February 10, 2023
Over the last several years, law enforcement has acknowledged the need to improve trust and build relationships within their communities. Police departments have relied on community- oriented policing (COP) to address this need; however, police can do more to strengthen these efforts. Research has shown that while community policing is beneficial for improving public satisfaction, there is still a need for a formal COP model (Gill et al., 2014). Law enforcement needs a systematic, evidence-based foundation for teaching officers to build relationships before a crisis occurs, and relationship-based policing can meet this need.
Relationship-based policing is defined as “Establishing and maintaining individual relationships with community members and collateral professionals with the purposeful goal of collaborative problem-solving and management of complex community issues” (Mastoras, 2022).
Additionally, relationship-based policing strengthens the pillars of COP by providing the “how to” for community collaboration, problem-solving, and organizational change (Gill & Mastoras, 2021). This multidisciplinary approach founded on counseling psychology helps officers build meaningful, individual relationships with community and collateral stakeholders to enhance strategies such as problem-oriented policing (POP).
Police are already familiar with evidence-based policing strategies such as hot spots policing, where officers are directed to locations where crime is concentrated. Additionally, implementing POP as a hot spots policing strategy can significantly reduce violent crime (Koper et al., 2011) in the long term. However, the challenge for many police departments when implementing a POP strategy is that it needs to be faster to develop and takes time to implement (George Mason University Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, 2022). POP also involves officers collaborating with other municipal agencies and community stakeholders, which requires building individual and reliable relationships.
A recent Route Fifty article discusses the problem-oriented approach to curb violent crime in the Community Safety Partnership (CSP) in Los Angeles, California (Potts, 2022). However, the article does not acknowledge the relationships that CSP officers built with stakeholders that reduced the conditions that fuel gang-related violence. In 2020, Dr. Jorga Leap of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) released an evaluation of the CSP, providing findings and recommendations. For example, the CSP approach begins with training for officers to build trust and relationships within the community. The UCLA review found that residents have improved confidence in CSP officers and perceptions of safety in CSP areas while reducing conditions contributing to violent gang crime (Leap, 2020).
Police leaders have acknowledged the value of procedural justice in improving community perceptions of the legitimacy of police activities (Tyler, 2014) and officer de-escalation training.They are focused on tactics during a crisis (Police Executive Research Forum, 2022). However, the challenge remains: how do officers build relationships with community members and municipal agency staff to collaborate on holistic problem-oriented strategies solely focused on prevention?
During my career as a police officer in Arlington County, Virginia, I often found it challenging to engage stakeholders and develop the individual relationships needed to collaborate. I also needed help finding training available that addresses this need. Although some law enforcement leaders use the term “relational policing” (Acevedo, 2019), it lacks empirical evidence and a proven training model. Police typically hold outreach events such as ‘Coffee with a Cop,’ which primarily attract community members who already support the police. In my experience, these community policing events rarely interest members of the community that police need most to prevent crime.
Collaborative problem-solving with the most affected community members and municipal agencies requires relationship-building skills beyond what officers are already trained to do. I’ve often heard that connecting with people in the community is easy, common sense, and is often referred to as a “soft skill.” However, building a productive and lasting relationship is a complex endeavor that needs to be valued as a core competency in addition to defensive tactics, firearms, and emergency vehicle operations.
Moving forward, officers need training that teaches them techniques to build genuine, individual relationships that allow them to work on systemic issues collaboratively. In 2016, Molly C. Mastoras, MA, LPC, pioneered and created the Proactive Alliance relationship-based policing approach using evidence-based counseling psychology principles adapted for officers and municipal enforcement staff. It addresses a key finding in the UCLA evaluation of the CSP: the need for a systematic, replicable model that officers can learn and apply. Proactive Alliance relationship-based policing (Gill & Mastoras, 2021) provides officers with the tools to become agents of change, break down barriers with other municipal staff, and reach stakeholders who may need to be more active in working with the police.
Relationship-based policing was the foundation of my work in reducing alcohol-related violence as the lead of the Arlington Restaurant Initiative (ARI) multi-agency program (National Institute of Justice, 2019). It focuses on building productive relationships and trusts with bar owners, staff, and security. A unified approach and commitment to building relationships by county agencies helped convince bar owners to join the first voluntary bar accreditation model in the United States. In addition, the program raises operational standards for bars and restaurants through employee policies and training to proactively address problems with Arlington County agencies before they escalate. Implementing ARI resulted in a drop in alcohol-related violence and a change in culture where all stakeholders, bar owners, municipal agencies, and resident groups work together to manage issues.
Relationship-based policing was also the foundation for the Arlington County Homeless Outreach Coalition (Arlington County, 2020). This program unified all agencies and organizations to address homelessness in Arlington by breaking down agency communication barriers, collaborative problem-solving, and incorporating a unified strategy.
There is a distinct contrast between amorphous community policing and the evidence behind relationship-based policing. The success of programs such as the Community Safety Partnership, the Arlington Restaurant Initiative, and the Homeless Outreach Coalition illustrate the value of structured training for law enforcement to build relationships with stakeholders when implementing evidence-based policing strategies. Law enforcement leaders should begin supporting relationship-based policing within their agencies to improve their capacity for problem-solving with the community and other municipal agencies.
Dimitrios Mastoras is a retired master police officer from Arlington County, Virginia. He is now a nightlife management and relationship-based policing consultant at Safe Night LLC.
Arlington County, Virginia (2020). Arlington Launches Homeless Outreach Coalition. https://www.arlingtonva.us/AboutArlington/News/Articles/2020/Arlington-Launches- Homeless-Outreach-Coalition
George Mason University Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy (2022). What Works
in Policing? Hot Spots Policing. https://cebcp.org/evidence-based-policing/what-works- in-policing/research-evidence-review/hot-spots policing/#:~:text=Hot%20spots%20policing%20covers%20a,where%20crime%20 is%20highly%20concentrated.
Gill, C., & Mastoras, M. C. (2021). Proactive Alliance: Combining policing and counseling psychology. Journal of Community Safety and Well-Being, 6(3), 112–117. https://doi.org/10.35502/jcswb.193
Gill, C., Weisburd, D., Telep, C.W. et al. (2014). Community-oriented policing to reduce crime, disorder, and fear and increase satisfaction and legitimacy among citizens: a systematic review. J Exp Criminol 10, 399–428. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-014-9210-y
Leap, J. (2020). Evaluation of the LAPD Community Safety Partnership. UCLA Luskin. http://www.lapdpolicecom.lacity.org/051220/CSP%20Evaluation%20Report_202 0_FINAL.pdf
Mark43 (2019). Episode 4: How Relational Policing is Saving Lives with Chief Art Acevedo. https://mark43.com/resources/podcast/episode-4-how-relational-policing-is-saving-lives- with-chief-art-acevedo/
Mastoras, M.C., (2022). Proactive Alliance: Combining Policing and Counseling Psychology.
Arizona State University Center for Problem-Oriented Policing https://popcenter.asu.edu/sites/default/files/proactive_alliance_mastoras.pdf
National Institute of Justice (2019). Arlington Restaurant Initiative, Partners Work Together for Safety. https://nij.ojp.gov/library/publications/arlington-restaurant- initiative-partners-work-together-safety
Police Executive Research Forum (2022). ICAT Training. https://www.policeforum.org/icat- training-guide
Potts, J. (2022). Curbing Violent Crime Through Place-based Policing, Route Fifty. https://www.route-fifty.com/public-safety/2022/03/curbing-violent-crime- through-place- based-policing/363096/
Taylor, B., Koper, C. S., Woods, D. J. (2011). A randomized controlled trial of different policing strategies at violent crime hot spots. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 7(2): 149-181. https://cebcp.org/evidence-based-policing/the-matrix/micro- places/micro-places-taylor-et-al-2011/
Tyler, T. (2014). Legitimacy and Procedural Justice: A New Element of Police Leadership, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual- library/abstracts/legitimacy-and-procedural-justice-new-element-police-leadership
Disclaimer: The points of view or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position of the National Policing Institute.
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