Is Community Policing a Zombie?

Written by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.

At the height of community policing, let’s say for sake of argument the later part of the 1990s, many supporters of the movement thought it would ensure a bright future for both communities and the police. It seemed a new spirit of community-based partnerships was emerging and the police would finally become more responsive to the needs of the people they were charged with serving. Likewise, at the turn of the Century, many also believed the movement was too firmly entrenched in policing to be dislodged. Of course these beliefs ignored history, scholarly critique of police transformations and the fierce competition in the political economic “marketplace” of ideas.

Modern history shows the police institution littered with the remains of promising ideas, programs never totally implemented and/or left to falter and die. Police Community Relations, Team Policing, and Weed and Seed are only a few obvious examples. Each undeniably addressed important community-police problems and each were launched with great fanfare and media enthusiasm. Yet, each failed to change the core values and role of police.  They each went by the wayside rather quickly. Jack Greene put it well when he said,

“Community relations issues were more ‘eyewash and whitewash’ than substantive in many communities, a way for the police perhaps to placate the public. Team policing, by contrast, was an important attempt to change the focus and structure of the police, although by all accounts team policing captured neither the imagination nor the organization of the American police” (Greene, 2000:308).

There is always an economic connection that often goes unnoticed and untold in the story of dead crime control programs. Programs like Weed and Seed helped push poor people out of American cities yielding lucrative profits for developers, “weeding” became zero-tolerance policing and of course the “funding seed” for poor communities never came. Once again a transformation in policing that was directed toward serving people in power, not people in need—all with the peoples’ money.

Perhaps we should not be surprised. Scholars, like Peter K. Manning (2006), warned us years ago about the ways in which institutions use new rhetorical tactics to re-legitimate themselves in times of crisis. He cautioned us that what often seems like a promising innovation in policing is frequently about managing appearance rather than about substantive change. This observation, along with the power of more than half a century of indoctrinating police in crime-fighting and the political tendency to fund programs only as long as the media spotlights them, makes institutional innovation a difficult proposition.

For more than 50 years, police were socialized into a crime fighting role, political leaders pandered to peoples’ fear of crime, and the media distorted our view of the realities of both crime and the proper response to it (Kappeler & Potter, 2005). Nothing about this has really changed; the pattern repeats itself today in media and political talk about terrorism, immigration and homeland security. So, given our failed programming experiences, are community policing and the hope for democratization dead? Let’s look a few indicators.

  • There has been a re-emergence of the failed crime-fighting model now repackaged in various ways like “stop and frisk.” It is being deployed on a massive scale along with claims that it will protect us from crime. Notwithstanding, the fact that crime has been declining for decades.
  • The massification of police power and its use against the masses. From the Boston Marathon Bombing, where police occupied entire blocks of the city, to the NSA’s collection of private data on unprecedented numbers of citizens, to the well coordinated, simultaneous, and nationwide police repression of the Occupy Movement, police power has been applied on an unprecedented scale.
  • The police have penetrated virtually every public space from our schools and universities, professional sporting events, large social gatherings and even our transit systems. It is no longer stunning to see police dogs on the streets and officers armed with machine guns patrolling on a daily basis. The symbols of aggressive policing have become a normalized and accepted part of urban life.
  • Police continue to militarize their ranks with tactical teams, which are wed to both the rise of the surveillance state and the use of massive police tactical actions. Label it politically, and you can deploy a SWAT team.
  • The language of problem solving has been distorted into aggressive law enforcement practices. The solution to all problems is massive police presence and aggressive displays of state power.  No more “beat” cops, just beating cops.
  • Junk science has been advanced to resurrect aggressive policing tactics with talk of “intelligence led policing,” and “predictive policing.” As if these models were detached from the people and activities, which generate the data that they, in turn, use to justify police action.
  • The massive and unquestioned return of racial profiling in the wars on terror and against immigrants has been fused with neo-liberal accountability rhetoric. From the institutionalization of “stop and frisk” quotas in the NYPD woven into the junk science COMSTAT model to the passage of Congressional legislation mandating quotas for the incarceration of undocumented people, the neoliberal model of so called “science,” “productive,” and “accountable” are used to quiet the voices of even concerned police who question the direction policing is taking.  

While community policing represented the possibility of a profound change, there are serious issues and questions to be raised about the ability of the institution to transcend its own past, as well as the militarized neoliberal agenda. Likewise, serious questions remain about the direction policing is taking and whether there is any possibility of recapturing the liberal democratic principles that are said to have given rise to the institution. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether community and democratic policing are in actuality walking dead.

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University


Greene, J. (2000). “Community Policing in America: Changing the Nature, Structure, and Function of the Police.” In Criminal Justice 2000, Volume 3, Policies, Processes, and Decisions of the Criminal Justice System, pp. 299-370. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

Kappeler, V. E., and Potter, G. W. (2005). The Mythology of Crime and Criminal Justice (4th Ed.).  Prospect Heights, Illinois:  Waveland Press.

Manning, P.K.  (2006). The Police: Mandate, Strategies and Appearances. In: V. Kappeler, Ed.  The Police and Society: Touchstone Readings (3rd ed.).  Waveland Press: Prospect Heights, IL 94–122.

Published on December 17, 2013