With their paramilitaristic uniforms, branded vehicles, and often pervasive presence, the police officer is a common and familiar sight from the streets of Hong Kong to the laneways of Rome. Despite numerous similarities however, there are some noteworthy and intriguing differences, of which the police station is one. In the early days of modern anglo-saxon policing, officers operated from one main building: the police station. The typical police station served to accommodate personnel, and acted as a base from which officers would make their patrol rounds. Naturally, with the industrial revolution, the organizational form of the police in many cities grew more complex. A single station could no longer adequately serve the vast sprawls of humans and infrastructure that came to dot the modern, urban world. Resultingly, new districts and stations were required to handle increasing demand and geographical dispersion (see the historical organization of the London Metropolitan Police, for example).
Innovations in information and communication technology (ICT) transformed this arrangement. The invention of the telephone in the late 1800’s enabled a new form of police station, the police box. These mini police stations sprang up to house this new technology, acting as intermediary hubs where officers could communicate with one another and citizens could communicate with officers via telephony. Further, they provided local facilities where officers could fill out reports and stop for meals while making rounds.
The late 1960’s saw a new ICT innovation that would combine with patrol cars to transform the spatial and functional organization of police work once again: the personal radio. With mobile connectivity, police boxes were no longer needed and quickly phased out in many cities. There are a few exceptions however, where departments saw beyond the technological connectivity offered by more localized police facilities as their only added value. The neighbourhood police stations in Japan, called kōban, are a perfect example of this. Between 1880 and 1890, a German advisor to the Japanese government initiated a massive expansion of local police stations in Japan to make the police more visible. Today Japan has approximately 6,509 koban (2004 figures) interwoven into its cityscapes, providing the public with policing and emergency services, in addition to acting as a hub for maps, directions and lost and found items.
With the universal adoption of the community policing paradigm, many localities are considering shifting back to smaller, more decentralized police stations, modelled after the kōban system. Indeed many already have. For example Singapore’s Neighbourhood Police Posts (NPPs) and Neighbourhood Police Centres (NPCs), of which there are approximately 97 covering the island, are directly inspired by kōban. The system is not without its faults however.
As public service organizations increasingly turn to technology for streamlined service delivery, the necessity of physical presence may continue to be questioned. Yet it is important to note that local communities remain the breeding ground for government legitimacy. Face-to-face interaction, public collaboration and local understanding of unique public needs should not be victims of technological innovations; they should merely be enhanced by them.