The Importance of Social Capital

In the process of developing community policing strategies, social capital is a vital component to influence change in the community and a core competency for any community leader looking to increase effectiveness.

For law enforcement leaders, establishing social capital is a step in building bridges to the community. It can be thought of as a bank account of trust, goodwill, honesty and mutual understanding that can be drawn upon when forging a connection between officers and people in the community.

Social capital is the practice of developing and maintaining relationships that form social networks willing to help each other. These networks perform best when they are diverse, so leaders need to identify people capable of helping their cause who they may not normally encounter or regularly interact with.

Building the relationships that increase social capital requires time and looking at relationships as a web rather than individual connections. Meeting in an informal setting can help increase trust and understanding. The level of trust, frequency of cooperative changes, group cohesion and social support are all factors that go into making community relationships viable.

For law enforcement agencies, access to neighborhood leaders, community organizations and power brokers provides connections to resources and enhances the ability to influence standards, regulations and the distribution of resources.

When communities and law enforcement have a bank of social capital, they can collectively find ways to engage in actions that will contribute to their own well-being and enhance their relationship.

Leadership is Essential

Using social capital as a framework for community policing, departments have to rely heavily on proper leadership and structural changes to promote and enforce trust, reciprocity and co-production.

Because successes in community policing involve problem-solving strategies and community partnerships that start at the officer level rather than administrative, officers need to understand what community policing is and how to practice it. Their leaders have to provide the necessary support to make it a reality.

In other words, community policing efforts need to be integrated into the duties of everyone within the organization. Otherwise, the cultural change this approach to policing is intended to bring about may struggle to blossom.

Building relationships with the community to increase social capital is particularly helpful during times where the relationship between police and the community is strained. Engagement can build levels of trust and confidence that cultivate cooperation and reduce the need to rely on expensive enforcement strategies.

A 2006 study from Virginia Commonwealth University and RAND Corporation found social capital can partly offset distrust of police in African-American communities, while a lack of social capital can increase distrust.

Leadership and training are key aspects to developing a community engagement strategy that will be effective. It’s most effective when viewed as a long-term project. When executed properly, training in community policing can empower officers to identify and use assets and ties that exist within communities to develop joint strategies to solve problems and improve the quality of life for the citizens they serve.

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