The Canadian Review of Policing Research (2005)

ISSN: 1710 6915


Christopher Murphy

Christopher Murphy (PhD, Toronto) is an Associate Professor and current Chair of the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia. He specializes in teaching, research and scholarship on policing and security issues. This is a summary of a longer article published in French entitled, “La «sécuritisation» du Community policing anglo-américain. Vers un modèle alternatif de police publique”, Les Cahiers de la securité intérieure, 55, 1 trimestre, Paris, pp, 37-59, 2004 . An English translation can be obtained from the author at


Since 9/11 public police in Canada and elsewhere are being asked to add new security functions to their conventional crime control mandate. Public police are now responsible for policing environments where security incidents may happen and where domestic threats reside and are increasingly part of central, jointly coordinated, or integrated national security policing networks. Though the nature and impact of these new security functions are still evolving, their distinctive policing character threatens to change some of the democratic qualities of Canadian public policing and redefine how local “suspect” communities are policed. This article describes the two distinct paradigms of security and public policing and explains how mixing security and public policing results in the “securitization”1 of public policing, especially the policing of suspect communities through community policing.

Since the New York terrorist attacks, community-based policing has been increasingly reconstituted within a security context and its operational practices made compatible with the logic and values of security policing. This is problematic, but as national security and the policing of local suspect communities will remain a shared police responsibility, it is important to develop a public policing alternative to the dominant security-based model of community policing currently being promoted. Examining the post 9/11 experiences of some Canadian police forces and their subsequent policing of suspect communities suggests that such a model is both possible and desirable.

Securitizing public policing

The tensions between security and public policing are rooted in their very different political histories and purpose. Security policing has its roots in the so-called “continental” policing traditions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France. Descendant from “ruler appointed policing”2, security-oriented policing derives its authority from a state or government. Security police are agents of government and their primary purpose is its protection. A form of political or “high” policing3, security policing employs policing strategies that are secret, meaning they do not require public consent and are not open to public or legal scrutiny.

The public police model created in England rejected secretive and authoritarian continental policing, developing instead a police model compatible with past community policing practices and growing democratic values.4 The mandate of the new public police was to protect public order and property by the prevention and suppression of crime. Police authority was derived from the law and public consent rather than the government, and all police were public, uniformed, unarmed and their actions legally and publicly accountable.

The addition of security policing functions to the public policing mandate introduces objectives and strategies that complicate and undermine traditional public policing principles and values. This is illustrated by examining the impact of security on community policing and the post-9/11 experiences of some Canadian police services and suspect communities.

Securitizing community policing

Community policing has become the dominant model of late-modern policing in most western countries. Though variously described and operationalized,5 the core principles of community policing require police to work with the community and its agencies to help co-produce community safety and security. In return for their consent and collaboration, police encourage community involvement in local policing policy, are responsive to local policing priorities and involve the community in various local policing activities. So, at least in theory, community policing advocates an interactive, collaborative, and accountable relationship between police and communities being policed.

Since 9/11, however, public policing in Canada and the United States has begun to shift its attitudes towards community, and the use of community policing as a security strategy. Terrorist attacks in New York, London, and Madrid have increased domestic security concerns, transforming some suspect communities from policing partners, or resources, to a policing problem, or a risk location. As a result, a constellation of American academics, government agencies and police training programs are promoting the use community policing as a key domestic policing strategy in the so-called war on terrorism. The security-based version of community policing views the community as a strategic resource, a source of security information and intelligence. Community members are encouraged to reaffirm their suspect citizenship and political loyalty by watching, calling, and sharing information on suspicious neighbours or friends with local police. The surveillance gaze of neighbourhood watch programs shifts from watching strangers to watching suspect neighbours. National security agencies encourage local police to use their community-policing programs and relationships to penetrate local communities to provide community intelligence and, if necessary, to use policing techniques such as community surveillance, paid informants, and undercover operations. In a national security context, local police are there to meet national security needs, thus privileging national security over local policing concerns.

While these policing strategies are logical and justifiable from a national security perspective, using carefully developed community, trust-based social relationships for the benefit of a broad national security agenda subverts the traditional local orientation of community-based policing. The strategic and manipulative use of community capital for national security reasons can easily undermine the fragile relationships between local police and communities, making it harder for local police to do either routine policing or ultimately effective security policing.6

A Canadian model of community-based security policing

Despite the concerns described, the threat of domestic and foreign terrorism makes security a legitimate and important local policing and community concern. The challenge is to find a way to police suspect communities that is consistent with public and community policing principles and practices, while meeting broader security needs. The experience of some Canadian police services after 9/11 offers some suggestions about how an effective and democratic public policing approach to security-oriented community policing might be developed.

My research on the Canadian post-9/11 police response suggests that the character of the established police-community relationship determines how police and suspect communities deal with security anxieties and concerns. Where the police created positive and active relationships with local ethnic immigrant communities, they seemed to be able to address both public security concerns and the insecurity of suspect communities. The police not only mediated public and political insecurity about localized terrorism but also the fears of those communities under suspicion of being the source of the terror. Good police-community relationships and communications thus enhanced police knowledge and understanding of the community and, in addition, made for more accurate threat assessments of persons or activities within a community.

In communities where police-community relationships had not been developed, relations after 9 /11 were often characterized by mutual suspicion and distrust. A lack of established community relationships and trust meant that police had limited community information and intelligence and had no clear communication channels to solicit the information required to dispel public anxiety or address security concerns. The lack of reliable community intelligence resulted in a tendency to generalize risk and suspicion to the whole community rather than limit it to identifiable individuals or groups. This intelligence deficit also forced police to use a variety of surreptitious and unpopular secret surveillance and intelligence-gathering techniques, thus reinforcing community paranoia, anger and alienation.

The Canadian experience suggest the advantages of adopting a traditional public police model, where police remain representative of both government and the community and serve as protectors of both public and individual security. The public police mediate between citizens and their governments rather than simply act on behalf of governmental authority. Public police play a critical role in negotiating relationships between suspect communities, governments, and the broader society. The relationship between police and suspect communities in this model is characterized by reciprocal recognition that it is in the interest of both the police and the community to establish effective working relationships that facilitate both public and community security interests. Democratic police-community relationships are far more likely to produce more relevant and reliable information, thus allowing for more reliable, targeted, and effective, but defensible, police actions in the community. Therefore, for police to be effective, they require the co-operation and consent of the community being policed, and collaborative forums for communication, governance and accountability. Suspect communities benefit from this relationship by becoming active and informed participants in their own security policing, protecting their own collective security and affirming their right to responsive and accountable public policing

Conclusions and unanswered questions

This preliminary public policing model of security-based community policing recognizes but does not resolve a number of tensions and contradictions inherent in the use of community policing as a security policing strategy. Questions remain on how to balance the tensions between state security and local policing needs, between individual and collective rights, and community collaboration and the problematic nature of ‘community’ in a security context. All of them need much more careful thought and elaboration. While these complex issues are not easily resolved, they need to be addressed in a more fully developed Canadian public policing alternative to the homeland security models of community policing that dominate current policing discourse and practice.


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End Notes

1. Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, and Jaap de Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis, London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002 .

2. Charles Reith, (1975). The Blind Eye of History: A Study of the Origins of the Present Police Era, N.J: Patterson Smith, 1975.

3. Jean-Paul Brodeur, “High Policing and Low Policing: Remarks About the Policing of Political Activities”, Social Problems, vol. 30, no. 5, 1983.

4. Richard J. Lundman, Police and Policing: An Introduction, Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980.

5. Les Johnston, “From “Pluralisation” to “The police extended family”: discourses on the governance of community policing in Britain”, International Journal of the Sociology of Law, 31, 185-204, 2003; Christopher Murphy, “Policing Postmodern Canada”, Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 13 (2), 1998; Christopher Murphy, “The Development, Impact and Implications of Community Policing in Canada”, in Community Policing Rhetoric or Reality, ed. by S. Mastrofski and J. Green, pp.178-189, Sage Publication, 1988.

6. Peter Manning, “Security in High Modernity”, draft of an invited chapter intended for volume 4, Corruption, Policing, Security and Democracy, edited by S. Einstein and M. Amir, in their Uncertainty Series, 2002.