American Sociological Association

Complaint-Oriented Policing: Regulating Homelessness in Public Space

Over the past 30 years, cities across the United States have adopted quality-of-life ordinances aimed at policing social marginality. Scholars have documented zero-tolerance policing and emerging tactics of therapeutic policing in these efforts, but little attention has been paid to 911 calls and forms of third-party policing in governing public space and the poor. Drawing on an analysis of 3.9 million 911 and 311 call records and participant observation alongside police officers, social workers, and homeless men and women residing on the streets of San Francisco, this article elaborates a model of “complaint-oriented policing” to explain additional causes and consequences of policing visible poverty. Situating the police within a broader bureaucratic field of poverty governance, I demonstrate how policing aimed at the poor can be initiated by callers, organizations, and government agencies, and how police officers manage these complaints in collaboration and conflict with health, welfare, and sanitation agencies. Expanding the conception of the criminalization of poverty, which is often centered on incarceration or arrest, the study reveals previously unforeseen consequences of move-along orders, citations, and threats that dispossess the poor of property, create barriers to services and jobs, and increase vulnerability to violence and crime.


Chris Herring





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