Proactive policing

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Proactive policing is the practice of deterring criminal activity by showing police presence and engaging the public to learn their concerns, thereby preventing crime from taking place in the first place. In contrast, responding to a complaint after a crime has been committed is reactive policing.[1]

History of proactive policing[edit]

California Highway Patrol

It is well known in law enforcement circles that the individual line officer wields an enormous amount of discretion in enforcing the law (esp, non-dispatched runs like traffic enforcement or street crime). What is surprising is the public belief that police are usually eager and motivated to do their job. Thus, when a particular crime problem becomes apparent, it is often approached by monetary related arguments, such as the need for more police, equipment, training etc.; rather than by non-monetary related approaches, such as recognizing how a high perception of alienation among police officers from the citizens of the community where they patrol reduces morale and spawns police indifference and inactivity.[2]

The impact of alienation is especially relevant as the contemporary community policing movement emphasizes proactive law enforcement strategies.[3] Effective community policing requires that police officers work closely with local citizens in designing and implementing a variety of proactive crime prevention and control measures. To accomplish these initiatives, it is crucial that officers feel closely integrated with the majority of citizens in the community they serve. Typically, this means that officers perceive themselves as sharing important community values and beliefs and being confident of community support in the decisions they make.[2]

As the perception of community alienation increases among police officers, their sense of confidence or mastery in decision making will decrease, and so too their motivation for proactive enforcement. The impact of highly publicized "pro-police" verdicts of brutality incidents (i.e., Rodney King, Los Angeles 1991; Malice Green, Detroit 1992; O.J. Simpson, Los Angeles 1994; Michael Brown, Ferguson 2014; Eric Garner, New York 2014; and Freddie Gray, Baltimore 2015) are related to the level of perceived alienation experienced by police and thus their willingness to respond proactively to serious crime.[2][4][5]

Essentially a sociological concept developed by several classical and contemporary theorists, alienation is a condition in social relationships reflected by a low degree of integration or common values and a high degree of distance or isolation between individuals, or between an individual and a group of people in a community or work environment. Alienation is closely aligned with the concept of mastery. Mastery is typically defined as a state of mind in which an individual feels autonomous and experiences confidence in his or her ability, skill, and knowledge to control or influence external events. The greater the level of alienation an individual experiences in a community or work setting, the weaker will be their sense of mastery.[2]

For police officers, a strong sense of mastery is particularly vital in relation to proactive law enforcement. Proactive enforcement is usually defined as the predisposition of a police officer to be actively involved in preventing and investigating crime. Because police patrol work is highly unsupervised, most officers have considerable discretion or personal initiative regarding their level of proactive behavior on the streets. Again, it would seem logical that the stronger the level of perceived community alienation among police officers, the weaker will be their sense of mastery and motivation to engage in proactive law enforcement behavior.[2]

Elements of proactive policing[edit]

Proactive policing is closely related to the practice of community policing.[6] Community policing's goal is "problem solving." Community policing emphasizes proactive enforcement that proposes street crime can be reduced through greater community involvement and integration between citizens and police. Community policing departments and officers must commit time to develop a "partnership" with the community to: 1) Prevent and counter crime; 2) Maintain order; and 3) Reduce the fear of crime.[1] Police organization is decentralized with every police officer and detective having a neighborhood to patrol with agreed upon goals and objectives to solve. Police officers must feel integrated with the majority of the citizens of the community where they patrol, and that they perceive themselves as sharing similar values and beliefs so they are confident in their decision making ability. Each police officer must get out of their cars (not just drive by and grin and wave) to visit with citizens and businesses to learn the residents concerns and show they're a friend and protector---in contrast to "strict law enforcement" or "reactive policing" which doesn't view the citizens as customers.[1]

Proactive enforcement is historically based on the Peelian Principles that Sir Robert Peel used to establish the world's first modern police department in London in 1829. "The basic mission of the police is to prevent crime and disorder. Our duties are dependent on public approval. This diminishes with our use of physical force and increases with our impartial service to the law."[7]

Related theories and criticisms[edit]

Community policing was derived out of the “Broken Windows Theory” theory which suggested that since a broken window is not against the law then it would be ignored by the professional police officer.

Broken Windows Theory: A premise developed in New York City under the Giuliani administration, the theory posits that environments with urban blight such as broken windows, abandon cars and homes, graffiti, litter and unenforced nuisance crimes (e.g., drunks, panhandling, public urination, blaring music) give message that criminals are in control not the law abiding because the citizens are either afraid or indifferent. Further, is asserts that crime can best be alleviated by proactive policing and foot patrols.[8] The Broken Windows Theory is straightforward and claimed to be effective by supporters, however, the highly publicized case of Eric Garner, New York City, 2014, who died as a result of a fatal choke hold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for allegedly selling non taxed cigarettes in front of a convenience store brought the policy as implemented by New York City to question by some. In addition, the lack of firm evidence or relevant supporting metrics casts doubt on the overall effectiveness of the 'broken windows theory', with its supporters reduced mostly to anecdotes as evidence of the policy reducing crime.

Black's Law Theory: Our use of the law is governed by three qualifications:

  1. The degree of intimacy we have with the defendant, i.e., we will invoke the law more often (and prosecution is more likely) if we view the defendant as an outsider versus a family member, neighbor, or friend;
  2. Cultural distance, i.e., our use of the law will increase if the defendant is of a different race or religion; and
  3. Conventionality, i.e., if we participate in the culture of the majority we are more likely to view the state as an advocate, e.g., whites versus blacks or the middle versus the lower class.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Ankony, Robert C., "The Impact of Perceived Alienation on Police Officers' Sense of Mastery and Subsequent Motivation for Proactive Enforcement." Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, vol. 22. no. 2 (1999): 120-32.[1]
  2. ^ a b c d e Ankony, Robert C., “Community Alienation and Its Impact on Police,” Police Chief, Oct. 1999: 150-53. [2]
  3. ^ Bobinsky, Robert, "Reflections on Community-Oriented Policing," FBI Law Enforcement Journal Bulletin, Mar. 1994: 15-19.[3]
  4. ^ Mortaz, C., "Alienation among Police Officers," Journal of Police Science and Administration, Mar. 1983: 23-30.
  5. ^ Pogrebin, M, "Alienation among Veteran Police Officers," Police Chief, Feb. 1987: 38-42.
  6. ^ Burden, O. "Community Policing," National Fraternal Order of Police Journal, Fall/Winter: 31-5.
  7. ^ Ramsay, Sir Robert Peel, (1829): 88–89.
  8. ^ James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, "Broken Windows," The Atlantic Monthly, Mar. 1982.
  9. ^ Donald Black, The Behavior of Law, (1976).

Further reading[edit]

  • Erikson, K. "On Work and Alienation," American Sociological Review, Feb. 1986: 1-8.
  • Schweitzer, D. and Geyer. F. (Eds), Alienation Theories and De-Alienation Strategies: Competitive Perspectives in Philosophy and the Social Sciences, Science Reviews Ltd, Middlesex, England, 1989.
  • Trojanowicz, Robert C., Community Policing: How to Get Started, second ed., Anderson Publishing, Cincinnati, OH, 1998. ISBN 0870848771