The complex and contested relationship between representatives of a Mexican law enforcement agency and the citizenry it claims to protect is visible in the documents it produces. Ethnographic material further deepens our understanding of the ways in which law enforcement agents and common citizens form relationships based on negotiation and distrust.
Peter Moskos wrote a great editorial, “The Cop’s Eye View” in the Baltimore Sun in which he discusses a number of issues related to the Gates arrest. He describes the well known tactics for making someone arrestable by convincing them to step outside of their house in to the public space. But more importantly he describes the salience of control to himself and other police officers. I think it is worth quoting Moskos in extenso:
“As police are almost always outnumbered, personal safety depends on a little bravado and a little bit of bluff. When I was a police officer in Baltimore, and somebody hanging out on the corner mumbled he was going to “get me,” he had to be confronted with swift, certain and appropriate deterrence. If there was a threat to my face, jail was automatic. If somebody said he was going to kick my ass, he probably could.
Police have a strong, justifiable need to control the situation. I didn’t want to be loved. I didn’t mind being feared. Respected was OK. But all that really mattered was to be obeyed. To have authority, police need a legal, all-purpose charge to arrest people when nothing else will do. In Baltimore, it was loitering. In New York (and, I suspect, Cambridge), it’s disorderly conduct. Police also need smart officers to not abuse their discretion.”
Often discussions of police conduct forget that police officers are social beings who play social games delimited by a peculiar set of spatial and temporal realties. Policing is an “on the field” gig. Cops are engaged in face to face interactions in which there is little or no “time out” to reflect, deliberate, or work by committee. Temporal restraints come in the form of high call volume (the need to rapidly complete one situation so that a officer can move to the next); the fact that there is enormous uncertainty in how others will engage with the officer means that officer do not have a stable set of temporal expectations for how any given encounter will unfold; and the strip of behavior (sequential exchange) that makes up any given police-citizen encounter tends to occur on the plane of micro-interactions in which gestures and movements are the fabric of reality and are themselves unfolding rapidly. The fact that cops work with citizens and suspects in close physical proximity also means that there is little time to act and react. Hence police officers have cultivated a set of situational perceptions and practices for managing their temporal reality; they call it “control.”
In this setting “control” is not about an authoritarian personality, motives, intentions, or a psychological need for dominion and respect. Rather, control and its attendant categories like obeying and authority are, from the cops point of view, methods of stabilizing interactions and creating order. The lessons of social psychology and ethnomethodology is that social order, i.e. stable predictable interactions, are an ongoing and highly contingent accomplishment of active social agents. “Control” is very much about creating some kind of stable footing in a unstable social encounter in which there is not time to build mutual understandings of the situation. Seeing “control” as a folk method having everything to do with social stability and mutual understanding may not be popular but may be sociologically necessary to understanding police behavior. In other words, what Peter sees as the procedural “working acts” of navigating a situation, bystanders see as a quality of the actor.
The need for the police to bluff, bluster, and beat their chests is not something to be denigrated. Peter is absoultey right about how much officer safety depends on the ability to project not simply an authoritative presence but one that must be taken “seriously.” When out numbered no single officer can physically control a group. But the performance of being able to “do what it takes” to maintain “control” is a strategic presentation of self that is often necessary. It is no different than the need of gang leaders or “bad asses” described by Jack Katz in The Seductions of Crime to present a front of danger and unpredictability that will keep dangers opponents and underlings at bay.
According to Katz, the “bad ass” has to be willing to “go all the way” and must occasionally engage in frenzied violence so that violence is not situationally necessary the majority of the time. What bad asses or gang leaders do is similar to cops “controlling” gang members or generating fear on the street (for example see Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street). Respect is a fragile thin on the streets and to the extent that face must be guarded and continually restituted, violence becomes the “bangers” answer to slight. Without respect bangers loose standing and their power. Sadly for cops this is often the world they are operating in. Officers don’t get to define “the street,” they are visitors who learn to operate according to similar principles, i.e. routine grounds of interaction. Similarly, cops need the ability to make an arrest when challenged in doing their job. Cops can’t “thump” people for disrespecting them, challenging their legitimacy, or threatening them. It is not about control for controls sake. It is about quilting together a patchwork of interactive strategies that are, like it or not, are the fabric of face-to-face interactions on the street.
All of this is necessary, as Peter indicates, because officers need to be able to enter and exit situations swiftly and safely. There can’t be debate each time about the definition of the situation or the relevant systems of classification that are going to be deployed in each encounter (this is the conflict that Jonathan Wender describes eloquently in Policing as Poetry). We may not like police “control” at a visceral level. But before we judge it it is worth understanding how police use “control” as a folk methodology for negotiating order and maintaining their safety at the micro level.
To see “control” sociologically is not to look down on social action, but to see the complicating position of the method of actors. “Control” thus has to be understood as belonging to the realm of practical activity. When cops talk of control they do so within a realm of action different than the world of activity in which outside spectators use it. Control can exist in different language games, so to speak, and it is critical that outside commentators beware of the dual existence of “controls” use in speech. We can judge it at a distance but before ridiculing it we must also make some attempt to understand the officers practical relationship to the concept and practice of control and see what it does for the office in situ. This is what seeing policing sociologically must mean.