Vol. 9 No. 6 (June 1999) pp. 228-230.

The Politics of Community Policing: Rearranging the Power to Punish by William Lyons. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1999. 241 pp.

Reviewed by Allan K. McDougall, Department of Political Science, The University of Western Ontario.


Lyons opens by stating that his book is motivated by a concern for American democracy. That stance distinguishes him from the functional orientation in most of the literature on community policing. As Lyons argues, designing programs to realize a specific objective, whether it is order maintenance or the reduction of crime rates, accentuates the police mandate and thence state control of the definitions of policing and policing priorities. Community oriented policing, in this context, becomes the addition of a set of linkages between the police and the local community at the delivery end of the state-centered law enforcement system. To Lyons the desire to generate social capital for the legitimacy of order maintenance contrasts with the reciprocity implicit in a community definition of its needs for policing.

Geographically, the book traces the evolution of community policing initiatives in Southeast Seattle from the early 1980’s to 1994. In so doing, it focuses on the emergence and evolution of the South Seattle Crime Prevention Council (1988-94). Lyons worked with the Seattle Police Department and thus understands that force’s organizational patterns and traditions. That insight is not explicitly addressed at any length in the book but it offers coherence to his overview of the evolving linkages between law enforcement and community officers as they were deployed in the region.

Lyons’ book focuses on a case where the community demanded a voice in local policing and pressed its claim successfully against the local police chief and council. It then documents the gradual change in community/police relations to the point where the police controlled the substance and deployment of police resources while the community organizations were reduced to supplementing the efforts of professional service providers.

In building his argument, Lyons provides a very good discussion of that slippery term "community" (p. 25-26). He then accentuates the significance of reciprocity to community both for the reinforcement of its own identity, and for its integrity in dealing with external entities. In this context, the struggle over control of the allocation of, and the setting of priorities for, police resources is a major theme throughout the case study. Lyon’s description of the character of community efforts to control crime in its neighborhoods, to have the police enforce its priorities, and to define serious problems requiring police attention offers a significant contribution to the literature on community policing.

To maintain the integrity of the diverse voices from the police and the community, Lyons uses textual analysis. The way in which participants construct their positions, define agency, and legitimate events offers important data for his analysis. Lyons simplifies his approach by referring to such data as stories. His technique is not as rigorous as formal discourse analysis but it offers an easily accessible style through which the historical case can be constructed. An advantage to Lyons’ use of stories is his ability to maintain the diversity of community voices, and of police and governmental actors, throughout. He thus avoids generalizations that would make it difficult for him to accentuate the conflict between entrenched and marginal elements of the community on the one hand, and the community officer and those in charge of specialized police task forces on the other. His concern for the traditions of American democracy requires not only community partnership with police and state officials but also the recognition of the marginalized as well as the elite within community. The stories of diverse participants maintain the integrity of their voices and at the same time, offer illustrations of the tensions at all levels as agency over the substance of community policing shifts from voice to voice.

For purposes of analysis, stories are divided into prevailing and competing stories. The former are cast as state-centered rationalizations of present practice based often on the instrumental use of the past, legal principals, or national studies. Competing stories are seen as conflicting recounts of local events or specific incidents. They assume symbolic significance in countering claims in debates between the various voices involved in the community/state police relationship. They also are invoked later instrumentally as justifications for positions. Lyons prefers to give voice to as many stories as possible since the range of data they present permits the exclusion or marginalization of those at the extremes and thus focuses debates over community/state relations to more moderate presentations which share wider currency. The potential for reciprocity is enhanced by the opportunity to focus on the moderate stories during negotiations.

A major set of prevailing stories invokes professional or legal standards. Such standards offer symbolic strength to the claims of the state and the police for control. Conversely, competing community-based stories deliver community claims for recognition. These stories can be contested, however, and transformed into rationalizations for police control of police services. The brief period when the community emerged to force its priorities on the state in face of police and governmental opposition is well documented by Lyons, as is the struggle and the eventual co-optation of the community organization once a contract was signed between the crime prevention council and the Seattle Police Department.

Lyons includes broad federal initiatives such as the weed and seed program, the close linkages between national studies and professional standards in the set of prevailing stories that enhance police insulation. Clashing interests between real estate brokers, local business owners and the less powerful elements of the community are reflected in the set of competing stories. The stories are integrated into a broad assessment of power using agency as the focus. The conclusion opens many serious systemic questions that must be addressed if one is to move beyond an analysis of the coherence of service delivery systems to assess their impact on the marginalized, as well as on the more powerful, elements of the community. Throughout the police power of labeling is accentuated, while police control of standards is contrasted with community definition of need. Within the police, shifting police resources into the community increases the potential for the discretionary use of arbitrary police power by the police. On the other, community control of the police opens the threat of vigilantes. Lyons does not duck these challenges. He does not have answers, but his analysis opens them for discussion with many voices heard through the range of stories included. That range offers the possibility of overcoming an imposed dichotomy, leaving the opportunity to debate the issues and thus to both trace and design a community oriented police system.

Lyons presents a coherent history of the evolution of community oriented policing in South East Seattle. He offers an interesting political analysis of the police/community relationship as the police service is delivered and as police structure is negotiated at the policy level. Overall, this book is a coherent case study that complements the more police oriented focus of most of the community policing literature.

Copyright 1995