Policing and the Illusion of Public Input

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Smith, Philip


Decades of scholarly, policy, and financial investment in police-community reform have coalesced around fulfilling the elusive promise of increasing public input in policing. And yet, policing in America today is currently undergoing a crisis in public legitimacy. By continuing to understand the gaps between the promise and practice of community initiatives as revealing police’s operational shortcomings rather than organizational priorities, we fail to sufficiently theorize and account for the core problem of police-community relations. This book argues that the core problem is an enduring illusion of public input in policing. The illusion exists because police shape the very channels through which public input toward them is voiced. I theorize that police may seek public legitimacy, but not at the expense of organizational independence. Amidst intensifying public scrutiny over police practices, these institutional imperatives guide how police navigate escalating demands for external oversight and systemic reform. Existing conceptions of police as law enforcers and order maintainers are inadequate to understand the motivations, strategies, and tools police employ as they navigate these non-enforcement contexts within the public sphere. Instead, I theorize police as “neighborhood mobilizers” who seek to gain community status by exchanging their capacity for problem solving for constituents providing public support. I provide evidence by combining 1.5 years of ethnographic observations with interviews, Freedom of Information Law documents, and Twitter data to conduct what I call a “composite ethnography” of public input toward America’s largest police department: the NYPD. The data reveals how police’s pursuit of neighborhood mobilization cultivates an illusion of public input. First, police prefer to direct public input toward department channels, where officers have asymmetric control over the recording and representation of community complaints. Outside of department channels, police shape the capacity of community groups to organize public input by: (a) amplifying public input in partner channels, over which they exercise influence and (b) containing public input emerging within independent channels through coercive regulation. Thus, community preferences are not articulated through a free marketplace of neighborhood ideas about police priorities, but rather with either a stage or through struggle depending their alignment with police’s institutional priorities. This book offers new insights into the evolving landscape of police accountability, urban governance, and the dissolving distinction between formal and informal social controls. Dismantling the illusion of public input in policing requires understanding that police-community relationships do not have to be built, they already exist—and that is precisely what impedes the potential for police reform.

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