Commodifying Policing: A Recipe for Community-Police Tensions

25 Pages Posted: 28 Aug 2017 Last revised: 21 Nov 2017

Date Written: August 28, 2017


Deadly police-citizen encounters do not occur in a vacuum. They reflect our times and our society. Some view them as an internal police problem, others as a symbol of larger societal challenges, especially racism, or as a function of failed criminal justice policies. On a yet larger scale, police actions, and the ensuing community response, are intimately tied to the dominant economic and political climate. In many parts of the country decreased funding for vital governmental functions, especially since the depression of 2008, has shaped police enforcement goals and tactics. Those have contributed to the deterioration of community-police relations and the civilian death toll at the hands of police.

Not all police departments have been impacted equally but many have had to continue to diversify their funding streams with the downturn in municipal funding. The choices made to support department budgets – and those of other governmental entities – have impacted policing priorities and strategies, often leading to more intensive policing of poorer and minority neighborhoods. In turn, those decisions have increased community tensions with police. The focus on the larger economic picture is not designed to absolve police departments of blame for decisions made but to highlight the interdependencies between different government entities and broader challenges police will face in restructuring.

With the downturn in funding for all municipal activity, including policing, police forces turned to other sources of funding. Those have included forfeiture; revenues derived from citations for traffic and municipal violations; fees added to fines; free equipment, donated by the Department of Defense; and grants from the federal and state governments. Pressures to make budget enhanced the incentives to seize private property and increase the issuance of tickets. The latter has led to the now well-documented reinstitution of the so-called debtor’s prison for individuals who have found themselves unable to pay off court-ordered debt.

Measurements of police performance that went along with grant funding continued numbers- and dollars-driven enforcement by emphasizing numbers of arrests, amounts of drug or money seizures, or numbers of citations issued. Combined these policies have increased the stakes in interactions between community members and police, leading to greater dangers for both sides.

Keywords: policing, police-community relations, asset forfeiture, citations, fees, equipment donations, neoliberalism

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Demleitner, Nora V., Commodifying Policing: A Recipe for Community-Police Tensions (August 28, 2017). Washington & Lee Legal Studies Paper No. 2017-16, Available at SSRN: or

Nora V. Demleitner (Contact Author)

Washington and Lee University ( email )

204 W Washington St
Lexington, VA 24450
United States

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