Community and the Police

I would like to discuss the relevance of the main theories of community to policing by:-

* reviewing a theory of community with which I am familiar and

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* demonstrating how this theory may inform the work of Strathclyde Police.

Definitions of Community

The term “community” has been defined by Sociologists in three main ways:-

1. a social system (a set of social relationships).

2. a fixed locality (a geographical area).

3. a quality of relationship (the spirit of community).

Social System

This aspect of “community” looks at people living in the same locality who are related in some socially significant way.

When I was stationed on the island of Bute some years ago I took up the game of golf.

During my stay on the island I found that I played golf almost every day, ate lunch in the clubhouse more often than not and in the evenings I socialised with other golfers.

The golfers on the island i.e. the golfing community (a community of which I was now part of) were socially related through their love of the sport, their regular social interaction and their ties with the golfing institution.

Before long I felt I had found my niche and I was soon being referred to as ‘the new member of the golf club’ as opposed to the ‘new cop on the island’.

Fixed Locality

This aspect of ‘community’ can be seen as “a geographical expression denoting a human settlement located within a fixed bounded local territory.” (Peter Worsley 1991)

How people interact with one another, how they are socially related, any common bonds (apart from the area in which they live) are not taken into consideration when the term ‘community’ is used to describe a geographical area.

For the purpose of policing, the region of Strathclyde is divided into divisions. Each division has numerous sub-divisions which are divided into ‘beats’ determined by where they are geographically situated.

‘Beats’ can be in both affluent areas (often associated with victims of crime) and in poorer areas (often associated with drug abusers, housebreakers etc.).

As you can see, there is a certain ‘stigma’ attached to people depending on the area in which they live. Both members of the public and police officers alike are capable of pre-judging others, so whilst this type of ‘community’ may be practical for policing purposes (i.e. Community Police with their own designated ‘beats’), it also has its downsides.

Quality of Relationship

“Community as a type of relationship corresponds most closely to the colloquial use of the term – a community feeling or “spirit” of community.” (Peter Worsley 1991)

This aspect of ‘community’ differs from the previous examples in that:-

* it need have no geographical basis at all and

* it can exist amongst people who have never met one another.

Throughout the world there are many ‘communities’ such as the ‘Chinese Community’, the ‘Scientific Community’, and numerous ‘Religious Communities.

Scotland has two main ‘religious communities’ i.e. Catholic and Protestant. This can have a significant bearing on the aftermath of an ‘Old Firm’ match and as such extra policing has to be in place.

Although members of these ‘communities’ may have never met one another and may be miles apart they still have a meaningful identity with others within their ‘community’ accompanied by shared experiences which often accompany such identification.

As you can see there are various definitions of the term ‘community’ (although when described as a locality it is not really a sociological usage of the term) which can be used in different contexts and is indeed used in different ways by the police force.

‘Community Policing’ uses locality when designating beats for practical purposes whereas, different ‘Religious Communities’ may have an impact on the policing requirements for an Old Firm football match.

Tonnies Theory of Community

In 1887 the German theorist, Ferdinand Tonnies published his theory of ‘community’.

His concept of ‘community’ was used as a contrast to the new urban and capitalist society which was then emerging and he believed that this new society led to a poorer quality of life than that of the traditional ‘village life’ and that no links or similarities could be established between the two.

Tonnies makes the distinction between the two types of social bond gemeinschaft (community) and gesellschaft (society).

Gemeinschaft

The traditional village was made up of people who had grown up together in the same locality, who had a sense of ‘kinsmanship’, and had lived by the laws as set out by the church and family through the years.

In general Tonnies believed that these people had high standards and morals.

Gesellschaft

With the expansion of trade and the growth of cities came the decline of the ‘family values’. Impersonal relationships developed amongst people who were not now guided by tradition but by their own selfish interests. People did not follow the laws of the church but were guided by public legislation and public opinion and were now seen as ‘individuals who had a job to do’ as opposed to people whose lives interlinked with one another through work and social interaction.

We can relate to these two types of social bonds by comparing the television programmes ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘The Bill’.

The underlying theme of ‘Heartbeat’ is that of a traditional village ‘cop’ living in a traditional village set in the Yorkshire Dales back in the 50’s. Everyone knows everyone else (as most of them have grown up together) and they all socialise with one another in the evening in the village pub. Crime rates are low caused mainly by incomers to the village.

The underlying theme of ‘The Bill’ is that of busy, modern day Metropolitan police station set in a suburb of London. Crime rates are high and the cops tend to socialise with one another as opposed to socializing with locals living in the areas in which they patrol.

Tonnies was extremely pessimistic in his views in that he believed that gesellschaft principals play the dominant role in society today and has led to an increase in crime rates. He sees present day life as a total contrast with the past rather than a continuation.

While it may be true that gesellschaft principals play the dominant role in society nowadays and there may be a lack of ‘bonding’ between persons living together in modern day communities, people now have aims and goals to work towards. They have expectations for themselves and there children, be it for personal achievement/self satisfaction or for material purposes which may not have existed in gemeinschaft society.

Relationships between the Community and the Police

For years whilst working as a police officer I always viewed the ‘community’ as a fixed locality. As previously stated I would attend calls in affluent areas and would have pre-conceived ideas of the type of person I would be dealing with. I would attend calls in ‘scummie’ areas (police terminology for poorer areas with undesirables) and again I would have my pre-conceived ideas.

I then went to work on the Isle of Bute for several months and my thoughts on policing the ‘community’ changed.

Here was a place where in some ways both gemeinschaft and gesellschaft bonds existed.

Most people on the island had lived there all of there lives. They had morals, were ‘close knit’ and everyone seemed to know everyone elses business.

A lot of the younger residents seemed to want more than to live the rest of their lives on the island. They wanted material goods and wanted at some time to move away from the traditional island life into the ‘big city’.

There wasn’t much crime on the island and due to this I had time on my hands to sit and speak to people who had been the victims of either serious crimes such as housebreakings, or minor crimes such as petty vandalisms. Some of these people were very elderly and hadn’t spoken to anyone for days. I had time to strike up a rapport with them and earn their trust.

Due to this I found that when crimes were being committed there was a very high detection rate. Sooner or later I would be pointed in the direction of the person/persons responsible partly due to this bond and trust that I had developed with the locals and partly because this was their community. They were brought up in a gemeinschaft society and they wanted to cling to the ideals associated with it.

Conclusion

I came back to the Lanarkshire area with a renewed ‘vigour’ for policing. I was full of new ideas on how I was going to deal with people, how I was going to earn their trust and build a rapport with them.

Unfortunately, in no time at all I was back to dealing with incident after incident, being rushed off of my feet and not having the time to get to know the ‘community’.

In the policing world we can only deal with people with the time we are allocated, often dictated by crime levels.

To some officers their communities are impersonal, merely seen as a locality housing people with gripes to make or people looking for help (mostly found in gesellschaft societies).

To others their communities consist of people whom they have got to know and whom they have a genuine interest in (mostly found in gemeinschaft societies).

In my opinion policing on Bute was the way policing should be in an ideal world, which, unfortunately we don’t live in.