Community Policing: Leading Officers into Danger?

By Springer, Stephen M. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 1994 | Go to article overview

Community Policing: Leading Officers into Danger?

Springer, Stephen M., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

While traditional methods of policing fail to provide desired levels of crime control and public safety, police departments across the Nation search for new and innovative ways to provide law enforcement services to their communities. In recent years, community-oriented policing (COP) has emerged as the method of choice for many law enforcement agencies.

As part of the conversion from traditional policing methods to community-oriented policing, agencies have become more reliant on a "new breed" of police officers better suited for performing proactive, citizen-oriented policing functions in their communities.(1) For the officers involved, the COP approach places a premium on specific qualities, such as being personable, even-tempered, and service-oriented. In addition, these officers must possess good communication and problem-solving skills and be conservative in the use of force.

However, these qualities describe not only a good candidate for community policing but also an excellent candidate to be killed in the line of duty.(2) For this reason, police administrators owe it to their departments, their communities, and most importantly, their personnel to ensure that officers engaged in COP receive ongoing survival training that adequately addresses the challenges they face.

Good COP, Bad COP

Building closer and more trusting relationships between the police and communities is not only desirable but also imperative if law enforcement is to improve its effectiveness. However, this closeness and trust should not be achieved at the cost of placing officers in undue jeopardy. Unfortunately, the heightened level of police-citizen interaction that makes community policing an effective approach also creates potentially serious safety problems for officers.

Basic survival training teaches that police officers should not become complacent, lax, or too comfortable with a situation.(3) However, it is difficult for officers to "keep their guard up" and to stay alert when trying to develop close ties with community residents and project a friendly, nonthreatening demeanor--basic components of community policing.

At the same time, research reveals that officers assigned to community policing feel safer, more confident, and better able to read people than do officers not involved in community policing.(4) As any veteran officer knows, a fine line exists between being "at ease" and being lax when following standard survival practices. Community policing officers, therefore, must remain vigilant not to be lulled into a false sense of security and subsequently place themselves in perilous situations.

Walking into Danger

A recent analysis of 51 line-of-duty deaths conducted by the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program reveals striking similarities in many of the slain officers' approaches to policing. Killed in the Line of Duty,(5) a report based on the study's findings, provides various behavioral descriptors of the slain officers. These descriptors indicate that a majority of the victims shared similar qualities and characteristics. Most of these officers were described as being:

* Well-liked by the community

* Conservative in the use of force

* Hard-working

* Public relations and service-oriented

* Easygoing, and

* Willing to bend the rules regarding arrests, vehicle stops, handling of prisoners, and waiting for backup.

In addition, these officers consistently looked for the good in others. They believed that they could "read" people or situations and relax their guard in certain circumstances.

Many of these traits are exactly what administrators look for when selecting officers for community-oriented policing. In fact, these qualities--when balanced with appropriate levels of caution and discretion--are desirable in any officer who has regular contact with the public.

As the report emphasized, though, factors that jeopardize officer safety do not stem from these characteristics themselves but from actions that these traits may lead officers to take. …

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