Should We Be Deputizing More Average Joes?

Should We Be Deputizing More Average Joes?

By Jose Fermoso

Police Officers stand in formation.
SourceSteve Skinner/Getty


Everyone wants to live in a safe place.

By Jose Fermoso

What do Shaquille O’Neal, Steven Seagal and James Woods have in common? Other than an awesome kung-fu kick, all three are law-enforcement deputies allowed to make arrests. But vigilantism is just for movie stars, right? Real policing should be left to the professionals? You might be tempted to ask: What professionals? The last census of state and local law-enforcement agencies found that

nearly half (49 percent) of all agencies had fewer than 10 full-time officers.

Some people say the answer might be deputizing. With a U.S. population of more than 300 million and growing, boosting the numbers of people providing “soft prevention” tasks like community surveillance makes sense: The more eyes there are, the fewer places bad guys can hide. But a nation of Deputy Fifes might pose some problems.

Consider the exploitation angle. New York council members recently proposed a bill to deputize — and pay — citizens to film and report idling cars to the Department of Environmental Protection to prevent excessive carbon dioxide emissions. Lawyer Jeremey Robbins says the incentive is tied to a clear public harm needing reasonable citizen officers, similar to when a wanted person is on the loose. For the latter, a reward can be offered for information leading to arrest, invariably inviting anyone to the hunt. There’s an obvious dark side: To make money, deputized citizens could report minor infractions without discretion or “evidentiary safeguards in place,” like the video in New York’s case.

Gregory Ahern, the sheriff of Alameda County, California, says deputizing citizens is expensive. Cops are paid overtime to ensure that deputy-gathered data is valid and to train backup deputies. And data retention is also hard: Photo evidence requires expensive servers and may be limited in a deep investigation. 

Ahern says Alameda doesn’t deputize citizens (go away, Seagal!), but it does organize community groups to work crowded events, like Halloween. Citizen deputies are also trained to run safe-passage programs that help vulnerable citizens avoid community violence. This touches on a key argument for deputizing the average Joe: Ultimately, no one cares more about the safety of a community and the people who live there than the actual people who live there. Everyone jokes about Neighborhood Watch being the pastime of the elderly, but that longtime program is in some ways an unofficial team of local deputies.

The most unlikely deputy of all might be Facebook. Ahern says technology has largely erased the need for official on-the-scene citizen deputies. Websites like Nextdoor and Facebook assist law enforcement by giving users the ability to report crimes instantly and thoroughly, and the sites’ informal nature helps cops build a relationship with community members quickly.

So now you can use Seamless to order dinner, Instagram to post pictures of it, and Facebook to rat out your neighbors for selling weed. All without ever ungluing yourself from your smartphone, much less leaving the house.