Imagine armed private citizens patrolling the streets and viewing security cameras instead of sworn professional law enforcement officers. A shocking experiment by the Oregon city of Cave Junction last year has many precedents in history and in the present day. Furthermore, evidence suggests that it probably won’t prove worse for civil liberties or public safety than enlarging police budgets and expanding sheriff patrols.
On November 20, 2019, Jefferson Public Radio reported on the decision of this small town with a population of 2,000 to expand an existing volunteer civilian security patrol to include camera surveillance of public areas. Concerns voiced about Cave Junction’s patrol range widely. Some people worry about the possibility of racial profiling. Others worry that public security cameras will infringe on individual’s right to privacy. Still others express concern that members of the volunteer patrol have not undergone background checks and specialized training routinely required of professional police. Most grave are fears that an untrained volunteer patrol might have a greater chance of causing harm to those it merely suspects of criminal mischief. Characterizations of private citizen patrols as plainly inferior to “actual police” permeated initial reporting by regional and national news media from The Oregonian to The Washington Post and VICE News.
However, numerous antecedents exist for Cave Junction’s use of citizen patrols to augment the irregular presence of county sheriff’s officers in town. Cities throughout Europe and the American colonies relied on night watches to deter vagrancy, indecency, and other criminal behavior as well as to fulfill the more urgent function of looking out for fires. It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that industrializing cities in the northeastern United States began to publicly fund uniformed police departments: first Boston in 1838 and then New York City in 1845. These professional police departments were plagued by scandals, corruption, and brutality from the start. In fact, the history of professional policing in the United States is a well-chronicled history of nearly two centuries of brutality.
Civil unrest followed police conflicts with African Americans in Detroit and 158 other U.S. cities in the “Long, Hot Summer” of 1967. A generation later, Los Angeles would erupt following the acquittal of four officers for the beating of Rodney King in 1992. It was Ferguson in 2014, Baltimore in 2015, Anaheim in 2017, Memphis in 2019, and pretty much everywhere in 2020. A report released in 2019 found racial disparities in traffic stops by police officers in Portland, Oregon. This same police department was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012 for patterns of excessive use of force against people with mental illnesses. It has now been the target of more than two months of uninterrupted protests.
Every one of the concerns raised about Cave Junction’s citizen patrol are raised daily about professional police departments across the country. Problems with professional policing have existed from the beginning and have always resulted in calls for reform. Despite round after round of reform, the same remedies continue to be prescribed: more money, more training, more professionalization. Yet still the problems with policing persist. Who is to say that Cave Junction’s decision to return to the model of a night watch isn’t worth a try? It is in no way clear that more patrols by trained, professional police will result in the automatic safeguarding of civil liberties and personal safety, much less the avoidance of racial profiling or excessive force.
The reservations about Cave Junction’s model merit sober reflection, but it is not the first community to explore alternatives to police patrols. These have existed on the left as well as the right: Oakland, California’s Black Panther Party for Self Defense (1966), the federally funded Neighborhood Watch Program (1972), New York City’s Guardian Angels (1979), Queer Nation’s Pink Panthers Patrol (1990), and countless others. These examples demonstrate the variety possible among civilian community safety patrols. They also highlight the dangers posed to Black people by civilians as well as officers. (Recall that George Zimmerman, who fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 was a participant in the Neighborhood Watch Program.) Two recent examples, also in Oregon, probably deserve more attention: an unarmed crisis intervention team in Eugene called CAHOOTS that seeks to de-escalate situations before they merit armed police response (and has recently gained national publicity) and a new Street Response Team proposed by Portland City Councilor Jo Ann Hardesty last year. If a century and a half of police training and professionalization has not made all of our citizens safer, then consideration of more radical alternatives to policing is long overdue.