Contrary to what many may believe, policing is not a concrete, predetermined art. There are many different styles to it, each with their own advantages as well as drawbacks. There is a fine line that must be walked in law enforcement between being too strict and oppressive (which brings a slew of disadvantages that will be discussed) and being too lenient, which also brings some slightly more obvious disadvantages. It is important for law enforcement to understand these policing styles and apply each one to each unique scenario as needed, as oftentimes different areas and neighborhoods require vastly differing policing styles, such as community-oriented policing.
There are two styles that are the most basic and used quite often: proactive policing (sometimes called direct) strategies, and unnamed, more conventional policing strategies. The first, proactive policing, focuses on deterring crime by physically being at the scene of said crime, even if the crime has not occurred yet. For example, a police officer who observes a large amount of new graffiti on a wall, along with other signs of possible criminal activity, such as broken bottles, drug residue, and many other factors, might choose to patrol that area more heavily. The patrolling aspect is designed to be a deterrent to crime just as much as it is designed to actually catch criminals in the act. This is because a police presence is imposing and threatening for most criminals, especially the younger drug-dealer types often found in urban areas. Another crucial element of proactive policing policies is the use of the community as an asset for police officers. To this end, many police officers will choose to educate the law-abiding members of a community of the telltale signs of common crimes in the area, such as drug dealing, and instruct them on how to alert police to their presence. Doing this also has the secondary benefit of both reducing fears in citizens who live in what might be considered a “bad neighborhood” and also giving the citizen a role in law enforcement themselves. It has been proven that people feel less fearful about an unseen threat if they have some sort of measure they can take if that threat does ever come to pass. Eventually, this strategy can work to not simply prevent an area from becoming more crime-ridden, but actually decrease the amount of crime. Drug dealers and other criminals in a neighborhood will be less likely to commit crimes in that area if they know that the law-abiding citizens are actively keeping watch and are vigilant about reporting signs of crime.
This style of policing does have its drawbacks, however. Most notably, it encourages what is called “social displacement.” This is where criminals will essentially adapt to a large amount of police presence in an area by either relocating to another area or becoming much more organized. There are many examples of proactive policing directly leading to greater amounts of social displacement. One of the more frightening examples regarding social displacement is that after a particular neighborhood has been largely abandoned by criminals (due to large amounts of policing such as foot patrols), other, more desperate criminals will move in. These are the types that have nothing left to lose, like drug dealers who will rip off customers by not putting the right type or amount of a drug in the product. This is detrimental because this is how area-wide violence breaks out. All it takes is one drug deal gone bad to begin a domino-effect of killing and violence in a neighborhood. For this reason, proactive policing, while certainly a viable method of police organization, must be used sparingly. It is most suitable for areas with less violent acts and criminal behavior, such as drug dealing or petty theft, so that these crimes can be avoided. If there are a large number of crimes such as murders, the officer should not be patrolling that area on a regular basis.
This type of policing is much different from conventional law police enforcement practices. Under traditional law enforcement, patrols and other law-enforcement duties are assigned primarily on an as-needed basis. In fact, most conventional law enforcement practices could be perceived as the opposite of proactive and directed law enforcement, because these conventional types of enforcement are usually used in response to crime. For example, a police officer who receives a report of gunshots going off will immediately go to the scene of the crime and assess the situation. While this is also done with proactive law enforcement, the idea with proactive law enforcement is to prevent the crime from happening at all through various means. Another way this conventional style of law enforcement is different is the use of certain “hot spots.” These hot spots are areas where large amounts of crime are reported regularly. Unlike proactive law enforcement, conventional law enforcement does not send more units to patrol the area but simply makes themselves aware that the area is particularly volatile. This way, they are more readily suited to being called to the area, so that damage or harm can be minimized. This style of policing does have a proverbial leg up on proactive law enforcement in that it does not, generally, cause a particular area to be abandoned, because the criminals do not have to fear police showing up unless they are actively in the middle of a crime, such as a drug deal. In that respect, it is superior, but it is also necessary to remember that these conventional law enforcement methods do not allow for any sort of attempt to prevent crimes from happening in the first place. These conventional methods take a sort of “bite the bullet” approach and simply attempt to minimize damage during a crime, rather than prevent it altogether. This conventional approach is also safer for police officers most of the time simply because they spend less time on the streets patrolling and the like. For many law enforcement organizations, this approach is favorable for that reason alone: safety must be a top priority. In addition, it is much more cost-effective to have officers dispatched on an as-needed basis, rather than patrol an area more frequently. This is especially true in areas where police officers are relatively scarce and must be used more sparingly.
According to studies, the utilization of these two policing styles, in tandem and at each law enforcement agency's own discretion, is working on some level. Studies indicate that the number of crimes in America is steadily decreasing in general. Obviously, there is no surefire way to prevent all crime, or even most of it, but it is important for law enforcement organizations to be constantly researching and investigating new ways to do their jobs. While incarcerating criminals is a primary duty of law enforcement, much of their jobs rely on preventing the crime from happening in the first place and giving the citizens much more peace of mind that they will be there to help out if crime ever strikes.