A Response to “Do Police Departments Need Anthropologists?”

Sin violencia (1)

Without violence (message placed by a citizen). Riot police force in the march of August 29, 2013 in Bogotá, supporting march of the agricultural strike that Colombia experienced for several months. This strike was characterized by an excessive use of force in the countryside and in the cities: the police repression left a balance of 12 dead, 485 wounded and 4 missing persons (Photo by  Wilson Peña-Pinzón)

This month, Practicum would like to welcome Wilson Peña-Pinzón as a guest columnist. Wilson Peña-Pinzón is an anthropologist at the Universidad Externado de Colombia. He is writing his thesis for a MA in Political Studies from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Peña-Pinzón has developed research work around the historical understanding of the Colombian armed conflict through different points of social sciences view: death and power from conflict actors, social and politic memory around war and representations of this from the cinema. He has been professor at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and the Escuela Colombiana de Carreras Industriales. He is currently professor and researcher at the Department of Anthropology at the Universidad Externado de Colombia and teaches courses on armed conflict and political anthropology.

This response came up from a personal perspective based on the proposal contemplated by Dr. Jennie Simpson on December 8th 2014 in Anthropoliteia. Due to the fact this is my personal interpretation, it does not reflect the views of any of the institutions that I work for. This response arises from my professional background in Anthropology and Political Studies, and my positioning as a researcher who is interested in topics relate to violence. It is also based on my experience as a Colombian citizen, in which the armed conflict is a vivid aspect of my country.

A first answer was presented in Spanish to Dr. Simpson, but per her request and to have an open debate, I have now presented this second response which has been revised and translated.

My answer to Dr. Simpson’s question is a definite NO. I mainly based my arguments on the large historical and political differences that exist between Colombia and the United States in terms of justice and welfare. In Colombia we have experienced social conflicts that have been a legacy for centuries, which have been realized through different forms of social injustice, repression, inequality and exclusion. These social conflicts have been mainly the result of the irresponsibility of the State and institutions in the guarantee of constitutional and human rights in a generalized way.

Several issues:

I believe there are elements missing in order to apply this question to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. I believe that, as anthropologists, we should set our sight in understanding what this case has elicited (which is not the first of its kind in the U.S.; the background of segregation of African descent people and the violence that has been implicated in the republican era are wide), but the point of view should not be made it from the repressive order or neither from the institutional and constitutional power of the police in the application of physical violence.

“police and law” are not the same and neither “law and justice”

Firstly, “police and law” are not the same and neither “law and justice”. I make this distinction because in Colombia, the institutions have separate powers to preserve the political independence of administrative action. While the police is a guarantor of law and justice, it differs in the way how the law is interpreted (it is activated at the time an offender is physically coerced by a State representative); even more serious when the violence is used in order to enforce the law, and this is seen as justice.

It is in this situation precisely, where the police figure uses violence to enforce the law. This is the point where I do find some issues in the proposal of linking the practice of anthropology with the police institutions. I mention this from a fundamental principle, because our profession agrees on the defense of human integrity, in whatever expression that it represents. That defense is also made from the knowledge of the “other”, social relations and cultural expressions, but not from the repression of behavior.

our profession agrees on the defense of human integrity… not …the repression of behavior

When Dr. Simpson calls for “practicing anthropologists focusing on policing, criminal justice, and security”, I remembered an experience of a renowned professor in Colombia. He suggested that it was essential that anthropologists collaborate with the police, especially for police training field, where the use of ethnography could represent a better execution of repression. Indeed, the National Police of Colombia for some years has joined anthropologists in his team, however these calls do not specify what functions will be developed by the professional in the institution.

In terms of “criminal justice” in our country we have several institutions that have the independence in action on crime and have different skills; anthropologists work in them. For example, the Attorney General’s Office which is part of the judicial branch of government and ensuring access to justice. It has different teams of researchers doing research on criminal policy, crime prevention, etc., but it is not an entity within its functions have the power to exercise violence in the process of administering justice. Also, the district attorney´s office, the CTI is within (Technical Investigation Corp), whose has professional forensic anthropologists who work to raise crime scenes and advance individual or general crimes investigation processes. This division also does not have access to the use of violence in processes of social intervention.

About the “The three key points”

  1. Anthropologists can help police leaders better understand their departments and personnel and identify opportunities to offer better police services to communities.

I agree with the possibility that our profession can identify opportunities, but I am suspicious of the services that the police can provide to the community, compared to projects planned and executed by other institutions that have the same effectiveness. Later on I will argue why I doubt about its effectiveness.

  1. Anthropologists can help police leaders translate policing to the public and bridge ethical considerations in the implementation of crime prevention policies.

I also agree that our profession can be a vehicle for thinking through the ethical and the public, especially in relation to civil rights. But these elements are not only inherent in anthropology, but should be a “must” of the institution (of all State institutions) and not the result of the anthropologists helping police leaders to translate constitutional mandate. This proposal speaks of the institutional decline and the social effects that this reflects: this is one of my arguments for distrusting of institutions.

In Colombia and Mexico (with the effects of drug trafficking, and the case of Ayotzinapa), inefficiency, abuse of power and corruption are the result of the lack of professionalism and demonstrate the necessity of a change of political and cultural doctrine, so that each member of the police entering into the institution does not problems with the interpretation of “public”, law, justice and ethics.

  1. 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.

Legitimacy, transparency and public confidence are relative. Precisely because as a culture, this should not extend to the generalization of the institution as within the institution there are individuals, many of them who took part in social, cultural and political processes of training to be part of it. However, we are not talking about robots, we are talking about human beings with reason that act in different ways- some driven by political violence, exclusion and inequality, social contexts and others would act under other criteria, such as defense of the Constitution of the country. In Colombia being a cop is a way to access certain social recognition, a job that has the ability to jump from legality to illegality mediated by the symbolic and physical power of institutions. I think that it is irresponsible that anthropology have any relation with police departments, which have lost their legitimacy, transparency and public trust: their work would better public relations through advertising; it is be a question of image, rather than structure. I understand that change occurs in practice, but as my two criticisms of the above key points demonstrate, the idea will be much more complex to the difficulties of Dr. Simpson’s question.

Anthropologist as a spiritual leader of the police?

In reading Dr. Simpson’s proposals, I felt precisely what expresses my question. It seems that the police, as they show, have lost a key element in contemporary society, which they were founded upon: to provide security. However, I appreciate the proposal to analyze the institutions, especially the repressive institutions, because they have the ability and power to speak to us from the complexity of culture, how it has shaped society throughout history and how behind the institution is a response to what it means to the State, which represents democracy, law and justice more in our countries that are “welfare, social and law”. I applaud Dr. Simpson’s proposal of understanding “The police culture” and think of Clifford Geertz and symbolism within the culture, within the need to think these symbols as a system and see how it plays an essential role in the form of thick description, and so to interpret cultural experience within the repressive order representing police departments. However, I believe to be the spiritual leader of the police is something that the same entity must seek and win, under the constitutional mandates and the hierarchy of State power, which has effects on its structure.

Marketing and Anthropology of consumption

Reading between the lines I linked Dr. Simpson’s proposal with an employment trend that has grown in the world and the relationship the anthropology objectives. In the contemporary world of globalization, anthropology found a place in the increased profits generated by the flow of goods. Market research has expanded -for better and for worse- employment opportunities for our profession. When Dr. Simpson says ” by cultural anthropologists that can help police executives understand their departments and staff as well as assist in creating bridges with communities”, I infer the same intent behind some companies (again, not all of them), looking behind arguments to research culture in order to “provide better services and products,” but what it is behind is a “conviction of trademark”; “I do not care what chemicals and how many calories a drink has that makes me look cool: thirst quenching in that right moment makes me socially accepted … although I am aware that this product can kill me in long term while I keep drinking it.” In our debate “I do not care how criminal police or the armies are, as long as it provides you a good image and I feel safe”. Some of these perspectives may be related to the facts in Charlie Hebdo some weeks ago.

Here are the organizational studies, which in recent years used ethnography to give a more complex look of internal process in institutions. The whole trend of “human resources” and the appropriation of psychology in these scenarios (at least in Colombia), speaks of a very specific form of control and power inside those sites. Now, it is very different in a place where a factory makes cars with its productions process, and quite another place in a police department. In that sense, understanding the organization if it has a fundamental value for it’s restructuring, but these reports, recommendations or studies are useless when done in a police department. My argument is based on the gaps where anthropologists have, according to Dr. Simpson’s argument, the possibility of linking the institution: illegitimacy, mistrust, lack of transparency and corruption. If an entity is superior to the department -government ministries and senate-, an organizational analysis can identify the loose links (or bad apples, as it is usually called in my country, as it is believed that corruption is an isolated phenomenon) and show lack of effectiveness in meeting the constitutional mandate and police duty under law, it will not be more effective than the possibility to take concrete actions to affect changes: It is the duty of the Ministry of Defense in the Colombian case, but other actions in structure change and doctrine must undergo Presidency or by the legislature.

Final thoughts:

There is little use for anthropologists advising police leaders on rigorous research methods and criteria, if those in the field of policing have training based on repression in the sociocultural identification of “others” outside the norm and should be constrained under the instruments that enables them to act, socially and politically in their work. For example, in Argentina the people do not trust the police; this was my ethnographic impression in my stay Buenos Aires and Salta. Now, the lack of trust is a legacy of military dictatorships: these, conducted under high levels of repression, coopted the repressive institutions and used them to provide a Catholic, anti-subversive social order, among other moral elements. Similar cases are a living reality in several countries that had military dictatorships, or who have recently experienced a strong repression of social protest as is the case of Brazil: in these circumstances, how can anthropologists work closely with the police in these communities?

In Colombia, police force is seen as an odd entity: part of society looks them with disdain, believing them incompetent, but in minimal situations of criminality (for example robberies and simple crime), they are the only hope on a quick intermediation on street fights or in recover stolen objects; they help to reestablish order, especially mediated by violence. Recently in digital social networks in Colombia, citizens are exposed to the idea of “denouncing delinquents”: armed people with cellphone cameras take pictures and record videos of felonies in progress, to post them on internet to make it public. It works as a crime preventive technique, but also it has a strong argument for physical repression (even death is mentioned), as the only way to take offenders out of streets. In many videos and pictures, police are shown to physically and verbally abuse offenders in the capture process. There is a validation of the community threatened by crime. This same community does have not an effective institution when they dos not prosecute crime or let offenders free. When the justice and penitentiary system collapse, it creates a vicious circle where delinquent goes back quickly to the streets. Furthermore, aggravating the circumstance is that the police are easily corruptible (not all), and lack of professionalism (They have a non-professional instruction of police corps on social functions, but with technical training in enforcement and repression). This causes, in some of Latin American countries, individuals to join the police corps as a means to live with a minimal wage; but above all, they join because it is a prestigious profession that has the ability to access legal and illegal networks that generate extra income and supply the desire for power and promotion in the hierarchical logic of the institution.

Do you believe that… Michael Brown’s neighbors would welcome you with open arms… with a social project coordinated by the police? I think not

I think the key is anthropologists working in communities, but I reiterate, we must work from other levels of institutions and authority, but not with those that are permeated by illegitimacy, lack of transparency and especially those who exercise physical or symbolic restraint: in some contexts the combination of welfare in the hands of a repressive entity is treated as contradictory behaviors. This is demonstrated in the example Dr. Simpson begins with in her piece: Do you believe that Ferguson’s community -Michael Brown’s neighbors- would welcome you with open arms, in a few months or a few years later, with a social project coordinated by the police? I think not, regardless of how many anthropologists assist in the creation of projects and strategies. A real example is my perception of the relationship in Argentina with the police and the military, some of this also happens in Colombia and Brazil as well.

I find this kind of debate very important, because it is part of a latent reality: anthropologist do -and will- work with some subjects that we have discussed and will work for State institutions helping, I hope, on the defense of civil and human rights and supported by the Constitutions of our countries. However, thinking through institutional boundaries and the limits of the profession, not for anthropology itself, but the limits of social reality and politics of “security”, “justice” and “law”, also mark ways in which anthropologist can intervene and contribution to the field.


3 thoughts on “A Response to “Do Police Departments Need Anthropologists?”


    Taking for granted that Hobbes was correct. Then the role of The Police in any society is to promote and protect the structure of the society in danger, simply by the use of force, the use of deadly force if necessary. Other institutions seeking the same conclusion, each has its own procedure.

    According to a recent “cartoon” posted on The Figaro Facebook page, I understand that the French are about to make it a law that certain police operations are required to be documented by video production. The humor of the “cartoon” was that the photographer police was protesting to the acting police against a demonstrator that his act was not good enough for filming quality.


  2. Pingback: DragNet: January 26 – February 8, 2015 | Anthropoliteia

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