As I have led and participated in assessments for large and small police agencies across the country, I have been impressed with the progress many law enforcement agencies have made implementing community-oriented policing (COP). Many of us have come to know the popular and successful COP programs such as Coffee With a Cop, Midnight Basketball, Citizens’ Police Academy and Neighborhood Watch, among many others. Such programs have helped connect sworn police personnel with those they serve in their communities, as well as leverage key community stakeholders’ resources to help implement these COP programs.

The success of these agencies, however, often depends on with whom they choose to work during implementation. While many agencies have created specific units to champion the COP philosophy, not all have included significant stakeholders who can add great value to the COP conversation.

Case in point? Detectives.

Detectives Represent a Key Force Multiplier

Most COP programs are designed and implemented by personnel assigned to the departments’ patrol functions. In other words, these few individuals — often collectively known as a “COP Unit” — are responsible for coordinating these new strategies without operationalizing them throughout the agency.

I’ve found that some progressive and professional agencies have avoided this conundrum by instilling the COP philosophy through all patrol sergeants and team members. These individuals can identify the root causes of crimes in their areas, and then determine how they can collaborate with other community stakeholders, including non-profit organizations, faith-based groups, social service agencies, school officials and other government agencies. This collaboration allows a community collectively to develop a strategic focus on preventing, intervening and suppressing criminal activity affecting their specific area, rather than depending on a single body with implementation power.

Yet even agencies that embrace such successful patrol-based COP programs still sometimes fail to recognize the potential within other department personnel. Detectives are one of the most underappreciated resources for this effort, and have proven to be pivotal in police practice reform.

San Jose’s Secret to Combating Gang Violence

One example is the San Jose Police Department (SJPD) and the San Jose Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Services Department (PRNS) leading what is known as the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force (GPTF). In the early to mid-1990s, SJPD realized it would never be able to “arrest its way out” of growing gang problems in certain sectors of the city; with over a million residents and a historically low number of police officers, it needed a better solution for protecting kids from gangs, as well as assisting those who wished to get out.[1] Clearly, this was not something SJPD was going to be able to do alone. It needed to leverage the resources of other community stakeholders to succeed.

First, SJPD garnered support from then-Mayor Susan Hammer, as well as the PRNS director and other key staff. Then, working closely with the Chief of Police, they conducted extensive outreach to solicit the support and participation of other elected officials, school superintendents, leaders of faith-based organizations, and executive directors of non-profit organizations and social services agencies to serve on a Policy Team. This Policy Team created a written strategic plan that stated specific goals and measurable objectives these leaders’ support staff could implement while serving on a Technical Team.

One key to SJPD’s success was that it didn’t only rely on the work of patrol personnel; rather, the Violent Crimes Unit (VCU) — the SJPD detective unit that focused on investigating gang crime — played a central role in collaborating with the many community stakeholders and patrol-based units that combated gang crime at the street level. Key VCU partners were also found in the representatives from PRNS. In fact, the VCU Commander served as a member of the Technical Team alongside PRNS members.

Ultimately, the VCU detectives had the best working knowledge of all of the gangs and their members throughout the entire city. After all, their singular purpose was investigating all gang crimes citywide. VCU detectives were able to share statistical information with the other community stakeholders to help identify regions of the city where these stakeholders could concentrate their prevention and intervention efforts effectively. Without the proactive efforts of the VCU detectives — and their collaboration with patrol units, PRNS representatives and others — the ongoing efforts of GPTF would not have achieved the levels of gang crime prevention it has maintained to this day.

Police Agencies’ Untapped Resource

As San Jose has demonstrated, detectives can and do play a key role in affecting successful COP programs. In fact, considering the work done by detectives who investigate child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence, one can already see how they could positively impact the prevention of these crimes as well. A number of law enforcement agencies have already made this connection and their detectives participate in “Family Violence Centers,” where they work shoulder-to-shoulder with community stakeholders to provide appropriate support services in a single location.

In all areas of policing, detectives can bring their on-the-ground expertise and advise on the best strategies moving forward. In San Jose and beyond, they can work with their colleagues and make a difference.


[1] Going back as far as the 1980’s, the department was averaging about 1.1 officers per 1,000 residents, while the national average was about 2.4 to 2.6, making SJPD the lowest-staffed  police department in the entire nation for a city with more than 500,000 population.