At the heart of the best human relationships is trust. It’s indispensable. It doesn’t matter whether the relationships are personal, familial, business or governmental. Trust is at the root of all quality relationships. And when it is absent or compromised, all relationships suffer immediately.

At the core of Community Oriented Policing is trust as well. If you ask 10 different people what COP is, you will likely get 10 different answers. But modeling police/community relationships along the lines of trustful general human interactions has proven sometimes elusive.

Does it have to be? Let’s start by examining some basic tenets of Community Oriented Policing.

A cursory internet search offers an accurate overview:

“Community policing is a philosophy of full-service personalized policing, where the same officer patrols and works in the same area on a permanent basis, from a decentralized place, working in a proactive partnership with citizens to identify and solve problems.” — Bertus Ferreira, a former police officer whose research now focuses on community policing.

“The central goal of community policing is for the police to build relationships with the community through interactions with local agencies and members of the public, creating partnerships and strategies for reducing crime and disorder.”

Common methods of community policing include:

  • Encouraging the community to help prevent crime by providing advice, giving talks at schools, encouraging neighborhood watch groups and a variety of other techniques.
  • Increased officer accountability to the communities they are supposed to serve.
  • Clear communication between the police and the communities about their objectives and strategies.
  • Partnerships with other organizations such as government agencies, community members, nonprofit service providers, private businesses and the media.
  • Decentralizing the police authority, allowing more discretion among lower-ranking officers, and expecting more initiative from them.
    • Increased use of foot or bicycle patrols.
    • Creating teams of officers to carry out community policing in designated neighborhoods.

    To this list, I would add:

  • An authentic desire on the part of police leadership to create and foster an atmosphere of trust, cooperation and collaboration. This is achieved with radically increased transparency at all levels, availability and outreach on the part of police leadership to establish genuine relationships with stakeholders, particularly in underserved communities, and uncompromising honesty about operations, objectives and collaborative outcomes.
  • I have italicized some of the bullet points above to illustrate what facets of COP don’t require additional fiscal and officer resources. Note that only the last two points in the list do.

    That is likely surprising for many, who’ve been told repeatedly that community policing of any kind in Columbia can’t take place before a massive infusion of capital and manpower.

    I disagree.

    Historically, the concept and execution of true COP has existed at the unit level in several forms since roughly 1987, through to the current Community Outreach Unit.

    In the summers after the Columbia police’s fatal shooting of African-American teenager Kim Linzie in 1985, unrest followed. It culminated with youths along Providence Road near Switzler Street throwing rocks at passing cars for several weeks in 1987.

    This problem led to the formation of what was then called “Fourth Squad.” This was a unit of six officers and one supervisor to proactively address crime and unrest issues, with a contemporaneous emphasis on building relationships with the community.

    It became highly successful when the assigned officers engaged the public with a goal of meaningful relationship, beyond what had ever been attempted throughout the previous local history of conventional reactive policing.

    They accomplished this by attending regular community meetings and simply spending time with people in their assigned neighborhoods. There was also zero tolerance for crime and disorder.

    With this mix, within months, things improved, and the squad subsequently expanded. I became a supervisor of an expanded Fourth Squad in 1993, when the unit was two supervisors and 12 officers and was assigned to specific areas of the city.

    Sound familiar?

    The historical perspective is valuable to remind us that the Community Outreach Unit is not the first time that this concept has been tried — far from it. But what should be understood as fact is that every single time it’s been tried, it has been incredibly successful, not just from the police perspective, but from the all-important perspective of the public served. In police administration, it’s easy to forget who we work for.

    The 2018 Community Oriented Policing Draft Report, prepared by Sgt. Robert Fox and submitted to the City Council in August, essentially tries to make the case that this philosophy cannot be adopted with current staffing levels and financial resource allocation. Critics like the grassroots group Race Matters, Friends, have long argued that the relationship of the Columbia Police Department with the public it serves is damaged, for several reasons, with the most critical being a lack of trust.

    While the current staffing levels and calls for service make time for officers to build meaningful relationships challenging, trust can be built with each police/citizen interaction. It begins with direction and leadership.

    Leadership must prioritize the creation of trusting relationships. The police work by a series of interactions with the public they serve, each contact with its own independent circumstances. The direction they are provided as to their proper attitude and empathy for the public they serve is a vital component of relationship building. Or the lack thereof.

    Does the public see positive things from a customer service perspective? Recent citizen surveys about public safety seem to say they don’t. But the current direction from city government is clear. It wants and expects Community Oriented Policing. And before they are willing to get behind a massive public safety tax increase, they want to see a positive change in the relationship the police have with their community.

    That change doesn’t require a dime. But it does require a commitment to a fundamental investment in relationship. And the dividends to that investment will translate into a much more united community eager to invest in the big picture and the long term.

    Tom Dresner is a former interim police chief and deputy chief at the Columbia Police Department.


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