Community Policing and COVID-19: Tested Solutions to Address New Challenges

Community Policing and COVID-19: Tested Solutions to Address New Challenges
Community Policing and COVID-19: Tested Solutions to Address New Challenges

The ongoing threat of COVID-19, around the world and in our own backyard, creates new challenges for policing in every setting. Whether in urban and suburban contexts or in isolated, Indigenous communities, the pandemic poses dangers unique to each situation. Community policing is more valuable than ever to keep our citizens and our officers safe.

Policing, COVID-19, and the Impact of Other Recent Events

COVID-19’s indirect impacts on schools, businesses, jobs, and social life directly affect policing as well. Prolonged isolation and unemployment intensify mental health issues and struggles with addiction. Domestic violence has increased, and people experiencing homelessness continue to struggle to meet basic needs. Limited contact with outsiders to reduce the threat of the pandemic has also created shortages in remote and isolated communities.

Meanwhile, public protests are taking place around the world, demanding action to redress historic inequities experienced by minority and Indigenous peoples. Effective policing requires new levels of discretion and judgement to keep demonstrations peaceful while ensuring the security of both protestors and onlookers.

At the same time, policing during the COVID-19 pandemic exposes officers to new types of stress and risk. Policing often requires direct contact with members of the public, creating a higher threat of exposure to COVID-19. New practices and protocols are being developed, but it is impossible to entirely eliminate the inherent dangers to officers and their loved ones.

How Can Community Policing Help Address the Challenges of COVID-19?

Community policing is a comprehensive approach that helps foster trust between officers and community members. It involves developing collaborations with groups and individuals to proactively solve problems while implementing transformational organisational changes within the police force itself. Officers engaged in community policing are deeply embedded in the communities they serve. They have learned to observe, analyze, and anticipate needs and problems that may arise. This awareness positions them to respond promptly and effectively to the social, economic, and domestic crises that COVID-19 may trigger in their local situation.

Further, the collaboration inherent in community policing brings communities together to solve problems. These partnerships enable community organizations and businesses to work together to help neighbors cope with schooling challenges, food needs, and public safety issues. A community where community policing is already practised is a community better prepared to handle long-term, multi-faceted emergencies like COVID-19.

What Are the Essentials of Community Policing?

What Are the Essentials of Community Policing?

Community policing is built on several essentials that help foster trust between officers and the community and improve community safety. Important factors include:

  • community collaboration
  • agency support and resources
  • a problem-solving mindset

Developing Community Collaboration

Although they are on the front lines of community issues, police officers are not expected to address all the community’s problems. As retired Fredericton Police Chief Leanne Fitch recently wrote, “While the police play an essential part in helping with social ills and crime control, we cannot be all things to all people, all the time. It is therefore the responsibility of police leaders to ensure their agency’s role is balanced and shared with others outside of their own organisation.”

Community policing involves developing ties with many other organisations and individuals who have a stake in the community. These include:

  • government agencies, such as social services, housing, and public works
  • community associations and their leadership
  • tribal councils and elders
  • schools
  • non-profit and service organisations
  • local businesses
  • media
  • faith communities

There are many advantages to collaborating with these stakeholders. First, working closely together enables officers and community partners to develop relationships, and relationships build trust. When community members see police officers as partners in their initiatives to improve living conditions and social outcomes, they will be encouraged to provide assistance needed for effective policing.

Second, community stakeholders often have resources and expertise to solve problems in ways that help decrease crime. Issues such as the following all complicate the task of policing under COVID-19:

  • housing and food shortages
  • worsening mental health and addiction problems
  • unsupervised children and youth

Addressing these concerns requires the efforts of social workers, addictions counsellors, non-profits and faith communities, schools, and businesses. Thoughtful collaboration is needed to coordinate the roles of police officers and other concerned community members.

Finally, community partnerships improve the flow of information between police officers and community members. For police agencies, this means not only gathering intelligence, but also informing the community about important matters of public safety. Communication with the media plays an especially critical role in fostering a positive public view of police officers as well as disseminating key information.

Agency Support and Resources

A number of organisational factors within the agency to support community policing are essential if it is to fulfill its potential in helping keep communities safer despite the challenges of COVID-19. These include agency structure, policies, climate and culture, personnel, and information systems.

For example, effective community policing requires agencies to adopt some degree of decentralized decision-making that allows frontline officers to assume responsibility for day-to-decisions and take risks in order to solve problems. It often means a flattening of the traditional hierarchy to give officers greater discretion in handling calls and allocating resources.

New policies are also needed to make sure that community policing principles are put in practice on the street. Particularly in unusual circumstances such as COVID-19, policing may require new precautions and safeguards, which must be codified in appropriate guidelines and manuals.

For officers to develop trust relationships with the public, they need to experience a culture and climate of trust within the force. Agency leaders who embrace community policing and promote its values and mission can provide a model as they involve police unions in decisions concerning its implementation. Policing during COVID-19, in particular, requires attentiveness to officers’ concerns about their own health and well-being.

It is also clear that this model of policing—a model ideally suited to meet the unique challenges of COVID-19—requires new paradigms for recruiting, training, and deploying officers. Today’s police leaders need a more nuanced psychological understanding of the men and women called to serve and how to prepare them for their mission. Once trained, officers will typically be assigned to a community for years rather than weeks, to develop the relationships, trust, and community awareness necessary to be effective.

A Problem-Solving Mindset

A Problem-Solving Mindset

In recent decades, Canadian policing forces, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as well as local law enforcement, have prioritised the Client-Analysis-Partnerships-Response-Assessment (CAPRA) model to identify and address potential problems in their communities. This model is built around the following components:

Clients. These are the people with whom officers interact daily—victims, suspects, witnesses, colleagues, and partners—as well as those indirectly affected by officers’ efforts, such as local businesses or interest groups. CAPRA training provides officers with ways to get to know their clients’ needs, expectations, and capabilities on a deeper level.

Acquiring/Analyzing information. Acquiring information from a wide spectrum of clients enables officers to define problems, understand multiple perspectives, identify options, and determine mutually acceptable solutions.

Partnerships. As indicated above, developing partnerships within the community is critical to enable officers to offer quality service and respond appropriately to emerging problems.

Response. In community policing, a variety of responses are available to both proactively prevent problems and deal with those that arise. These include service, protection, and enforcement and its alternatives.

Assessment. Evaluating the outcomes of actions taken is essential to continuous improvement. In assessing outcomes, it is important to agree on criteria to be measured and to include all stakeholders in the feedback loop. Assessment also relies on accurate data, captured using up-to-date IT systems.

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Officers who embrace the CAPRA model are able to anticipate problems before they become crises, improving community life and developing warm relationships with the clients they serve.

A recent example is Officer Miles Orakwelu of the Nishnawbe Aski Police Force, who became concerned about unreliable cell phone service in the North Spirit Lake First Nations community that he serves. With the help of Douglas Pflug, his former community policing instructor, Officer Orakwelu initiated a fund-raising campaign to purchase heavy-duty radios for community Elders. Fifty-six individual donors and several businesses contributed, enabling the drive to raise $3,076 as well as in-kind gifts. The end result: 29 radios were distributed among the Elders, significantly improving social interaction and emergency preparedness in this isolated community.

Community Policing and Community Safety in Canada Pre-COVID-19

Community Policing and Community Safety in Canada Pre-COVID-19

Community policing is not a new idea. By the early 1990s, almost every police department in Canada included the concept in its mandates. However, levels of understanding and implementation of community policing continue to vary widely from one region to another. Studies suggest that the effectiveness of community policing depends largely on how well agencies institutionalise its philosophy and adjust policies, procedures, and resource allocation to support it.

Evidence for the Impact of Community-Based Policing

Treatment of young offenders in a community is one measure of the effectiveness of a community-based policing program. Charging youthful offenders is sometimes necessary, but far too often, incarceration only increases the likelihood of recidivism. In many cases, formal warnings, referrals to other agencies, police questioning, and pre-charge alternatives such as restorative justice can be used to deter youth from a pathway of criminal behaviour.

A recent study published by the Department of Justice (DOJ) found that agencies that strongly supported community policing—and allocated resources to implement it—were much more likely to use police discretion in dealing with young offenders. For example, officers in agencies who reported dedicated resources for community policing were almost twice as likely as others (80% versus 44%) to refer youth to outside agencies for support. Agencies considered “not supportive” of community policing never practised restorative justice, compared to 22% of those with supportive policies and 56% of those that allocated resources for its implementation.

Police agencies are also involved in a wide spectrum of crime prevention programs, such as gang-focused violence prevention and anti-bullying programs, and even volunteer activities such as youth sports or community events. The same DOJ study found that agencies that were heavily committed to crime prevention programs were almost twice as likely (50% versus 26%) to use formal warnings with young offenders. They were also more likely to use parental involvement, outside agency referrals, and informal action for minor offenses.

What Is Needed to Practise Community Policing

What Is Needed to Practise Community Policing

Robust and effective community policing—the kind needed in the era of COVID-19—clearly requires highly trained leadership. To build coalitions with community organisations, transform an agency’s structure, policies, culture, and information systems, and instill a problem-solving mindset among officers, agency leaders must have well-developed management, communications, and problem-solving skills in addition to policing expertise.

Community policing also requires new levels of awareness of the issues that our communities face. As we have seen, there is no one-size-fits-all model—the style and format of community policing must be adapted to the particular community being served. Officers need to be able to interact with and relate to clients and colleagues of diverse cultural backgrounds with widely varying needs and concerns.

How Police Training Has Evolved to Meet the Demands of Community Policing

Policing in today’s world, a world fraught with social unrest and facing heightened challenges due to COVID-19, requires new skills and mindsets on the part of both commissioned and frontline offices. Fortunately, police training and leadership programs are continually evolving to equip officers to meet these ever-changing demands.

The online advanced policing programs offered by Wilfrid Laurier University prepare graduates for contemporary dynamics in policing. The Laurier approach to police education is built around five components which, together, support well-rounded community policing:

  • models of policing
  • historic perspective on policing
  • psychology and mental health awareness
  • inclusion and diversity
  • communication skills

Laurier’s programs feature a wide range of courses that specifically equip officers for increasing levels of responsibility in community policing, such as:

  • organisational leadership
  • communications skills for leaders
  • intercultural communication in policing
  • diversity in policing
  • policing complex and diverse communities
  • mental health and justice
  • media, social media, and crime
  • domestic violence
  • Indigenous communities and policing
  • Indigenous Peoples’ political structures
  • civil unrest
  • police psychology
  • immigration and conflict zones

By deepening officers’ understanding of these highly relevant topics, courses like these prepare them to serve widely varied types of communities. They also equip them to partner with communities in addressing common problems, whether in urban, suburban, rural, or Indigenous settings.

Career Opportunities for College Graduates in Community-Based Law Enforcement

Career Opportunities for College Graduates in Community-Based Law Enforcement

A college degree in law enforcement opens doors to a wide variety of career opportunities linked to community policing, both within police agencies and beyond. Some of these options include:

  • community outreach worker
  • community relations officer
  • public safety educator
  • international aid worker
  • program coordinator
  • housing officer

Further, a college degree significantly enhances an officer’s career potential within the agency. For example, a police officer’s average salary in Canada is $81,007. Those with leadership skills or outstanding verbal and written communication skills make a bit more—on average, $88,575 and $90,115 respectively. But officers with problem-solving skills—the kind of skills required for effective community policing—are highly prized and highly rewarded, with average salaries reaching $101,500.

You Can Help Build Stronger Communities through Community Policing

If you’re an experienced police officer, chances are that you’ve seen first-hand how important good community policing can be. Maybe you’d like to hone your skills to improve your effectiveness. Or perhaps you hold—or aspire to—a leadership position within your agency, and you’d like to help create the organisational transformation that enhances police effectiveness as well as community wellbeing. You may even be considering other community-focused career options.

In any of these scenarios, Laurier’s online Honours Bachelor of Arts in Policing or the Combined Honours Bachelor of Arts in Criminology and Policing could be the stepping stone to your next opportunity.

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