Research Spotlight: Community policing does not build citizen trust in police or reduce crime in the Global South

Does community policing work? In places like the US and Europe, the answer appears to be: Yes! When police departments create settings for officers to have regular, informal engagements with citizens, research generally finds measurable increases in peoples’ trust in the police, along with reduced crime rates.

But what happens when similar community policing interventions are implemented in less-developed countries in the “Global South”? Policing scholars, the US government and international organizations have invested substantial resources into advocating for more community policing in countries like Afghanistan, Uganda, Colombia and the Philippines. The assumption has always been that the core principles of community policing should apply equally in less-resourced settings. However, to date, there is very little evidence about whether community policing actually works in these places where police departments face a different set of challenges compared to countries with more advanced economies.

To answer this question, our team of scholars worked with police departments to test the effects of locally-appropriate community policing practices in six different developing countries in Asia, Africa, and South America. The multi-year project was funded by Evidence in Governance and Politics (EGAP) and brought together teams of scholars who have experience working with the police in their countries of expertise. I helped lead the team in the Philippines, where I have worked on issues relating to conflict and policing for the last decade.   

Our study combined the results of separate “field experiments” on community policing in these six countries. In the Philippines, we worked with the police chief of semi-rural Sorsogon Province, who was already planning to roll out a large community policing program. Over the course of a year and a half, the police held thousands of town-hall meetings, met monthly with village leaders to discuss public safety issues, gave street-level officers increased input on how to use policing resources to solve these issues, and put in place a citizen feedback hotline. The program was rolled out across a randomly selected set of 200 “treatment” villages. We then compared the outcomes to 100 “control” villages that kept in place their existing policing practices.

The results of the study, published in Science magazine, suggest that community policing had virtually no positive effect across any of the six different countries where it was implemented. Among the tens of thousands of citizens we surveyed, there were no effects on trust in the police, crime reporting, or perceived state legitimacy. We also surveyed thousands of police officers and found no effect on empathy or trust in citizens. Finally, there were no decreases in crime, from minor issues like petty theft to larger issues like assault. These results surprised us, and potentially undercut the logic behind the extensive efforts devoted to community policing in the developing world.

Why did we find these unexpected effects of community policing and where does that leave us? Based on our experience, the most likely explanation for the policy’s ineffectiveness is that the police departments we studied did not actually have the capacity or motivation to respond to citizen feedback that they received through community policing. Even though citizens initially expressed optimism about the program, the failure to meet raised expectations dashed their hopes that the police would actually solve the issues their communities were experiencing.

Despite these findings, we do not think that police departments in the Global South should completely do away with efforts to incorporate community policing practices. Instead, we think the results should be interpreted as saying that we should not expect community policing to be a “catch-all” solution in the way that it is commonly framed. Community policing on its own cannot mask the underlying issues that prevent the police from effectively doing their job. These include things like resource constraints that prevent police from investigating and solving crimes in hard-to-reach communities, along with difficulty recruiting officers who are motivated to help community members in need. Improving policing in the developing world requires more holistic efforts to both engage in community outreach while also improving the likelihood that police will be able to harness improved relationships to meaningfully improve public safety.

Email: dhaim@ucsd.edu

Dr. Dotan Haim is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at FSU. You can learn more about Dr. Haim here.

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