Dancing Cops, Community Policing, and the Public Trust

Posted on June 18, 2012 by


Want to see a cop dancing to “Billy Jean”? Busting out with some Michael Jackson-style moves? If that’s your wish, we’re in the wish-granting business today. Check it out:

I saw this video at a recent law enforcement training. The speaker used the video first to get a laugh, but then to make a larger point. His point was this: cops should always be aware of who is watching them and should never, ever, in a million trillion years, act like this dancing fool.

I disagree. Not with the part about cops being mindful that the public is always watching. That part was true enough.

Instead, I disagree with the move to condemn this officer. Officers shouldn’t behave like total morons, and they certainly shouldn’t be jerks (Wheaton’s law, anyone?), but saying that this cop was so terribly out of line is, well, out of line.

Policing in America is generally understood to have three distinct eras:

  1. Political era from about 1840 to 1930
  2. Reform/Professionalism era from about 1930 to 1980
  3. Community policing from about 1980 to now

During the professionalism movement cops organized, got training, and sought better public recognition of their roles. They understood themselves as above and apart from the general public, and they developed training and technology to make their officers better than knuckle-dragging politically appointed thugs. Some of that was serious progress, but the attitudes didn’t go over well, especially in light of events like Kent State. While that was actually the National Guard, it nevertheless became emblematic of police brutality to an entire generation of Americans.

The community policing movement came out of research funded by the LEAA in which we learned that successful policing means integrating with, rather than fighting against, the general public. Community policing means earning the public trust, rather than demanding it through authority and obedience.

The police trainer who showed this clip insisted that this kind of officer behavior erodes public trust.

But let me ask you: if you saw this cop dancing in your local 7/11, and then half an hour later he asked for your help, would the dancing make you more or less cooperative?


Cops earn our trust by revealing themselves as human beings. Not adhering to rigidly defined paramilitary personas of authority and dominance.


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Posted in: Academia, Police