Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain, the effectiveness of policing and police reform have reemerged as a prominent topic of debate both in the United States and in communities around the world. One popular method of police reform is community policing, defined generally as law enforcement systems where officers build and maintain active, reinforcing relationships with local stakeholders, including citizens and community leaders.
The principle underpinning this philosophy is simple; when law enforcement officers create a personal, responsive presence in a community, they are better able to do their job, benefit from citizens’ cooperation, and overall safety improves. But gauging the actual effectiveness of these practices has proven challenging to study in a controlled and rigorous way.
In a first-of-its-kind study led by Graeme Blair (Dept. of Political Science, University of California–Los Angeles), Jeremy Weinstein (Dept. of Political Science, Stanford and FSI Senior Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law) and Fotini Christia (Dept. of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology), a group of intercollegiate researchers have published new research examining the effectiveness of community policing in the Global South.
To mark the publication of the new findings in the journal Science this week, Blair, Christia and Weinstein spoke to us about what their findings reveal about the usefulness of community policing practices in a global context, and what more needs to be done to implement police reform in diverse systems.
Let’s start by defining what community policing is. Can you give some context on where this style of intervention comes from and why it has become a popular model in so many places?
Weinstein: Community policing is perhaps the most celebrated policing reform in recent decades. The idea is pretty simple in theory: the police should involve regular citizens directly in their work by building channels of dialogue and improving police-citizen collaboration. In practice, community policing takes lots of different forms including frequent beat patrols, decentralized decision-making, community engagement programs, and problem-oriented policing.
After compelling evidence emerged about the efficacy of community policing in Chicago in the 1990s, the approach took off around the United States. By 2015, nearly all U.S. cities identified community policing as a core element of their mission. Increasingly, advocates have promoted the export of community policing to countries in the Global South where issues of insecurity and mistrust in the police are significant. We wanted to figure out whether these practices work in a wholly different context.
There’s a great deal of support for community policing, but not a lot of concrete data on whether it works. What makes this a challenging issue to study?
Christia: Building trust between police and the citizens they are tasked to protect is at the core of community policing. As such, an important challenge lies with identifying the right measures to capture this often-complex police-citizen interaction. This was even more of a pronounced challenge in our study as we conducted six coordinated experiments across a diverse set of sites in the Global South in Brazil, Colombia, Liberia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Uganda.
To make progress in understanding the impacts of community policing, we needed to develop a set of common strategies for the police to implement that made sense in each national context, which we call locally appropriate community policing interventions. We also needed to agree upon a shared research design across countries and to introduce common outcome measures to ensure that we were looking at the impacts of these programs in similar ways. This approach to launching coordinated, multi-site, randomized controlled trials across contexts has been pioneered by the organization that sponsored this work, Evidence in Governance and Politics (EGAP).
Your team partnered with six communities across the Global South in Brazil, Colombia, Liberia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Uganda. Based on your research, what evidence did you find for or against the use of community policing practices?
Blair: We find that community policing doesn’t live up to its promise when implemented in the Global South. Community policing doesn’t build trust between citizens and police, it doesn’t lead to citizens to share the kinds of tips and information with police that might improve police efficiency, and, perhaps not surprisingly then, it does not lead to lower crime. This disappointing result was apparent across all six contexts and for all of the primary outcomes we measured.
Is there an alternative to community policing, or ways to reform these systems, that would make them more efficacious at creating the desired outcomes?
Weinstein: We carefully examined each of the six contexts, including through interviews with the police agencies and the research teams, to make sense of this null result. We identified three primary constraints that may have impeded the implementation of community policing: (a) a lack of prioritization of these new practices by police leadership (b) the rotation to new posts of police officers who had championed the effort and were trained to implement it and (c) limited resources to follow up on the concerns raised by citizens.
The bottom line is that community policing isn’t positioned to deliver increased trust and collaboration in environments with limited incentives and resources to enable police to change their behavior. Our conclusion is that community policing should be seen as an incremental reform that can make a difference in well-resourced police departments with strong incentives to be responsive to citizen concerns. But when those conditions are absent, an incremental approach can’t deliver. More systemic reforms are required.
How does the data from your work fit into broader issues of equity, just representation, and racism that communities across the world continue to grapple with?
Blair: In many ways community policing appears to be the ideal policy for this moment, where so many are demanding that police abuse be reduced while also reducing crime victimization. Community policing is meant to do both, constructing a virtuous cycle between citizen-police cooperation, trust, and crime reduction. Our null results sound a note of caution: it may not be so simple. We observed big barriers to implementing this shift in policing, and barriers that likely affect other incremental policies. To address equity in the way governments enforce the law, we may need more systematic changes to how we organize the police and hold them accountable.