What does Constitutional policing mean?

Constitutional policing means respectful policing. It means respecting all people’s rights as we go about our job.  This also includes the public’s respect for Law Enforcement Officer who are doing their job. At its most fundamental, it is policing that operates within the parameters set by the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions, the body of court decisions that have interpreted and spelled out in greater detail what the text of the Constitution means in terms of the everyday practices of policing.

Constitutional policing, therefore, is the foundation of community policing. Without Constitutional policing it would be impossible for law enforcement agencies to form positive partnerships with the communities they serve.  The communities have to trust the police. The community has to firmly believe that the police see their mission as protecting civil rights as well as public safety.

There’s a lot of give and take, and the main goal is to keep the community safe and do it in a manner that follows the laws. It’s mutual respect, it’s common sense. It’s just making sure we respect each other and treat each other fairly.

“People will obey the law when they believe that the law is there to protect them and make their community better, not because they’re afraid of getting in trouble.”

—Salinas (California) Police Chief Kelly McMillin

Police leader have recognized that constitutional policing is a concept that should be on the minds of officers, supervisors, commanders, and department leaders on an everyday basis. Police leaders are reviewing their policies and practices to ensure that they not only promote community policing and crime reduction, but also advance the broad constitutional goal of protecting everyone’s civil liberties by providing equal protection under the law for all citizens.

Constitutional policing is essential but not sufficient; it is a baseline standard. If a Police department engages in unconstitutional policing can be taken to court and forced to change its policies or practices. The courts will determine whether a given policy or practice is constitutional or not.

As COPS Office Director Ronald L. Davis noted, “Police officers do what their chief tells them to do. They go where you want them to go, and they engage in activities that you value.” Therefore, chiefs must acknowledge their roles and commit to an organizational culture that values community policing and the protection of constitutional rights.

The chiefs’ behaviors serve as a model for their department. If a police chief treats his or her officers with respect, solicits their views, and acts on their concerns, the officers will be more satisfied in their work life and will be more likely to model the chief’s behavior.

How does a department adapt a training program to leverage concepts of fair and impartial policing?

It all starts in the training academy. The concepts of constitutional policing, community policing, inherent internal and external bias, need to be included in academy training. Subject matter experts in racial profiling, sexual preferences, gender, and age should be invited as speakers and teachers in the police academy. When the officers come out of the academy, they must have a better understanding of the community that they will protect and actually become part of the community. The recruits should understand the culture and that a lot of kids in the high crime areas don’t have a lot. The kids are victims of society where there’s unemployment, there’s disadvantage, there’s inequity. All the kid needs are the right opportunities and they can be anything that they want to be.

For Dallas Police Chief David Brown, changing the training culture meant replacing his entire police academy staff. Brown’s goal was to rebuild the Dallas Police Department’s culture from the ground up, and to capitalize on the openness to discussions about race that new recruits bring into the academy. “The millennials that we’re hiring don’t have the same types of biases that the older generation sometimes has,” Chief Brown said. “They’re much more likely to absorb this. Our twenty-somethings will accept these types of discussions and concepts. So, it’s a great time for leaders to start bending the curve in our culture by having these conversations.”

The introduction of fair and impartial policing training is among the new training initiatives. The training is based on research by social psychologists that has shown that implicit or unconscious bias can impact what people perceive and do, even among people who consciously hold nonprejudiced attitudes. Dr. Lorie Fridell of the University of South Florida, who has developed a Fair and Impartial Policing training program, has said that in the past, training programs for police regarding racial bias have simply conveyed the message, “Stop being prejudiced.”

What is relational capital?  Relationship capital means a willingness to cooperate with the police. Stated another way it means that the community is more likely to perceive law enforcement activities as legitimate and assist the police with information about crime in their neighborhoods. On the other hand, it also means that if mistakes are made the community is more likely to see them as a chance occurrence and trust that the police will correct them.

For example, when Dallas Chief Brown was formulating a strategy to address the open-air drug sales that had long dominated a Dallas intersection, he first focused his attention on building relationships of trust between members of the community and his department. The action plan included devoting attention to youth programs in the area. The Junior Police Academy was a result of this endeavor. The police continued policing in the affected community as they usually did. They did not launch a major drug enforcement effort until Brown was confident in the strength of the department’s relationship with community members and the community’s belief in the legitimacy of the department. When the community was prepared, Brown implemented a large-scale narcotics enforcement effort in the area. This initiative was received positively by the community because they trusted the police. Brown had acquired sufficient relational capital for the community to accept a task force in the area.

What are zero tolerance or hot spot policing areas? Zero tolerance and hot spot policing is a strategy that focuses police enforcement efforts on the particular areas, locations, or places where crime usually occurs such as nightclubs, car washes, or parking lots. These are areas where fights break out every weekend. It could be a convenience store known to allow illegal activity such a selling drugs or prostitution. Focusing police resources on the “hot spots” police can be more effective in deterring and preventing crime, instead of investigating crimes after they are committed.

Hot spot policing has implications for legitimacy and issues of racial bias because the hot spots of crime often are found in poor neighborhoods and areas with significant minority populations.

Zero tolerance is generally recognized as an approach to crime control that combines a “tough-on-crime” stance with nondiscretionary law enforcement. If officers are not allowed to use their discretion sensibly, they can end up cracking down on minor offenses by law-abiding members of the community while serious offenders may evade the police hot spot.  In some cases, the criminals just move to another area until the heavy police presence end. They simply wait it out.


Recognizing and rewarding tactics that contribute to legitimacy as well as to crime reduction send a message to officers that legitimacy and community support are important in policing, and are taken seriously by the department. Making large numbers of stops is no longer the path to promotion in the department, if the stops are not productive. Constitutional policing guaranteeing citizens’ rights, as defined by the text of the Constitution and case law and is a minimum benchmark for police agencies. Additionally, police must also consider the “legitimacy” and procedural justice of their actions in the eyes of the community members. If a community does not believe that the police perform their duties neutrally, fairly, and with respect, they will be less likely to defer to police authority. And without public support, policing becomes difficult or impossible.

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