Skid row “is seen as completely different…containing aspects of the primordial jungle” (Bittner 1967, p. 704). “[S]kid-row is perceived as the natural habitat or people who lack the capacities and commitments to live ‘normal’ lives on a sustained basis” (Bittner 1967, p. 705). “Normal” society does look favorably on those who find themselves constrained to skid-row. According to Bittner (1967, p. 706), “The uncommitted life attributed to them is perceived as inherently offensive; it’s very existence arouses indignation and contempt. More important, however, is the feeling that persons who have repudiated the entire role-status casting system of society, persons whose lives forever collapse into a succession of random moments, are seen as constituting a practical risk.”
The approach taken by most police in dealing with the skid-row “problem” or risk to normal society is, according to Bittner (1967) is one of containment. Under such an approach, officers use their discretion by allowing certain crimes in the skid-row area to exist with little, if any police intervention. The police might overlook drunkenness, drug use, or prostitution as long as they remain in the skid-row area or do not grow to endanger normal society or bring severe threats to the occupants of the area. In fact, one of the propositions raised by Bittner concerning how the police deal with the inhabitants of skid-row – particularization of knowledge – puts forth the idea that the police will know well those who engage in drunkenness, drug use, or prostitution. This is true even to the point where the police interact with these people every day in the performance of their duties and keeping things “contained.” Looking the other way at the minor offenses, this non-enforcement, is not without a price to those who do not find themselves arrested for their minor crimes. According to Brown (1981), the decision to not enforce often brings with it an “exchange” between the officer and the individual. In the case of skid-row it might manifest in a certain amount of cooperation from the individual (e.g., limiting their activities to a defined area) or in the officer expecting information on more serious crimes in the area.
The “community policing” concept, at first blush, differs considerably from the idea of allowing crime to continue in a small area so long as the police can contain it to that area. Community policing has several different definitions and different approaches. (See, e.g. Engel.) Eck and Spelman (1987) in discussing some early features of Community Policing note that one approach was to create foot patrols, a method of policing from the early parts of the 20th Century and one used extensively in the Bowery of New York – a long-time skid row area (Bittner 1967).
Community policing focuses on crime control through involvement with the community (Eck and Spelman 1987; Klockars, 1988; Nowicki 1998). In some approaches it involves active problem solving as opposed to simple crime prevention or responsive approaches (Eck and Spelman 1987; Klockars, 1988; Nowicki 1998). It seeks the involvement of an enfranchised community working with the police in seeking to identify, analyze, and resolve problems within the community – some crime related, others more in the realm of life-quality issues (See, e.g. Eck and Spelman 1987 discussion of the Newport News, S.A.R.A. approach). In this aspect particularly the idea of containment and community policing seem at odds. In containment we see society (the larger community) satisfied with keeping the inhabitants of the primordial jungle confined and contained in that unpleasant jungle where ‘normal’ society does not have to see or be bother by those in the “jungle.” There is no real concern about the crime that occurs there or quality of life issues. What the police do and how they do it is of no real concern so long as the police do not allow the problems of skid-row reach their backyard/ In community policing, on the other hand, we see society (the community) as an active participant in resolving crime and quality of life issues. They expect a certain behavior from the police in dealing with the problems and do not turn a blind eye to police misconduct or questionable methods.
There are, however, some similarities between containment and community policing, particularly when we examine the definition of community policing put forth by Walker (1999, as cited in Engel). With both there is a de-emphasis on crime fighting (containment allows a certain level of crime to exist); concentration on neighborhood-level disorder (that is the very concept of containment, keeping everything in the neighborhood); and development of closer ties with citizens (in containment, the police know a large number of the citizens in the area – in fact, in containment the police probably know the people better than even the most community-oriented community policing program).
In the skid-row world described by Bittner (1967), society is happy to keep the skid-row residents contained through the actions of the police. The police, Bittner would suggest, seem happy to take this approach. However, through a more altruistic approach that combines containment with some of the other ideas of community policing, the police assigned to skid-row can continue to serve as peacekeepers while at the same time giving some the opportunity to break free from the jungle. This altruistic approach goes beyond the arresting of all the homeless people for vagrancy on a particularly cold night so as to protect them from the elements. Of particular note is Walker’s (1999) community policing principle of “development of closer ties with other government agencies that have responsibilities for community problems” (Engel). As Bittner (1967) noted the police in the skid-row area have extensive knowledge of and contact with the inhabitants of the area. Through better knowledge of programs that will help these people and coordination with the appropriate agencies the police may be in a better position to address some of the individual problems of people in the area (i.e. exercising problem solving at a very low level within the police function.) Through such an approach, “normal” society can go happily about its way, comforted in the knowledge that the skid-row “problem” is contained while some on skid-row can be guided to a way to join normal society.
Bittner, Egon. 1967. The police on skid row: A study of peace keeping. American
Sociological Review. 32(5): 699-715.
Brown, Michael K. 1981. Nonenforcement: Minor violations and disturbances.
Chapter 7 in Working the Street. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Eck, John E. and Spelman, William. 1987. Who ya gonna call? The police as
problem-busters. Crime & Delinquency, 33: 31-52.
Engel, Robin. Module 3 Materials
Klockars, Carl B. 1988. The rhetoric of Community policing. Pps. 239-258 in
Jack R. Greene and Stephen D. Mastrofski (eds.), Community Policing:
Rhetoric or Reality. New York: Praeger.
Nowicki, Dennis E. 1998. Mixed messages. Pps. 265-274 in Geoffrey P. Alpert
and Alex Piquero (eds.), Community Policing: Contemporary Readings.
Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.