We bowed our heads in prayer to mourn yet another loss. It was the third murder in a week. The police captain called a meeting together to develop collaborative alternatives to enforcement so the mostly Black and Latino civilian volunteers could get more involved in promoting crime control. Lakeside, where I was conducting research, is in the heart of South LA’s “Black Belt”. The neighborhood is characterized by high rates of gang crime and violence, extreme poverty, widespread resentment toward police and is the site of the most destructive riots in US history. “We have to take our community back!” one meeting participant said as his voice cracked from the tears and frustration welling up inside him. Agreeing that something had to be done, the captain broke us into groups to spitball ideas. One popular idea was to canvass the affected neighborhood. Volunteers would pass out business cards and encourage residents to call with information about the shooting.
The cards that we handed out door-to-door were simple—bold lettering against a light background, the organization’s name and phone number, and a promise to protect anonymity—but they could also be socially impactful. Until then I was focused solely on power struggles in “community policing,” a post-riot policy that calls for greater civilian participation in law enforcement. Calling 9-1-1 is perhaps the clearest example of civilians “coproducing” social order. And canvassing with these cards only reinforced just how crucial civilian involvement is for law enforcement; their information and the lack thereof can directly shape case outcomes.
Then I started looking more closely at the cards and flyers that police and civilians passed around at community meetings. Visual rhetoricians look at textual and/or visual data and pick apart the “blocks of meaning” that authors arrange when composing documents such as flyers. Composition is a rhetorical act; its intention is to convince an audience. We can interpret these blocks on two registers, the presented and the suggested. The author presents a woman being robbed by an anonymous figure and frightened as a result. They explain how we, the audience, can change our daily routines to minimize our chances of being victimized and give us police contact information. Sociologist David Garland helps us see the suggested elements. He might point to this as an example of the new role of police as a key socializing institution, reflected here in the evocation of a specific outlook. Fear of crime today is at an all-time high; so high, in fact, that it far exceeds the realities of crime victimization in the US. This flyer gives us the sense, however, that crime is everywhere, every day, and that we ought to fulfill our civic responsibility to defend the community.
Drawing on over two years of ethnographic fieldwork and nearly two hundred documents, my new project, The Social Life of Flyers, seeks to understand what these artifacts do in community policing. Specifically, I seek to better understand the nature of flyers—their presented and suggested elements—and their bureaucratic functions beyond canvassing. My findings will reveal how police restrict rather than amplify civilian power in collaborative crime control. This work builds on my recently published coauthored book, The Limits of Community Policing, and can shape future ethnographic studies, research on police bureaucracy, and the craft of visual sociology.