An Argument for Koban-style Community Policing

This is an essay written for a Criminal Justice course I took at Langara College during the fall of 2010. I have revised this numerous times, but no doubt there are still some kinks to be worked out.

Getting To Know You:

Improving relationships between the Vancouver Police Department and the General Public with foreign ideas.

       The Koban-Chuzaisho system in Japan is not widely known outside of the three distinct (and not often interacting) circles of the Japanese people, certain law enforcement researchers and anime otakus who fancy themselves to be experts on the land of the rising sun.     Initially established in 1874 as “watch boxes” for local law enforcement ( (Metropolitan para 1), koban ( a rough combination of the two terms for “standing watch” ((立番, tachiban) and “rotation” (交替, kōtai) were further evolved into miniature community police stations in 1881.

Squeezed into corners, traffic roundabouts and coverted buildings, the 6000 koban covering Japanese urban neighbourhoods can take many forms, (Bayley 11), but all of them serve the Japanese public in a far more intimate way than larger, western style police stations do. Their main functions include providing first response to calls, giving directions in oft unmarked and confusing Japanese neighbourhoods, taking crime reports, foot and bicycle patrol, lost and found services and providing informal counselling and problem solving to local citizens. Many koban also provide personalized services for the neighbourhood they serve, such as maintaining a large clock in a neighbourhood of shift workers, public telephones or maintaining a small fish pond for a neighbourhood where many are too poor to keep fish to place their pets if they cannot care for them. (Bayley 16).

Staffed by a rotating contingent of 2 to 12 officers, koban police officers become experts on the area to which they are assigned, knowing each roadway, alleyway and household like the back of their hand (Ames 40). They also conduct twice yearly surveys of all the households, recording the residents, their jobs and any other pertinent information, such as pets, or relatives to contact in an emergency, and particularly, keeping track of older residents living alone who need to be checked up on periodically.(Ames 38). Local citizens will stop by a koban to chat with the officers or ask them for advice and air their grievances over a variety of issues.  “One of the most valuable skills for a Japanese officer to learn, and indeed the skill they exercise most often, is their ability to listen” (Bayley 19).

Similarly, Chuzaisho are the rural equivalent to koban, but instead of officers working on shift, it is often staffed by a single resident officer with the help of his wife and family (Ames  17). This intimate and involved form of community policing has had visible effects on the Japanese landscape for several decades.  David H. Bayley in his book Forces of Order cites that vandalism was rare, graffiti unobtrusive, and wandering all but two neighbourhoods (Sanya in Tokyo and the Airin area in Osaka, which [his] police companions warned were ‘rough’ areas, one feels safe and secure.) (Bayley 8). Female friends of the author of this essay who have visited Japan also cite that they feel safe in nearly all urban areas – with the exceptions of a couple train routes which have reputations for abundant groping.

This cannot be said in any way about Vancouver. While Vancouver is rated as one of the most liveable cities in the world (Economist para. 1), crime and clearance levels in Vancouver and North America are nowhere near the low of the Japanese norm. Reasons for this difference in levels are diverse, ranging from Japan’s extremely strict gun control laws even compared to Canada (Miyazawa 12), to the natural Japanese hierarchical and cultural affinity for respecting authority and orderliness (Parker 8). The most oft repeated reason however is the aforementioned koban-system – police being intimately involved in the daily lives of citizens and the mutual respect that develops due to that involvement (Bayley 12, Ames 37, Metropolitan Police “Police Relationships” page, Parker 13)

For this reason, the Vancouver Police Department would vastly improve its relationship with the city’s public, and also save money if they adopted a similar involved community-policing system, with small detachments similar to koban police boxes placed throughout the city. Being within close proximity of citizens would encourage feelings of helpfulness on both sides, increase trust in the police and reduce response times, as well as promoting foot/bicycle patrols,  proactive policing and information gathering.

In that vein, Vancouver has made several positive steps towards community policing by establishing ten “Community Police Centers” (CPCs) in different areas around the city in the last sixteen years. (Collingwood Police Center para. 1) However, the effectiveness of these stations is under debate, particularly since six out of the ten are separate enterprises from the VPD: “Grandview-Woodland Community Policing Centre is a volunteer-driven non-profit organization that works in a partnership with the Vancouver Police Department” (Grandview-Woodlands para 1) and as such, they are not treated as legitimate policing efforts by the city budget. With separate budgets and only a single specially trained officer being stationed at each of them when they are open, their ability to serve a community as large as the areas they’re centralized in is called into question. Especially since these assigned “Neighbourhood Police Officers” are not actually permanently assigned to the CPCs, but often frequently called away to attend to other matters, often several times a day  As a result, while dedicated volunteers still run the CPCs during the day, Local citizens cannot easily interact with the police officers working there. Not only are they difficult to contact, the CPCs are also few and far between – the author’s “local” community policing center is a 31 minute trek from home according to Google maps (Google Map 2).

Instituting koban-style police boxes throughout the city would make this 31 minute trek a less-than-seven minute one (Google Map 1), with each Police Box having a jurisdiction over roughly 20 square blocks and having anywhere from 4-18 officers on duty at any one time, depending on the area’s policing needs. The traditional police principal of random patrol would still apply, but with the dual purpose of both supervision of the neighbourhood and making connections within it. At least one or two officers, as well as one or two members of support staff – either paid or volunteers –  would remain in the box at all time, using the time to both work on paperwork, as well as responding to any citizens coming to the box personally.

The remaining officers make rounds, responding to any calls that come in for that neighbourhood, much like traditional model policing does. These police officers on foot patrol or bicycle patrol can establish themselves as helpful to residents by offering assistance for various tasks at the officer’s discretion – with preference given to quick tasks that look good and establish good feeling between the general populace and the police, for example, helping a resident lift something heavy into his or her car or if noticing that a porch light has burnt out, or if some other safety or loss hazard is present, offering to quickly replace it or repair it, if the materials to do so are present, all while emphasizing the officer’s concern for the resident’s safety.  By no means should an officer on patrol offer to help a resident or business owner paint their home or some other extensive job, as this would quickly have any effective foot patrol network in tatters.

However, a quick compliment on the appearance a residence or a brief hello would establish a friendly rapport with a resident and also help an officer have more chances to examine the exterior of homes and businesses more closely for any signs of suspicious activity or safety hazards, as well as examine the residents through general conversation on their attitude towards the law and law breaking.   This type of going “above and beyond” the call of duty leads to “people tend[ing] to have a more positive image of police officers, [particularly] if they have recently talked to one in a positive context” (Ames 54). Residents in the jurisdiction of a police box will mostly begin to see the police officers as human allies, rather than a superior force that must be guarded against or avoided, and due to familiarity and good feeling, will be more likely to personally seek out officers they recognize on sight. (Ames 234)

Close interactions with the community would also help the prevention of the wide-spread current attitude among police officers that there are only “bad people” and “police officers,” an emotional coping mechanism that stems from the development of a police working personality (Griffiths 143) and from disengagement from the high stress of policing (Gilmartin para. 11).  This shift in attitude often causes police officers to behave as if they are superior to others on both moral and intellectual grounds, causing them to come down aggressively on non-police officers for even minor infractions and behaving as though “everyone is a criminal”. This leads to increased resentment of the police by both general citizens and offenders and a breakdown of respect on both sides, because police are seen as abusing their authority and simultaneously resent being seen as such.  Nevertheless, the Us vs. Them mentality which is common in some departments is inherently damaging to a police officer’s emotional health, and to community policing in general (Gilmartin para 11) (even if it is sometimes absolutely  necessary to maintain an officer’s personal physical safety).  By isolating themselves from the community, police officers reduce their (much needed) support networks and begin to find it increasingly difficult to relate to people who are not “in the job”.

Being familiar with an environment and the people living there would reduce this attitude, as a police officer would have time to learn which citizens were (generally) trustworthy and which are not. Police officers would also be able to learn the histories and social contexts of residents of a particular neighbourhood and adjust their services accordingly.  Elderly residents who live alone would benefit greatly from weekly check-ins by local officers. A teenager going through family troubles can be reassured and monitored by local officers so make sure that bad feelings don’t turn into gross mistakes. Officers can check on the houses of people going on vacation (making those leaving town feeling more secure).

Placing Police Boxes locally would also vastly cut down response times, especially for officers on bikes, given Vancouver’s common practice for blocking off non-major streets with dividers to reduce vehicular traffic and encourage cyclists. (Vancouver, City of para. 1) Instead of patrol cars being forced to “Go around” to get down a particular blocked or one way street, police on bicycles can go straight through, as well as dodging other obstacles like traffic and construction. It also allows citizens to easily come to the police and also provides a refuge within walking distance for those who feel threatened or unsafe – in many residential areas, there are not many places where a man, woman or child who is in danger to go without driving or taking transit – for example, Vancouver Rape Relief and Woman’s Shelter, Covenant House and various homeless shelters.  Having a local police box would provide this sort of temporary shelter for those who cannot travel far, as well as providing a means for the police to informally mediate disputes on neutral ground. It would also mean that police patrolling in the winter would have convenient shelter from the elements, since they would not be using patrol cars as often.  This does not mean police cars should be removed from the Vancouver Police repertoire, and replaced entirely with bikes.  Instead, there should remain a section of the police force that responds solely to calls, maintaining its “reactive” persona – but these units should be considered as backing up the police box officers, especially in busy areas. Patrol cars would be used for transporting offenders and for moving between police boxes and the larger police stations.

The Vancouver police department spends over $807,000 per year on buying and maintaining their police cruisers (Fleet Review p.14), with future goals for the department including having vehicles for every officer and replacing several older cruisers (citation). While their focus on police vehicles may be advantageous and practical for the current level of reactive policing, for the new Koban-style community policing, the costs could instead be invested in rent for the smaller police boxes and other policing initiatives, such as providing more training for officers, both in community policing and other related subjects, or improving other areas of the police force, such as the Emergency Response Team. It would be several thousand dollars cheaper per officer for the VPD to maintain bicycles (even ones that are specially modified with storage, shocks, sirens and lights) than it would be to maintain their patrol car fleet at its current size. Officers would be more active as well, walking and riding around as opposed to sitting in patrol cars, which would be healthier for them, as well as cheaper for the VPD and individual officers in terms of healthcare benefits and costs. (Gilmartin 17)

Another means of saving investigation money and allowing a police officer to build closer ties with a community is by gathering information while on patrol, both formally through household surveys and informally through discussion with and observation of local residents. While formal police surveys of household inhabitants, their ages, occupations and other pertinent information (such as pets, health, mental and family problems, and family members to contact in an emergency) are very unlikely to be popular at first, due to privacy concerns and the use of such information in police investigations, citizens would likely become more open to these surveys if they are conducted by an officer who has become familiar to them, as well as being assured that it is meant primarily for their safety and security. Additionally, it must be accurately recorded and securely stored.

The vast and intimate information that a police officer can gain in this sort of environment can speed up investigations (Ames 40), as an officer would know about what sort of relationships a victim or offender would have with others around them, what sort of material resources a person would have access to and of any possible sore points or motivations for a crime or personal conflict – a fight between family members, for example or a debt repayment to an institution or other person becoming an issue. If an officer in question doesn’t have this information at his fingertips because of the victim, witnesses or offender residing or working in another police box coverage area, he may call up officers from that area for the appropriate information. Also, since community policing will break down the “us vs. them” and the idea that anyone who helps the police is a snitch will hopefully begin to fade, many local citizens who trust the police will also start to actively come forward on their own to provide information that a police officer might not otherwise find out about.

Another benefit of having officers working in smaller areas would be ease of more proactive policing, which is defined as “making use of data to establish the existence and extent of a problem, to analyse its nature and source, to plan intervention measures to reduce it, and to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the selected responses” (Read & Tilley 3) and if necessary, change the response if the initial one does not work. This builds on the previous points of police gathering both formal and informal information from the residents of a police box coverage area.  Police officers who are familiar with an area will be able to make fairly accurate predictions where trouble spots may rise, such as near bars, around transit exchanges and on the “hard” lines between commercial and residential zones, as well as homes and apartments that are known for domestic turmoil.

This does not mean to say that all the unknowns of police work would be eliminated, but it does allow for officers to place themselves in areas with high incident rates in order to prevent crime from happening or preventing conflicting user groups from butting heads, thus saving time and money as well as preserving public safety, as since no “crime” or “incidents” would be occurring.  Police officers who are familiar with an area would also have a tendency to become bored during lulls in calls, and as such, proactive policing can provide an outlet for creative thought and problem solving, thus keeping the officer engaged and occupied. For example, nearly every police box coverage area on the theoretical map (Google Map 1) has an elementary or secondary school within its boundaries – during lulls in patrols and calls, police officers can visit the schools to give talks on personal safety, problem solving and other relevant topics and let students learn from an early age that seeing police officers around is a positive thing that will help them stay safer.

In another example, officers who have CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) training, can visit local businesses and homes and advise them on how to encourage desirable user groups and minimize undesirable ones through the design of the physical environment like the building and the placement of objects within it. Officers would be encouraged to take on projects that would benefit both the neighbourhood and the city, should they wish to do so. Also, the officer would be sure that if a call came in while he or she was occupied with his or her proactive efforts, they would be close enough to that call to essentially drop everything and reach it in time while being able to return afterwards and finish whatever project they had started working on.  This would help police officers invest themselves in the neighbourhoods they work in and be able to see tangible positive results from their work – something that does not happen often in the current model of policing (Vancouver, Beyond the Call, para 10.). This would increase job satisfaction and reduce stress and disillusionment among police officers.

Despite these positive points for Koban-style community policing, there would be some drawbacks.  The first and most major hump would be convince the Vancouver Police board to even look at these radical sort of changes, even before it is determined that they could be financially feasible or not. Police officers and departments tend to be conservative and traditional in nature and suspicious of drastic change. Once determined to be financially feasible, the next major hurdle would be retraining officers (particularly older ones) who have been working within the reactive policing framework and mindset for years, to change their methods and thinking to resemble a community policing philosophy.

There is a distinct prejudice among many police officers and senior staff that community policing is “soft” work and not “real” policing.  Often this stems from a lack of education and first hand experience of these officers, which can initially be expensive to overcome. One partial solution however would be to alter how new police recruits are trained by the Justice Institute of British Columbia, adding more emphasis to community policing to their curriculum.  Once the Koban-style police box system is in place, other problems may arise as well – if an officer’s home is too close to the Police box where he or she works, it would be extremely difficult to separate home and work life for them. Having citizens who know them from their coverage area approaching them while they are off duty would interfere with their ability to decompress and relax away from work, a process that is already hampered by their training. Also, personality conflicts between two or more officers or between a particular officer and citizens could be exacerbated by the close contact of the Police box and its coverage area. While it is considered a good thing to learn how to tolerate people and other officers, sometimes problems like this may interfere with an officer’s impartiality and their ability to work. Other similar concerns would be if a citizen within a coverage area becomes too familiar with an officer to the point of discomfort on the officer’s part or if a local citizen and an officer develop a romantic attachment. All three of these situations would probably require an officer to transfer to another police box or to another section within the VPD all together to maintain safe degrees of integrity and impartiality.

In conclusion, despite some of the drawbacks, implementing a koban-style community policing system would reduce crime and increase positive perceptions of the police. The community policing system would work in tandem with other parts of the police force, such as Emergency Response Teams and Traffic police, as well as other sections to bring a comprehensive, successful and inclusive policing system to the citizens of Vancouver.


Note: I speak & read some Japanese, so was thus able to use a few Japanese sources, mostly articles. They can be run through Google translator.


Ames, Walter L. Police and Community in Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Bayley, David H. Forces of Order: Policing in Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Collingwood Community Policing Center. Vancouver, 2010. 29 Oct 2010.                                 <;

Gilmartin, Dr. Kevin M. “Emotional Survival for Police Officers”. The Gazette  Vol. 70, No. 4. 2009.    <;

Google Maps:   1) Experimental Police Box Map. Vancouver. 2010, 26 Oct 2010

Grandview Woodlands Community Policing Center. 2010. 26 Oct 2010 <;

Griffiths, Curt T. Canadian Police Work. Toronto: Thomson Canada Limited, 2008.

Griffiths, Curt T. Canadian Criminal Justice: a Primer. Toronto: Nelson Education Ltd, 2010-2011

“It’s Vancouver Again” The Economist. 11 FEB 2010.  1 Nov 2010.

Kenney, Dennis Jay and Robert P. McNamara. Police and Policing: Contemporary Issues. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999.

Metropolitan Police Department. Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. 2010. 15 Oct 2010  <;

Miyazawa, Setsuo. Policing in Japan: A Study on Making Crime. Trans: Frank G. Bennett with John O. Haley. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Parker, L. Craig. The Japanese Police System Today: A Comparative Study. New York: East Gate Books, 2001.

Rake, Douglas E. “Crime Control and Police-Community Relations: A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Tokyo, Japan, and Santa Ana, California” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol. 494, Policies to Prevent Crime: Neighborhood, Family, and Employment Strategies (Nov., 1987), pp. 148-154 <;

Read, T., & Tilley, N. (2000). “Not rocket science/problem-solving and crime reduction” (Crime Reduction Research Series Paper 6). London: Home Office.

Vancouver, City of. Vancouver 2010, Nov 3 2010.                                                                               Bike: <;
Fleet Review: <;
Beyond The Call: “Victim Services Worker Offers Battered Woman a Way Out”  Vol. 5 No1. 29 January 2009. 2 NOV 2010. < >

Vancouver Police Department. Vancouver, 2010. 16 Oct 2010. <>


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