Do Alternatives to Police Militarization Exist?

Authored By 
Tony Cheng
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow

One month following the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, questions remain about how will those involved be held accountable? How can we prevent similar incidents moving forward? Where can we look to find alternatives to the militarization of the police?  In light of recent controversies surrounding more hardline law enforcement tactics such as stop-and-frisk, training and providing programmatic resources to indigenous members of the community who may also have personal experience with violence provides a promising alternative and supplementary approach.

This approach has been around since the 1930s when sociologist Clifford Shaw formed the Chicago Area Project (CAP). The idea was to organize steering committees for each neighborhood comprised of pro-active residents. They counseled youth, provided social services, and represented an authority that was indigenous to the neighborhood.

Today’s existing models of policing—even the heralded community policing—oftentimes create an unequal power dynamic and strains relationships between communities and police. In contrast, street outreach workers (SOWs) leverage street knowledge and social work to approach individuals and groups on a peer level.

Granted, I am not advocating that SOW groups replace law enforcement—as police officers are necessary to do just that: protect people and property by enforcing the law.  Instead, there are a number of benefits of having SOWs part of a general law enforcement strategy when it comes to gang, gun, and other sorts of violence.

What can SOWs offer? Up to this point, the amount of academic research has not been commensurate with the growing popularity of SOW organizations—especially about how SOWs can fit into a larger law enforcement strategy and navigate relationships with police officers. But I have begun to answer this question through my ongoing ethnographic research with a new street SOW organization in Bridgeport, Connecticut. This is what I have seen, recorded, and analyzed after a year attending SOW roll call meetings, conducting interviews, and dissecting a group of SOWs’ Daily Reports:

First, SOWs epitomize local authority. These workers are able to navigate apartment complexes and neighborhoods in which law enforcement is simply neither accepted nor trusted—especially with recent, videotaped instances of police brutality in Bridgeport last year and this year. When cops do come, many people leave. Others continue carrying on their business. But most important, few converse with them.

In contrast, SOWs are not only from these complexes or have acquaintances there, but they walk through them every day to maintain visibility. Rather than claiming authority by fiat like officers usually do, SOWs develop relations with locals so that they are viewed as trustworthy and legitimate. Kids call them “uncle.” People honk car horns at them and follow up with a wave. SOWs cannot seem to walk two blocks without a resident giving daps and stopping them to catch up about local news and gossip. In one Daily Report, an SOW described how he saw a group of youth flee and evade police officers. The SOW then met up with them, passed out brochures, and explained his mission. 

Second, SOWs represent a line of communication between law enforcement and local community members. For instance, a number of residents have turned firearms over to SOWs, who have then forwarded the weapon to police through an established protocol. Administrators of the SOW organization have a direct line to the local chief of police, and vice versa. SOWs have been able to direct law enforcement attention to certain hot spots—such as a park where violence breaks out following the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade. On the other side, probation and parole have referred a number of clients to SOWs. Police also inform SOWs of their intentions to patrol certain events—especially funerals—or if they are going to start focusing surveillance on a certain neighborhood or gang.

Finally, SOWs are directly accountable for their clients. They are paid to develop relationships with the community and its organizations and residents. When a client fails, the SOW fails. Thus for the SOW, a homicide represents a workplace failure. And unlike law enforcement, SOWs are directly responsible for improving the circumstances of their client—a vague mission that can range from signing a client up for public benefits to distancing the client from his gang.

In general, if we are to truly confront community violence as a social issue, we would do well to adopt a healthy level of skepticism when examining any violence reduction strategies we have in place. At that point, a homicide will not only represent a workplace failure for SOWs, but also a collective failure for the rest of us. Thus rather than militarizing the police, we should look outside of law enforcement altogether and focus on fostering local forms of authority that can assist officers in achieving the goal that everyone wants—safe streets.

Tony Cheng is a graduate student in Sociology at Yale and an ISPS Graduate Policy Fellow.  His primary research interest focuses on law enforcement strategies in response to urban violence.

Area of study 
Criminal Justice