Seigel opens Violence Work (2018) by noting the often-taken-for-granted status of the police in conventional social science, which she characterizes in terms of a “deep fog” of uncritical, commonsense assumptions as well as a “failure to understand what policing actually is” (Seigel, 2018: 3). By police, Seigel means the blue and black, uniformed and armed state agents that we typically associate with law enforcement – and not the broader notion of police associated with Foucauldian studies (although see Wagner, 2010). Seigel places partial responsibility for the deep fog around the cops at the doorsteps of her home discipline, history, which she says is constituted by a “relative disinterest in theorizing the state” and by a “reluctance to theorize macro-level concepts” (Seigel, 2018: 4). Seigel also suggests that social historians have been more interested in the people subject to policing than the police per se, suggesting the ongoing relevance of Laura Nader’s (1972) prompt to “study up” the problem of power, almost 50 years after her groundbreaking article on the subject! What about geography? Given geographers’ core interest in theorizing and empirically substantiating the relationship between power and space, it is surprising that there is not more work in the discipline on policing (Yarwood, 2007). In fact, geography may be worse off than history. The geography literature on the police is not extensive.

I was a grad student when I first encountered Steve Herbert’s triplet of early essays on the Los Angeles Police Department (Herbert, 1996a, 1996b, 1996c). I read Herbert’s work as a result of getting interested in what we used to call critical geopolitics, which at the time included Herbert’s work. Working from the most cited scholarship in critical geopolitics, I had initially thought of the field as a destabilization of received knowledges about foreign policy conflict, accomplished in large part by asking about how the certainties that international relations scholars claimed about the world were theoretical and cultural productions anchored in highly questionable geographic assumptions about identity, community, and belonging. Based on this assumption, I had struggled with how the LAPD was geopolitical, except in terms of Herbert’s explicitly territorial lens on power and his engagement with Foucault – which were both touchstones in the larger world of critical geopolitics. The police seemed to me mostly a domestic problem, and by extension practically apart from, what was going on in foreign policy theatres of conflict. In the wake of 9/11, as I began to pay more attention to immigration enforcement, and in particular to the domestic as well as foreign policy properties of the US Border Patrol, I began to understand the ways in which search and seizure case law involving the Border Patrol – which in general watered down standards of proof in the name of national security – had been taken up in criminal law enforcement involving traffic stops and the war on drugs. In short, the unity of practices yoking police work to security work became increasingly apparent to me. As a result, the relatively marginal status of Herbert’s book in critical geopolitics, and the uneasy ways in which critical geopolitics scholars dealt with the cops as geopolitical, became much more interesting than Herbert’s emphasis on the geopolitics of the police per se. Of course the cops were geopolitical.

Really, it’s only been over the past decade there has been a more sustained focus on the cops in geography. What Derickson (2016) calls the “age of Ferguson” is no doubt central to this recent turn to the police.  But there are still depressingly few geographers writing about the cops. So where is the ‘real’ work on the cops done? As Seigel underscores in her book, it’s all about criminology. But as she also argues, the work done on policing in criminology is of limited use, especially for critical scholars. As she suggests in the introductory chapter to Violence Work, one of the most important knock-on effects of the sequestration of policing to criminology is that scholarship on the police is theoretically underdeveloped and uncritical. As she puts it, scholarship on the police is “often applied and explicitly reformist, produced in close collaboration with current police officers and contemptuous of scholars removed from the spheres of police action” (Seigel, 2018: 4).

“Close collaboration”. Perhaps some readers of Seigel’s book are going to feel that this is a hell of a way to write off an entire discipline, but Seigel makes a very compelling case that criminology, the home for police research in the social sciences, poses an important barrier to critical researchers who study the police. I would add – borrowing from Patrick Wolfe (1994) on the relationship between anthropology and settler colonialism – that we can best understand the “close collaboration” between the cops and criminology in terms of how criminal justice (more on this phrase below) knowledge is selectively – not entirely – taken up in state practice.  Wolfe, for example, notes specifically that a discipline’s complicity with state power is in terms of how core theories and methodologies find themselves put to work by state agents. Wolfe calls this the problem of "discourse appropriated into state practice" (1994: 108). What is important about disciplinary knowledge, from this perspective, are the "effective outcomes" of encounters between select parts of an argumentative, quarrelsome discipline and statecraft. As Wolfe notes, the more combative the disciplinary engagements, or in other words the more public its “professional schisms”, the easier it is for state authorities to claim that the appropriated select parts are the product of exchange, and hence legitimate “as the outcome of open debate” (1994: 108). In this disturbing way we can think of critical police studies as legitimizing mainstream criminology as a worthy opponent, and ultimately involved in the uptake of criminological knowledge by the state.

On a more practical level, how are we to make sense of this “close collaboration”, or traffic, between criminology and policing which Seigel rightly says stunts critical, appropriately theoretical, scholarship on criminal justice? In my hands-down favorite chapter of Violence Work, titled ‘Professors for Police’, Seigel explores the fascinating growth of criminal justice education in the 20th century, fundamentally shaped by the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. The chapter offers readers vital cues about the nature of 20th century criminology which, for disciplinary outsiders like myself, can sometimes feel explicitly designed to impede a critical examination of core criminal justice institutions such as the police (Coleman and Kocher, 2019).

The 1968 Safe Streets Act was President Lyndon Johnson’s contorted appropriation of the racialized law and order panic at the core of Barry Goldwater’s Southern strategy campaign. When Johnson took the White House in 1964, he created the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, the so-called Katzenbach Commission, named after its chairperson Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. The commission’s 1967 report, The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society, was, for its time, a state-of-the-art review of criminal justice in the U.S. – with the important caveat, for non-criminologists, that the phrase ‘criminal justice’ refers to the three institutional arms of the justice system (police, courts, and corrections) rather than to any substantive notion of justice per se.

Forty years later, the Katzenbach Commission’s report is worth a read. It’s not what one might expect. Perhaps the most jarring aspect of the report is the commission’s extensive commentary on the largely unconstrained nature of police authority. For example, in the chapter dedicated exclusively to the police, the report’s authors claim that the everyday life of street-level police work more or less entirely escapes the oversight and scrutiny of police administrators – not to mention legislators and judges, arguably further removed from the actually-existing world of policing (Stoughton, 2014) – who “have seldom attempted to develop and articulate clear policies aimed at guiding or governing the way that policemen [sic] exercise their discretion on the street” (President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, 1967: 103). The report’s authors point to police procedure manuals as evidence of this problem, and note that the manuals “almost never discuss … the hard choices policemen [sic] must make every day: whether or not to break up a sidewalk gathering, whether or not to intervene in a domestic dispute, whether or not to silence a street-corner speaker, whether or not to stop and frisk, whether or not to arrest. Yet these decisions are at the heart of police work” (President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, 1967: 103). The report also suggests that if police actions resulting in an arrest are not frequently reviewed by administrative superiors, or by judges, police-civilian encounters not resulting in arrest are almost never reviewed, leaving the door wide open for police misconduct and abuse. Indeed, the report’s authors point not only to the vague operational definition of probable cause in cases involving arrest – and this a year before Terry v Ohio gave us the standard of proof known as reasonable suspicion – but to a multitude of possible police-civilian encounters not defined by arrest and hence entirely inscrutable in terms of the institutional and legal reach of administrative petition and/or legal review.

It is in this context that the Katzenbach Commission’s report reaches for an unexpected definition of the police – which certainly must have been unsettling for some readers – as mostly “interpreters” of the law, in the same way that legislators and judges are often popularly understood. Indeed, for its time (and in our time) the report is oddly frank about the gulf between law and police work – in entirely the way suggested by Derrida’s (1989) later comments on the police as force! For example, the report’s operational definition of the police emphasizes officers’ work as necessarily arbitrary and discriminatory – characteristics drawn in contrast to judges and prosecutors who work in more publicly scrutable arenas and who hence enjoy far less in the way of unrestricted authority. In outlining the relationship between police and the law, the report’s authors note in impressively illiberal language that “law enforcement policy is made by the policeman [sic]”, that the police officer is an “arbiter of social values” who relies primarily on “personal discretion”, and that the “criminal code, in practice, is not a set of specific instructions to policemen [sic] but a more or less rough map of the territory in which policemen [sic] work” (President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice 1967, 10). And then, finally: “Crime does not look the same on the street as it does in a legislative chamber” (President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, 1967: 10). Of course, the reality of police discretion and the lack of everyday police accountability was not lost on police scholars at the time (see literature collected in Reiner, 1996). Nonetheless, it is rare, especially outside the bounds of critical research on the police, much less as articulated by a government-appointed body, to see such a straightforward dismissal of the liberal trope of police as law-bound enforcers of law, and hence law-abiding rather than law-making.

And yet, the Katzenbach report also sought to step back from the brink of this emergency-like description of police authority. One of the core take-home messages from the report is that despite the centrality of discretion to police work police departments should both develop and publish “policies that give police personnel specific guidance for the common situations requiring exercise of police discretion” (President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, 1967: 104), such that both police and civilians understand better the rules of their potential encounter. As such, and despite its provocative definition of the police, the report quickly recasts police as potentially bound by policy and law, and as the suitable object of reform. It is in this light that the report’s authors call for community policing as well as more training and education opportunities for police nationwide. The Safe Streets Act followed up on this line of argument by giving birth to the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) – now called the Office of Justice Programs. The LEAA provided federal funds for police nationwide to train, retrain, and seek advanced education opportunities at university in criminal justice – all with the aim of reigning in discretionary police practice, and professionalizing police services. Indeed, LEAA funding was more or less an attempt to wholesale recreate police subjectivity in the U.S. by inculcating a new culture of legal respect.

As Seigel explains, LEAA funds drove a significant expansion in the number of law enforcement degree programs offered by colleges nationwide, for example at key universities like Michigan State, the University of Kentucky, Indiana University, and Georgia Tech. Seigel’s exploration of this growth is intriguing, but the more engaging aspect of Seigel’s argument concerns how LEAA funding for universities routinized traffic in personnel between academia and professional police bodies. Seigel shows that not only did a core population of individuals move back and forth between the halls of policecraft and the lecture hall, but that they also moved back and forth across international borders. Seigel tells the story, for example, of the intimate relationship between the criminal justice program at Michigan State (East Lansing) and the U.S. AID Office of Public Safety, a U.S. government body created in 1962 to arm and train police forces in countries allied geopolitically with the U.S. So, not only does Seigel’s work on ‘Professors for Police’ strike another nail into the coffin of the ivory tower, that fiction academics tell about the gulf between gown and town when we register outrage at the ways in which the world of teaching and research is contaminated by outside interests, but it also fundamentally calls into question policing as a domestic rather than international phenomenon. Policing is neither, Seigel shows, because it is instead about the very transgression of this boundary. This focus on the constitutively boundary-trespassing nature of police work is a major theme that runs throughout the book.

I would have liked to read more about the content that moved along with these individuals between the halls of policecraft and academia, between the U.S. and Vietnam, Brazil, and so on. What ideas traveled between agencies and sites and how did the ideas shift as a result? What practices traveled and how did the practices shift as a result? How was classroom instruction in major American universities impacted by pacification strategies in foreign policy theaters of conflict?  How was pacification impacted by classroom pedagogy? These questions aside, I think the most important contribution that Seigel makes, in her examination of the linkages between academia and policing, is to help us to think very differently about the problem of “close collaboration” mentioned above. By probing the effects of the LEAA on college-level police education, what Seigel shows is that collaboration between police practitioners and police academics can be traced back to the fact that at this crucial moment when criminal justice education was expanded and normalized across the country, many police academics were also police practitioners, and vice versa. It’s less about “close collaboration”, then, and more about the constitutive reality of a shared workplace. In other words, close quarters.

The idea of criminology, specifically, and policing as together constitutive of a shared workplace will be intellectually-freeing for critical police scholars. To start with, workplaces are diverse, and not everyone gathers at the water cooler to gossip, and not everyone plays along. Per Wolfe on the way that disciplinary discourses are selectively taken up by the state, this is not some sort of grand conspiracy, nor is it necessarily a smooth and frictionless machine. But more importantly, the idea of a shared workplace means that we can’t simply see collaboration as a relationship where scholarship is theoretically and conceptually compromised or corrupted by virtue of its connective ties to the police. This is certainly the dominant way in which the relationship between gown and town is understood. In this reading, premised on the notion of contagion, the center of gravity is with the police, and for example researchers produce uncritical and untheoretical work as a result of getting involved with the former. What if, in this shared workplace, mainstream criminologists play a more active role? What if the center of gravity sometimes lies with them, and contagion works in the other direction? If it’s the latter, then we can begin to think of the police as the beneficiaries of their criminological co-workers in adjacent cubicles, rather than assume that criminology is perverted by its ties to policecraft. Perhaps, then, criminology is better understood as police science – the R&D wing where ideas are innovated and new products conceived. And perhaps the object of reform shifts as a result. As Correia and Wall argue in their new ‘dictionary’ on the police, police abolition might reasonably start with the abolition of criminology (see the 'criminology' entry in Correia and Wall, 2018).

The well-rehearsed problem of ‘broken windows’ theory is an obvious case in point where the police are not simply the wily appropriators of unwitting criminological science, but where the latter is in the driver’s seat. As Camp and Heatherton rehearse in their Policing the Planet (Camp and Heatherton, 2016), broken windows went from the pages of Kelling and Wilson’s 1982 article in the Atlantic, to the streets of specific neighborhoods in New York City, and then to the rest of the world, confirming Seigel’s transnational lens on policing as violence work. We should keep in mind that the Kelling and Wilson article was an explicitly prototypical criminological theory in search of takers. The article is full of prompts like this: “The key is to identify neighborhoods at the tipping point – where the public order is deteriorating but not unreclaimable, where the streets are used frequently but by apprehensive people, where a window is likely to be broken at any time, and must be quickly fixed if all are not to be shattered” (Kelling and Wilson, 1982: 38). Moreover, the article anticipated a suite of apparently real-world problems associated with the application of ‘broken windows’, and provided answers which became commonplace police talking points: first, the problem of “neighborhood bigotry” to be managed by training and education; and second, the problem of individuals being unfairly and disproportionately punished in the name of whole communities, which they summed up in terms of putting “communal losses” ahead of “individual losses”, and which they defended as a realistic response to the panacea of decriminalization. Here we have criminologists as, quite literally, authors of police practice. And of course, later, they become co-authors with police, as police officials realize what they have been gifted.


Camp JT and Heatherton C (eds) (2016) Policing the Planet. London: Verso.
Coleman M and Kocher A (2019) Rethinking the Gold Standard of Racial Profiling: 287(g), Secure Communities and Racially Discrepant Police Power. American Behavioral Scientist 63 (9):1185-1220.
Correia D and Wall T (2018) Police: A Field Guide. London: Verso.
Derickson KD (2016) The racial state and resistance in Ferguson and beyond. Urban Studies 53 (11):2223-2237.
Derrida J (1989) Force of Law: The 'Mystical Foundation of Authority'. Cardozo Law Review 11 (5/6):919-1045.
Herbert S (1996a) The Geopolitics of the Police: Foucault, Disciplinary Power, and the Tactics of the Los Angeles Police Department. Political Geography 15 (1):47-59.
Herbert S (1996b) Morality in law enforcement: Chasing ''bad guys'' with the Los Angeles Police Department. Law & Society Review 30 (4):799-818.
Herbert S (1996c) The Normative Ordering of Police Territoriality: Making and Marking Space with the Los Angeles Police Department. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 86 (3):567-582.
Kelling GL and Wilson JQ (1982) Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety. The Atlantic Monthly 249 (3): 29-37.
Lacoste Y (1973) An Illustration of Geographical Warfare: Bombing of the Dikes on the Red River, North Vietnam. Antipode 5 (2):213-227.
Nader L (1972) Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up. In D. Hymes (ed) Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Pantheon, pp. 284-311.
President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (1967) The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society.
Reiner R (ed) (1996) Policing Volume II — Controlling the Controllers: Police Discretion and Accountability. Dartmouth: Aldershot.
Seigel M (2018) Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police. Durham: Duke University Press.
Stoughton SW (2014) Policing Facts. Tulane Law Review 88 (5):847-898.
Wagner B (2010) Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power After Slavery. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Wolfe P (1994) Nation and MiscegeNation: Discursive Continuity in the Post-Mabo Era. Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 36 (1):93-152.
Yarwood R (2007) The geographies of policing. Progress in Human Geography 31 (4):447-465.