Community-oriented policing is not new ? it represents the current state of law enforcement's ever-changing philosophy. With the addition of new tools to disseminate information, however, the concept may be here to stay.

Law enforcement has gone from trying to prevent crime to merely reacting to it, and back to trying to prevent it. Beat cops that walked precincts were believed to be crime deterrents. Then police got mobile with squad cars, and the distance between law enforcement and the community grew.

Today, whether trying to prevent crime or catch a kidnapper, law enforcement is discovering that information is key, and in the hands of the community, it provides enormous benefits. With the advent of the Web and other technologies, police no longer have to go door-to-door to get their message out.

"We're back to using community-oriented policing, and we're really using technology to our advantage," said Rich Stanek, Minnesota public safety commissioner. "We used to say, years ago, that we couldn't prevent crime, just respond to it. Then we figured out we could prevent it by engaging different communities or citizens themselves."

Though the recent trend toward crime prevention is partly a result of 9-11, law enforcement has long known the benefit of involving the community. Now police agencies are taking it a step further by engaging communities with information they previously weren't eager to share with citizens.

"We always used to say what's classified and what's not classified, and 'We're police and we can't share it with you,'" Stanek said. "That's not necessarily true anymore."

In some quarters, in fact, the pendulum is swinging toward releasing more information and letting citizens filter it.

Decades ago as a young police chief, Jerry Boles, now associate director of Michigan Regional Community Policing Institute, was reluctant to release information to the public because he feared it would be used "unscrupulously by certain segments of the community." He later came to believe "people who would do that sort of thing are going to do it anyway," and the value of educating the public outweighed the risks.

"If you don't engage, if you don't enlist the support of the people you serve, then all you're going to do is respond," he said.

Some jurisdictions or agencies remain reluctant, but Boles said more information sharing is inevitable. "Information is power, and you're not going to be partners until you share the power."

The technologies to distribute information electronically now are readily available, and the public will demand access to more data, he added.

Some of those same tools also are helping law enforcement agencies internally by refining the problem-solving process, Boles said. "Historically we kind of shot from the hip in terms of dealing with police problems. Through better databases, through better access of information electronically, we're able to not guess anymore, not go by our gut."

Interactive Tool

Police in Minnesota enlisted a third party to help develop community engagement. CitizenObserver is an Internet-based business devoted to crime prevention. It gives law enforcement agencies an interactive tool to communicate with the community, providing a pipeline for information on fugitives, unsolved crimes, missing persons and related information.

CitizenObserver launched in 1999 after a man shot his soon to be ex-wife. Though the victim survived a bullet in the back, the perpetrator disappeared. Frustrated, the victim's stepson and another man collected information on the case and put it on a Web site interconnected with the St. Paul Police Department. This resulted in numerous tips -- including one that eventually led to the capture of the shooter -- and the creation of CitizenObserver.

The resulting software delivers four communication tools to participating law enforcement agencies, the primary being

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor