Law Enforcement in Subordinated Communities: Innovation and Response

Policing styles and policy reform today exhibit a ferment that we have not seen since the turbulent sixties. The reasons propelling reform include some of the same forces that propelled it then – minority communities agitating for a greater voice, demands for law and order – but also some that are new, such as the greater premium that society places on security in a post-9/11 world. Three recent books discuss this new emphasis on styles of policing. Each centers on policing in minority communities. Steve Herbert’s Citizens, Cops, and Power: Recognizing the Limits of Community examines the innovation known as community policing and concludes, based on extensive interviews and surveys, that the approach is conceptually flawed. Herbert finds that the hope that police could form cooperative arrangements, especially with communities of color, is largely vain. Ronald Weitzer and Steven Tuch’s Race and Policing in America: Conflict and Reform is similarly based on survey research and personal interviews. It documents a continuing racial divide in which white respondents exhibit a much more favorable attitude toward the police than do blacks or Latinos. The Weisburd and Braga collection, Police Innovation: Contrasting Perspectives, contains pro and con chapters on a number of emerging avenues to policing, including the harsh “broken windows” approach and the softer community-policing and “hot spots” models. With extensive comments by the editors concluding each of the sections, the book emerges with a somewhat more positive view of policing innovation than do the other two under review. My thesis is that recent efforts to toughen responses to crime, including the “broken windows” theory of policing, have produced a countering response in those sectors of the minority community of intense interest to the police. This response, which appears to be unplanned and spontaneous, substitutes a rough type of people’s justice for the official, uniformed version. And, unfortunately for police innovators, the response is often as effective, and inventive, as the official version. After outlining and describing the three books, I will discuss a number of manifestations of this response, which essentially aim at nullifying the police. In the black community, a campaign against snitching-complete with T-shirts, rap songs, and extra-official pressure-aims to secure total noncooperation with the police, especially regarding enforcement of the drug laws. In the Latino community, a somewhat similar movement seeks to subvert the immigration laws through asylum churches and towns, and efforts by church groups and white sympathizers to leave water, food, and other essential supplies in the desert for the use of undocumented Latinos heading north. Also in the Latino community, folk tales called corridos celebrate the exploits of drug dealers and coyotes (human smugglers) who outwit the cops. These three movements, which have sprung up quite separately, evidence a growing conviction among some communities of color that the police are essentially an invading force, unresponsive to the community’s needs, and thus illegitimate.