Dimensions and limits of the application of the community policing model in France.

Bibliographic synthesis

Barbora BORAKOVA, 2009

This fact sheet outlines the causes and issues of urban insecurity and the means to address them, taking a comparative approach to American and French management methods.


For the past thirty years, Western societies have been marked by a growing feeling of insecurity. For the French sociologists of the 1970s and 80s, the increase in insecurity was a fantasy and the result of a security drift fuelled by the anxiety-inducing statements of the media. In fact, the work of Henry Coing and Christian Meunier shows that there is no link between being a victim of a crime and an increase in the feeling of insecurity.

In the 1990s, the work of Sébastien Roché marked a real turning point in this field of research. Roché establishes a positive correlation between proximity of delinquency and an increase in the feeling of insecurity. For him, the increase in incivilities, acts that do not hurt but that upset the rules of social life 1 (snatch thefts, attacks on people, physical damage on the public highway…) explain the increase in security concerns.

For Michel Wieviorka, this violence reveals profound societal changes: the exhaustion of industrial society and the collective life that was linked to it, the atomization of the population, as well as the growing gap between the republican integration model and its application. The urbanization and individualization of modern societies would thus be accompanied by a disintegration of the social bond, which explains the increase in incivilities and the feeling of insecurity.

These social disorders are reflected in new societal demands: the population’s demands for security are increasingly related to their individual protection. The police organization must therefore take these changes into account and adapt to them. However, the deterioration in police-citizen relations, which the 2005 riots highlighted, reveals the gap between the objectives of the police and the expectations of citizens.

In the United States, in most large cities, intellectuals and field workers made the same observation. This led to a long reflection on the renewal of urban security policies, understood as programs implemented by the police, but also by a plurality of local actors (municipal agents, social workers, national education, etc.), to fight crime and contain the feeling of insecurity.

The text Broken Windows, written by James Wilson and George Kelling and published in March 1982 in the magazine The Atlantic, has profoundly influenced research in this field. In it, Wilson and Kelling reverse the presumed causal link between delinquency and feelings of insecurity. When a window is broken in a neighborhood, residents become frightened, deserting the public space and leaving the way open for more violent acts of delinquency. The increase in the feeling of insecurity would therefore explain the increase in delinquency. Thus, to prevent major acts of delinquency, it is necessary to act on minor disorders. This postulate is in line with the idea developed by Sébastien Roché, according to which the increase in petty crime (incivilities) is linked to the rise in the feeling of insecurity.

The theory of the broken window put forward by Wilson and Kelling has given rise to several interpretations in the field of security policies. The community policing model, developed and implemented in several large American cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago, is largely based on this theory. It encourages the development of partnership initiatives between the police, the population and the various local actors, in a proactive approach. It therefore aims to base security programs on the neighborhood. In France, this model has had a strong influence on thinking about the implementation of community policing.

These models reflect an evolution in the modes of governance of urban security. For Patrick Le Galès, governance is « a process of coordinating actors, social groups and institutions in order to achieve collectively defined objectives ». Both community policing in the United States and community policing in France attempt to involve new actors in the definition and implementation of police strategies. We are therefore witnessing a certain convergence of urban security governance methods on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, the implementation of community policing in France has not been successful. This incompletion, experienced as a failure, has given rise to numerous publications and positions on the appropriateness of the community policing model for the French situation. Behind this discussion lies the following question: has the development of the community policing model led to a standardization of urban security governance in France and the United States? In other words, to what extent has the community policing model been imported into France?

In the course of this synthesis, we will attempt to account for the different academic biases around this question, and how these opinions respond to each other.

In the book entitled «  Insecurity, community policing and local governance ", Maurice Chalom, a Canadian jurist and police specialist, questions the relevant scale of intervention and governance of police action in urban areas. As Dominique Monjardet points out in the preface, despite the existence of different contexts from one country to another, and in particular from the United States to France (in one country the main problem is that of « broken windows », in the other it is the « no-rights » zones), it has emerged that the police are not the only ones to be concerned by the problem. In most Western countries, there is «  an almost complete decoupling between police and population, service and social demand for security2« . The question now is «  what does the police do ? ", in other words, how do they act to reduce this disconnect? Mr. Chalom believes that the theoretical concepts of «  {neighborhood policing ", «  expert policing  » or «  community policing3«  must be analyzed and applied according to their relevance to the territory in question. The partnerships must be developed to bring the police closer to the citizens and to better delimit its responsibility and tasks. The governance of police action must therefore aim at the inclusion of the population in the management of the city.

Faced with the same problem, the North American and French police forces would have chosen to respond in the same way, hence a certain convergence in the modes of governance of urban security. However, in terms of theoretical orientations, the author asserts that in France, community policing has more responsibilities in the social domain, i.e., its vocation is to «  act positively on the social conditions that are at the origin of crime ". Unfortunately, Chalom does not develop further the concrete applications of community policing in France.

In an article entitled « Towards the demonopolization of regalian functions: contractualization, territorialization and Europeanization of regalian functions », Sébastien Roché, a political scientist and specialist in security policies, continues Chalom’s thesis and defends the idea that a new governance of urban security has been established in Europe under the weight of several logics: loss of centrality of the State, relaxation of decision-making processes, multiplication and hybridization of actors. He notes that « the places where decisions are made and the ways in which security is distributed have been transformed ». Defining the role and objectives of the police is no longer a state monopoly. The decentralization of institutions has allowed local actors to participate more actively in the elaboration of more territorialized security policies.

While city councils play an increasing role in the financing of the gendarmerie and the national police, municipal police forces are multiplying. Some municipalities, such as the city of Paris, have set up preventive security services such as night correspondents, responsible for intervening before conflicts arise. Finally, mayors participate in the elaboration of local security contracts, and thus in the definition of security priorities. On the other hand, the development of new security activities, such as the surveillance of stores or building lobbies, would explain the increase in private security services. However, Roché raises a fundamental difference between the French and Anglo-Saxon models: while in the United Kingdom and the United States representatives of ethnic communities and community leaders are received by the police, the participation of French citizens remains marginal.

In chapter 2 of the book Police innovation, Contrasting perspectives, entitled «  The promise of community policing, Wesley G. Skogan, an American criminologist, reaffirms the idea of a new governance of urban security based on the specificities of the American model. For Skogan, community policing is a process, not a product. It induces a change in the way security policies are elaborated: « Community policing is not a set of specific programs. Rather, it involves changing decision-making processes and creating new cultures within police departments. It is an organizational strategy that leaves setting priorities and the means of achieving them largely to residents and the police who serve in their neighbourhoods. With community policing, the definition and implementation of police objectives is done collectively and involves the political class as much as local governors and citizens.

However, Skogan particularly insists on the participation and empowerment of citizens necessary to resolve conflicts upstream. He gives the example of citizen vigilance committees and neighborhood meetings organized to make the participation of residents effective in the United States. Thus, although the evolution of urban security governance methods noted by Roché and Skogan in France and the United States seems to follow the same logic, it does not involve the same actors. While in the United States, in the context of community policing, security policies are developed from below, in France they seem to be developed from above, essentially involving institutional actors.

The preceding theses thus confirm the existence of similar logics in the evolution of urban security governance in France and the United States: decentralization of police organization, diffusion of decision-making power to other actors and territorialization of security policies, all with the aim of bringing the police closer to the citizens. Nevertheless, they insist on certain fundamental differences on the practical level: while the main mission of community policing is to reduce the crime rate, community policing is assigned a social prevention role. Moreover, although both models develop partnership initiatives, they do not involve the same actors from one country to another. The following theses attempt to explain, each in their own way, these differences, as well as the limits of the application of community policing in France.

In a book entitled Community policing, national and international models and approaches, Mike Brogden and Preeti Nijhar argue that community policing is not always compatible with local traditions, institutions and cultural practices. Although it has been established as a dogma by all Western countries, its implementation has not been effective everywhere. In continental Europe, and particularly in France, police systems are more centralized and are not directly accountable to citizens. France inherited a national and decentralized Napoleonic model whose traditional missions were to defend the state. In this model, policing objectives are defined from above, and citizens’ opinions are often not taken into account. Community concerns are secondary and local forms of police organization are rare because of the limited flexibility of police management.

Thus, while French-style community policing is philosophically close to community policing, in practice it suffers from a democratic deficit: «  the mens aren’t good for a more locally oriented, democratic community policing ". Indeed, in the French model, the absence of community forums prevents the formalization of police-citizen dialogue, which remains informal and therefore secondary. In addition, the decentralization of security policies is limited, since the state’s agreement is required to implement local security contracts.

In the article entitled « Community policing and the restoration of the social bond: Local security policies in the United States and France » published in 2002 in the Cahiers de la sécurité intérieure, Jacques Donzelot, a sociologist and specialist in urban policies, compares community policing in Chicago to local security contracts in the Seine-Saint-Denis department. The author asserts that these two measures have a common orientation: the desire to prevent crime. However, their application seems to follow different logics. The author distinguishes two approaches :

Thus, while the proactive dimension of community policing has had a definite influence on French community policing, the way prevention is perceived and implemented remains very different from the American vision. As Donzelot and Roché argue, the French model does not consider citizen participation necessary to legitimize its action. For Mike Brogden and Preeti Nijhar, this French specificity can be explained by the existence of a more centralizing culture. The application of the community policing model in France would therefore be limited by traditional representations of the police and politics.

For Mathieu Zagrodzki, the importation of a model is the result of a compromise between theoretical requirements and local constraints « tinkered with » by the actors of the reform. In his thesis on the implementation of police reforms in Paris and Los Angeles, he defends the idea that «  transfer does not mean mimicry ". If there was indeed a transfer of the community policing model from the United States to France, the result is different. Mathieu Zagrodzki insists on the weight of circumstances at each stage of the development of a public policy, from its adoption to its implementation. For him, «  the occurrence of reforms is explained by the conjunction between the window of opportunity and the actions of political entrepreneurs ".

In Los Angeles, it was the Rodney King case and the 1992 riots that provided an opportunity to apply the community policing model that had gradually spread in the academic and political community. In France, it was the arrival of Lionel Jospin to power that allowed for change. These two specific contexts provided an opportunity to address the latent rise in the feeling of insecurity and the growing gap between a police force focused on public order and judicial investigation and a population more sensitive to petty and medium crime.

Thus, Zagrodzki points out that the reforms were adopted in similar contexts, but that they are not identical. He explains their differences in practice by the weight of local constraints and the actors involved: « Although the imported model seems identical on the surface, its transposition is nevertheless slowed down, not to say amputated, by these local constraints which lead decision-makers to cobble together solutions at the time of elaboration and implementation.

Finally, for D. Monjardet, a French sociologist and police specialist, although the community policing model is of some interest to the French police because it provides solutions to the disconnection of the police from the territory and the population, it is necessary to develop a model adapted to the French situation. Thus, in an article entitled «  Reinventing Urban Policing : Police Work in Neighborhoods ", he explains how community policing is the French response to this problem. Community policing is based on « local security contracts ». Established in 1997, the latter aim precisely at allowing the return of the police as a « specialized partner of a local security policy » and thus as one of the actors in the territory.

These contracts would thus make it possible to establish a consensus between the priorities of the police, those of the political actors of the city and/or the district, but also those of the other actors of the territory (in particular private actors). This consensual basis would then serve as a foundation for concrete action. It would make the proximity between the police and the population operational. Although inter-institutional and not very inclined to citizen participation, as J. Donzelot underlines, these partnerships would be the solution brought by the French actors to the restoration of the social link to better fight against the feeling of insecurity.


The above discussion would seem to lead to the following conclusion: although community policing has undoubtedly guided thinking and the evolution of urban security governance methods, local institutional and cultural constraints seem to prevail over theoretical concepts. The authors therefore note that this transposition has not been particularly successful, and that each country requires an approach adapted to its situation. As Mr. Zagrodzki says, a reform cannot be imported, it has to be « tinkered with », and local actors have a predominant weight in this « tinkering ». It would therefore be interesting to engage in a broader reflection on the subject in France, taking into account what has been done across the Atlantic, but also the requirements of the various security partners.

In our opinion, an approach that integrates citizens into the issues of city management and lets them, in the words of Mr. Chalom, «  do with the city  » would be the only sustainable one.

1 Definition given by Julie Pollard in her urban sociology course in the STU master’s program.

2 CHALOM, Maurice and LEONARD, Luce, Insécurité, police de proximité et gouvernance locale, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2001

3 Notions developed in particular by Dominique Monjardet in Professionnalisme et médiation de l’action policière, Paris, 1998




BROGDEN, M., and NIJHAR, P., Community policing, National and International models and approaches, Willan Publishing, London, 2005

CHALOM, M. and LEONARD, L., Insécurité, police de proximité et gouvernance locale, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001

ROCHE, S., Vers la démonopolisation des fonctions régaliennes : contractualisation, territorialisation et européanisation des fonctions régaliennes, Revue française de Sciences politiques, Presses de Sciences-po, Vol. 54, 2004/1


SKOGAN, W-G., The promise of community policing, Chap. 2 of the book Police innovation, contrasting perspectives, edited by D. Weisburd and AA. Braga, Cambridge University Press, 2006


DONZELOT, J. and WYVEKENS, A., Community policing and restoration of the social link, Les Cahiers de la sécurité intérieure, 50, 4th quarter 2002, (p.43-71)

MONJARDET, D., Réinventer la police urbaine. Le travail policier à la question dans les quartiers, Annales de la recherche urbaine, n° 83/84 septembre 1999, (p.14-22)


ZAGRODZKI, M., La mise en œuvre des réformes de la police à Paris et à Los Angeles : la police de proximité change-t-elle la police ?, thesis directed by P. Le Galès, Centre de recherches politiques de Sciences-Po, defended February 11, 2009

Books/Supporting Articles

KELLING, G.L. and WILSON J.Q., Broken windows, The Athlantic, March 1982

OCQUETEAU, F., Community policing and zero tolerance in New York and Chicago, ending the myths, La Documentation française, Paris, 2003

En savoir plus

This reading note has been realized within the framework of the Master Stratégies Territoriales et Urbaines (2009) of Sciences Po Paris, under the direction of Gilles Pinson.