A year ago, I was asked by a former chief of police now active in policy and research to write a white paper mapping out what a “police anthropologist” might look like, replete with arguments on how anthropologists could contribute both to the study of policing and to police departments. I spent many hours reflecting on my own work with police agencies and imagining how I could translate anthropological aims and methods into work with police agencies. The result was a thoughtful exercise in outlining how anthropologists might be integrated into the world of policing, in which I argued:
Today, cultural anthropology is no longer just the study of exotic people and cultures, but rather, a diverse discipline that includes the study of people, organizations, and social problems both at home and abroad. Anthropologists can be found working in businesses and corporations, the military, marketing, social services, and federal, state, and local governments. They are versatile researchers that make sense of unique cultures, solve complex social problems and evaluate the effectiveness of strategies and policies. Their work helps leaders, policymakers, and administrators make informed decisions on policy and practice, evaluate the social and ethical implications of these decisions and respond to the identified areas of need with innovation and change. In the era of evidence-based policy and practice, anthropologists can help police chiefs cultivate innovation and job satisfaction in their departments, better serve communities and prioritize ethics, transparency and accountability in decision-making.
Reflecting on this document today, I still believe in the ability of anthropology and anthropologists to make great contributions to the practice of policing in police agencies, and I would argue that police agencies are in critical need of anthropological perspectives, research, and policy analysis. However, this document did not capture the unique position that an anthropologist working with police agencies occupies and the real contradictions that one experiences. Is working with (or perhaps for) a police agency compatible with the aims of anthropology? How does one reconcile the omniscient presence of power and the potential for violence that pervades the very practice of policing?
Is working with (or perhaps for) a police agency compatible with the aims of anthropology? How does one reconcile the omniscient presence of power and the potential for violence that pervades the very practice of policing?
These questions were once very prominent for me. As I began fieldwork in 2008 that explored interactions between police officers and homeless individuals, many with complex mental health needs, in Washington, D.C., my hypothesis was woefully one-dimensional. I imagined that the practice of power and violence was unidirectional- from police to homeless individuals. Certainly, this is what much research and media accounts have revealed. However, what captured my fascination was a small group of police officers that had informally partnered with homeless outreach workers to tailor their practice with homeless individuals. These officers utilized outreach workers as resources to defer ticketing or arrest and formed partnerships that went beyond formal policy and practice. These partnerships reveal secret correctives to both the criminal justice and public mental health systems, as well as pointing to workarounds that shore-up the inadequacies of departmental policies and procedures. Working with these officers also revealed the interesting movements of power- patrol officers not only exerted power over individuals but were also the objects in negotiations of power. Businesses, residents, and administrators exerted tremendous power over patrol officers, particularly as the city underwent (and continues to undergo) intense gentrification and redevelopment. Together, these findings provided me with nuanced understanding of policing that went beyond the obvious trope of police officers as agents of social control and violence. In glimpsing the workings of compassion, empathy, fear, frustration and burnout, my thinking and theorizing was changed. My work had to walk that tension between addressing the structural and systemic problems of policing through critique and research on one hand and working in an applied way for change on the other. This desire was a response to the charge of anthropologist, Brett Williams, whose work, Upscaling Downtown, on gentrification in Washington, D.C., had shaped me as an early graduate student:
Real people are so much more complex than we would like to believe that a passion for detail and texture may be the only comfortable and useful way to live in a varied neighborhood. When we believe in and look for texture we hedge our bets, because simple clichés do not work (143).
I have continued to come back to these lines throughout my career, understanding that complexity and depth are so much more powerful than simple clichés in understanding people. In working with police agencies across the country to develop police-based responses to people with mental illness, appreciating and allowing for texture was the only way in which to provide useful critique and evaluation, while highlighting the committed work of chiefs and officers concerned about their actions towards people with mental illness. From Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) halls in Oklahoma, to urban departments with high-tech operations centers and countless hours of ride alongs, my work with police officers has meant valuing the varied experience of people, while maintaining a critical eye towards the workings of power, institutions, law and governance. In conversations, meetings, and strategy sessions with police officers, I have reconciled my role as an anthropologist in doing applied and practicing work focused on policing. However, this is not an applied work that atheoretically celebrates just practice, compassion and innovation. In considering the everyday practice of policing in larger structures, systems and processes, we are allowed to reflect on questions of law-making, exclusion, power, systemic inequalities and poverty (among a host of other issues) while producing action. This is what makes applied and practicing anthropology in the study of policing unique.
Working with these officers also revealed the interesting movements of power- patrol officers not only exerted power over individuals but were also the objects in negotiations of power
Lest I oversell the potential, very real challenges exist that make applied or practicing work with and in policing and police agencies difficult to pursue and engage in. The rise of evidence-based practice and the cult of “science” in law enforcement have promised that police practice, guided by predictions, statistical analysis and quantitative measurement, will alleviate the problems created by power, inequality, and structural and interpersonal violences. Scholars in the fields of criminology and criminal justice have promoted this as a panacea to the contradictions and problematics of policing. As anthropologists, we see the potential in offering a corrective to this reliance on the objective promises of “science.” Yet, how do we enter into these conversations and provide alternative practices and policies?
There is also the bias in anthropology towards working in seeming collusion with state actors and persons of power. This is a valid concern, as anthropologists (and others) studying policing must be self-reflexive about the trappings of power and violence. This is perhaps best captured by criminologist Peter Kraska:
I’ve had the experience in the past when field-researching police officers, and I realize that in a sense I am basking in the security of my temporary status as a beneficiary of state-sanctioned use of force. This is likely the same intoxicating feelings of autonomy from the law that is experienced by an abusive police officer…On a personal level, what disturbed me most was how I, as a person who had so thoroughly thought out militarism, could have to easily enjoyed experiencing it. This study illustrates the expansive and seductive powers…of a deeply embedded ideology of violence (Kraska 2001, quoted in Balko 2013: 214).
How do we make sure to keep concerns of power and violence at the forefront while making applied contributions? I bring these questions up as I hope that they continue to appear throughout this column, answered in a multitude of experiences and perspectives by anthropologists contributing to applied and practicing work with and in policing. We will be traversing the anthropological universe to hear about anthropologists doing applied and practicing work on policing, police agencies, crime, law, security and governance. To capture this universe, I will be featuring interviews, research reflections, commentaries and guest columns. Be sure to tune in!
As always, we welcome your feedback. If you have any suggestions for this feature (topics to address, individuals to invite, etc.) send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the word “Practicum” in the subject header.
Balko, Radley. 2013. Rise of the Warrior Cop. New York: Public Affairs.
Kraska, Peter. 2001. “Playing War: Masculinity, Militarism, and Their Real-World Consequences.” In Militarizing the American Justice System: The Changing Roles of the Armed Forces and the Police. Peter Kraska, ed. Evanston, IL: Northeastern University Press.
Williams, Brett. 1988. Upscaling Downtown: Stalled Gentrification in Washington, D.C. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Jennie Simpson received her PhD in Anthropology and MA in Public Anthropology from American University. Her work focuses on police-based responses to people with mental illness, criminal justice and mental health systems collaborations, mental health and homelessness. As an applied anthropologist, Jennie has worked with police agencies in planning, implementing and expanding police-based responses to people with mental illnesses (Council of State Governments Justice Center) as well as provided criminal justice/legal expertise on an Assertive Community Treatment Team (Pathways to Housing DC). She currently works at the American Anthropological Association. Read more about her work on her personal website.