by Wesley G. Skogan. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 360pp. Hardback. $35.00/£19.99. ISBN: 9780195154580.

Reviewed by Sawyer Sylvester, Department of Sociology, Bates College. Email: ssylvest [at] bates.edu.


Wesley Skogan’s book is an account of an extraordinary study of an equally extraordinary program – community policing in Chicago. His evaluation is notable for its thoroughness and its independence from those principally involved in developing and implementing the program. The program is notable for the character of the city in which it was established – its demographics and politics – as well as the nature and quality of the program itself.

Community policing, as an idea, can be applied to a wide variety of police strategies from the occasional appearance of a community relations officer in a neighborhood to give a talk (while the bulk of policing goes on as usual) to radical change throughout a department reflecting a total shift in the very idea of policing. It was the latter that characterized community policing in Chicago.

Community-oriented policing, at its best, contradicts much of traditional police culture. Traditional police departments are severely hierarchical and operationally specialized. Community policing involves a flattening of that structure and places wider decision-making authority in the hands of officers in designated neighborhoods – and then holds the officers accountable. And for what officers are accountable, and to whom, is changed. Officers are no longer responsible for just solving crimes but for a much broader segment of social order, including conditions which may be predicates to crime. And the entire police department, not some specialized element of it, is dedicated to that end.

The problems undertaken are much more complex than can be solved by a simple arrest (although law enforcement is still an important goal). As a result, community policing involves greater emphasis on problem solving, together with the analytical skills necessary to that end. There is more emphasis on situational analysis of all aspects of criminal offending – not concern solely with the offender. The result is a greater interest in crime prevention, especially situational crime prevention. And most important to community policing is an authentic, long-term involvement of the community with the police, both as a source of information on neighborhood conditions as well as a partner with the police in efforts to deal with those conditions. The community becomes a body to which the police are – at least in part – directly responsible.

In many ways, Chicago was the ideal city in which to establish and test a program of community policing. At the time the program began, crime rates were high and the city was – and [*362] remains – racially divided into African-American, Latino, and White neighborhoods. In fact, race turned out to be an important variable throughout the study. Not only was concern with crime racially divided, but African-Americans and Latinos were especially worried about juvenile gangs and street sales of drugs; these latter problems were seen as particularly resistant to traditional police methods. Finally, there were “incivilities”: loitering, graffiti, prostitution, and public drunkenness, all perceived as signs of neighborhood decay.

At the time, it must have seemed to many residents that the police could not even bring crime under control – even though this was their traditional calling – to say nothing of disorder and decay, things historically beyond the purview of the police. Some cities dealt with this situation by enacting a policy often referred to as “zero tolerance,” arrest and prosecution of any offense, however trivial, in an effort to deal with community disorder. Chicago decided to do something different.

The CAPS program (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) began as an initiative in the Mayor’s Office and was carried out by the Police Department. The important characteristics of the program, as described by Skogan, were “turf orientation, community involvement, problem solving, and interagency partnerships” (p.57). Turf orientation required that the locus of policing not be at headquarters but in a local district. Each district was assigned a beat team of patrol officers under the administration of a sergeant in which the same officers worked the same shifts for at least a year. All this was designed to increase police knowledge of the district and the problems it faced and to maximize the presence of police there.

Community involvement was fostered by the team holding periodic beat meetings at which members of the community could bring problems to the police, be involved with the police in seeking solutions, and hold the police accountable for results.

Problem solving highlighted the CAPS program. No longer were the police to be concerned with criminal behavior of the individual offender alone, but were to see crime as a condition rather than an event. They were to focus on the offender, the victim, and the criminogenic conditions surrounding both and try to prevent that critical mass from occurring again. Such a process would involve modern techniques of crime mapping, crime analysis, and situational crime prevention.

Finally, agency partnerships recognized that, having given the police such an expanded role, they clearly could not carry it out alone. A local request for city services would be given to the beat teams in the first instance and the police would call on other agencies to do their part. Such an arrangement could only work in a city in which the mayor had told the heads of the other agencies they would cooperate with the police or lose their jobs.

Later in the program two additional features were provided. The first was the [*363] assignment of a CAPS lieutenant to each district to administer all of the CAPS programs there and be held accountable for them. Second, to increase accountability, an Office of Management Accountability was established which adopted a Chicago version of New York’s CompStat.

Since the success of any program involving community participation would depend on how many people are aware of the program and then willing to participate in it, Skogan’s study tracked public awareness and participation through a series of city-wide surveys. The marketing campaign by the city was quite successful in creating awareness of the program, but that awareness differed according to ethnicity, age, and a range of other variables. Altogether among those surveyed, about one-third said they had attended a beat meeting.

Attendance statistics also revealed an interesting pattern. It had always been received wisdom that community efforts such as neighborhood crime prevention are better supported precisely in those areas and among those residents who need it least. However, Skogan found that in Chicago greater participation at beat meetings was in those areas which needed it most. And participants did bring their concerns to the police – concerns about social disorder, physical decay, gangs, street drug sales, parking and traffic, and then personal and property crime. But the relative emphasis on any of these varied with the character of the area.

The city wanted to avoid the beat meetings becoming nothing more than general gripe sessions or the forum of convenience for any group with an agenda. To deal with this, the beat teams scheduled the meetings and controlled the agenda. Still, that agenda was to serve the needs of the community. Problems brought to the beat teams were to be defined and analyzed, solutions proposed and instrumented, and the police held accountable to the community at the next beat meeting. Of course, attendance was never perfect nor did attendance equally represent all segments of the district, and Skogan carefully documents the over representation of some and the under representation of others – and the consequences.

Finally, whatever the differences in attendance and issues, beat meetings did tend to draw people out, probably because they were held at regularly scheduled times, were widely publicized, were well organized by the beat teams, and people felt safe in coming because of the presence of the police. Of great importance was the opportunity the meetings offered for the police to give information to community members as well as receive information from them. Part of the information given to the community would be a progress report on issues raised at the previous meeting.

The most notable feature of the subjects discussed at beat meetings was their stretch beyond the traditional police agenda. And this fit precisely within the main purpose of the meetings. Conditions reflecting disorder and decay were dealt with, not only as problems in themselves, but also as conditions promoting crime. CAPS itself would [*364] thus seem to fit within the criminological setting of broken windows theory, routine activities theory, and situational crime prevention. Police were the point of reference for all manner of neighborhood problems as well as law breaking, and they brought to bear on these problems an imaginative package of solutions.

A task force was created for aggressive code enforcement at problem sites such as decaying buildings and crack houses. In addition, property owners were held responsible for what went on in their buildings. Administrative hearings were established for administrative violations instead of the more torpid process of court hearings. Liquor enforcement was stepped up, including a “vote dry” referendum which allowed citizens limited authority to prohibit liquor sales in their districts. Residents and school officials undertook measures to make schools safer, to stiffen the curriculum, and generally to involve residents to a far greater extent in their neighborhood’s schools. Finally, there were initiatives by citizens alone, but with protection offered by the police. There were “stand ups” in front of troublesome businesses. There were vigils, holding of community events, and “positive loitering” in disorderly places and in the face of disorderly persons.

Did it work? A series of surveys over a period of ten years tracked Chicago residents’ perceptions of four indices of physical decay: graffiti, abandoned cars, abandoned buildings, and trash and junk. The result broke down along major racial divisions. Whites, who were not that concerned to begin with, saw little improvement; Latinos, who were very concerned, also saw little improvement; but African Americans, who were also very concerned, saw significant improvement. Roughly the same breakdown occurred in regard to the indices of social disorder: loitering, public drinking, and school disruption. Since, at first, the CAPS program was only introduced into a few test districts and then expanded to the entire city, those districts which did not receive the original CAPS program could be used as a comparison group. By comparing data from CAPS districts with those taken from the districts that were not in the original experiment, progress was judged to be “modest” but “promising.”

What about crime and fear of crime? There was a significant decrease in crime, but this was consistent with most other big cities during the period of the study, and Skogan acknowledges the problems with using police data as a measure. Still, crime decreased notably in African American districts. And comparing data from initial non-experimental districts again suggests some real decline in crime did take place in some districts and could be attributed to CAPS. Skogan presents a more compelling argument for a major reduction in fear of crime, suggesting that it was attributable to the CAPS program, to general awareness of the CAPS program, and to increasing confidence in the police. It should be noted that increasing confidence in the police was one of the major goals.

The turnaround in attitudes toward the police may be seen as particularly notable for Chicago where the police [*365] department’s history had been a checkered one, to say the least. And if the record of accomplishment of more discrete goals might be mixed, that would seem less important than laying a foundation of trust, especially in those communities where it was needed most. It might then serve as the basis for ongoing programs of community policing.

There are some who see a trend in policing in America moving increasingly toward a nearly exclusive concern with criminal law enforcement and clearing major cases. In the face of such a trend, we can see the Chicago experiment which, while not devaluing law enforcement, carved out far greater responsibility for the police in the creation and maintenance of civic order as a whole.

In the latter half of the 17th century, the city of Paris was a shambles. At one point, Louis XIV had decamped for his pleasure palace at Versailles and left the city in the hands of his finance minister, Colbert. Colbert, in turn, appointed Nicholas de La Reynie as the first Lieutenant of Police making him responsible for equipping and provisioning the city as well as for its public health, morals, economy, society, and security. The concept of “police” in France at that time, clearly did not refer as much to a particular organization as to a process, the establishment and maintenance of good civic order.

While today we surely would not want a police department given a charge as extensive as that of La Reynie, the task set by CAPS for the Chicago Police Department was probably closer to it than that of many other large police departments. What Chicago was called on to do was substantially to increase good civic order, and Skogan has written a rich description and a thorough evaluation of that effort.

©Copyright 2007 by the author, Sawyer Sylvester.