Community policing is meant to combat citizen mistrust of the police force. The concept was developed in the mid-20th century to help officers become part of the communities they are responsible for. The hope was that such presence would create a partnership between citizens and the police force, leading to reduced crime and increased trust. Studies in the 1990s from the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia showed that these goals can be achieved in certain circumstances. Many metropolitan areas in the Global North have since included community policing in their techniques.
But a recently published study of six different sites in the Global South showed no significant positive effect associated with community policing across a range of countries.
“We found no reduction in crime or insecurity in these communities, and no increase in trust in the police,” says Fotini Christia, an author of the paper, which was published in Science.
Christia is the Ford International Professor in the Social Sciences at MIT and the director of the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC) within the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). She was one of three on the steering committee for the research, which also included lead author Graeme Blair at the University of California at Los Angeles and Jeremy Weinstein at Stanford University. Fellow MIT political scientist Lily Tsai was also a co-author on the paper.
In this study, randomized-control trials of community policing initiatives were implemented at sites in Santa Catarina State, Brazil; Medellín, Colombia; Monrovia, Liberia; Sorsogon Province, Philippines; Ugandan rural areas; and two Punjab Province districts in Pakistan. Each suite of interventions was developed based on the needs of the area but consisted of core elements of community policing such as officer recruitment and training, foot patrols, town hall meetings, and problem-oriented policing. The work was done by a collaboration of several social scientists in the United States and abroad. Major funding for this project was provided by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, awarded through the Evidence in Governance and Politics network.
The null results were determined after interviewing 18,382 citizens and 874 police officers involved in the experiment over six years.
The strength of these results lies in the size of the collaboration and the care taken in the research design. Input from researchers representing 22 different departments from universities around the world allowed for a broad diversity of study sites across the Global South. And the study was preregistered to establish a common approach to measurement and indicate exactly which effects the researchers were tracking, to avoid any chance of mining the data to find positive effects.
“This is a pathbreaking study across a diverse set of sites that provides a new understanding about community policing outside of the Western world” says Christopher Winship, the Diker-Tishman Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, who was not an author on the paper.
The reasons for the failure of community policing to elicit positive results were as varied as the sites themselves, but an important commonality was difficulties in implementation.
“We saw three common problems: 1. limited resources, 2. a lack of prioritization of the reform, and 3. rapid rotation of officers,” says Blair. “These challenges lead to weaker implementation of community policing than we’ve seen in ‘success stories’ in the U.S. and may explain why community policing didn’t deliver the same results in these Global South contexts.”
Citizen attendance at community meetings was variable. And then, resources dedicated to following up on problems identified by citizens were scarce. Police officers in the countries represented in the study are often over-stretched, leaving them unable to adequately follow up on their community policing duties.
For example, Ugandan police stations averaged one motorbike per whole station, and outposts averaged less than one. At the study sites in Pakistan, fewer than 25 percent of issues that arose in community meetings were followed up on. The police officers tried to push the problems through to other agencies that could assist, but those agencies were also underresourced.
There was also significant officer turnover. “In many places, we started with and trained one group of officers and ended with a completely different set of folks,” says Christia.
In the Philippines, only 25 percent of officers were still in the same post 11 months after the start of the study. Not only is it difficult to train new recruits in the methods of community policing with that rate of turnover, it also makes it extremely difficult to build community respect and familiarity with officers.
Even in the Global North, the success of community policing can vary. As part of their study, the researchers conducted a review of 43 existing randomized trials conducted since the 1970s to determine the success rate of community policing endeavors already in place.
They found that in these initiatives, problem-oriented policing reduces crime and likely improves perceptions of safety in a community, but there is mixed-to-negative evidence on the benefits of police presence on crime and perceptions of police.
That these initiatives struggle to achieve consistently positive results in countries with better resources indicates there is significant work to be done before success can be achieved in the Global South. Improvements in policing in the Global South (Liberia) may require major structural overhauls of the systems to ensure resource availability, encourage community engagement, and enhance officers’ abilities to follow up on issues of concern.
“Issues of crime and violence are at the top of the policy agenda in the Global South, and this research demonstrates how universities and government partners can work together to identify the most effective strategies from improving people’s sense of safety,” says Weinstein.
While community policing strategies didn’t deliver the anticipated results on their own, the challenges in implementation point to the need for more systemic reforms that provide the necessary resources and align incentives for police to respond to citizens’ primary concerns.