Reviewed by Bill Lyons, Professor of Political Science at the University of Akron.
As a long-time observer of police-citizen interactions Hans Toch reviews transcripts of interviews he did with police officers in the 1960s and various narrative accounts of similar interactions in Seattle in 2010 to analyze the ways that innocent bystanders and interested “spectators not only exerted a significant impact on the encounters that they had been witnessing but also elevated their importance by endowing them with political significance” (p.xvii).
In Cop Watch, Hans Toch provides a very thoughtful and enormously accessible review of the history of policing reform, organized around this theme of the various, and sometimes cross-cutting, ways that citizen spectators and bystanders impact how we think and talk about police work—sometimes instantaneously in the internet era.
E.E. Schattschneider’s famous analysis in The Semisovereign People builds on a similar analytical framework, arguing that “the outcome of all conflict is determined by the scope.”
“At the root of all politics is the universal language of conflict. The central political fact in a free society is the tremendous contagiousness of conflict. Every fight consists of two parts: (1) the few individuals who are actively engaged at the center and (2) the audience that is irresistibly attracted to the scene. The spectators are as much a part of the over-all situation as are the over combatants. The spectators are an integral part of the situation, for, as likely as not, the audience determines the outcome of the fight” (1975, p.2, emphasis in original).
This means that the core of understanding politics is to see the ongoing struggles over which conflicts to publicize (make salient by expanding the scope to attract new audiences, publics, constituencies) and which to privatize. For this reason, Schattschneider argues that in any conflict, “watch the crowd, because the crowd plays the decisive role” (1975, p.3). In this manuscript Toch watches the crowd and analyzes their role in giving meaning to, and determining the outcome of, police-citizen encounters in a West Coast City in the 1960s and in Seattle in 2010. I highly recommend this book.
In the end, Toch concludes that these mobilized and sometimes competing publics of spectators and bystanders – in person, in the community, across a city and around the globe, virtual and physical – do play an important role in determining which of countless routine police-citizen encounters are made salient and this dynamic becomes a driving force behind policing reform. Those police-citizen interactions that “are of more than a passing interest” (p.85) to spectators are transformed. Invisible exercises of official discretion against an individual citizen on the street become publicized conflicts engaging the attentions of multiple larger publics in various media, courtrooms, and policy making forums.
Toch observes spectators expanding the scope of the conflict to mobilize the attentions of larger publics “on an unfettered scale, free of geographical boundaries” (p.84). In doing this, the audience is participating in the struggle over conflict ownership that Nils Christie analyzed and demonstrating the interconnectedness of our struggle to define both law and community that Greenhouse, Yngvesson, and Engel document. Toch adds valuable concrete and theoretical insights to these conversations and advances our understanding of these questions by examining the reactions of police officers, police department and city leaders, community activists and others participating in this struggle over expanding or narrowing the scope of police-citizen conflicts.
Toch observes that the expansion of the scope impacts the outcome. When a change in the scope of conflict attracts the attention of new publics (neighbors, citizen groups, reporters, bloggers, interest groups, police unions, local judges, federal agencies, the mass media, etc) this reframes the nature of the conflict and relocates the conflict from a particular street corner to venues that are often beyond the control of the original disputants. When a spectator with a camera is arrested “the question…tends to be refocused from the incident that is being filmed to the arrest of the spectator” (p.84) because newly attentive publics bring their own concerns about police abuse of force, freedom of speech, or teenage respect for authority, changing the conversation over how to evaluate police and citizen behavior, public policy, social change, and police leadership.
Each expansion of the scope mobilizes what Toch calls ‘the chorus,’ increasing the visibility of the conflict. With a wider scope of attentive publics, the conflict is no longer a more private interaction between an officer and a citizen, where the officer is the final word on the street. Instead, we observe a more publicized interaction where the attentiveness of police leadership, the court of public opinion, a jury or the U.S. Department of Justice alters the balance of power, and most importantly for Toch, operates as a powerful force to drive meaningful policing reform. Reflecting on his review of the history of policing reform, Toch concludes that
“[t]he chorus had made it contributions by pointing to critical incidents, communicating urgency, cementing motivation, and exerting and maintaining pressure…. Then [the 1960’s] as now, the crowd had been the engine of reform, making the status quo ante increasingly untenable” (p.144).
This book works well on several levels. First, by organizing his review of the history of policing reform around the role of more or less attentive (and more or less mobilized) spectators the text brings to life the risk and rewards, challenges and tensions, of ongoing efforts to improve police work through police-community partnerships. Any course that covers police-community relations, community policing, problem-solving policing, or intelligence-based policing will benefit from the deeply historical and profoundly contemporary analysis here, connecting Kerner Commission concerns to those articulated by a series of progressive police chiefs, police officers, and community activists in Seattle in 2010.
Second, the emphasis here on the importance of the watching the crowds (as they watch the police) is the foundation for a series of provocative insights about politics, policing and community. This text offers a richly textured and well organized narrative analysis of police officer interviews, media coverage, and citizen commentary on publicized police-citizen interactions. Any course on conflict management, urban politics, political reform, interest group conflict, or the politics of crime and punishment would benefit by the addition of this text.
The only part of this text I found wanting, however, was that I would have liked a more nuanced approach to ‘the chorus’ throughout. At times the author recognized that there were competing choruses, but at other times the analysis would have been strengthened by examining the conflicts between and among various choruses as well as between choruses and elites (public and private), particularly with reference to the powerful tools available to elites to mobilize choruses from the top down. Doing this would then provide a foundation for Toch to expand his notion of audience beyond citizens to more productively analyze the political struggle over more or less publicized approaches to these conflicts in ways that address power imbalances, distortions in our information system, and what Scheingold called the politics of law and order.
Third, this book argues that much has changed (mostly for the better, though “retrograde trends” are analyzed as well) and much as stayed the same in our efforts to find a way to police that is consistent with both public safety and living in a democratic society. Toch’s detailed “memento of Seattle” (p.xix) provides a very context-specific analysis of how he sees one big city police department continuing to, for the most part, navigate these troubled waters in a way that marks a path toward more responsive and effective police work.
His four chapters on Seattle 2010 are concrete and theoretically informed enough to provide useful direction for policy analysts, citizen activists, police leaders and police officers today, reminding us all that effective police work – like any collective action – requires us to engage in the inescapably “messy” (p.86) ongoing political struggles over how we define law and community, law enforcement and democratic governance. This book will work well in any undergraduate or graduate classroom examining policing reform or political reform more generally, police leadership or police work, public administration or law and society.
Finally, Toch also argues that the “bitter social debate over law enforcement” highlighted by the Kerner Commission in 1968 “is one that continues unabated to this day and might not be closer to resolution than it was five decades or so ago" (p.147). In choosing to conclude this text by connecting his analysis of the struggle over policing reform to the likelihood that this struggle will next be fought over profiling, Toch takes yet another step toward making this text appealing to scholars and students in a variety of disciplines.
Toch observes officers and citizens “engaged in competing efforts to attract the sympathy and to gain the support of spectators” (p.43), because expanding the scope “unquestionably affected the outcome of the encounter [and] also because it presaged what subsequently became salient developments in the field” (p.44). One development focuses on field interrogations and profiling.
Today, ‘the’ chorus’ call for more aggressive policing “has inspired police departments to initiate a disproportionate number of citizen contacts in minority neighborhoods, a practice that has added the term profiling to our lexicon” (p.147, emphasis in original) to the detriment of police and communities. Toch highlights the challenge to emphasize how profiling disrupts police-community relations and skews the relationship between formal and informal mechanisms of social control.
“Most residents of high-crime areas happen to be law abiding but are forced to live in almost commensurate fear of criminals and of the police who seem unable to distinguish victims from victimizers. Such residents would understandably seek to avoid the police – not because they were criminals but because they would not want to be treated as such” (p.161).
Since we know that the struggle over attracting the attention of key constituencies can invite a fear-driven and expressive politics of law and order framed as democratic responsiveness to ‘the’ community (see Scheingold, 1998), the dynamic analyzed here can also result in the police becoming more responsive to the concerns of the already powerful and less attentive to what the best available data on crime and punishment says are the most effective approaches to police work in a democratic society. The analysis of police-interactions here, therefore, invites a more serious and thoughtful analysis of the political dynamics driving (and de-railing) policing reform, and it provides a powerful contribution toward doing just that. For these, and other, reasons, I highly recommend this book.
Christie, Nils. 1977. “Conflicts as Property,” British Journal of Criminology 17 (1): 1-15.
Greenhouse, Carol, Barbara Yngvesson, and David Engel. Law and Community in Three American Towns. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Schattschneider, E.E. 1975. The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Scheingold, Stuart. 1998. “Constructing the New Political Criminology: Power, Authority, and the Post-Liberal State,” Law and Social Inquiry 23 (4):857-895.
Copyright 2012 by the Author, William T. Lyons.