Figure 1: Credit: Public Domain

Dilek Doğan, a 25-year old woman, was killed by police during an anti-terror raid on her house in 2015 in Istanbul, Turkey. Police were searching for a potential suicide bomber named H.R.K and Doğan’s home was one of sixteen addresses they raided that night. Although the police officer who fatally shot Doğan defended himself by saying that his rifle went off by accident while quarrelling with family members who resisted the raid, Doğan’s family insisted that the officer purposely pointed his rifle to Doğan after she asked him to put on shoe covers before entering their house. Dilek Doğan’s murder stirred public reaction, and once again brought decade-long police reforms in Turkey under public scrutiny. After Doğan’s shooting, the above image went viral on social media sites to satirize citizen-friendly police projects: “You no longer need to go out, because the police will come to your house to kill you,” the meme sarcastically announced. The Turkish National Police’s reform project, On-site Fulfillment of Police Services, which promised hassle-free delivery of police services such as statement-taking in the privacy of one’s home, was contrasted with Dilek Doğan’s tragic death. This satirical remark was placed next to a police brochure of On-site Fulfillment of Police Services, advertising the project with slogans like “Service is at my doorstep!” ; “I don’t need to go to the police station anymore to get services”; and “on-site fulfillment of services” (Figure 1).  

In line with police forces globally, what the Turkish National Police called its new citizen-friendly policing model defined the police’s role as a service to citizenry. Projects like On-site Fulfillment of Police Services suggested an effort by the police to reach out to citizens through home visits and by establishing a new kind of relationship with citizens based on proximity, mobility and familiarity. Police reformers in Turkey perceived such projects as an antidote to a tradition of what they termed “strong-state” violence, which the Turkish police symbolized for most of the twentieth century, the period prior to police reforms.

The aforementioned social media commentary on On-site Fulfillment of Police Services, on the other hand, points out a central contradiction involved in police reform initiatives in Turkey and around the world. It exposes a vital dilemma in contemporary policing, caught between citizen-friendly reform projects and continuing harsh practices. My larger project on the implementation of European-Union inspired police reforms in Turkey explores such contradictions. During two years of ethnographic fieldwork between 2015 and 2017 on so-called non-violent tools and practices of police reforms, I tracked what police do with reform and what reform does to police and policing, if not preventing violence. I explored how the set of policies, practices, and socio-technical tools that are packaged as ‘reform’ actually extended police power into novel social domains while enabling police to manufacture legally-sanctioned impunity or garner popular support (Akarsu 2018; Akarsu 2020).

In the early stages of my research, these police projects and their citizen-friendly reform ethos appeared to me as insidious efforts to pay lip service to international human-rights and good governance standards. Through these projects, police presented an elegantly tailored image to the public. They sustained that image by showing off their technological capacities, promoting gadgets they acquired in the process of reform, such as the mobile statement-taking kit advertised in the On-site Fulfillment of Police Services project. In some ways, I agreed with Nada, the protagonist of 1988 American science fiction film They Live. In a famous scene, Nada gets into fight with his friend and forces him to wear particular “sunglasses,” which we then learn are magical ones that reveal ideological messages (obey, consume, etc.) concealing their appearances through advertisements, institutions or under well-ironed suits and ties. As if I had the privilege of putting on the ideology-revealing sunglasses of Nada, I initially approached citizen-friendly policing projects with the goal of revealing the hidden truths beneath them.  

Yet the desire to find and expose a hidden truth is limiting, leaving the emergent regimes of state-care embedded in such citizen-friendly projects unanalyzed. Such analytical laziness might prevent scholars from observing how the citizen-friendly ethos of contemporary policing makes inroads to everyday life, securitizes many aspects of citizens’ lives, and paves the way for the renewed partnership between citizens and the police. How can scholars of policing remain attentive to topologies of power and violence unfolding through police work?

As a means of thinking connectivity, topological thinking — especially in its post-mathematical formulations as picked up by critical theorist Manuel DeLanda (2011) — has provided me with a way of conceptualizing the relationality between different forms of police power. Instead of seeing them in contradiction, or temporally or logically succeeding one another, I came to better understand the correlation between destructive and productive technologies of police power in generating and redistributing what I call a police effect (cf. Mitchell 1991, Collier 2009). This approach allowed me to rethink the relationships among the disciplinary and the affective, or spectacular and ordinary police power, not as one negating or on top of the other but as intrinsic to and remaking one another. In other words, this immanent relationality produces effects and affects of police power, and more importantly, results in constitutive contradictions of police as an institution. Police reform projects I observed in the field, borrowing loosely from Deleuze and Guattari, operated as what they have termed “resonance chambers” (1987, 224) within which such constitutive contradictions of policing – for instance the contradiction between serving citizenry and applying brute force to the same population that they claim to protect – reverberated to regenerate the ultimate force of policing.

Exploring the force of policing in a society, therefore, requires more than an exposé. Not surprisingly, most police officers I met in the field were well aware of such contradictions, which they saw as defining aspects of their profession. My police interviewees, for instance, usually understood the citizen-friendly ethos of new policing in Turkey by evoking a favorite cliché, an iron fist in a velvet glove (kadife eldiven içinde demir yumruk). For them, this expression conveyed a vision about how the compassionate hand of the police is reserved for deserving citizens, while the others should feel intimidated by their mighty iron hand. This police perspective is evident even when one observes the targets of citizen-friendly police projects. Such projects usually focus on either “hotspot communities” which need “solutions” or on “idealized communities” which are mobilized to cooperate with the police to sustain order and social harmony. This differentiation demonstrates how the force of police is not distributed evenly across different sectors of the society. In the same way a soft velvet glove might conceal a hard iron fist, friendly, smiling police officers are ready to pamper their citizenry, while remaining prepared to deploy violence if and when necessary. When police power is conceptualized topologically, the task of critical police scholarship is not simply to remove the velvet glove in order to expose the iron fist. Rather, it is to understand how both velvet and iron qualities are actually constitutive of the force of the police, and the continuing allure of police reforms.

My research insights have allowed me to interrogate how police power operates in a given context, not just as a repressive force looming over citizens but as an affective regime of state-care, which has become popular among and even desired by Turkish citizens with projects like On-site Fulfillment of Police Services. These projects work on the level of affect and how people feel toward the police (e.g. ‘at ease,’ ‘trust,’ ‘fear’), appealing to “good feelings” (Ahmed 2004) while sedimenting and structuring security-oriented dispositions and sensibilities. For instance, some police reform projects I observed in Turkey between 2015 and 2017 required citizens to learn how to police their own social environments, giving consent to expansive police surveillance regarding their private, domestic lives — sometimes by literally inviting police into their homes. Indeed, such projects signal a broader shift in which social processes, relationships, emotions, and environments become domains with security implications, and new sites for policing. Noting this transforming nature of security provides a unique opportunity to analyze the increasingly affective grounds of state-society encounters, especially in heavily policed social and political landscapes at a time marked by global right-wing populist wave.

By attending to such encounters, I came to better understand the affective relationships that such projects aspire to build between police and citizens. This affective bond is central to cultivating popular support for policing, even galvanizing citizens’ desires for harsh policing of suspect Others. As I discuss elsewhere (Akarsu 2020), such citizen-friendly community-oriented reform projects foster a new type of citizen-police subject, what I call citizen forces. These citizen forces mobilize and are mobilized by citizen-friendly policing to redefine the frontiers of proper citizenship toward either noncitizens, such as recent migrants, or toward possible traitors or undeserving subjects (however locally defined).  

This emphasis on the affective relations between police and citizen subjects does not mean that scholars should ignore the political economy that supports the massive police reform industry. Among other things, police development assistance programs, which touted citizen-friendly projects as a cure to all ills of policing, have become a new ‘export-paradigm’ that perpetuate illusory aspects of reform (Ellison 2007). Neither does it mean diminishing the importance of the regimes of domination that render the police institution as a body of social control possible in the first place. As the vast literature on such citizen- and community-oriented activities shows, seemingly non-violent (so-called “smiling,” güleryüzlü in Turkish) forms of policing can certainly propagate technologies of exclusion, surveillance, discrimination or criminalization. Instead, an emphasis on affective relations between police and citizen subjects requires attention to mundane bureaucratization and the governmentalization of everyday life through policing, which often have unintended and sinister consequences. Among others, these consequences include the expansion of police power through reform or the increasing complicity between police and right-wing groups, which have become increasingly debated issues in many parts of the world.  

An analysis of the topologies of policing globally might allow us to think about difficult questions in novel ways. For instance, what would scholars learn by putting Dilek Doğan side by side with Botham Jean, a 26-year-old African-American man, killed by police as he ate ice cream inside his own home in 2018 in Dallas? Police units across the US invest millions in community policing projects, displaying a smiling face by cruising around the neighborhoods in ice cream trucks, for instance, and attempting to build trust with communities, by looking for ‘cool’ ways of connecting with neighborhood residents (see Figure 2). Yet police violence against Blacks and people of color has been increasing. How should critical scholars of the police approach the co-existence of such seemingly contradictory developments? An easy way would be to take the smiling face of the police as just a hypocritical mask that needs to be unveiled. But what I suggest is paying close attention to the coexistence of these two aspects of policing, and the immanent relationality between them, constituting the topologies of policing. This approach will allow critical observers and scholars of police to analyze the disproportionate distribution of police care and violence in a society. By doing so, scholars can also develop much-needed cross-regional discussions on policing, pointing to the constitutive contradictions of police forces globally.          

Figure 2: Credit: Boston Police Department (Twitter)


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Akarsu, Hayal. 2020. “Citizen Forces: The politics of community policing in Turkey.” American Ethnologist 47(1): 27-42.
Akarsu, Hayal. 2018. “Proportioning Violence: Ethnographic Notes on the Contingencies of Police Reform.” Anthropology Today. 34(1): 11-14.
Collier, Stephen J. 2009. “Topologies of Power: Foucault’s Analysis of Political Government beyond ‘Governmentality’.” Theory, Culture and Society 26(6): 78-108.
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Hayal Akarsu is a Junior Research Fellow at Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies, and holds a PhD in anthropology from the University of Arizona. Her research explores the connections between policing, human rights, transnational flows and governance, and lived experiences of security and insecurity.