As a new year quickly approaches, and we reflect on the increasing calls for police accountability and a critical review of excessive use of force, I want to take this time to review the past year of Practicum and pose two questions for anthropologists and police agencies alike: do police agencies need anthropologists? And what might that look like?
Since its debut, Practicum has explored the practice of applied anthropologists working on issues of policing, criminal justice, juvenile justice and corrections. I’ve been remarkably heartened to see that a community of practitioners exists who have successfully applied the lens and research methodologies of anthropology to these issues. These anthropologists have “produced anthropology” (nod to the 2014 AAA Annual Meeting) in practice in juvenile justice, corrections, and policing and raised the profile of how anthropologists- through theoretical orientation, research techniques, analysis, and praxis- can contribute to the improvement of justice systems.
With this in mind, and a new year approaching, I want to propose a bit of radical thinking. Perhaps it won’t be radical to some of you, and perhaps for others, it might be a bit controversial. But with the events of Ferguson, continued fatalities in interactions between police and people with behavioral health disorders, and the tensions that structural violence and inequalities produce, I see a place for anthropologists placed within police departments. In an excellent panel discussion hosted by the Urban Institute and featuring Chief Ron Brown (Ret.), Chief Cathy Lanier, and Dr. Tracie Keesee, which I encourage you to view, I was struck by the progressive vision of policing and law enforcement that was presented. However, recalling my own experience in working with police officers, I know how hard implementation- even of the best vision- can be, especially within a hierarchical organization. While criminologists have made concrete headways into working within police organizations, anthropologists have not made similar strides. While I can speculate that this can be attributed to the discipline’s historical orientation and notions of appropriate subjects of study and practice, with the emergence of a strong contingent of academic and practicing anthropologists focusing on policing, criminal justice, and security, I find this may be the perfect time to consider how anthropologists can work with and within police organizations.
Note: Due to the length of this post, I have captured three key take-aways from this article.
Three Key Takeaways
1. Anthropologists can help police leaders better understand their departments and personnel and identify opportunities to offer better police services to communities.
2. Anthropologists can help police leaders translate policing to the public and bridge ethical considerations in the implementation of crime prevention policies.
3. By understanding police culture, police leaders can create policy and practices that highlight the spirit of service in policing and emphasize legitimacy, transparency and public confidence.
Sketches of a Police Anthropologist
As a public facing, publicly engaged blog, the ideas I present below are written not for the sole benefit of other anthropologists, but for police and criminal justice practitioners. I hope the accessibility of the ideas below encourage debate, sharing, and productive conversations. As always, comments are welcome and healthy debate encouraged.
With that said, here are my basic sketches of a police anthropologist and how anthropology can be applied with police organizations.
Taking Culture Seriously
Police cultures have been the subject of debate and inquiry by practitioners and academics over the last 50 years. Jerome Skolnick, a sociologist, was one of the first researchers to investigate police culture. In his 1966 classic, Justice Without Trial: Law Enforcement in a Democratic Society, Skolnick argued that there was a collective culture, foremost among line level patrol officers, that results from the shared responsibilities, tensions, activities and conflicts of police work. Robert Reiner has described police culture as “the values, norms, perspectives and craft rules which inform police conduct (109),” while Janet Chan has defined it as “the informal occupational norms and values operating under the apparently rigid hierarchical structure of police organizations (110).” Additionally, other scholars have found that sub-cultures can exist, according to rank, unit, and department. Loftus has recently argued that despite historical, political and economic changes since the earliest research on police culture, some cultural attributes of a distinctive police culture persist and “continue to exert considerable influence over the day to day functioning of operational policing (189).” These include:
- A robust sense of mission and duty towards the police role and police activities, particularly those focused on crime fighting. This can come at a detriment to more service-oriented roles and activities.
- A cynicism and suspicion towards certain people, places and events.
While culture can enhance social bonds and give meaning to the experiences and practices of officers, it can also be an obstacle to the development and implementation of innovative and evidence-informed practices, as well as to organizational change and the cultivation of new methods for achieving accountability, legitimacy and public trust. It has been the experience of many chiefs that implementing a new practice within their organization is a challenging endeavor, often met by resistance among rank and file officers. This resistance can be the result of cultural elements, such as cynicism about certain people and places and a reluctance to see the role of policing beyond crime fighting. The role of law enforcement in the reentry of people returning from jails or prisons offers one example. Although police are a key stakeholder in the reentry of individuals returning from jails or prison, new innovations, practices and partnerships in the police role in reentry efforts can be stymied by a cultural resistance among line level officers and supervisors to change and innovation in the police role.
However, police leaders can add a new tool in their toolkits: anthropologists, trained to research, assess and translate culture. By taking culture seriously with the research and applied assistance of anthropologists, chiefs can understand and change the cultural dynamics that inhibit innovation. At the same time, by considering the perspectives and experiences of rank and file staff, police chiefs can be responsive to the needs of their officers and cultivate their critical buy-in. In the following two sections, I outline specific pathways for assistance by cultural anthropologists that can help police executives understand their departments and staff as well as assist in creating bridges with communities.
Using Anthropology to Study Police Departments as Organizations
Beyond researching and addressing culture in police departments, as versatile researchers that study human behavior, social relationships and organizations, anthropologists can help chiefs better understand their staff and organizations. Through the use of qualitative, ethnographic methods, including nonbiased in-depth interviewing of all levels of management and personnel, neutral participation in meetings and daily work activities, detached observation of relationships and activities, and examination of documents and policies, anthropologists can assist leaders understand the organizational dynamic in play within their departments. By understanding how all levels of the organization and its personnel function and interact, anthropologists can assist in creating a more productive workplace, for management, supervisors and staff. These methods provide anthropologists with a wide-ranging, holistic view of the organization they are working in, allowing for the evaluation and assessment of the introduction and implementation of innovative policies and practices. Additionally, anthropologists are skilled in the use of mixed qualitative and quantitative methods, including social network analysis, surveys and program evaluation.
Within cultural anthropology, sub-disciplines exist that focus on specific areas of research and individual anthropologists may specialize in certain types of research. Of particular relevance for police departments are the sub-disciplines of organizational anthropology and evaluation anthropology.
Marietta Baba, a renowned organizational and institutional anthropologist, conducted a 4-year study in a Fortune 100 manufacturing corporation. Asked to explain the divergent responses of unique work groups within the company to a transformational change program, Baba and a research team spent 18-months collecting ethnographic data through observing work processes, attending meetings and conducting in-depth interviews with work group members and supervisors. Baba and the research team found that each work group had a unique subculture that influenced their response to the change program. Their research also revealed that behaviors that appeared to reflect resistance to change among some groups stemmed from inadequate knowledge and practice of effective change management strategies.
How might organizational anthropology benefit police organizations? Echoing Baba’s research, anthropologists might be hired to understand how and why new policies and practices are not embraced and implemented by line level staff. By conducting in-depth, qualitative research with all levels of personnel, an anthropologist can synthesize a multiplicity of perspectives and identify and analyze themes that emerge. Unlike other research methodologies, the use of ethnographic fieldwork allows anthropologists to uncover patterns in behavior, beliefs and norms- data- that are then analyzed; in other disciplines, researchers test a hypothesis using pre-determined variables. While both methodologies have their merits and uses, qualitative methods allow researchers to uncover complexity and nuance that is not revealed in experimental work. It is similar, in many ways, to good police work in solving complex crimes: gathering and analyzing information, casting hypotheses, and coming to conclusions.
Anthropologists have also established a presence in program evaluation and many federal agencies and private grant-making foundation now require an ethnographic component to their process and outcome evaluations. When conducting program evaluations, evaluators gather data on processes and outcomes for improvement and decision making. How programs are developed and implemented is often influenced by the culture and sub-cultures of an organization. Using ethnographic, qualitative, and mixed methods, anthropologists can determine how the values, norms and beliefs of staff direct, influence or impede the adoption and implementation of a program. In 2003, the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) released the report, Federal Programs: Ethnographic Studies Can Inform Agencies’ Actions. In the study, conducted by GAO staff, they found that in each of the four case studies presented, “ethnography helped obtain previously unavailable information about beliefs and behaviors that was important the federal program’s ability to attain its objectives- information that could not be readily obtained by other methods” (27). Patton (2005) characterizes ethnography in evaluation as combining, “document analysis, interviewing program staff and participants, direct participation in program activities while observing, and reflective interpretation along the way” (35). One example of anthropological evaluation is U.S. Government Accountability Office’s evaluation of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Patient Safety Program. The evaluation was conducted by a multidisciplinary team, which included anthropologists, and it utilized ethnographic methods to evaluate the implementation of the Patient Safety Program while understanding the obstacles and incentives for improving the VA’s patient safety culture. They found that across four VA facilities, the implementation of the program varied, and in one facility, the culture of the organization blocked the participation of staff members in the program.
In police departments, anthropologists can assist police executives in evaluating the development processes, implementation and outcomes of new programs and practices. For example, the success of innovative community policing programs, such as a collaborative police and mental health response to people with mental illness, rests upon the effective implementation of the program. However, for implementation to occur, all levels of personnel must understand and accept the goals and objectives and the organizational culture must not impede the acceptance and application of the program. An anthropologist can help to determine the extent to which these aims have been achieved, assess the implementation process and evaluate the outcome of a program. Additionally, they can help identify places for intervention and strategize appropriate responses to cultivate organizational change.
Anthropology and Communities
While anthropologists can better help police executives understand their organizations and personnel, their training is equally suited for work in and with communities. Cultural anthropology has a rich history of research conducted in communities, particularly in those marginalized by social, economic and racial inequalities. Understanding the social, cultural, historical, political and economic factors that affect local communities is important to anthropological research focused on policy and practice. This type of holistic analysis is especially relevant to police departments that prioritize community policing efforts.
An illustrative example is the work of anthropologists in social service provision. For example, in Washington, D.C. and other major cities, anthropologists have conducted policy and practice relevant research on homelessness. This has included working with police departments and officers to determine appropriate and non-criminalizing approaches to the needs of homeless individuals, while also balancing public safety goals for all citizens. As this highlights, anthropologists can act as mediators and translators between police and communities. They can identify, for both communities and police executives, places of contention and distrust, and assist in creating appropriate and sensitive strategies and practices. Legitimacy, accountability and trust in democratic policing can be bolstered by the professional assistance of anthropologists in developing and maintaining open and reciprocal relationships between police departments and communities.
Of increasing relevance as police departments adopt evidence-based policies and practices is the assessment of the ethical implications of these policies and practices in communities. Since the 1970s, the biomedical sciences in the United States have emphasized the importance of understanding ethical implications of biomedical research. Research on genetics, cancer, and non-infections and infectious diseases is critical, but ethical considerations of interventions and evidence-based policies and practices are paramount. To this end, the United States Department of Health and Human Sciences has hired researchers and theorists, including anthropologists, to study and evaluate the ethical impact of biomedical research. Similarly, police executives must be vigilant about the ethical dimensions of the implementation and outcome of practices in communities. For example, how might place-based policing impact police and community relationships in areas targeted for interventions? How do police executives ensure that crime prevention tactics and policing practices do not disproportionately and negatively impact certain communities and individuals? Anthropologists’ holistic methods for researching and evaluating practices and policies, as outlined above, makes them uniquely situated to help police executives ensure that policies and practices promote the principles of democratic policing and human rights and adhere to ethical principles.
Anthropologists in Police Departments
Despite the translatability and utility of anthropology to policing, few anthropologists have worked in or with police departments. This can, in part, be attributed to the historical emphasis in the field of anthropology on research among other cultures and peoples. However, there are a growing number of anthropologists focused on applied and public anthropology. For these anthropologists, their training, research methods and interests are translatable to studying and working with police departments.
Police executives, in building the professional expertise of criminologists, psychologists and other trained researchers and theorists in their departments, should consider anthropologists as another qualified and professional resource to call upon. As outlined throughout this article, anthropologists can assist police executives in:
- Identifying cultural obstacles to the implementation of policies and practices
- Identifying cultural and organizational dynamics that inhibit policing innovation
- Cultivating organizational change and identifying places for intervention in departmental policies and practices
- Problem-solving community dynamics in the implementation of community policing programs
- Building community confidence and trust
- Researching and considering the ethical implications of policing practices
Many of these strategies can be implemented through collaboration with local universities and colleges. Faculty and advanced graduate students in anthropology departments would be ideal partners. However, police executives should consider focusing their resources on gathering the best professionals, including anthropologists, in their executive staff to advice and assist them in the delivery of effective, evidence-informed, ethical and democratic policing services.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.
 Skolnick, Jerome H. 1994 (1966). Justice Without Trial: Law Enforcement in a Democratic Society, 3rd Edition. New York: Macmillan College Publishing Company.
 Reiner, Robert. 1992. Politics of the Police. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
 Chan, Janet. 1996. Changing Police Culture. British Journal of Criminology 36(1): 109-134.
 Loftus, Bethan. 2009. Police Culture in a Changing World. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
 Baba, Marietta. 1995. The Cultural Ecology of the Corporation: Explaining Diversity in Work Group Responses to Organizational Transformation. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 31(2):202-233.
 Patton, Michael Quinn. 2005. The View From Evaluation. NAPA Bulletin 24: 31-40.
 Goodman, Charity, Trainor, Brad and Stan Divorski. 2005. Using Ethnographic Methods to Evaluate the Department of Veterans Affairs Patient Safety Program. NAPA Bulletin 24: 57-70.