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September / October 2003

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A Community Approach to Law Enforcement


A Community Approach to Law Enforcement
UMaine's Noel March shares his expertise on strategies that work locally and globally

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A year ago, Noel March handed 15 police officers each a "deed" to one or more of the student residence halls on the University of Maine campus, formally assigning responsibilities that hearken back to walking a neighborhood beat, but with a proactive twist.

Among their duties: the officers are required to introduce themselves to each incoming first-year student in the buildings for which they are responsible. Opening the lines of communication early, March says, is a key to developing the type of relationships on which community policing is based.

"Community policing is a philosophy, an attitude and a strategy," says March, director of UMaine's Department of Public Safety and its year-old Community Policing Division. "Under the community policing model, police are not the faucet that controls the flow of crime, but officers serve as resources and specialists in the prevention of crime, the reduction of the fear of crime and in addressing the social disorder that causes crime."

The community policing model of law enforcement represents an organizational change that has been "the biggest challenge in American law enforcement in the past 10 years," says March, a nationally recognized authority on the practice. During that time, the percentage of U.S. police agencies adopting community-policing strategies has risen from 37 to 77. It is now, he says, the dominant law enforcement strategy in the country.

The philosophy behind community policing is rooted in the work of Sir Robert Peel, the founder of modern policing. While serving as a member of England's parliament in 1829, Peel wrote nine principles of policing. His guiding principles, March says, create the foundation for developing the appropriate role of police.

UMaine Public Safety
Photo illustration by
Valerie Williams

"Under some historical models, police were thought of more like soldiers. Well, soldiers who are fighting a war are looking for the enemy. Peel would say that our true purpose is as peacekeepers who look for allies. That's where we see our strength," he says.

The community policing model has three interconnected components: the development of partnerships, an emphasis on problem-solving, and organizational change. Proponents believe that combining these elements increases the efficiency and the effectiveness of a police operation. Officers are in the role of collaborator rather than the tactical, reactionary street cop.

"Today there's an expectation of a greater degree of service and involvement," says March, "and a higher expectation of credibility than ever before from the public."

The most vivid example of this success, March says, is New York City and its 45,000-member police force. Using what it calls a "neighborhood-oriented" policing model, New York City has dramatically decreased crime and is now, he says, "safer than Boise, Idaho."

Similarly, colleges and universities around the U.S. are recognizing the particular applicability of community policing in the campus environment.

"Community policing is community building," says Richard Chapman, UMaine's vice president for student affairs. "In their service to a community like ours, police must set the appropriate tone and take the proper approach to interaction with students and others. The community policing model helps to create the framework for a productive relationship between the officers and those whom they serve."

March's police career started in 1980 as a patrol officer in Meriden, Conn. For the next 13 years, he worked in a variety of law enforcement roles, including chief deputy sheriff in Cumberland County and two years with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. Most of the work, he says, was in the "traditional, reactive mode."

In 1993, March left police work for a "unique opportunity" in the business development department of MBNA New England, where he eventually became an assistant vice president. During this time, he gained a new perspective on law enforcement.

"When my business colleagues learned that I had been a police officer, there were numerous questions and observations that came to me, things that I never had the opportunity to hear before when I was immersed in the police culture and surrounded by bureaucrats and cops," March says. "It gave me a new appreciation of why police exist and for whom police work.

"The minute you recognize that police are not an island among themselves but are a part of the community, that's when you can realize a greater degree of professional satisfaction and effectiveness."

The perspective gained from private-sector experiences led March back into police work, although in an area far different from the first part of his career. Intrigued by the growing interest in community policing and convinced that it represents a better approach to law enforcement, he took on the challenge of developing and managing the new Maine Community Policing Institute. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, the institute exists to train the state's law enforcement officers and members of the public in community policing.

Then in January 2002, March succeeded Alan Reynolds, who had served as UMaine's police chief for 26 years.

"One of the primary reasons we selected Noel was his professional expertise in community policing," says Chapman. "Working in concert with the other units in our Student Affairs Division since Noel arrived, UMaine's police department has actively engaged others on campus. As a result of this collaborative approach, the officers are more effective and our common goals of safety and productivity are more easily realized."

At UMaine, March oversees a department of 31 people — 20 sworn, state-certified officers, four security guards, five dispatchers and two members of the office staff. It's a small but dedicated group, responsible for a 660-acre campus that is home to nearly 4,000 residents from September–May. As many as 20,000 students, employees and visitors can be on campus at any given time.

"UMaine is not unlike any other community of this size, in terms of the social issues that arise from day to day," March says. "That is why we work to develop partnerships with students and other members of our community. Partnerships are force multipliers. The more people we have looking out for one another, the more effective we expect we are going to be."

Officers in a community policing agency are committed to resolving problems by eliminating the cause. Examples include adding lights in a parking lot or more speed limit signs in an area where traffic moves too fast. It also works with more serious issues.

"This approach helps us to prevent crimes before they happen and to deal with issues better," says Officer Deborah Mitchell, a 19-year veteran of the UMaine force. "Our power does not come from being intimidating, it comes from being approachable."

There is evidence that the wholesale adoption of the community policing philosophy at UMaine is working. During the 2001 fall semester, residence hall damage at UMaine cost students approximately $23,000. During the same time frame the next year, with significantly more students living on campus, that cost was $13,000. UMaine police charged 264 people with crimes in the 2001 fall semester, 175 in the fall semester of 2002.

"The absence of arrests should be viewed as an indicator of success," March says. "If we're doing our jobs, that means a reduction in violations and an increase in voluntary compliance. That's the goal. That's the overall community objective everyone can buy into."

Other manifestations of the community policing philosophy on campus include increased bicycle patrols in good weather. A community-policing desk in the Memorial Union is staffed during the mid-day throughout the academic year, with an officer available to answer questions or to discuss issues with commuter students and others. The department also has worked to make its Web site "more than just an online brochure." It now includes a section called "Campus Eyes," which allows people to anonymously report suspicious activity.

"When communication begins to flow, and the trust begins to build and the relationships begin to strengthen, then the fabric of protection grows stronger across our community," March says.

Despite the focus on collaboration and crime prevention, March is quick to point out that the Department of Public Safety deals effectively and severely with serious issues. Community policing is not soft on crime.

"It is more effective on crime than anything we have tried in the past. We have more people willing to do more in their neighborhoods and in all parts of campus. That's what makes the difference. You can have the most effective and dynamic police force in the world, but without the willing cooperation and support of the public, you will be only a fraction as effective as you would be with that cooperation and support."

Ultimately, March says, exposure to community policing can be an important part of a UMaine student's education.

"If they learn skills about their role as a community member — someone who owns responsibility, in part, for peaceful coexistence, who has respect for others' rights and who knows how to be an active member of a community — they will be able to reduce crime, the fear of crime and social disorder. They will know their role in the community part of community policing."

by Joe Carr
September-October, 2003

Click Here for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.


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