Despite recent headlines around citizen-police conflicts, new research shows that most U.S. citizens are satisfied with local police services. According to a new survey of 2,000 U.S. citizens by Accenture, 85 percent report they are satisfied with police services and 91 percent say they feel safe in their neighborhood. However, 76 percent emphasize that there's room for improvement in how local police forces deliver services.
Specifically, citizens want police to collaborate more via community policing programs , increase information sharing in delivering police services and provide new ways to report crime, for example via mobile devices or online citizen portals. In fact, more than half of the citizens (52 percent) said they would participate in a community policing program, such as neighborhood watch.
The case for greater community-police collaboration is not a difficult one to make and perhaps has never been more necessary than now. If you visit any community and talk with residents, they'll tell you which people and neighborhoods are at highest risk of crime or are known burglary or crime hot-spots. Knowledge of what goes on in their community is the business of many concerned residents, and forward-thinking police forces know that by tapping this local knowledge, valuable intelligence may be gained that could help prevent and solve crimes and better protect citizens.
Around the country, police forces have never been more in need of allies to support crime-fighting. All forces are struggling to do more with reduced budgets and officer numbers, while also adapting to the changing and growing complexity of crimes in their neighborhoods. For example, the Flint police force in Michigan has laid off two-thirds of its police force over a three-year period while Camden New Jersey Police Department reduced its force by nearly half in early 2011. However, reduced officer numbers does not necessarily mean reduced policing activities. According to Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey of the Philadelphia Police Department, new technologies and processes can help police forces adapt to their new operating realities and "helps managers make better decisions around where you need to take your limited resources and how you need to deploy them."
Citizen expectations on the rise
Law enforcement agencies are simultaneously facing budget pressures and rising citizen expectations around access to local police services and public safety information. As Police Commissioner Lene Frank of the Danish National Police observed, "If the neighbor's dog is barking, you call the police. This is something new; people are becoming more distanced from each other and expect authorities to step in for all matters--big and small."
In addition, citizens no longer want to be passive recipients of information from the police. In every other aspect of their lives, they engage in conversations around the clock--via email, text and social media. Citizens now expect to be engaged in two way communications with their local police. According to the recent Accenture survey, 86 percent of respondents want more police services online and 71 percent want to see improved mobile access to services and police information. Citizen are now seeing police as just another service provider, and in some cases an extension of their social network, who they expect to be both highly responsive and actively engaged with them, providing relevant, up-to-date public safety information--in real-time.
Steps to citizen engagement
For police forces, rising citizen service expectations represent both a challenge and an opportunity. A few government agencies have started to crack the code in responding to citizens' needs in a way that works in everyone's favor. For example, New York City's 311 customer service center provides citizens with 24/7 access to a wide range of non-emergency services and information via telephone or online in a cost-effective manner. A similar system could work well for documenting high-volume criminal incidents, such as mobile phone or bicycle thefts, to free up officers' time to focus on more urgent frontline policing activities. In addition to handling inquiries, citizen portals can push information out, such as updates on policing and criminal activity, wanted-persons and weather alerts --all of which can help citizens feel more informed and secure.
According to Kieran Miller, former United Kingdom Liaison Officer of the Australian Federal Police, the key to "citizens feeling secure is not necessarily about having visible police on the streets, but rather the knowledge that police are there and will respond when needed".
Reaching every generation
While a majority of citizens (70 percent) believe that greater use of digital technologies by police would increase the effectiveness of police services, millennial respondents (ages 18 to 34) felt the strongest (76 percent) about the benefits, with 77 percent of these younger respondents expressing a preference for using their mobile device to communicate with police. In addition, a majority of these young respondents (79 percent) cited prioritizing community relations by police chiefs as key to improving police services. This highlights an opportunity for law enforcement to digitally engage with young people, the group most at risk of falling into crime and forming adversarial relations with police. According to a 2009 study on interactions between police and youth by The Crime and Misconduct Commission in Australia, school-based intervention programs involving police officers have proven to be effective in reducing risk-taking behaviors of young people. Similarly, frequent engagement by police with millennials through digital channels, including social media conversations, could help youth to feel more connected to police and improve police-youth relationships.
A recent study by the International Associate of Chiefs of Police found that of the 92.4 percent of law enforcement agencies in the United States that use social media, 74 percent say it has helped them solve crime in their jurisdiction. According to the recently retired Chief William Blair, of the Toronto Police Service, social media can transform the way police and citizens engage. "Social media can change the way we engage -- it can help get a conversation going between the police and citizens. Social media and apps allow the police to speak directly to the public and present the facts."
Partners in Problem-Solving
Another way to increase crime reporting is to allow citizens to remain anonymous when reporting crimes and sharing information. Two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents said they would anonymously report crime and public safety incidents to police using digital communications channels. The survey found that the primary reasons citizens fail to report crimes is that they don't want to become involved in an incident that is not directly related to them (42 percent), and many fear retaliation from one of the parties involved (29 percent).
The good news for police is that 81 percent of the respondents in the Accenture survey support their local police force and are willing to collaborate with them to fight crime. What citizens want are more engagement opportunities, and increased digital services that drives collaboration and increased trust between the police and their communities. The needs of citizens to feel safe and protected in their homes and on the streets is enduring and will never change. However, what can change is the efficiency and effectiveness of policing and how it is conducted. Increased collaboration between citizens and the police along with the increased use of digital technologies can go a long way toward improving community-police relations. With increased scrutiny and demand for transparency from citizens, it's incumbent on every police force to explore these options.