Building the Anthropology of Policing

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Jennie Simpson


Conducting Ethnographic Fieldwork with Police Officers in Washington DC

When I began fieldwork in June 2008 to explore how neoliberal urban development processes in downtown Washington DC impacted interactions between police officers and homeless individuals, particularly over the use of public space, I had little understanding of what it meant for me, as an anthropologist, to study policing. Although my research engaged a multitude of individuals—including homeless individuals, homeless outreach workers, mental health professionals, judges, public defenders, and advocates—the questions that emerged from my work with police officers occupied a place of particular significance, and I began to consider the role of anthropology in the study of police and policing. Four years and much research later, the conclusions I have come to are this: an anthropology of policing is complex, at times contradictory, and most importantly, engaged with questions of power.

The Study of Policing

The study of policing and police officers in the United States has historically been situated within the fields of sociology, criminology and criminal justice. The disciplinary interests of researchers within these fields, particularly those of criminologists and criminal justice scholars, has led to the current prioritization of research for the police focused on crime prevention, rather than research of the police and policing practices (Manning 2010). The continuing growth of research for police has contributed to the dependence of police agencies on prediction and surveillance technologies and given rise to place-based policing strategies that target “hot spots” of crime and criminal activity.

Although anthropologists have also engaged with police and policing in their work, as Karpiak (2011) suggests, police are often cast as “the antiheroes” and “agents of urban anomie,” and limited complexity is afforded to their actions, practices and the organizational and occupation contexts in which they operate. What is missing—and what anthropologists can offer—are critical and nuanced explorations of policing. However, the ability to conduct ethnographic fieldwork with police officers has been and continues to be complicated by issues of access.

Gaining Access

How does one become an insider with police? The limited transparency of police organizations and strong ties of occupational solidarity between police officers has made gaining access to police difficult. At the institutional level, the chief and upper-level management act as institutional gatekeepers, determining the value and worth of research relationships and granting or denying institutional access. And even if a researcher opts to “study up” into the police organization, without a formal research partnership, informal gatekeepers still exist; police officers, their families and friends, as well as colleagues outside the department will make similar determinations about the value and worth of the proposed research and the extent to which they can vouch for a researcher before offering access.

It was my position as the partner of a police officer that initially enabled my access to an internal policing network. Through introductions facilitated by my partner, I arranged ride-alongs and interviews with officers whose primary motivation for working with me was their personal relationship with my partner. This period of initial fieldwork was an important entry into the world of policing in an urban metropolitan area. It was marked, more often than not, by experiences focused on understanding the practice and activities of policing rather than data gathering guided by my research questions.

After orienting myself within the field for several months, I sought access to police officers through randomly assigned ride-alongs granted by the police department. At the onset of each ride-along, I carefully explained my research, making sure to then identify myself as the partner of a police officer; at that time, my legitimacy as a researcher was still attached to my relationship, based upon, as one officer put it, being “part of the family.” The data I collected through these ride-alongs and interviews focused on my research questions, yet, the officers I worked with did not have a personal or professional interest in the relationship between homelessness, policing and public space.

After six months of fieldwork, I was introduced to several police officers by homeless outreach workers with whom I had cultivated relationships while navigating the field. These officers, unlike others I had worked with previously, were invested in working with homeless individuals in the downtown and had created informal partnerships with homeless outreach workers as a workaround to the lack of departmental resources and training for working with homeless individuals. As a result, a different form of engagement with my research emerged in my relationship with these officers. They placed greater value and interest on my research questions because of their experience with homeless individuals, and my relationships with them still exist.

Moving forward with an anthropology of policing, the most critical challenge will be gaining access as researchers to police officers and police departments. The key insight from my own research is the importance of personal relationships to gaining access to police officers. However, as an anthropology of policing grows, anthropologists working with police officers will be able to mentor and guide others into the field.

Complex Considerations

After 18 months of fieldwork, I sat down to write my dissertation and was struck by the contradictions that ran throughout my research with police officers. I now offer some of these as considerations in building an anthropology of policing.

In conducting ethnographic fieldwork with police officers, I found I was studying not just power, but powerlessness and multiple configurations of the two. Police officers uniquely possess the ability to use coercive power against individuals, which has led to well-documented abuses of power. Yet, they are also often powerless within the hierarchy of bureaucratic, paramilitary police organizations. In my fieldwork, I found that officers who worked in the downtown felt intense pressure from businesses, residents and their department to move along homeless individuals from public space. There were officers who resisted such pressure, but the possibility of sanctioning existed for resisting both departmental and community directives. Power moved along many lines, and for the police officers I worked with, the use of power was experienced alongside feelings of powerlessness.

By obtaining access to police officers through my partner, randomly assigned ride-alongs and homeless outreach workers, I pursued multiple means of direct ethnographic data. As an anthropologist, I navigated these modes of access with attention to the limitations and complications each brought. The complex data yielded by these different methodologies revealed policing to be a complicated set of relationships, practices and configurations of power, and police officers as complex individuals enmeshed within multiple contexts. Police officers, then, are more than their various representations as heros or anti-heros; they may be one, the other, both or in-between. An anthropology of policing would embrace this complexity.

Valuing complexity in studying police officers as powerful and yet, often, powerless individuals means that an anthropology of policing studies not only up, but down. It means navigating multiple methods of access and positions within the field, and understanding each. Seeking nuance when researching policing and working with police officers means challenging generalized conceptions and narratives of police officers and police work.

An Anthropology of Policing

An anthropology of policing is poised to offer a critical alternative to the promotion of policing practices in the name of crime prevention and policy that dominates the study of policing. Ethnographic studies of police officers and policing can move anthropology and other disciplines beyond one-dimensional characterizations of police and policing practices. It can also identify ways in which policing intersects with other areas of anthropological interest. In my research, understanding gentrification processes, the emergence of business community districts as community stakeholders, homelessness, and mental health policy were critical areas to engage. In this way, an anthropology of policing can revolutionize the current state of police research.

Jennie Simpson recently received her PhD in cultural anthropology at American University. In her current position with a justice policy organization, she provides technical assistance to police agencies implementing a police based intervention to people with mental illnesses. Her academic interests include democratic policing, police occupational cultures, and police organizations.

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