When did ‘community’ get dropped from policing?

By Chief Don Shinnamon

When did we lose sight of our responsibility to engage the community in crime fighting?  I would argue it occurred when our sole focus became rapid deployment of resources in response to crime data.

Call it what you will, Compstat, Hot Spot Policing, Predictive Modeling, some communities feel, right or wrong, that the police have become an oppressive occupying force.   

This essay is meant to be provocative.   It is not a scholarly document, rather the observations of someone who has raised the flag of concern about police becoming an occupying force in communities before most current police executives graduated from the police academy.

I want to begin by discussing the progression of policing models that I experienced during my long career.  Specifically, the following phases:

  1. Community relations
  2. Community policing
  3. Comstat/Hot Spot Policing/Data Driven Policing

When I first became a police officer many years ago, my department, one of the largest in the country, had a community relations unit. It was their job (and nobody else’s) to meet with the community and share crime-prevention tips and generally tell them what a good job we were doing.

I never recall hearing anything about what the rest of us were supposed to do to with the community other than respond quickly to calls, write good reports and get back in service so you could go to the next call.

We also had a primitive form of data driven policing in the form of “pin maps” on the walls in the roll call room. In theory, we were supposed to spend as much time as possible while on “preventive patrol” in areas where pins were clustered. There was no follow-up or accountability and more often than not, a crime cluster was resolved by moving the pins while the sergeant was not looking.  

Then in the 1980s the concept of police using problem-solving strategies to respond to calls for service evolved.  Specifically, officers were encouraged to look beyond the face value of the call and look for the “root cause.”

Problem solving evolved into community policing. The generally accepted definition of community policing is that it is a department philosophy where it will work with the community to solve problems having an impact on their quality of life. It wasn’t a special program, or the responsibility of a community relations unit.  It was the responsibility of every member of the agency.     

Community policing came with its own set of problems. Communities were asked to define what their quality of life issues were and police were ill equipped to address most of them (poverty, unemployment, etc.). Further, other government agencies pushed back when police requested them to redirect their resources and priorities. Some police unions took a position that cops were cops not social workers and opposed the new policing philosophy. Even worse, politicians became concerned about the police being out in front as community problems solvers and questioned the political motives of some police chiefs, or sheriffs.

All of this led to a more focused definition of working with the community to solve crime problems.  The key element however remained working with the community to solve a problem.

Enter Compstat, a model of policing we are all now familiar with. Its origins go back to the early 1990s, where, faced with crime and disorder, the New York Police Department initiated Compstat. From the BJA/PERF document COMPSTAT: Its Origins, Evolution, and Future In Law Enforcement Agencies, the program emphasizes information sharing, responsibility, accountability and improving effectiveness.  It includes four generally recognized core components:

  1. Timely and accurate information or intelligence;
  2. Rapid deployment of resources;
  3. Effective tactics; and
  4. Relentless follow-up.

The most widely recognized element of Compstat is its regularly occurring meetings where department executives and officers discuss and analyze crime problems and the strategies used to address those problems.  The goal was to make the city safe, reduce fear of crime and improve the overall quality of life. Compstat had dramatic results and crime dropped significantly. Other agencies around the country began to adopt Compstat and I would argue it was the beginning of the end of the community policing model.  The sole focus of police efforts became the reduction of crime and arrests, with the idea of working with the community all but lost.

Note that I will use the term Compstat generically to include hot spot policing and data driven policing. All include the elements of data analysis used as a basis for deployment of resources.

Most agencies still have community programs, with some even inviting citizens to their Compstat meetings. What is missing, in my opinion, is engaging people who do not ordinarily interact with the police. Those who do not trust the police.  Those who are terrorized every day by violence. These are the people who are on the receiving end, both good and bad, of how we police.

Call it what you will, I’ll call it the occupying force era of policing.

I understand the benefits of Compstat and used various forms of it from precinct commander to police chief. Compstat works. It’s also easy and fun.


Donald L. Shinnamon, Sr. serves as a public safety consultant in the aviation industry. Before transitioning to the private sector, Mr. Shinnamon had a distinguished career in public safety, serving as the Chief of Police for the City of Port Saint Lucie, Fla., Chief of Police and Chief Fire Administrator for the City of Holly Hill, Fla., and Chief of Police for the City of Gainesville, Fla. He also served as the community policing program manager for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He began his public safety career with the Baltimore County, Maryland Police Department. During his service there, he attained the rank of Colonel and held the position of Chief of Operations.

During his career he was a certified police officer, firefighter and emergency manager.

Mr. Shinnamon holds a master’s degree in business administration from the University of
Baltimore and completed a fellowship at Harvard University.

3 Comments to "When did ‘community’ get dropped from policing?"

  1. Reply Steve Fitzsimmons May 1, 2018 at 8:40 pm

    Dear Chief Shinnamon,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post on community policing right up to the part where you stated how you believe we’ve entered the occupying force era of policing. I respectfully disagree, but thank you and appreciate you sharing your views.

    I believe people who know the least and who think they know it all might believe police are an occupying force because that’s all they see or hear in the media which gets reinfoced everytime there’s another bad police incident to write about. Their perceptions will be the hardest to change if at all even possible. But the era we are in is fighting hard against such negative perceptions because as you know, for policing to work we all need to work with each other.

    It’s a constant struggle. In the world of PR police have one hand tied behind their back with a hungry media just waiting to pounce on the next negative headline police story to share globally. There are positive stories to be shared and told too, many, of communities and police all working together and making their communities better. Places where police are appreciated, respected and thanked. No, not Mayberry, but you’ll never hear about these communities in the news either. Those aren’t the headline grabbing stories the media look for.

    I feel sorry for any community that sees police as occupying forces because with blinders on like those, it’s hard to see past it to see the police as the caring human beings sworn to help them they truly are. Police that risk their lives every day for them. Police that are scorned in the media, not served at restaurants and disrespected despite their own unselfish efforts to help others. Blinders that will make not just policing harder, but all the social and mental services police provide, the outreach opportunities lost and friendships never developed. I would encourage people to attend a Citizen Academy, go on a ride along with their police and learn more about them and their job. Learn to not be afraid of them. I would encourage communities to start neighborhood watches and build partnerships with their police. Community policing takes two partners, a community willing to learn and a police department willing to share and together change their world for the positive. I tell you it can happen. I’ve seen it happen. Police are not the problem. Police are there to help if one only lets them.

    Thank you and please don’t forget to say thank you to your police during Police Week May 13th through May 19th because their job is truly a thankless one. Be different. Be that positive person who can make the difference in an officer’s day. And remember, thousands of police officers have lost their lives helping others in need.

  2. Reply Angela Barron April 29, 2019 at 6:49 am

    Can we all stop and agree on the fact that “police officer” is a job title? We’re not talking about devout monk’s on a selfless lifelong crusade for the better of humanity. We’re talking about Jamie Smo who graduated from High School and decided they wanted to get a job as a Police Officer. A job. With a paycheck. There’s your Thank you, and it’s all the thank you any educated person could expect from their job.

    Police Officers who consider what they do as “unselfish acts” are a problem. The world is just as risky for you as it is for me. Your not out risking your life for me everyday; your at work! Hopefully in the same community in which you live. Just like I’m at work.

    Whether anyone agrees or not a person’s chosen profession does not grant
    them eminent respect.

    Decent police departments know the value of engaging with the community and promote positive uninvited interactions with the public by their officers. It is the departments that promote quotas and organize guilds that have distaste of the media and are strangers in the community.

    I’m a bookkeeper and if bookkeepers started shooting their clients because they were threatened at an alarming rate, I would be doing whatever I could to change policy and get the bad eggs out.

    I don’t see any justification for an officer to fire his weapon unless he is fired upon first. Ever. In ANY situation. They are not GOD and shouldn’t be allowed to play GOD. Especially if they’re unwilling to mitigate some of the potential damages by getting to know their community.

  3. Reply John Smith July 6, 2019 at 8:28 pm

    I am also curious how much impact the war on drugs impacted the concept of community policing. In many precincts the police began engaging in cross training exercises with the military as politicians worked to take a tough stance on drugs. It’s also become a very difficult topic to broach as any criticism of police tactics is perceived as being anti-police or taking broad strokes to ignore the success stories. However, as they say with great power comes great responsibility. The public through their municipalities provides a lot of power behind the shield police wear. Even in court the benefit of the doubt in hearsay arguments typically leans toward the officer. It shouldn’t be perceived as anti-police when the citizenry question these more militant tactics or want to move back to community policing. It should be perceived as a necessary counterbalance to the authority vested in policing by these same citizens through their municipalities.
    One of the key tenants of community policing may be involving the community. However, I would argue to foster trust between communities and the law enforcement created to serve those communities it’s important to know how to diffuse a situation. In too, many instances officers make assumptions coming into a situation and don’t simply ask for the other side of the story. It doesn’t take training in psychology to simply listen to both sides of a dispute. From my experience with talking with people in my community this is probably the biggest reason for the breakdown in trust between communities and police officers. I take the point that data driven policing may have removed some of the “human” factor from policing, but it also seems like “escalation” has played a role, as well.

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