of local funding. The local tax dollar never supported the COPS programs; it was the federal money that was the deep pocket. It is difficult for a local chief or sheriff to get the troops to do these programs on their time; it was the grant money overtime that fueled the COPS train. This was especially prevalent in strongly unionized departments or those with strong contracts. To most, it was all about the money. However, there were some officers that were genuine about the mission. The truth is that is it is difficult to get jaded cops to sing "kum by ya" without money leading the choir.

What are the real truths here--the ones we must face but cannot say in a politically sensitive world? First and foremost, community policing was and will be always be a program. Anytime you hear the word "program," take a clue. It has a start date, which means it will have an end date. Administrators, politicos, activists and chiefs must take heed here--programs will have a stopping point and they must prepare for the inevitable end. What will you do when the money train derails? Few did mucyh preparation for this, except to cry foul. What department has fully accepted and bankrolled community policing without any federal, state or private funding? Answer: Not Many. They are few and far between. There are those who have the terms in their mission statement and use it in their rhetoric, but is it in a line item in their budget? Are they totally doing on their taxpayer's backs? I know of none that are doing it. It was designed by the feds, and will always be on the federal dole. There were several departments I personally know of that jumped on the programs, but when the only money was through matching or descending grants, they started to distance themselves quietly. It is all about other people's money.

Secondly, for that chief who is about to be fired or those who have it written into their job contract--ask your employer to show you in federal or state codes where community policing is codified law. It is not a law, but rather a philosophy or mindset. This could possibly be a goal or project in your employee evaluation or performance contract.

I am not a total pessimist; community policing did some great things in bringing police and community together. It did open up lines of communication with our customer base. The problem is that we had that years ago and lost it. We must learn from history and not have to repeat this in another twenty years. Maintain what we have now, or in the not-too-distant future we will be reliving this all over again. History has a bad tendency to repeat itself, and this will be no different.

Finally, to many, this was a fill-in-the-gap for some social services that did not service the disadvantaged. To many politicians, this was rhetoric to be the great salve to the masses for votes. "If you vote for me; then the police will do this for you." As terrorism continues to be the top issue that moves emergency services and drains our resources, this will guide the grants and spending. As others clamor for community policing and free hot dogs and face painting, those days which may be gone, just like some chiefs and their federal grants. They will have to rely on private philanthropy and trusts to continue. To the new chief that takes that job: you had better get in good with the local grocery store for free sodas and goodies. You will need them for next block party. Your job will just may well depend on it.