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Bowling Alone but Not Patrolling Alone.

In 1995, sociologist Robert D. Putnam published an article describing a disturbing trend in American civic life and culture. Titled "Bowling Alone," the article and a thoroughly researched and recently published book by the same title state Putnam's thesis that civic involvement by U.S. citizens is in decline. [1] Turning to bowling as an example, Putnam observes that although Americans may be bowling as much as ever, they are notably less likely to bowl in organized leagues.

In both publications, Putnam identifies evidence of declining participation in a wide range of civic venues, including, to mention a few, political parties, religious groups, unions, parent-teacher associations, and fraternal organizations. Putnam worries, moreover, that as citizen participation in these spheres wanes, so too does America's "social capital," namely, those connections between people that foster cooperation and trust. A number of culprits, according to Putnam, are to blame for today's deterioration of civic engagement, such as generational differences, excessive television viewing, and the pressures of time and money. The erosion of such social capital arouses concern, on the part of Putnam and most academics accepting his observations as accurate, for the future of American participatory democracy.

Here in this ceremony today, however, 22 citizens who are becoming reserve police officers for the Des Moines, Iowa, Police Department can see themselves proudly representing at least one countervailing example to this trend of "bowling alone," correct as Putnam's thesis generally may be. The members of this graduating class are organized to volunteer their time and energy to assist the Des Moines Police Department to serve and protect the community. Each person already has devoted nearly 5 months to training, 2, 3, and sometimes 4 days a week. And, from this day forward, each has committed to serving as a reserve officer for at least 16 hours every month for only 1 dollar a year.

History of Citizen Involvement

In volunteering as reserve officers, they are joining a long tradition of citizen and community policing that extends back into history even prior to the establishment of the first police department in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel in London. After the Norman conquest of England in 1066 by William the Conqueror, each county (or shire) had a shire reeve (from which sheriff is derived) who was responsible for calling together a posse of citizens whenever the need arose to apprehend a suspected criminal who was believed to be likely to try to flee the area. In addition, from the thirteenth century on, there was the night watch, which consisted of a rotation of citizens who protected property and maintained order.

Similar community night watches were transplanted onto American soil at Boston in 1636 and New York City in 1686. [2] These watches, done by men over the age of 18 and holding other jobs, included patrolling streets, making rounds, reporting fires, dealing with runaway animals, announcing the time and weather conditions, caring for street lamps, and raising a general alarm upon discovering criminal activity.

To be sure, the increasing disorder associated with industrialization and urbanization by the nineteenth century became too much for the system of community watches to handle and, therefore, required the formation of police departments with full-time personnel. Today, however, such disorder continues to exist, and many departments, such as the Des Moines Police Department, again are turning to civilian volunteers from the community who can help full-time police officers maintain the thin blue line. This class of reserves has responded to that call in the face of the factors that Putnam has identified as inhibiting such civic volunteerism.

Obstacles to Citizen Involvement

Generational differences have not hindered the Des Moines Police Department's efforts to recruit volunteers to become reserve police officers. Looking at this class, one can discern 3 decades represented among its ranks, including persons in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. According to Putnam, although the decline in civic engagement in other organizations is especially evident in how younger citizens are much less likely to be involved in community groups than their older fellow citizens, this class of reserves is comprised of both younger and older citizens. Channel-surfing couch potatoes definitely fails to describe this group of men and women, including those at the younger end of the spectrum. The dedication, the engagement, the desire, and the motivation of these people has proved uniform and impressive across the spectrum of ages.

Moreover, each of these reserve police officers already has another job and knows the pressures of time and money. Occupations represented among this class include grocery store worker, business owner, city employee, security officer, dispatcher, priest, college student, and college professor. Many of these reserve police officers also have spouses, children, and other significant commitments. Most have had little time and energy to spare, especially during this training period in the academy; however, they discovered that they could make the time and somehow find the energy. Such obstacles did not deter these volunteers from this form of civic engagement. Indeed, much of America may be bowling alone, but this class of reserve police officers is here today to volunteer its time, energy, and skills to help serve and protect the citizens of Des Moines, Iowa, ensuring that the full-time officers of the Des Moines Police Department are not patrolling alone.

Mr. Winright, a professor of religion and ethics at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, and a reserve police officer for the Des Moines, Iowa, Police Department, delivered this speech at the graduation ceremony of the fourth basic reserve police officer class for the Des Moines Poilce Department.


(1.) Robert D. Putnam, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy 6/1 (January 1995): 65-78; and Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

(2.) Mark H. Moore and George L. Kelling, "To Serve and Protect: Learning from Police History," The Public Interest 70 (Winter 1983): 50-51; Raymond B. Fosdick, American Police Systems (New York, NY: The Century Company, 1920), 58-59; and Roger Lane, Policing the City: Boston 1822-1885 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), 6-7.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Winright, Tobias
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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