Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Sociology

Read an Excerpt from “The Policing Machine” by Tony Cheng

In his new book, The Policing Machine, Tony Cheng shares a revelatory look at how the New York Police Department has resisted change through strategic and selective community engagement. Cheng spent nearly two years in an unprecedented effort to understand the who and how of police-community relationship building in New York City, documenting the ways the police strategically distributed power and privilege within the community to increase their own public legitimacy without sacrificing their organizational independence.

Yellow and black book cover with white type including an illustration of three white men in black uniforms who appear to be police officers.

In the following excerpt, Cheng visits an outdoor barbeque hosted by a youth empowerment organization where the organizers struggle to secure electricity for the DJ’s sound system. Cheng’s experience at this event, in contrast to the ease with which other groups access electricity with police assistance, demonstrates how public resources distributed through officers’ hands become part of the project of naturalizing police power.

James Jones, the thirty-six-year-old African American activist I met at a Build the Block meeting, invited me to his youth empowerment organization’s Summer Kick-Off event: an outdoor barbeque in a neighborhood park that featured a talent show, a dance competition, and other activities for young people in the community (field note, April 2018). As introduced in chapter 2, James had been previously elected but then dismissed as sergeant at arms of his community council, given that the nonprofit he founded was interested in starting a cop watch patrol. Still, he believed that officers could and should have positive relationships with neighborhood youth, so each year he has continued to invite the police precinct to attend the Summer Kick-Off . As we stood talking in the park, he noted that the officers had yet to arrive. I suggested that perhaps they never actually received the invitation, but he explained that since he was required to apply for an amplified sound permit and the precinct had to sign off on that, “they had to know it was going on” (James Jones, interview, July 17, 2018). Frustrated, he returned to his preparations.

I spent the morning helping James set up: unfolding tables and chairs, arranging balloons, and using a laundry basket to move frozen food from his aunt’s apartment to the park. The most memorable task we had was securing electricity, a key resource for the outdoor event’s DJ equipment, microphone, and sound system. A seemingly trivial undertaking, the logistics involved had actually taken days to coordinate (field note, July 17, 2018). First, James had to persuade a family friend to power the Summer Kick-Off with electricity from their third-floor apartment. Then, he needed a series of extension cords and some dedicated helpers. From the apartment window, a “tosser” had to throw the extension cords down to “catchers” waiting inside the park. But it wasn’t that easy. The window was barred, forcing the tosser to stick his hand through a narrow opening; the park was perpendicular to the building, so the tosser had to throw the cord about twenty feet to his left; and the cord had to clear the fence surrounding the park, which prevented the catchers from coming any closer.

The first try at electrification failed. The cord slapped the ground and did not clear the fence. Painstakingly, the tosser reeled the cord hand over hand, pulling it back up to the third floor.

The second toss also failed. The tosser retracted the cord once more as catchers began congregating around the fence and yelling out chaotic directions. “You gotta lasso it. Make it into a ring,” they shouted while using gestures to accentuate their ideas. It was unclear whether the tosser saw or heard them, given the distance and the background din of the city.

The third try failed too, but finally, after several more attempts, the lasso technique worked. After days of coordination, we had power. We rushed to finish the remaining tasks.

In contrast to these challenges, I asked Mr. Holloway, the Eightieth Precinct Community Council president, how the council gets electricity for its events. He replied, “We can go to one of the officers, and they’ll come out and help us get electricity from the light pole” (Holloway, interview, July 10, 2018). Because police departments are a city agency that can provide access to public utilities like streetlights, obtaining electricity for community council events is as easy as asking an officer to plug the extension cord into the nearest light pole. In the aggregate, such assistance eases the execution of public events for certain organizations. Based on how police exercise their discretion, their help can enable community organizations to avoid logistical hurdles and resource burdens to focus more on the substantive goals of their events. This chapter explains how police departments selectively distribute public resources, regulatory leniency, and coercive force— and how their doing so is fundamental to the strategic relationship-building that undergirds the Policing Machine.

Headshot of the author

Adapted and excerpted from The Policing Machine by Tony Cheng, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2024 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

Tony Cheng is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Duke University. 

The Policing Machine is available now from our website or your favorite bookseller.