Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Community Policing Is Not One Size Fits All

Although the strategy has success stories in the United States, it has largely failed in the global south.

Brazilian soldiers walk during a so-called Mega Operation conducted by the Brazilian Armed Forces, along with Brazil’s police, against gang members in seven of Rio de Janeiro’s most violent favela communities in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 21, 2017.
Brazilian soldiers walk during a so-called Mega Operation conducted by the Brazilian Armed Forces, along with Brazil’s police, against gang members in seven of Rio de Janeiro’s most violent favela communities in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 21, 2017.
Brazilian soldiers walk during a so-called Mega Operation conducted by the Brazilian Armed Forces, along with Brazil’s police, against gang members in seven of Rio de Janeiro’s most violent favela communities in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 21, 2017. Mario Tama/Getty Images

As violent crime rates surge and citizens clamor for solutions, politicians in the United States are turning yet again to what they believe is a tried-and-true strategy: community policing.

Designed to strengthen the police while simultaneously building trust and confidence, community policing encourages greater collaboration between citizens and police. Through community meetings and foot patrols, police officers can theoretically respond to community concerns more effectively than they could on their own.

At a period when distrust in the police is at an all-time high in the United States, the idea that police should work closely with community members is appealing. Proponents argue that putting citizens in regular contact with officers improves trust, cooperation, and policing, generating a virtuous cycle of collaboration and police effectiveness. When gun violence rates rose, U.S. President Joe Biden put community policing at the center of his domestic policy by seeking to increase funding for related programs. These programs are now standard parts of policing in nearly every major U.S. metropolitan area, motivated by early successes in Boston and Chicago.

As violent crime rates surge and citizens clamor for solutions, politicians in the United States are turning yet again to what they believe is a tried-and-true strategy: community policing.

Designed to strengthen the police while simultaneously building trust and confidence, community policing encourages greater collaboration between citizens and police. Through community meetings and foot patrols, police officers can theoretically respond to community concerns more effectively than they could on their own.

At a period when distrust in the police is at an all-time high in the United States, the idea that police should work closely with community members is appealing. Proponents argue that putting citizens in regular contact with officers improves trust, cooperation, and policing, generating a virtuous cycle of collaboration and police effectiveness. When gun violence rates rose, U.S. President Joe Biden put community policing at the center of his domestic policy by seeking to increase funding for related programs. These programs are now standard parts of policing in nearly every major U.S. metropolitan area, motivated by early successes in Boston and Chicago.

Since its introduction in the United States, community policing has been adopted by police agencies around the world. International donors as well as the International Association of Chiefs of Police widely promote community policing as a key component of police reform. Not only does the European Union incorporate it into police reform efforts in its member states, but the United States also included it in its train-and-equip programs that trained new police officers in post-conflict Afghanistan and Iraq. The United Nations, which calls community policing “an essential part of peacebuilding,” has also built community policing instruction into its international peacekeeping missions.

Nearly a quarter of the world’s population is impacted by high levels of crime and insecurity. Since police are regularly accused of harassment, corruption, and extrajudicial violence in some of these communities, many citizens have little confidence the police can ensure their safety. In these regions, advocates argue community policing can play a pivotal role in rebuilding trust and ensuring police are more responsive to citizen demands.

Our research suggests it has not achieved either goal. From 2016 to 2020, as part of the research network Evidence in Governance and Politics, we worked with a team of researchers to study whether community policing actually accomplishes what it is meant to. Across six countries in the global south—Brazil, Colombia, Liberia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Uganda—we conducted randomized control trials to assess whether community policing builds trust in police forces and reduces crime. Alongside these trials, we also collected crime data from police blotters, conducted detailed surveys of citizens, and interviewed officers.

In these countries, community policing consistently failed to reduce crime, build citizen-police trust, or facilitate greater cooperation. Although citizens were invested in these reforms, they were weakly implemented by police, whose interest waned over time and who lacked resources to meaningfully respond to concerns.

Although community policing programs vary in design, our study tested four common elements: foot patrols, in which police meet citizens and solicit tips; community meetings, where citizens and police gather to identify challenges and develop solutions; feedback mechanisms, such as anonymous tip lines; and problem-oriented policing strategies, which allow police to address citizen-raised issues.

To study the program’s effects, several police beats and neighborhoods in each country were randomly assigned to receive a boost to their community policing efforts—increased community meetings, foot patrols, feedback mechanisms, and problem-oriented policing—while others received no change. By measuring crime rates, citizen trust, civilian cooperation, and officer attitudes toward citizens in both sets of places, the study could attribute any differences to the program.

We found community policing was limited by three main constraints, all of which are common to police agencies in the global south and have ramifications that extend far beyond community policing.

First, police aren’t given the time to prioritize community policing. Officers widely reported that community policing tasks competed with other duties. While special officers were occasionally assigned to community policing duties, they were generally crowded out by other responsibilities. As one officer in Pakistan told us, “We take these problems to our [station lead officer], and instead of helping us implement the agreed actions, he ignores them and gives us other tasks to do.”

Second, the people leading community policing efforts often aren’t in power long enough to enact meaningful reforms. Officers are regularly rotated between duty stations, sometimes as frequently as once a month, and are often replaced by people less committed to the practice. In Pakistan and the Philippines, for instance, original champions of these programs were replaced by leaders with different priorities months into the intervention. When rank-and-file officers were rotated to other police posts, their training went unused, and in some cases, there were no resources to train their replacements.

Third, police often lack the resources to effectively respond to citizens’ complaints. In Liberia, Pakistan, and Uganda, for example, officers did not have regular access to vehicles for patrols or investigative tools like cameras, computers, or printers. Since they were not able to follow up on concerns raised by citizens, the cycle of trust and cooperation would often break.

These challenges in practice have significant implications not only for community policing but any type of police reform. When officers do not have the time, resources, or incentives to administer a new policing practice, they are unlikely to achieve them on their own—or be as effective as intended. A lack of reform prioritization, rapid officer rotation, and limited police capacity are all issues that afflict international policing.

These findings highlight the need for caution when using community policing as a one-size-fits-all solution to build trust and reduce crime. Although community policing has success stories in the United States that motivated its wide dissemination around the world, it failed to accomplish either goal when we tested its success across the global south. This outcome suggests community policing is only effective in well-resourced police agencies with low turnover and the support of leadership, as it was in several U.S. cities. To work, it also must be backed up by stronger accountability mechanisms that ensure follow-through.

While governments may institute community policing to demonstrate their commitment to police reform, more action is required to spark necessary changes. Achieving meaningful change requires enacting structural reforms that incentivize police to act in the public’s interest, hold them accountable when they fail to do so, and equip agencies with sufficient resources to respond to community concerns.

Neglecting these reforms and exporting a supposed “best practice” without considering each country’s unique constraints are only a recipe for continued distrust and disappointment.

Graeme Blair is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. Twitter: @graemedblair

Jeremy M. Weinstein is a professor of political science at Stanford University and the faculty director of Stanford Impact Labs. He has also served in senior foreign-policymaking roles in the U.S. government, most recently as deputy to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Fotini Christia is the Ford International Professor in the Social Sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and director of the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center at MIT’s Schwarzman College of Computing.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.