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.

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