Building Bridges

Mary Ann Wycoff Mary Ann Wycoff

thPerhaps, most important, police and citizens got acquainted.  They learned one another’s faces and names. Police learned they were valued.

[The following is a guest post by an longtime friend and colleague, Mary Ann Wycoff. I have known Mary Anne for a good part of four decades in her role as a police researched for both the Police Foundation and Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) as well as a close friend and advisor. While talking with her the other day about the state of policing she reminded me of an early study from the 1980s in Houston about getting officers out of their cars and into the neighborhoods — and, while they were there, to talk with the people who were there. And while there were there, they learned an amazing thing.]

BUILDING POLICE-COMMUNITY BRIDGES:  CITIZEN CONTACT PATROL

th-2By Mary Ann Wycoff

Years ago, one of my nephews, a former police officer,  told me that police, in order to be safe, needed ”to get out of their cars and onto the sidewalks and get to know the people they are policing”.  We talked about ways of doing that and I shared with him a report about a police-citizen contact strategy the National Institute of Justice, the Houston Police Department and the Police Foundation had evaluated in the 1980s.

At this moment, when so many of us are concerned about officer safety and police-community interaction, it is a story that may bear repeating.

In 1982 the National Institute of Justice funded studies of a number of “fear reduction strategies” that were to be developed and tested in Newark, New Jersey and Houston, Texas.   One of the approaches of interest was foot patrol.  It could be tested in Newark but Houston had very few sidewalks at that time.  Hard to do foot patrol without sidewalks—and with a territory of (then) over 500 square miles to patrol.

The group of officers in Houston that was tasked with developing approaches to be tested in their city read about a method of citizen contact that had been used in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  They made a site visit and learned that, for a limited period of time, officers had gone door to door in the areas they policed, introducing themselves to residents and having brief conversations with them.  The Chief, William Hagerty, had been hired by the City of Grand Rapids and charged with healing a serious breach between citizens and police in that community.  The door to door approach was one that he asked his officers to try.  They were not excited about  the prospect.  He asked if they could do it for only two weeks and they agreed.  At the end of that time, some of the officers who had been involved in the outreach effort approached the chief to argue for an extension of the program; they were just getting too much good information “out there” to stop now.  The chief agreed.  And he knew that, in addition to whatever information they were collecting, they were receiving a warm embrace from a community that was eager to see them.

th-1The Houston task force decided to test what would be called Citizen Contact Patrol in a neighborhood in Houston but they warned the evaluator that, although they would do their best, there probably would be few contacts actually made.  They were certain that when they knocked on the front door, citizens would rapidly exit the rear.  It didn’t happen.  Not once to anyone’s knowledge.  They had no trouble making their quota of house calls and business contacts, plus more than the study required.  The conversations usually were not lengthy, four to five minutes on average.  The officers would introduce themselves, say they just wanted to get better acquainted with the area, learn whether there were any problems of particular concern, etc.  They would leave a business card in case the individual wanted to contact them later. Citizens were eager to talk, sometimes inviting officers in for coffee and a snack.  One woman was especially glad to welcome “her” officer; she knew that a neighbor down the street had been visited several days earlier and she had feared her house had been skipped.

Based on surveys conducted before and after implementation of the strategy, Citizen Contact Patrol was found to have reduced fear of personal victimization in the neighborhood, to have reduced the perception that personal and property crimes were major problems there and to have reduced the perception of social disorder in the area.  There was a significant increase in satisfaction with the neighborhood as a place to live and an increase in satisfaction with police services.  These changes did not occur in the control neighborhood.

When the evaluator interviewed the officers after the project ended, they all reported having had a positive experience and, to a person, they reported their surprise at finding how eager the public was to talk with them.  “They like us!” One officer reported that he had developed “100 good informants” as a result of his contacts.

One day, that officer was hailed in a store by a citizen.  “Officer Epperson, …” the man called out.  He wanted to report a suspicious vehicle parked on his street.  What Officer Epperson wanted to report was that the gentleman remembered his name, fourteen months after they had met.

Citizen Contact Patrol was simple; it required little training and took little time.  The only expense was the business cards the officers distributed.  For only a bit of effort, the results were substantial.  Citizens were less fearful, thought crime was less of a problem, were more satisfied with their neighborhood and were more satisfied with police service.

Perhaps, most important, police and citizens got acquainted.  They learned one another’s faces and names.

Police learned they were valued.

And they got a bit of healthy exercise after spending too many hours in a squad car.


M.A.  Wycoff and W.G. Skogan. Citizen Contact Patrol: The Houston Field Test. National Institute of Justice. 1985.