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Some police experts would argue that over the last twenty-five years the concept of community policing has quietly revolutionized law enforcement in America (Kelling). The precise nature and scope of this transformation is still the source of much debate, but what is clear is that community policing has captured the attention of the nation’s government and police departments. In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which provided over $8 billion to hire 100,000 additional community police officers over a six-year period. In addition, a new agency, the Office of Community Oriented Police Services (COPS), was created to carry out this mission, and to administer extensive funding and implementation of community policing programs across the country. According to the latest estimates, community policing is widespread, with approximately 80 percent of larger municipal and county police departments employing an average of twenty or more community policing officers (LEMAS, pp. 2–3).
Definition of Community Policing
Since community policing is a difficult concept to define, a helpful way to understand exactly what it encompasses is to identify its key philosophical, tactical, and organizational characteristics.
Philosophical Characteristics of Community Policing
At its core, community policing fundamentally challenges the underlying assumptions that have shaped American policing for most of the twentieth century. Since the 1930s, the traditional law-enforcement approach to policing has emphasized the independence of police agencies from the communities they serve, the importance of an individual officer’s professional and dispassionate treatment of all citizens, and the close association between police work and fighting crime. In contrast, community policing significantly broadens the traditional role and function of the police. It takes the view that the police and citizens are co-producers of police services, jointly responsible for reducing crime and improving the quality of life in local neighborhoods.
According to the philosophy of community policing, local police should provide citizens with formal access to the department’s decision- and policy-making process. Neighborhood residents are encouraged to voice their concerns to the police, and it is the responsibility of the police to thoughtfully address these concerns (Cordner). While police professionalism remains important, this quality is no longer equated with officers’ being detached and aloof from local citizens. Under community policing, police officers are expected to initiate frequent personal contacts with community members on their beats, and to interact in an attentive, friendly, and compassionate manner. Enforcing the law and fighting crime remain important elements of policing, but community policing recognizes that, in reality, most police work is oriented toward nonenforcement tasks such as maintaining order and providing social services (Eck and Rosenbaum). Consequently, reducing community disorder, helping to mitigate residents’ fears about crime, solving problems, and caring for individual victims, are all regarded as equally important to making arrests and solving crimes.
Tactical Characteristics of Community Policing
Community policing demands that police departments reform their relationship with local communities, and that police officers change their attitudes and behaviors toward citizens and police work. The following interrelated programs and activities are oriented toward fostering a closer rapport between the community and the local police department, increasing the quantity and quality of police-citizen interactions, and enhancing the capacity of the police to engage in problem-solving partnerships.
Relationship Between The Police Department and The Community
In order to foster police-community cooperation in tackling community problems, police agencies must first elicit community input. This can be achieved via a variety of methods, including door-to-door visits conducted by police officers, mail-out surveys, and residential block meetings. The gathering of this information helps the police identify and prioritize community concerns. In their attempts to reduce crime and disorder, the police can enlist the help of community members by encouraging citizens to report illegal or suspicious behavior. In return, the police can educate citizens on how to avoid becoming victims of crime through crime prevention programs such as Neighborhood Watch. More importantly, continued cooperation between the police and community requires the establishment of trust.
Even though most of the decision-making authority is reserved by the police, a long-term relationship between the police and local residents can be created if police departments are responsive to community needs and accountable to the community for any actions they take (Goldstein, 1987). Police departments might demonstrate this commitment and accountability by evaluating how well they have satisfied public concerns, and by providing community members with frequent updates on a particular case. Police departments could use follow-up surveys mailed to residences, neighborhood meetings, or telephone interviews with community members, to gauge ‘‘customer satisfaction’’ with the quality of police service delivered (Skogan and Hartnett). Feedback might be provided through newspaper reports, flyers, or community announcements.
Quantity and Quality of Police-Citizen Interactions
One of the cornerstones of community policing is the attempt to improve the frequency and the quality of interactions between individual police officers and members of the public. Assigning police officers to foot or bicycle patrols in specific geographical areas facilitates more frequent and personal contacts between the police and citizens than motorized patrol (the hallmark of traditional policing).
Police-community cooperation is cultivated by police officers getting to know residents on their beat. In addition, the removal of officers from their patrol cars gives them greater opportunity to engage in order maintenance and social service tasks. The visible presence of officers, who are easily accessible and caring in their encounters with residents, may help reduce citizens’ fears of crime, and the improved rapport between the police and local citizens can improve officer morale and job satisfaction. Finally, an officer’s assignment to a permanent beat helps create an officer’s sense of responsibility toward the overall improvement of community life.
The notion that the police and the public should collaborate in solving neighborhood problems helps move community policing past the criticism that it is just an exercise in improving community relations. In fact, as Goldstein makes clear, the creation of problem-solving partnerships between the police and the communities they serve is a radical departure from traditional policing (Goldstein, 1990). Rather than reacting to specific incidents and resorting primarily to law enforcement as a means of controlling crime, the police are encouraged to let communities identify local problems and to work with the community to find the most effective solution.
What it is so innovative about this approach is that the onus is on police officers to discover and carefully analyze the underlying cause(s) of concern. It is then their responsibility to focus all their efforts on a solution specifically tailored toward solving the problem at hand. Law enforcement is still recognized as one of the means available, but effective problem-solving demands that police officers should search for alternative methods of social control, and be guided by community preferences (Mastrofski et al., 1995). This might require that the officer draw upon resources beyond the confines of the police department, such as coordinating between citizens and other local government and community organizations. In sum, problem solving does not only rely upon greater familiarity between the police and the community, but on the ability of the police to recognize patterns or relationships between incidents, and on the willingness of the police to choose long-term, judicious, and highly selective solutions over short-term, cumbersome, and universal responses.
Organizational Characteristics of Community Policing
Given its shift away from reactive patrol and incident-based responses (the principal tactics of traditional policing), it is clear that the effective implementation of community policing requires significant organizational change. Under the traditional model of policing, U.S. police departments were highly centralized and bureaucratized. The paramilitary structure of the police department was organized hierarchically, with key operational decisions being made by those at the upper levels in the organization. These decisions were then transmitted down the organization in the form of rules and orders, and enforced via a rigid chain of command. Since supervisors were directly responsible for the decisions made by line officers, decision-making authority at the street level was, in theory, subject to their direct control. However, given that a great deal of police work takes place outside of any form of direct supervision, it is not surprising that line officers continued to exercise a great deal of discretion.
In contrast to the traditional model, community policing recognizes that the knowledge and experience of line officers is of critical importance to the police organization. In order to be responsive to community problems and engage in problem solving, the rank and file must have greater autonomy in making decisions (Sparrow). The independence and freedom of line officers to respond to local community problems is encouraged by the decentralization of the police structure, and the formal recognition that police work is, by its very nature, highly discretionary. The creation of community substations in local neighborhoods and the organization’s attempt to provide line officers with continuous access to resources, increases organizational flexibility and the capacity of the police officer for solving problems (Goldstein, 1987). Less emphasis is placed upon written rules as a means of managing officers, and a higher premium is attached to developing an organizational culture that values mentorship and guidance, and which encourages line officers to be innovative in their attempts to find solutions to problems of neighborhood crime and disorder (Cordner). Finally, those departments committed to a community-policing model must develop alternative measures of police effectiveness and accountability. The number of department arrests, or citations, can no longer be regarded as the sine qua non of a police organization that considers order maintenance and social service as of equal importance to crime control.
In addition to crime rates, measures that focus on the quality of police service and the effectiveness of problem-solving strategies are useful indicators of how well the police are performing, and to what extent the police are accountable to the community. Are citizens less fearful of neighborhood crime? Are the police responsive to community problems? When interacting with neighborhood residents, are the police courteous and helpful? Have problemsolving strategies been effective?
Without changes in the structure of the organization, its management style, and its measures of effectiveness and accountability, community policing cannot be implemented successfully.
Origins and Evolution of Community Policing
Community policing has been evolving slowly since the civil rights movement in the 1960s exposed the weaknesses of the traditional policing model. Even though its origin can be traced to this crisis in police-community relations, its development has been influenced by a wide variety of factors over the course of the past forty years.
The Civil Rights Movement (1960s)
Individual elements of community policing, such as improvements in police-community relations, emerged slowly from the political and social upheavals surrounding the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Widespread riots and protests against racial injustices brought government attention to sources of racial discrimination and tension, including the police. As visible symbols of political authority, the police were exposed to a great deal of public criticism. Not only were minorities underrepresented in police departments, but studies suggested that the police treated minorities more harshly than white citizens (Walker). In response to this civil unrest, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice (1967) recommended that the police become more responsive to the challenges of a rapidly changing society.
One of the areas that needed the most improvement was the hostile relationship separating the police from minorities, and in particular the police from African Americans. Team policing, tried in the late 1960s and early 1970s, developed from this concern, and was the earliest manifestation of community policing (Rosenbaum). In an attempt to facilitate a closer policecommunity relationship, police operations were restructured according to geographical boundaries (community beats). In addition, line officers were granted greater decision-making authority to help them be more responsive to neighborhood problems. Innovative though it was, staunch opposition from police managers to decentralization severely hampered successful team implementation, and team policing was soon abandoned.
Academic Interest (1970s)
All the attention surrounding the police and the increased availability of government funds for police research spawned a great deal of academic interest. Researchers began to examine the role of the police and the effectiveness of traditional police strategies much more closely. In 1974 the Kansas City Patrol Experiment demonstrated that increasing routine preventive patrol and police response time had a very limited impact on reducing crime levels, allaying citizens’ fear of crime, and increasing community satisfaction with police service. Similarly, a study on the criminal investigation process revealed the limitations of routine investigative actions and suggested that the crime-solving ability of the police could be enhanced through programs that fostered greater cooperation between the police and the community (Chaiken, Greenwood, and Petersilia).
The idea that a closer partnership between the police and local residents could help reduce crime and disorder began to emerge throughout the 1970s. One of the reasons why this consideration was appealing to police departments was because the recognition that the police and the community were co-producers of police services spread the blame for increasing crime rates (Skogan and Hartnett). An innovative project in San Diego specifically recognized this developing theme by encouraging line officers to identify and solve community problems on their beats (Boydstun and Sherry).
The Importance of Foot Patrol
It is clear that challenges to the traditional policing model and the assumption that the police could reduce crime on their own, helped generate interest in policing alternatives. However, it was not until the late 1970s that both researchers and police practitioners began to focus more intently on the specific elements associated with community-oriented policing. The major catalyst for this change was the reimplementation of foot patrol in U.S. cities. In 1978, Flint, Michigan, became the first city in a generation to create a city-wide program that took officers out of their patrol cars and assigned them to walking beats (Kelling and Moore). Meanwhile, a similar foot patrol program was launched in Newark, New Jersey.
The difference between these two lay primarily in their implementation. In Flint, foot patrol was part of a much broader program designed to involve officers in community problem-solving (Trojanowicz). In contrast, the Newark Foot Patrol Experiment, which was modeled on the study of preventive patrol in Kansas City, focused specifically on whether the increased visibility of officers patrolling on foot helped deter crime. Results from these innovative programs were encouraging. It appeared that foot patrol in Flint significantly reduced citizens’ fear of crime, increased officer morale, and reduced crime. In Newark, citizens were actually able to recognize whether they were receiving higher or lower levels of foot patrol in their neighborhoods. In areas where foot patrol was increased, citizens believed that their crime problems had diminished in relation to other neighborhoods. In addition, they reported more positive attitudes toward the police. Similarly, those officers in Newark who were assigned to foot patrol experienced a more positive relationship with community members, but, in contrast to Flint, foot patrol did not appear to reduce crime. The finding that foot patrol reduced citizen fear of crime demonstrated the importance of a policing tactic that fostered a closer relationship between the police and the community.
As foot patrol was capturing national attention, Herman Goldstein proposed a new approach to policing that helped synthesize some of the key elements of community policing into a broader and more innovative framework. Foot patrol and police-community cooperation were integral parts of Goldstein’s approach, but what distinguished problem-oriented policing (POP) was its focus on how these factors could contribute to a police officer’s capacity to identify and solve neighborhood problems. By delineating a clear series of steps, from identifying community problems to choosing among a broad array of alternative solutions to law enforcement, Goldstein showed how increased cooperation between the police and community could do more than reduce fear of crime. An intimate familiarity with local residents could also provide the police with an invaluable resource for identifying and solving the underlying causes of seemingly unrelated and intractable community problems. With its common emphasis on police-community partnerships, parts of the philosophy of problem-oriented policing were readily incorporated into ideas about community policing.
The Beginnings of A Coherent Community Policing Approach (1980s)
Interest in the development of community policing accelerated with the 1982 publication of an article entitled ‘‘Broken Windows.’’ Published in a national magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, the article received a great deal of public exposure. Drawing upon the findings of the Newark Foot Patrol Experiment, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling constructed a compelling and highly readable argument challenging the traditional crimefighting role of the police, and exploring the relationship between social disorder, neighborhood decline, and crime.
According to Wilson and Kelling, officers on foot patrol should focus on problems such as aggressive panhandling or teenagers loitering on street corners that reduce the quality of neighborhood life. Similar to a broken window, the aggressive panhandler, or the rowdy group of teenagers, represent the initial signs of social disorder. Left unchecked they can make citizens fearful for their personal safety and create the impression that nobody cares about the neighborhood. Over time, this untended behavior increases the level of fear experienced by lawabiding citizens, who begin to withdraw from neighborhood life. As residents retreat inside their homes, or even choose to leave the area altogether, local community controls enervate and disorderly elements take over the neighborhood. Eventually, this process of neighborhood deterioration can lead to an increase in predatory crime. Wilson and Kelling argue that by patrolling beats on foot and focusing on initial problems of social disorder, the police can reduce fear of crime and stop the process of neighborhood decay.
Goldstein’s work and Wilson and Kelling’s article sparked widespread interest in problem solving, foot patrol, and the relationship between the police and the community, all of which were becoming broadly associated with community policing. Police departments were quick to seize upon the ideas and publicity generated by these scholars, and in the 1980s they experimented with numerous problem- and communityoriented initiatives. In 1986 problem-oriented policing programs were implemented in Baltimore County, Maryland, and Newport News, Virginia (Taft; Eck and Spelman). In Baltimore County, small units composed of fifteen police officers were assigned to specific problems and responsible for their successful resolution. In Newport News, the police worked with the community to identify burglaries as a serious problem in the area. The solution involved the police acting as community organizers and brokering between citizens and other agencies to address the poor physical condition of the buildings. Ultimately the buildings were demolished and residents relocated, but more importantly problemoriented policing demonstrated that the police were capable of adopting a new role, and it did appear to reduce crime (Eck and Spelman).
An initiative to reduce the fear of crime in Newark and Houston through different police strategies, such as storefront community police stations and a community-organizing police response team, was successful in reducing citizens’ fear of crime (Pate et al.). Interestingly, the results in Houston suggested that generally the program was more successful in the areas that needed it least. Whites, middle-class residents, and homeowners in low-crime neighborhoods were more likely to visit or call community substations than minorities, those with low incomes, and renters (Brown and Wycoff).
These studies further catalyzed interest in community policing and problem solving, and from 1988 to 1990 the National Institute of Justice sponsored the Perspectives on Policing Seminars at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Not only did this help popularize these innovations in policing, but it helped scholars and practitioners refine and synthesize the mixture of ideas and approaches labeled community- and problem-oriented policing. One policing seminar paper in particular received a great deal of scholarly attention. The Evolving Strategy of Policing, by George Kelling and Mark Moore, summarized the history of policing and identified what was unique about recent developments in the field. In contrasting three different policing approaches and finishing with the advent of the ‘‘community problem-solving era,’’ Kelling and Moore appeared to be sounding a clarion call, announcing the arrival of a complete paradigm shift in law enforcement.
In the face of such bold proclamations, it is unsurprising that scholars began to examine community policing more critically, and queried whether it could fulfill its advocates’ many promises. Contributors to an edited volume on community policing entitled Community Policing: Rhetoric or Reality? noted that without a workable definition of community policing, its successful implementation was difficult. They also suggested that community policing might just be ‘‘old wine in new bottles,’’ or even a communityrelations exercise employed by police departments to boost their legitimacy in the eyes of the public (Greene and Mastrofski). The outgrowth of these thoughtful criticisms was to encourage researchers to design more rigorous methodological studies that could evaluate the effects of community policing more clearly.
Community Policing As A National Reform Movement (1990s and Beyond)
By the 1990s, community policing had become a powerful national movement and part of everyday policing parlance. Encouraged by the federal funds made available through the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), police departments across the country shifted their attention toward implementing community policing reforms. Annual conferences on community policing became commonplace, and researchers began to study community-policing programs in cities all over America. Besides the availability of funds and promising research findings, the political appeal of community policing and its close affinity to long-term trends in societal organization contributed to the widespread acceptance of community policing (Skogan and Hartnett).
Given the large concentration of African Americans and Hispanics in American cities, groups who have historically been engaged in a hostile relationship with the police, an approach to law enforcement that promised to improve police-community relations by working with, rather than targeting, racial and ethnic minorities held great appeal for local politicians concerned with pleasing their constituents. In addition, community policing reflected a more general underlying trend in the structure, management, and marketing practices of large organizations. In contrast to rigid bureaucracies and their dependence on standard rules and policies, decentralization created smaller, more flexible units to facilitate a speedier and more specialized response to the unique conditions of different organizational environments. Rather than emphasizing control through a strict organizational hierarchy, management layers were reduced, organizational resources were made more accessible, and both supervisors and their subordinates were encouraged to exercise autonomy and independence in the decision-making process. Finally, the extent to which consumers were satisfied with the market produce, in this case police services, became an important criteria for measuring police performance (Skogan and Hartnett).
At the outset of the twenty-first century, the momentum behind community policing shows no signs of slowing down. Even though police departments may have been slow to adopt all the philosophical precepts, tactical elements, and organizational changes commensurate with the entire community-policing model, its slow and steady evolution suggests that it is a permanent fixture on the landscape of American policing (Zhao and Thurman).
The Theory and Practice of Community Policing
Community policing promises that closer alliances between the police and the community will help reduce citizen fear of crime, improve police-community relations, and facilitate more effective responses to community problems. But there are also drawbacks associated with community policing: hostility between the police and neighborhood residents can hinder productive partnerships; increases in officers’ decisionmaking autonomy can lead to greater opportunities for police corruption; and resistance within the police organization can hamper community policing’s successful implementation. Drawing upon empirical research, this section will focus on the merits and problems associated with community policing.
Effect on Crime
Evidence that community policing reduces crime is mixed. Early studies showed that crime declined in Flint, Michigan, as a consequence of foot patrol, but in Newark, New Jersey, crime levels remained unaffected. In a detailed examination of the implementation of a community-policing program in Chicago (the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy), the authors concluded that crime went down in those districts exposed to community policing (Skogan and Hartnett, p. 18). Similarly, after nearly two years of community- and problem-oriented policing in Joliet, Illinois, the total number of reported index crimes dropped precipitously (Rosenbaum et al.).
In terms of citizens’ fear of crime the evidence is also mixed, but it weighs more heavily in a positive direction. In both Flint and Newark, foot patrol contributed to increased feelings of neighborhood safety, and recent studies generally support this conclusion. In Indianapolis, people felt safer in those neighborhoods where the police and local residents cooperated in problem solving (Mastrofski et al., 1998). Even though the benefit of fear reduction appears widespread, its impact is inconsistent across different groups. For instance, in Chicago, in contrast to whites and African Americans, Hispanics did not appear to experience an increase in perceived public safety (Skogan and Hartnett).
Under community policing the relationship between citizens and the police is supposed to improve. It does appear that increased cooperation between the police and local residents increases satisfaction with police services on both sides, although this is not universal. In Flint, residents were so pleased with neighborhood foot patrols that they agreed to a tax increase in order that the program might continue, and in St. Petersburg, Florida, 85 percent of those residents who lived in community-policing areas of the city reported being ‘‘very’’ or ‘‘somewhat’’ satisfied with their neighborhood police services (Mastrofski et al., 1999).
However, recent evaluations of community policing suggest that the level of community satisfaction with police services varies according to how it is implemented, and the social characteristics of community members. Even though community policing promises to benefit everyone, specific programs may favor particular community interests (such as those of local business owners) and dominant (white, middle-class) groups (Skogan; Lyons). In poor and high-crime neighborhoods, residents may be distrusting of the police and rates of community participation may be very low. The benefits of community policing may be highest in these areas, but the challenges the police face in convincing citizens that they are committed to the long-term improvement of the local neighborhood, in creating productive partnerships, and in mobilizing citizens to get involved in local organizations, are also greatest.
Goldstein argues that police officers who work more closely with community members and are granted more autonomy in making decisions, experience more positive feelings toward citizens and higher job satisfaction. There is considerable evidence to support this assertion, but it is still unclear whether this effect is long-term, and whether it applies to all officers rather than just those selected for community-policing assignments (Wycoff and Skogan). Even though community policing emphasizes the importance of nonenforcement alternatives, police officers do show some ambivalence toward their increasingly community-oriented role. In one survey of line officers in a police department with community policing, 98 percent of officers agreed that assisting citizens is as important as enforcing the law, but 88 percent also said that enforcing the law was an officer’s most important responsibility. Similarly, almost all officers agreed that citizen input about neighborhood problems is important, but 25 percent said they have reason to distrust most citizens (Mastrofski et al., 1998). Researchers and police practitioners are well aware that the police subculture is resistant to innovations that challenge the role of police officers as crime fighters. It is clear that some police officers do label community policing as merely ‘‘social work,’’ or an exercise in community relations. One of the crucial challenges community policing faces will be to help officers recognize the benefits of reducing social disorder and encouraging public involvement in neighborhood problems in relation to solving crimes and making arrests.
An additional concern is that an increase in the decision-making autonomy of line officers and closer police-community relations will provide the police with greater opportunities for abusing their authority and corruption. Little work has been done on this, but the high levels of patronage and corruption that plagued the police in the nineteenth century (an era characterized by close ties between the police, community members, and local politicians) is a clear reminder of the danger of implicating the police directly in community life.
Police-Community Problem Solving
One of the promises of community policing is that increased police-community cooperation will facilitate problem solving. Research in this area is still in its infancy, but initial findings are encouraging. A comparison of community policing officers to officers engaged in traditional reactive patrol demonstrated that community-policing officers were substantially more involved in problemsolving activities (Mastrofski et al., 1999). Furthermore, several studies suggest that police officers are willing to explore alternatives to law enforcement in order to tackle the underlying causes of community problems. An important element of this process is that the police work closely with other local government and community organizations. A project funded by the National Institute of Justice on community responses to drug abuse found that the police and local community organizations worked effectively together at both the level of enforcement and youth-oriented prevention (Rosenbaum et al.). In Oakland, California, the police department worked closely with other agencies and used noncriminal justice strategies to tackle drug-related problems in the city. Police officers targeted suspected drug houses and collaborated with city inspectors to cite these houses for breaking building code violations. Police enforcement of building regulations reduced drug activity, and this positive benefit diffused into surrounding areas (Green).
Community policing represents a major development in the history of American law enforcement, but the extent to which this approach is a success and dominates contemporary policing still remains a source of debate. At its core, it challenges the traditional concept of the police as crime-fighters by drawing attention to the complexities of the police role and function. Reducing crime remains an important element of police work, but community policing demands that police officers function as community organizers and problem solvers to help reduce citizens’ fear of crime and improve the overall quality of neighborhood life. It is unsurprising that such a radical redefinition of policing has encountered some opposition from police officers who are committed to their traditional police role. Nonetheless, the fact that the majority of police departments across the country have implemented some kind of community-oriented policing program is testament to the pervasive influence of this new approach.
Despite widespread support for community policing, it is still prudent to be cautious regarding its potential for improving the state of the country’s neighborhoods. It is still unclear whether communities that are poor and socially disorganized, or rapidly developing, can benefit from community policing. If there is not a viable community already in place, how can the police contribute to improving neighborhood life?
Furthermore, it is important not to lose sight of the ethical and legal problems that can emerge as a consequence of this expansion of the police role into the nation’s communities. Encouraging officers to foster closer ties with neighborhood residents and granting them greater decisionmaking autonomy increases opportunities for corruption, and raises questions about the limits on government power. There is a danger that the police will serve the interests of powerful community members and/or will use their authority to interfere in the lives of law-abiding citizens who have not requested their service.
Despite these concerns and limitations, it is clear that the philosophical, tactical, and organizational characteristics of community policing have generated a great deal of innovation in how we think about the police and how police work is done. With this creative energy driving us forward, there is every reason to be optimistic about the possibility of improving policing in the decades ahead.
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