How community policing prevents crime: What we can learn from police history

The same events and conditions that led to crime epidemics in the past are occurring now


During the 1960s, televised dissemination of news led to police being seen quelling large-scale unrest, which led to distrust and anger directed at law enforcement.

AP Photo, File

According to FBI data, murder – which is often seen as the primary indicator of overall crime trends – rose by 16% between 2012 and 2016. The overall homicide rate increased by 20% since 2014. [1] The same events and conditions that led to crime epidemics in the past are occurring now. How to address the crime trend looms large for law enforcement. The answer begins by asking, “What can we learn from police history?”

Learning from history: the 1960s

The history of policing in America began with the principles set forth by Sir Robert Peel in the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. Early policing in the United States involved officers walking beats and being part of the community activities. Officers were well known in the community because of this daily contact.

With the advent of two-way radio cars, political leaders saw an opportunity of reducing staff. Due to efficiency, fewer officers were needed to patrol a larger geographic area. Efficiency led to less frequent interaction of officers with citizens.

The 1960s introduced rapid televised dissemination of news. Police were seen quelling large-scale unrest related to the civil rights movement and Vietnam protests. Police using tactics they knew to be effective, meeting force with force, were viewed as brutes. With the tarnished image came distrust and anger directed at law enforcement.

It was during this time that significant changes in policing were instituted, beginning in the late 1960s.

Between 1968 and 1973, three Presidential Commissions made numerous recommendations for changes in policing.

The U.S. Department of Justice and local law enforcement sought ways to address the growing crime problem. Local police departments responded by creating “Public Relations Units” to show police in a positive light. Law enforcement agencies began actively recruiting minorities and experimented with various changes in policing philosophy.

Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, which created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). [2] The LEAA was charged with assisting in reducing crime and improving the effectiveness of policing. This was primarily done by distributing funds via grants to research and implement programs, but also through the creation of the Law Enforcement Education Program that funded college attendance aimed at professionalizing the field.

Learning from history: the 1970s

In the 1970s, the San Diego Police Department conducted several research studies, one of which evaluated a community-oriented policing (COP) project. [3] This project required officers to become knowledgeable about their beats. Officers were required to develop strategies to address citizen concerns. Officers involved discovered that random patrols were less important than developing relationships. The project also revealed that officer community interaction could improve the attitudes and job satisfaction of officers.

In 1979, Herman Goldstein developed and advanced the idea of problem-oriented policing (POP), [4] which transitioned policing from a reactive response to “crimes” to a proactive response in developing solutions to “problems,” which evolved into crime.

Learning from history: the 1980s and 1990s

Crime grew significantly during this time and into the 1980s. This, along with the crack-cocaine epidemic, saw handgun-related homicides almost double between 1985 and 1990. Citizens, civic leaders, police executives and officials struggled for a solution.

Various forms of community policing in the 1980s began to show promise in restoring trust and in improving cooperation in solving problems and crime. So successful was the implementation of community policing that in 1994 the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was signed authorizing implementation of a six-year grant program to enable law enforcement agencies to hire or redeploy 100,000 additional officers for community policing efforts. [5]

The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) was also created to assist law enforcement agencies through the implementation of community policing strategies. The years following saw a precipitous decline in violent crime from a high of 758 per 100,000 in 1991 to 361 in 2014 and 366 in 2019. [6]

Community policing led to reconnections

Although there is a correlation to the reduction of crime with the implementation of the COPS Office strategies and grants, research by the Heritage Foundation indicates that the COPS Office Hiring Program (CHP), geared at putting more officers on the street, may not have been the major contributor, at least in the first 10 years. The report indicated that COPS funding had relatively little impact on growth in the numbers of officers put on the street.” [7]

The strategies of the COPS Office, however, were successful and ushered in needed changes in policing. Community policing led to a reconnection with the community, an improved image of the police and community collaborative problem-solving.

This success continued until the recession of about 2007 again forced budget cuts. Defunding forced reallocation of officers and reduced connection to the community.

The impact of technology, video

Technological advances have led to law enforcement agencies primarily communicating via social media, instead of face-to-face contact due to efficiency. This reduces understanding, trust and effective community relationships. Trust cannot be developed across an anonymous means of communication.

The availability of immediate video recording and self-editing in the 2000s has also led to police being depicted in a negative light, often due to edited versions of videos being shared online and not providing the full picture of an incident. Without a personal connection to the community, we have again lost the support that comes from relationships.

The protests, riots and subsequent calls for police reform today are symptomatic of the problem. Distrust of the police and citizen fear of law enforcement are rooted in a lack of police-community relationships. The reversion to reactive policing occurring over the last two decades contributed heavily to the problem.

Additionally, the number of career criminals released from incarceration due to COVID-19 requires community solutions and involvement. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report from 2018 that examined prisoner recidivism over a nine-year period (2005-2014) revealed that “released state prisoners were arrested an estimated two million times within the nine years following release in 2005.” [8] About 44% of those released in 2005 were arrested at least once during their first year and 83% of offenders were rearrested within the total nine-year period.

Finally, those who purvey and proliferate the media with inaccurate messaging about racism within law enforcement must be addressed through truthful collaborations with communities. The community, not just the police, must prevent the furtherance of hate and hate agendas with a truthful dialog of their relationships with police.

We know what to do to stop the trend, re-engage our communities and return to the success of the past: engage our communities as partners in addressing crime and problems.

NEXT: 7 steps police leaders can take today to prevent crime tomorrow


1. FBI. 2016 Crime in the US.

2. Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. Public Law 90-351.

3. Boydstun JE, Sherry ME. San Diego Community Profile: Final Report. Washington, D.C.: Police Foundation. 1975, p.83.

4. Goldstein H. Improving Policing: A Problem-Oriented Approach. Crime and Delinquency, 1979, 25:241–3.

5. Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Public Law 103-322.

6. Statista. Reported violent crime rate in the U.S. 1990-2019.

7. Rector R, Muhlhausen D, Ingram D. The Facts about COPS: A Performance Overview of the Community Oriented Policing Services Program, September 25, 2000.

8. Alper M, Durose MR, Markham J. 2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period (2005-2014). U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice Statistics, May 2018.

Richard “Rick” Arrington is a retired police lieutenant, author and subject matter expert on crime prevention and community policing. He operates the Crime Prevention Center for Training and Services, LLC and provides training to law enforcement on proactive policing throughout the United States. He serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police Crime Prevention Committee and other national law enforcement advisory boards.