Third-Party Policing Research Paper

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The original articulation of third-party policing (Buerger and Mazerolle 1998) focused on coercive tactics police use against nominally respectable citizens to impel them to join anticrime efforts. The underlying premise was that the semiformal and informal social control exercised by “place guardians” (Spelman and Eck 1989; Eck 1997; Buerger 1993) was greater overall than that of police intervention. More personal and more consistent over time, it could be more immediate in its consequences (such as denial of entry or eviction for cause). If tapped and coordinated with an overt police effort, it had greater potential for stabilizing place-related behaviors.

Mazerolle and Ransley (2005) extended the concept further, outlining the benefits of formal coordination between police and governmental agencies with specific mandates (oversight over pharmacy sales or alcohol beverage control). Joint endeavors to prevent abuse of prescription drugs (and over-the-counter medicines containing precursor chemicals) were differentiated by specific legislative charges in three Australian states, creating a natural experiment highlighting different levels of authority, commitment, and engagement with the goals of the supposedly joint project. Those considerations also attend local efforts and can be even more pronounced when thirdparty policing is attempted in nonregulatory environments.

The most salient limit of third-party policing is that it constitutes a coerced volunteerism, a response attained by implied threats when appeals for truly voluntary actions fail. The police power to overcome resistance through physical force in criminal matters (Bittner 1970) does not extend to third-party policing, which occurs almost exclusively in the realm of civil law. The proscribed actions police seek to prevent are not those of the recruited citizen but the conduct of their customers, neighbors, or even passersby. Coerced volunteerism imposes an enforcement-like role with no perceptible foundation in law or capacity. Initial resistance should be anticipated in such cases: indeed, one of the fundamental demands of third-party policing is that of finding ways to overcome such resistance.

Coercion is most effective against those who are already vulnerable by dint of playing fast and loose with regulations that define their basic responsibilities, overseen and enforced by nominal allies of the police. Implied coercion is less able to compel individuals in compliance with standard regulations, and those who are accustomed to gaming the existing system. It is most tenuous when the targets are themselves sovereign entities or parties who have already forged alliances with nominal regulators, politicians, and other sovereigns who can intercede on their behalf.

Coerced volunteerism invariably requires actions and expenses outside the normal scope of the third party’s life or business. Whether a one-time expense such as the construction of a barrier or a continuing commitment to regulate the conduct of patrons, an obligation is imposed that disrupts the routine activities of the enlisted individual or organization. Some requested efforts may be perceived as injurious to business interests, even dangerous to the participants. Unlike volunteer efforts like Neighborhood Watch, third-party policing does not mobilize any inherent desire or willingness to “do something” about a mutually agreed-upon noxious condition; it is far more likely to be a second-tier enlistment for a police-defined operation, after the softer approaches have been exhausted. Unless the benefits of the requested actions are recognized, resentment and resistance must be anticipated.

Moreover, “recognition of benefits” is not unidimensional. In the best case, the third party either understands intuitively the link between the police request and an improved quality of life or experiences the benefits soon after implementing the requested actions. Much more likely is the probability that the only “benefit” perceived is to be relieved of the annoying presence of the police officers repeating their requests. At the lower end of the scale, the third party may interpret the “benefit” of cooperation to a quid pro quo for later favors or leniency from the police.

The limits and boundaries for third-party policing initiatives lie in two distinct domains: among the potential third-party partners of the police and within the police organization itself. Both domains are also vulnerable to environmental influences affecting one or both. Periods of economic constriction not only place severe financial constraints on landowners and businesses but also can redirect police resources personnel from efforts viewed as peripheral. Unless clear benefits can be shown, both agency and political overseers will demand that resources be directed back into “meat and potatoes” channels: traditionally, that has meant staffing patrol to answer calls in the old reactive policing mode.

Several impediments – notably “innovation fatigue” and “limited subscription” – are found in different manifestations in both camps. Though linked in some arenas, they are conceptually distinct in important ways. Nevertheless, the different aspects of individual third parties and organizational third parties are presented together here. Greater differences exist between external organizational resistance and internal police agency resistance, and those are treated separately. Regardless of the class, resistance tends to manifest itself in the distinct forms outlined below.

Innovation Fatigue. Institutional history in police departments (and others) often includes a compilation of highly touted but short-term efforts to “do things better.” Even successful innovations often fail to achieve the critical level of acceptance needed for adoption as a regular practice. While not unique to police organizations, the kiss-of-death pronouncement that “We tried that once; it didn’t work” is recognized by police researchers as the most visible legacy of promoting innovation in policing. (The police see this differently: researchers “arrive with a great idea they’ve dreamed up in the ivory tower, make a mess for a year, and then disappear for 3 years before they come back to tell us what we did wrong.” That pronouncement embodies the perception that externally imposed innovation almost always fails to capture important realities of the practical level.)

A comparable condition may affect community members and partner organizations. Considerable publicity accompanies the onset of any new program, conveying to multiple constituencies both the dimensions of the project and its needs. People invest in the new idea, make the necessary arrangements to participate (disrupting or sacrificing other parts of their routine to do so), and expect to see results. Often those results do not materialize, and those who are most affected by such failure are the community members who stood to benefit from a successful project.

Some programs simply do not achieve the anticipated results, either because of theory failure or because of implementation failure. Some cannot garner the critical threshold of resources to be effective. Others simply fail to materialize for reasons that are never made clear. The cumulative effect is the modern-day equivalent of Aesop’s fable of the boy who cried “Wolf!” Each new iteration of change becomes less and less compelling, until finally people are unwilling to budge. History tells them that nothing good will emerge, no matter what they do.

Uneven Subscription: Whether in organizations or by individual citizens, uneven subscription can occur in one or more distinct manifestations: overt resistance, covert disruption (“monkey-wrenching”) and lip service masking “this too shall pass” passivity, token compliance, and good-faith but witless attempts to participate. Innovation fatigue certainly lends itself to “this too shall pass” passivity, but native skepticism can produce the same condition even when there is no prior history. If there is a perceived gap between the known resources and the stated goals, or distrust of the promoters, inter alia, a “wait-and-see” attitude may be prominent even if there is no history of prior innovation collapse.

Wide variation of participation across third-party efforts highlights one of the most prominent limits of the approach: it is inherently time-intensive for police officers. High-end efforts like Oakland’s SMART team, with focused political support and sufficient resources at all levels, are relatively rare. When resistance and reluctance are the norm, officers working with third parties must recontact them frequently to insure that plans or instructions are understood and promised actions taken. Periodic contacts are equally important to learn of legitimate new complications and to debunk new illegitimate excuses for noncompliance.

Overt Resistance. Managers and others in position of authority in agencies approached to become “partners” in a police initiative can say no. This is the most visible hurdle facing officers seeking a third-party solution to problems. Outright refusal is usually couched civilly in terms of one or more of four major objections: (1) lack of centrality of the police request to the business’s or individual’s primary mandate, (2) lack of legal authority, (3) lack of resources, and (4) competing demands from external sovereigns with greater call on the organization’s resources.

“Overt resistance” does not necessarily involve confrontation with the police: a common form of resistance is simply to ignore police requests to meet about a problem, and patterns of ownership insulate some place managers by distance. Several RECAP properties were owned by corporations with headquarters on the east coast: leasing was handled by agents in Minneapolis and rent checks mailed to addresses out-of-state. One landlord ignored RECAP attempts to speak with him until the case officer drove to the landlord’s residence (in a third-tier suburb outside the Twin Cities) to leave a handwritten note. The landlord’s comment that “if he came all the way out here, I figured he must be serious” demonstrated the “ignore them and they will go away” legacy of innovation fatigue. There are other forms of resistance to be aware of, however, hidden under various guises of compliance.

Lip Service. In the face of continued police pressure, the easiest form of noncompliance is verbal acquiescence without substantive action. If the police can be stalled for long enough, they will either give up or be redirected to other pursuits. Follow-up contacts are vital and tangible intermediate actions and goals desirable wherever they can be articulated. Lip service is difficult to maintain in the face of continued reminders that promised work has not been done.

Token Compliance. A step above lip service is token compliance: “face time” attendance at meetings without commitment to action or designation of liaison personnel without real powers or even direction; in short, providing the most minimal level of participation or resources to make a marginally credible claim of cooperation. Token compliance is another stalling technique, but it also constitutes a visible demonstration of good faith: that demonstration is often more for political sovereigns than for the police, though it serves both in the initial stages. Where lip service “says something,” token compliance “does something.” To overcome ineffective results, police must make a case both for the ineffectiveness of the token effort and the actual capacity of the organization or individual to do more.

Lip service and token compliance illustrate one of the most stringent limits to coerced volunteerism: the “coercion” often is not and cannot be real. The “inherent coercion” of police presence is anchored in the criminal law and has little purchase in the civil arena without a specific regulatory mandate.

Covert Disruption. Third parties may take actions to undermine the entire thrust of the police initiatives. Asked to appoint a manager for an apartment building, one landlord designated a low-functioning tenant as a manager: the individual was incapable of controlling the behaviors of the other residents and limited himself to doing minor physical repairs. A problematic landlord was at first thought to be cooperative: he quickly made the physical alterations suggested and directed his on-site manager to implement the other provisions of the officers’ plan for reducing calls to the property. Several months later, the police learned that he had countermanded those orders as soon as the meeting had ended and fired the manager for actually attempting to implement changes.

One of the more notorious landlords reacted to the news that one tenant in his RECAP building was a medium-level drug dealer by evicting the individual. Several weeks later, a precinct raid at another address owned by the same landlord revealed that he had “evicted” the tenant by moving him into another building, in effect transferring the associated problems to a new neighborhood.

Drug dealers were a point of contention that became emblematic of the cognitive gaps in problem definition that sometimes affect third-party policing efforts. To the police and the surrounding neighborhood, problems caused by a resident drug dealer are all too obvious: the influx of unsavory characters and associated rise of property crimes; unpleasant confrontations with marginal individuals and those under the influence of drugs; detritus including feces and urine, needles, and used condoms; constant noisy traffic; and related incivilities.

To absentee landlords, however, drug dealers were almost ideal tenants: they paid the rent on time, in cash; they made no demands on the landlord; and they did not complain about minor deficiencies in the physical plant. Insulated by distance from the toxic by-products of the illicit activity, absentee landlords were ignorant of the problems, and not disposed to oust a cash-paying tenant who had caused the landlord no problems. The problem at the time was accentuated by a surplus of available rental units in Minneapolis. The natural response of the landlords was to categorize the ancillary problems as “police responsibilities” because the police requests flew in the face of the basic purpose of renting property (making money with minimal expenditure of capital and effort).

Good-Faith Incompetence. At a large residential complex, a suggestion that security be employed led to the hiring of a local private service whose employees were gang-connected and essentially used their legitimate employment as a cover for increasing drug sales. It was never certain that they had been hired to suborn the police request in that fashion; they were lowest bidders for the job, and the situation was chalked up to a form of good-faith incompetence.

Similar results were encountered in a variety of settings, including a large homeless shelter that hired a security guard to control behaviors within the facility. One night, several male shelter residents overwhelmed the guard, pinned him to the floor, and ostentatiously cut the buttons off his shirt, one by one, before releasing him unharmed. The security guard quit that night.

A number of caretakers encountered similar problems at multifamily dwellings on the RECAP list. The common link was that they – like the security guard at the shelter – were unprepared to deal with the troublemakers in their facility. The place managers were capable enough for the routine duties of the position but were vastly overmatched by the residents who were hardened by street life and their criminal associates.

Client And Partner-Centered Limits

“Ask, and ye shall receive” is a religious precept. In the secular and often profane world of policing, “to ask” often means to be told to “[bleep] off.” Compliance is not the first resort of persons who are asked to take on additional obligations, in order to insure a return that perhaps is perceived as dubious, and in any case is defined in terms of benefit to persons other than the individual so entreated. As a result, forays into third-party policing are constrained by a number of factors centered in the perceptions of the would-be partners (such as the differing perspectives on the drug-dealing tenants, above), many of which are operational counterparts of the techniques of negation articulated by Sykes and Matza (1957).

Corporate And Agency Resistance

Resistance from external organizations can be anticipated in four different guises: (1) the request lies outside the organizational mandate as interpreted by the organizational hierarchy, (2) the lack of legal authority to take on the actions requested, (3) the request cannot be fulfilled because of budgetary restrictions, and (4) the organization is already overloaded with the demands of their own mandate. The rationales sometimes overlap, and they often are legitimate: shrinking budgets are a primary reason that fulfilling organizations’ own mandates is difficult, as American police departments are discovering in the “new normal” of the economy.

Organizations: Outside the Ordinary Mandate. While there may be occasions when this is a proper remonstrance, in many cases the argument is really that the request lies outside the routine practices of the organization. The analog is to Sykes and Matza’s concept of “denial of responsibility.” There is a deeper issue, however: the police are seeking an intervention by an agency that possesses defined statutory powers, in order to coerce compliance with police requests in areas that are outside the partners’ specific mandates, and for which no coercive authority exists to enable direct police action. While the regulatory authorities do have a mandate to intervene in one or more of the intermediate conditions, there is no corresponding requirement that they do so to enable other actions for other agencies: in most western countries, regulatory functions exist in their own silos.

The challenge of third-party policing is to forge credible links between the separate enforcement rationales. While that might imply a veiled threat that exposure of the conditions will make the regulatory agency look bad in the public eye, such a premise should not be overstated, and certainly cannot be overused. Agencies (including the police) have well-developed defense mechanisms to defend their standard practices against complaints that come from all quarters. The most powerful is that of competing or superseding mandates.

In Jersey City, a grant-funded program to forge a joint Police Department-School Department venture to address absenteeism and in-school misbehavior foundered on issues related to specific legal mandates. It was the position of the School Board that privacy concerns did not permit the sharing of student information with the police, and repeated entreaties to bridge the gap failed. When RECAP tried to persuade the Minneapolis Housing Authority not to house young alcoholics and addicts in senior citizen high rises, the authority invoked the provisions of their charter, comparable to the soon-to-be-enacted Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In Minneapolis, a powerful nominal ally – the City Prosecutor’s office – refused to cooperate with RECAP’s attempts to curb high-volume shoplifting. Standard practice was to nolle prosse misdemeanor shoplifting cases because the volume alone would overwhelm the office’s capacity to prosecute cases (a legitimate “lack of adequate resources” refusal). Analysis suggested that most shoplifters were oneor two-time offenders who desisted after they were caught the first time; real damages were inflicted by the serial shoplifters and organized shoplifting gangs. The organized groups were more likely to be from outside the area; when apprehended, they had enough stolen goods to support felony theft charges. RECAP targeted local prolific shoplifters, proposing a plan to monitor all shoplifting arrests (and releases) to aggregate serial offenders’ thefts from a series of low, no-prosecution levels to a total amount that constituted a felony, whereupon they would be presented for prosecution.

Though the city attorney’s office still balked, invoking its sovereign status vis-a`-vis the police, the unit took the issue into the political arena. Their proposal had the backing of the chief, raising the specter of a public spat with adverse political consequences, and so overt resistance gave way: prosecutors grudgingly accepted the RECAP compromise plan. What followed, however, was an institutional process of covert disruption: without notifying RECAP, the city attorney’s office moved the monetary bar for prosecution higher and higher, to nolle prosse the lower-threshold aggregations that RECAP forwarded. In token compliance with the request, the office had other means to insure that normal practice was not disrupted by RECAP’s third-party gambit.

RECAP also attempted to enlist a comparable effort on the part of major retailers whose stores were frequent targets of thieves. Retailers readily agreed to participate in the plan: from their perspective, it was little different than the existing state of affairs, with some promise of a better curb on a small group of local offenders. In the process of the discussion, however, it became evident that the corporate security apparatus – individually and collectively – had a considerably more sophisticated grasp on the situation than did the police. A logical extension of their efforts to track the shoplifting gangs across multiple jurisdictions created an extensive database of apprehended shoplifters. It could have saved the Minneapolis police a considerable amount of effort that ultimately went into recreating the local version. Naturally, the corporations were reluctant to share it with the police.

The polite distance of the corporate entities from anything beyond token compliance with RECAP’s plan illustrated another set of limitations when working with private sector entities: overlapping layers of constraint under which the private sector operates. The need to curtail losses to theft certainly fell within the corporate security mandate, but so did protecting company assets from other threats: corporate liability extended well beyond shoplifting. National and regional corporations certainly possessed adequate resources, but a much broader set of threats quelled more extensive cooperation. Logical negative consequences (never confirmed) included exposure to individual or class-action lawsuits for sharing information with the police, possible negative publicity related to accusations of behavior that we now term “racial profiling” (see, e.g., Meeks 2000), and a potential for loss of market share based on rumors. Negative returns on investment conceivably could include the neutralization of security techniques (if revealed publicly, as part of a lawsuit or because of “loose talk” by police officials) and an influx of even more serious shoplifting.

Organizations: Budget Constraints. Organizational budgets are fixed, particularly in the regulatory and social services. Like the police, the budgets tend to be devoted in large part to personnel. The police request often is for a temporary reassignment of employee time, malleable, and already covered by the budget. However, some community policing initiatives involving large-scale activities go beyond a simple redirection of time, and third-party requests may be comparable in their scope.

Overcoming the budget defense often involves building political coalitions that alter, if only temporarily, the priorities of agencies sought as partners. One-time interventions or projects (such as the cleanup of an abandoned lot to establish a neighborhood playground) are easier to mount than long-term, resource-intensive systematic projects to rehabilitate neighborhoods. One-time projects tend to be quick political capital, with Before and After photos; bringing about long-term changes (improving slipshod management at problem bars, shutting down thinly veiled storefront facades for the drug trade) are fundamentally different problems, inherently more difficult, with fewer opportunities for participants and political sovereigns to claim victory publicly.

On the rare occasion when nonprofit organizations are the focus of third-party efforts, budget will be both a defense and a potential lever. A privately held residential facility serving clients in rehabilitation or under duress was identified as an attractive nuisance: a number of its clients committed crimes both inside the facility and in the neighborhood and contributed substantially to neighborhood incivilities. The proprietor pled a lack of resources, attempting to turn the RECAP officer into an advocate in the proprietor’s quest to obtain a higher level of certification that would bring in more money. After a protracted effort against the stalling tactics above, the tables were turned: revocation of existing certifications became the lever for establishing substantive changes. That decision was complicated by the fact that the facility served a large number of needy clientele who were not causing problems and were in need of shelter and other assistance provided there. Such moral dilemmas will attend third-party efforts as well as traditional policing.

Budget decisions made at remote corporate levels are less amenable to police intercession. Many corner gas-and-grocery convenience were beset by large numbers of shoplifting calls. Corporate policy forbade employees from detaining shoplifters, on the theory that the costs of a single successful lawsuit or worker’s compensation claim would far outweigh the losses to shoplifting. One franchise owner revealed that while shoplifting losses could run about a thousand dollars in a bad month, the store turned a monthly profit between 50 and 60,000 dollars a month even after shoplifting losses were factored in. Police assertions that shoplifting (free beer, cigarettes, and munchies) was an attractive nuisance with a negative impact on the areas simply had no traction against this economic reality. RECAP officers went so far as to travel to the out-of-state headquarters of one of the chain companies to plead their case, but to no avail.

Leverage: Mobilizing City Organizations

In Minneapolis, building inspections were conducted in routine manner by multiple agencies: building codes, health and sanitation, and others. Advance notices mere mailed to property owners before inspections were to be conducted, allowing owners to make any needed repairs or cosmetic changes, masking deeper structural problems that would resurface eventually. Nominal compliance served an important goal of inspectorial agencies by maximizing their effectiveness to superficial review and minimizing the resources needed for follow-up and enforcement. It also helped to minimize pressure from political sovereigns, who were third-party defense mechanisms for property owners seeking to divert police attention from their own lack of responsibility.

RECAP needed a series of spot inspections outside the normal two-step of nominal compliance. To break the accepted routine of scheduled inspections, the inspection agency needed substantial evidence that such a change was needed. A high volume of calls to the police (the defining condition for selection as a RECAP address) was a behavioral problem, not a structural one. In some cases, the deadlock was broken by documentation: RECAP officers became informal inspectors, documenting the visible conditions of the building during the period when inspections were not anticipated. In others, the time-honored tradition of trading favors – standing by when a district inspector examined a particularly problematic address where physical harm was possible, for instance – would bring an inspector to a property unannounced. In a handful of cases, the documentation of problems at the property would go directly to the ward’s Council Member, a preemptive move giving the police version primacy over the subsequent self-serving description by the property owner. It also undercut any agency invocation of past “successful” routine inspections as evidence that no intervention was necessary.

There are definite limits to police officers’ ability to tap other city agencies (or employees) for favors outside the normal course of business, but the ramifications of doing so can be enormous. The sudden appearance of a formerly predictable regulatory agent, and the penalties she or he levies subsequent to the surprise inspection, is the civil equivalent of “a public hanging.” Both specific and general deterrence (compliance with requests the first time the police ask, in this case) are desired results.

The various workarounds to routine must be used sparingly and cannot be squandered on trivial cases. The best initial case to go forward with will have extensive documentation, including support from neighbors, police records, and photographs where appropriate (RECAP used video surveillance on one particularly nettlesome property with a huge criminogenic impact on the surrounding neighborhood). High-profile targets also improve the media impact of the police efforts, though they can also be a liability if things go sour.

Once it is known that the police have that “power,” the word will spread quickly among those accustomed to gaming the system: there is a new set of rules we have to deal with. In Minneapolis, there was a two-tiered division of landlords: individuals who owned one or two properties in an attempt to improve their financial standards, and well-financed owners of multiple properties. The majority in both categories were entrepreneurs who toed the line and maintained good properties; the handful of multiple-site owners who were gaming the system owned a surprising number of RECAP problem properties, and it was to that group that the “public hanging” efforts were directed. Smaller independent owners were more likely to be overwhelmed by unanticipated problems and welcomed police attention and the assistance it brought.

Individual Resistance

Denial of responsibility, denial of injury, and condemnation of the condemners (Sykes and Matza 1957) are the most commonly proffered justifications for refusal by individual citizens. Financial concerns analogous to organizational budgets are frequently offered, sometimes combined with spurious appeals to “higher loyalty” (usually the well-being of the individual’s family): like organizational budgets, some of the claims are real, while others are spurious and self-serving.

Individuals: Denial of Responsibility. Unlike the criminals who were the focus of Sykes and Matza’s original thesis, third-party individuals who rebuff police attempts to enlist them are not rationalizing any criminal behavior on their part. They are rationalizing a refusal to take on additional burdens, the compelled volunteerism articulated above. This variation of “denial of responsibility” exists upon a continuum, however: at one end are individuals who find themselves caught in the changing social conditions that produce the problems besetting the neighborhood. They are not a part of “the problem” through any actions of their own, and attempts to cast them as part of the problem purely on the basis of not being “part of the solution” (a bumper-sticker platitude at the ground level) will leave a sour taste.

At the other end are slumlords and do-nothing place managers whose de minimus discharge of ordinary responsibilities constitutes a complex set of visual and behavioral cues that allow, abet, or even encourage the criminal or disruptive acts that were reported to the police. Sometimes these conditions were due to sloth on the place managers’ part, but sometimes they were deliberate: a number of bartenders in Minneapolis were found to have profited from allowing illegal drug sales and prostitution to occur in their premises. Instinctively, police understand that such individuals are part of the problem.

That assertion carries the onus of proof, however, so police must document their claim in several ways. The first is to provide evidence to the individual, in hopes that the person will acquiesce to avoid further consequences. Failing that, the case must be made to partner agencies that the individual is thumbing a nose at the regulatory agencies by superficial compliance with routine inspections. Additionally, officers seeking to employ thirdparty policing solutions may have to justify the effort to their superiors. Often, those justifications must take a form that allows the command staff to justify the efforts to political sovereigns, to whom the proximate targets of the third-party efforts have appealed to “get the cops off my back.”

In this context, a variant form of denial of injury comes into play, sometimes abetted by a variant of denial of victim. Several Minneapolis landlords, and several bar owners, portrayed the police problems at their properties as an inevitable spillover effect of neighborhood demographics: “those people.” In some cases, the third-party targets attempted to portray themselves as advocates for the troublemakers: “where else are they going to go?” It was a thin rationale and easily countered by the rejoinder that “help” does not mean allowing the same destructive habits that brought the troublemakers to their present state. Nevertheless, it is a rationale that might find sympathy elsewhere, a triangulation of support that might make the third-party efforts more difficult: police are not the only agents capable of developing coalitions. Because it consists of “soft” coercion applied to nominal respectables, third-party policing carries the onus of anticipating challenges and countermeasures, and taking steps to neutralize them before they are invoked.

Individuals: Budget Limitations. Budget limitations may be very real for the individual landlord or owner of a business establishment; the counterargument that investments made in the police efforts will work to improve the property’s bottom line is always speculative at first. Smalltime owners (with one or two properties) have fewer resources, and often lesser skill sets for managing, than do the more established and well-capitalized owners of multiple properties.

RECAP’s exemplar of this condition was an individual who had just taken back a property when a contracted buyer defaulted, only to find that the well-managed property had been run into the ground: the physical plant had been allowed to deteriorate, and the middle-class tenants had left when more problematic individuals were let into the property by fly-by-night speculators. When the RECAP officer contacted him and laid out the list of police calls to the property, the owner responded with “I’ll work on that if you’ll work on these” and presented a stack of repair orders from various inspectors’ offices that amounted to a huge amount of money. In that case, third-party policing took on a different form, with the RECAP officer interceding with the other regulatory bodies, buying time for physical repairs in exchange for the owner’s reestablishing the former rules of conduct. Both sides of the effort were successful.

Another variation of the budget defense – sometimes a bluff in Minneapolis’s renters’ market, but also exercised – was to threaten to “walk away from” a property… essentially abandoning it and allowing it to become derelict. Few landlords actually walked away, but several did sell the property to another landlord, often buying a new property from a third owner in turn. A retrospective analysis of real estate transactions revealed a well-established pattern of such “trading sales.” One of most prolific problem-causing properties changed hands five times in the course of the year-long RECAP experiment: each time a new owner took over a property, previous gains and concessions were lost, and the RECAP officer had to begin anew.

Police Organization Limits

Nominally, police agencies are hierarchical organizations that rest heavily on principles of command and control. In reality, those principles are loosely observed, and in some agencies are more honored in the breach than the observance. Leadership in subsidiary parts of agencies may cleave to a nominal subscription to agency values, but add beliefs and inclinations that are independent of it. Individuals’ skill sets may or may not be amenable to new duties or approaches. As a result, attempts to gain leverage from third-party policing may falter on one or more of the same deficiencies that are found in nominal partners.

Overt resistance can be particularly sharp in police agencies. When problem-solving officers attempt to enlist the help of others in the organization, it is usually because their particular skills are needed: the work of undercover drug officers, gang unit members with special expertise, and the like. As such, the “lack of centrality” and “lack of authority” defenses available to outside agencies are not viable. Lack of resources and competing demands from sovereigns (within or outside the agency) are generally the first reason given for refusal: “I’d like to help you, but.. .” Given that the demands for specialized units usually outstrip their ability to meet them, these initial refusals are not unreasonable.

Another form of overt resistance is the darker side of autonomy: police officers take pride in their ability to work through their own problems and to do so on their own terms. Backup requests are routinely honored, especially at the peer level, but when line officers must ask for help from superior officers in other units, that equation changes. Jersey City attempted to evoke a problem-oriented response to street prostitution in two areas but was rebuffed by the precinct command staff. Treating the grant funds as an overtime windfall, the patrol units chose to ignore the problem-oriented plan in favor of traditional suppressive approaches that displaced the street trade into neighborhoods previously free of it. (A simultaneous gambit asked the Jersey City courts to levy jail time instead of fines and credit for “time served” while awaiting arraignment, escalating sentences after multiple convictions; the idea was to deprive pimps of the income from the prostitutes. Like RECAP’s shoplifting initiative, the effort was dismissed out of hand: the judiciary claimed a greater need for bed space to house violent offenders.)

Police agencies generally have a silo approach to specialty work: if a special unit has been created, then that work is somebody else’s responsibility. That ethos is slowly changing in many places but is real enough to be considered a limitation on third-party policing initiatives, whatever their origin. Overcoming silo mentality requires a skill set and an approach similar to dealing with external agencies: some plausible benefit, or a win-win overlap of separate responsibilities, must create a foundation rationale for internal cooperation.

Going up the chain of command to realign the priorities of nominally equal peer units is risky, though if it is done skillfully enough, the tit-for-tat repercussions that come from “stepping on toes” may be avoided. If persistent requests come from resident groups or other civilian partners, some of the onus might be lifted from the requesting officers. Deferring the decision upward to higher command levels, by presenting various strategies with and without the available units, might be a workaround. In many cases, however, the processes are so heavily linked to personalities at all levels that it is impossible to prescribe a successful path to enlisting organizational assistance.

Covert disruption is less likely within the agency context than elsewhere, because the consequences of disruption attach to the agency and because memories are long. While there are some documented episodes of disruption in the history of policing experiments (beginning with the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment), they tend to be expressions of disdain at interference by outsiders, not internal tampering. More serious disruptions tend to work in the opposite direction: “cooking the books” to make ineffective anticrime initiatives look better for political reasons.

Lip Service requires much less effort than covert disruption and is a more likely result in police agencies. The demands of external sovereigns, the changing priorities within the agency (or the precinct, or other unit), and the demands of the 9-1-1 system all become plausible reasons why promised assistance does not materialize. One RECAP officer attempted to enlist the assistance of peers he had worked with in patrol, asking them to make arrests when called to domestic violence incidents at a pair of properties where domestics were the primary driver of police numbers. Though they readily agreed, no arrests were forthcoming, even though an analysis of the active call information indicated a sound foundation of probable cause in multiple interests.

Token compliance is a close cousin to lip service within agencies, but as with outside partners, it involves a “did something” component that falls well short of the assistance needed. A day of directed patrol in a problematic neighborhood where 2 weeks or more are needed is one such manifestation. A couple of undercover drug buys where a sustained effort is needed is another. In all cases, a resort to competing demands for short resources is the explanatory rationale for levels of participation that are less than desired.

Good-Faith Incompetence. All departments of any size have individuals who meet minimal levels of competence but are unable or unwilling to reach more desirable levels of performance (the subtle Minneapolis appellation was “the sick, the lame, and the lazy”). Seconding an underperforming or “problem” member to the third-party request is a way of answering two distinct needs: the home unit is no longer responsible for the individual, and the unit can claim to have responded positively to the request. (While “good faith” may bea stretch in such cases, the response can be distinguished from covert disruption because no particular ill effects are intended.)

Like many policing initiatives, third-party policing is also vulnerable to a systemic problem in policing: lack of stability and continuity. Though no employee is irreplaceable, some are more attuned than others to the nuances of third-party work (like any other specialty). Local knowledge and trust are important to patrol officers, who tend to be regarded as interchangeable cogs in the machine. The “here today, gone tomorrow” transfers that are the norm for patrol can be fatal to third-party efforts. Knowledge and trust are vital to being able to sustain third-party policing, but when police agencies fall short, it inadvertently adds to innovation fatigue. Because building coalitions factors into many third-party and community-based initiatives, it is important to sustain third-party effort with long-term planning for promotions, transfers, or retirements.


The basic premises of third-party policing are simple: the police can be more effective by enlisting the efforts of partners with effective, consistent influence over the lives of the offenders who are the ultimate targets of police efforts (“policing by third parties”). Those potential partners who are reluctant to participate can be brought into conformity by civil pressures unrelated to the criminal law, if necessary (“the policing of third parties”). Excuses are illegitimate, and effective third-party policing is simply a matter of finding the right tool and establishing leverage.

In reality, those premises sometimes founder upon harder realities. Some reasons for nonparticipation are legitimate, most often those related to available resources: attempting to push past them will create ill will at least and quite possibly-may create active resistance sufficient to undermine an otherwise legitimate effort. One of the greatest unknowns of third-party policing efforts is whether or not the narrow interest of a particular initiative will run afoul of competing priorities of more sovereign entities, as was the case with the RECAP shoplifting initiative and the Jersey City prostitution abatement project.

The right tools are not always available, particularly when political relationships lie behind the problem definition. Some political decisions will be legitimate choices to forego one opportunity (the third-party initiative) for another, larger political goal. Others may be the result of hard or soft corruption, but in any case will not yield to police insistence. “The wisdom to know the difference” is one of the mantras applicable to third-party policing efforts.

The “we tried that once; it didn’t work” pathology of organizational thinking can be deadly. Overcoming it requires a nonconfrontational investment in analyzing both prior and current efforts. Special operations teams routinely conduct after-action critiques to identify areas needing improvement, but SWAT and SRT units have a cachet within police culture that community policing still strives to achieve. The concept of meaningful review of other efforts has made only modest inroads in other areas of policing and needs to expand to improve third-party policing.

Against those limits, third-party policing requires a continuity and a sense of long-term strategy quite distinct from the call-driven siloing of patrol work. In some instances, success requires the building of coalitions to overcome obstacles, and there is much to be learned in that respect from the community organizing movement. The existence of coalitions of affected parties lifts the onus of “being the bad guy” from the police, and both legitimizes and broadens the pressure on third-party targets. A clear understanding that “coerced volunteerism” works best when the coercion is minimal, and the benefits of cooperation are perceived early in the process, should be a fundamental tenet of third-party policing.


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  2. Buerger ME, Mazerolle LG (1998) Third-party policing: a theoretical analysis of an emerging trend. Justice Q 15(2):302–327
  3. Eck JE (1997) Preventing crime in places. In: Sherman LW, Gottfredson D, MacKenzie D, Eck J, Reuter P, Bushway S (eds) Preventing crime: what works, what doesn’t, what’s promising – A report to the Attorney General of the United States. United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Washington, DC
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  9. Spelman W, Eck JE (1989) Sitting ducks ravenous wolves and helping hands: new approaches to urban policing. Public Affairs Comment Lyndon B Johnson School of Government, University of Texas, Austin, Winter
  10. Sykes GM, Matza D (1957) Techniques of neutralization: a theory of delinquency. Am Sociol Rev 22(6): 664–670

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