Law enforcement veered away from community policing after 9/11 attacks

Twenty years ago, the country saw images of police officers heroically running into buildings that would soon come crashing down.

But over the past few years, people have seen uglier images of police officers abusing their power.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed policing in America, according to William Terrill, professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University.

And now, he said, policing seems to be pivoting again.

“To understand this fully, we need to go back a tad before 9/11,” Terrill said. 

“There was a big push in the 1980s, which really started to take off in the 1990s, toward the community policing movement.

“Much of the 1990s was trying to get away from the military approach of policing. There are ways of engaging in public safety that don’t require going into arrest mode and locking people up.”

Community policing is, ‘I can arrest you, yes, but is there something else I can do?’ Because the police are not trying to eliminate an enemy; they’re trying to protect society and not take life unless absolutely necessary.”

— ASU Professor William Terrill

In 1994, the U.S. passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which established an Office of Community Policing in Washington, D.C. The legislation also pledged to put 100,000 new officers on the streets.

“It was contingent on police departments to assign those officers to duties that were community policing related, which were the opposite of the get-tough, get-the-bad-guy, high-speed-chase way of doing things,” he said.

The concept was gaining traction when the terrorist attacks happened.

“After 9/11, it really went back to this basic, fundamental aspect of public safety and the fear that we could be attacked in our homeland, so we need a very strong police force,” said Terrill, who also is associate dean of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Local law enforcement moved away from community policing and reverted back to old-school policing, he said.

“Local law enforcement has been somewhat slow to respond, in my experience, with trying to get back to the community policing approach,” Terrill said.

In August 2014, police shot and killed Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year-old Black man in Ferguson, Missouri, igniting unrest over police tactics. Terrill sees that as a turning point.

“I do think law enforcement needs to get away from the ‘lock-up-everyone,’ ‘everyone-is-a-threat’ policing and think more toward policing the community,” he said.

Trust in law enforcement has slipped because of high-profile police shootings that people see from body-worn cameras by officers at the street level, he said.

That’s in contrast to the pro-police sentiment after 9/11.

“There was a wave of public sentiment on the hero side of the equation and the recognition that officers put their lives at risk,” Terrill said. “That has waned as we have started to see the other side.”

Terrill said that dissatisfaction with the police is not new.

“Sometimes it’s a little challenging for someone in their 20s to see the last five years and the civil unrest and dissatisfaction with police and realize that that it isn’t new,” he said.

There was a wave of public sentiment on the hero side of the equation and the recognition that officers put their lives at risk,” Terrill said. “That has waned as we have started to see the other side.”

— ASU Professor William Terrill

There has been conflict between race and class over much of the entire history of American policing, with the 1960s as a watershed.

“That was a time where society stepped in and said, ‘The police are going too far.’ We got things like the Miranda warning and the right to legal counsel,” he said.

Terrill believes that worries about local police acquiring military-grade equipment in the aftermath of 9/11 are overblown.

“You’ll find stories of small towns and rural places that have an armor-piercing vehicle in case they get attacked, but a lot of that equipment has gone to major cities and there are certainly times it’s needed in a critical incident,” he said.

The tragedy of 9/11 is an example of the U.S. not being fully prepared.

“Policing is an occupation that has to be prepared for the critical incidents, not the bell-curve distribution, but the tails — the things that probably won’t occur but they have to be ready for when it does occur,” he said.

“Do I think the equipment went overboard and is sitting in storage? There’s some evidence of that. But it’s a narrow way of looking at it.”

More important is how policing works in a community.

“If you’re viewing everyone as a danger, distrusting citizens and continuously stopping and searching and using force, that’s a form of military policing,” he said.

“Community policing is, ‘I can arrest you, yes, but is there something else I can do?’

“Because the police are not trying to eliminate an enemy; they’re trying to protect society and not take life unless absolutely necessary.”

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Top illustration by Alex Davis/ASU

Mary Beth Faller
News image: 
marybeth.faller@asu.edu