Against Community Policing

There's nothing progressive about community policing — it deepens criminalization and expands police power.

Chicago police patrol the streets in 2013. Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune

Last month, President Obama traveled to Chicago to deliver a speech before the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). His aim was to sell the 122-year-old professional association of police officers on a package of criminal justice reforms — one of the main planks of which was a return to community policing, a kinder version of law enforcement premised on collaborative partnerships between police and the public.

In a moment transformed by the Black Lives Matter movement, community policing has become one of the go-to solutions to the crisis of police legitimacy.

As for Obama, it wasn’t the first time he’d touted the reform. In May, he went to Camden, NJ — a beleaguered city that has used community policing to drive down its sky-high crime rate — to announce his presidential task force’s nationwide recommendations: more oversight, training, and community policing, all facilitated by new technology and expanded use of social media. That same month, Attorney General Loretta Lynch launched a national community policing tour to highlight model programs and promote a $163 million grant program to implement the task force’s suggestions.

Obama’s speech to the IACP was the culmination of this public relations push.

He won early applause from the gathered officers when he “reject[ed] any narrative that seeks to divide police and communities that they serve . . . a storyline that says when it comes to public safety there’s an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’”

And he highlighted successful examples of community policing, including local efforts: “Right here in Chicago, Mayor Emanuel and the Chicago PD have spent the past few years working to build on this philosophy, forming new partnerships with ministers, putting more officers on bikes and on foot so they can talk with residents.”

Of course, the president’s praise for Chicago’s community policing program didn’t acknowledge how such efforts are perfectly compatible with aggressive stop-and-frisk practices, off-the-books detention and interrogation, and the routine surveillance of social movement organizations, including those that have demanded greater police accountability. And he failed to mention any of the unarmed black youths killed by Chicago police, names like Rekia Boyd and Dakota Bright and Stephon Watts that have become a constant refrain at demonstrations and vigils.

Predicting as much, a group of radical black organizations — the Workers Center for Racial Justice, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and BYP 100, among others — organized “I Shocked the Sheriff,” a people’s congress and series of direct actions, to counter the ICAP meeting.

They presented a radical analysis and agenda, centered on building autonomous political power in black communities and establishing community control over the police. And the day after Obama’s closing speech, many of the same organizations unveiled a report on community policing in Chicago — subtitle: “The Community Engagement Arm of the Police State — laying out their criticisms of the reform du jour.

Community policing, they charged, isn’t about collaborative problem-solving. Rather, it is a euphemism for an effort to build grassroots support for policing and deputize community organizations and residents as agents of the carceral state.

Community Policing in Practice

“The Counter-CAPS Report” (of which I was the lead author) developed in the organizing space around We Charge Genocide, a grassroots, intergenerational effort to amplify the voices and experiences of the young people most targeted by police violence in Chicago.

The name, We Charge Genocide (WCG), is an allusion to a 1951 report that the Civil Rights Congress presented to the United Nations (UN). The original study cited lynching, police brutality, legal disenfranchisement, and systemic inequality as evidence that the US government was engaged in genocide against its black citizens. Last year, WCG compiled a similar report about police violence against youth of color in Chicago and sent a delegation of eight black youths to present the report to the UN Committee Against Torture.

While WCG originally formed with the sole focus of filing a report at the UN, it soon developed into an incubator for a series of projects around state violence. In April, a group of WCG activists formed a working group, Real Community Accountability for People’s Safety (RCAPS), and began observing the beat meetings of Chicago’s community policing program, the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS).

These meetings revealed the truth concealed behind the rhetoric of community policing and showed how the police wield political power on the micro-local level. Working together, aldermen and precinct commanders would tap a particular resident to act as beat facilitator and help police get residents out to regular meetings, where they would be organized to monitor their neighbors, report activity to police, and otherwise amplify police programs.

Consonant with existing research on community policing and CAPS more specifically, RCAPS found that participation in CAPS is low. But mere indifference is not the root cause of low attendance; in under-invested and neglected communities, the police department resembles an occupying army, and CAPS meetings can be uncomfortable places.

In gentrifying neighborhoods, many longtime residents worry that CAPS meetings are venues for disproportionately white, property-owning Chicagoans to demand more police to further criminalize their black and brown neighbors as part of an overall effort to push them out, quicken redevelopment, and increase property values.

Most of the time community policing entails deputizing residents, transforming them into unofficial arms of the carceral state. In all the observed CAPS meetings, the officers encouraged residents to act as the eyes and ears of the police department and urged residents to report anything that seemed suspicious, including minor crimes like loitering and public consumption of alcohol.

At one meeting, a resident asked if they should report the movement of a car that seemed sketchy, even if they had no reason to believe the vehicle was stolen. The officer facilitating the meeting answered in the affirmative. “They don’t have to be doing anything,” the officer said. “If you see someone that seems really out of place, call.”

But what constitutes “out of place” is highly subjective, and some residents are considered out of place even on their own property. At one CAPS meeting, an attendee boasted that he had “told [a fourteen-year-old] boy who lived next door that he’s not allowed to sit on [his] front porch anymore. He’s a target. I told him I’ll call the cops on him.”

Another CAPS attendee agreed, adding that his backyard abutted the boy’s yard, and that he would notify police if he saw the teenager there as well. Rather than providing guidelines about when it is appropriate to file a police report, the officer running the meeting condoned the residents’ plans.

In some cases, community policing creates localized law-and-order lobbies that advocate for more aggressive law enforcement. Oftentimes, CAPS attendees become fixated on buildings they see as having troublesome tenants. They monitor properties, call in behavior, and try to establish patterns that will force the police to evict tenants; they reach out to other city departments to penalize the landlords and tenants with administrative citations. The police department, in turn, can use both 911 calls and reports of minor issues, such as citations for long grass, to systematically harass residents and build evidence for an eviction case.

In short, while these types of community policing programs purport to build stronger communities, they train small, self-selecting groups to amplify police power. And they increase the police presence in poor and minority communities, deepening their criminalization.

While community policing may help address the crisis of police legitimacy in the short term, there is no evidence that it will bring meaningful accountability or otherwise curtail state violence. Most importantly, the popular reform provides the coercive arm of the state with a veneer of legitimacy, while, perversely, wrangling residents and community organizations into the work of policing.

Far being from a laudable step in the right direction, community policing ends up making it harder to address — or even organize around — problems of state violence and the subtler aspects of police militarization. Community policing should instead be understood as the “civic action” component of counterinsurgency — compatible with expansive surveillance and intelligence collection and aggressive police operations, but emphatically not justice.

Democratic Alternatives

It isn’t just President Obama who is touting community policing as an antidote to police brutality — movement groups like Campaign Zero are also more sympathetic to the approach.

Against this effort to channel the movement in a more moderate direction, radical organizations in Chicago have attempted to retain more emancipatory visions.

This spring, WCG activists launched a “guerrilla political education project” around Chicago’s budget, handing out flyers, asking residents what public needs they could address with $4 million — the sum spent on policing every day, or 40 percent of the city’s budget — and broadcasting the results on social media.

Initiatives like these are particularly important in the current moment. After decades of aggressive policing and steadily increasing incarceration rates, the direction of criminal justice policy is changing. The Obama administration has presided over a plateau in the incarceration rate and a softening of the drug war. In the Senate, Republicans and Democrats have come together on sentencing reform. And at the state and local level, governments are experimenting with decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana.

This emergent bipartisan consensus on criminal justice reform is bringing together seemingly rival elements of the political establishment: the Koch Brothers and the MacArthur Foundation, Freedom Works and the Center for American Progress.

But unless social movements can make a more concerted push — unless they can apply popular might for a dramatic reduction in budgets for police and a dramatic increase in those for social services — this convergence may also foreclose opportunities for radical change. Instead of representing a genuine opportunity to dramatically curtail state violence and institute more humane ways to mediate disputes and provide safety, the Black Lives Matter movement could be reduced to a lobby group that ends up buttressing ersatz reforms like community policing.

In the face of this grim prospect, we must look for more democratic alternatives. It isn’t enough to have community oversight — Campaign Zero’s preferred reform — which in places like Chicago means police boards led by retired law enforcement officers, with the powers to recommend and review but not make binding decisions.

What’s needed instead is community control — bringing police agencies under local democratic control of all-civilian community boards with the ability to set police priorities, determine policies, and enforce practices, including the hiring and firing of police officers.

Community policing, though on the lips of many reformers, would deliver precisely the opposite. Far from scaling back the power of police, the result of nationwide implementation would be a more integrated authoritarianism.