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here is a metaphor—a repeating image—threaded throughout Police: A Field Guide. “What we think we know about police,” we write “and how we talk about police, too often comes to us through a register patrolled by police and police reformers.” Cops patrolling everywhere and not just our streets, but also the very language we use to talk about police. This metaphor suggests a general way in which we argue police should be understood everywhere. “Readers throughout the world,” we write, “will see similarities between the police prowling these pages and the ones patrolling their streets.” Every police agency is the same as every other police agency, and it is violence that binds police together across space and time. The issue isn’t that some police rely more or less on the use of firearms than other police, but that all police engage in legally-sanctioned violence and coercion in everything police do. There are no bad apples; there are no good cops; there are just cops, specialists in the use of violence, fabricating order. Cops don’t necessarily impose or reproduce an already existing order, police actively fabricate “good order” via the capacities for prerogative violence (Neocleous, 2000). Policing is the fabrication of order, the racialized and sexualized socio-spatial control of poor people. This is our topic.
But the concept and institution we call “police” largely has lost this meaning. When police is invoked, it is usually a reference to a cop in uniform. Historically, however, police was a term used to explain the means through which order is achieved. When we talk about police, in other words, we’re talking about order, and the ways order is produced and reproduced in highly unequal ways. Police is not some boring sideshow to more interesting and critical analyses of capitalism, patriarchy, racism, gender oppression, and settler colonialism. Critical scholarship, however, has surprisingly little to say about police. Consider how few theories there are that take police itself as the object to be explained or critique. This, in our view, has been a mistake.
We thank Mat Coleman for his interest in taking up and considering the arguments we make in this book and for organizing a thoughtful engagement by a distinguished group of scholars at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers in New Orleans. In addition to Mat, Jordan Camp, Jenna Loyd, Ian Shaw, and Emily Kaufman offered critical reviews in New Orleans and here in this review forum. We are grateful for their interest, and smart, critical reviews.
This notion of police as the source of social order, as we argue in our book, is clearly not a view shared by all of our reviewers. In a section of Jenna Loyd’s review she considers our entries on “rape” and “body cavity search”, and writes that, “While articulating the relationship between (hetero)patriarchal power and the police…I find it troubling that the authors do not consistently draw feminist conclusions throughout the book. For example, the Rape entry concludes, ‘As long as we have cops and capitalism, we’ll have Officer Holtzclaws’ (50). I have to insist that as long as we have heteropatriarchy and racial capitalism, which is to say gendered and sexualized racism, we’ll have state sexual violence.”
Loyd replaces our “cops and capitalism” with “(hetero)patriarchy and racial capitalism” as a way to argue that Police: A Field Guide fails to account for the latter when considering “state sexual violence.” In other words, our phrase “cops and capitalism” ignores (hetero)patriarchy and racial capitalism in its analysis of “state sexual violence.” In response we point to our entry “rape”, for example, which draws on the work, and relies on the conclusions, of Ida B. Wells, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Naomi Murakawa. Or “Body Cavity Search”, where we explicitly draw on feminist analyses of law in which the “legal sanctioning of police rape in the form of the body cavity search reflects a profound institutional indifference to sexual violence against women in all its forms.” As we make explicit throughout the book, the order that police fabricate is a gendered and racialized order fabricated through the use of police sexual violence against women, not least of all trans women and women of color.
We certainly agree with Loyd that any analysis of “state sexual violence” that ignores (hetero)patriarchy and racial capitalism would be incomplete. But let’s not forget who commits most of this “state sexual violence.” It is police, by and large, that is responsible for the routine daily acts of state sexual violence. Police: A Field Guide insists on a grounded analysis of “state sexual violence” as the violence work of police. In police, we find a logic and language of (hetero)patriarchy and racial capitalism transformed into a particular and violent practice called policing. When we talk about police in the field guide we are always already talking about a patriarchal, prerogative power. As Jordan Camp notes in his commentary,
“following the lead of Andrea Ritchie and others, the authors describe how policing is animated by a “patriarchal logic,” one which naturalizes rape, murder, and the disappearance of Black and Indigenous women. Patriarchy and sexual violence are not simply about the abuse of power, they argue, but intrinsic to the very functioning of police.”
When we call police a prerogative power in the book, we are at once identifying police as a patriarchal power (Dubber 2005), and this is because the state’s prerogative power has always been operationalized in highly masculinist terms (Brown 1995). The same could be said for racial capitalism, a phrase we use throughout the book. When we talk about police we are at once talking about racial capitalism, specifically how racist police violence is a key modality in which capitalism is routinely forged.
Loyd offers suggestions for additional entries. “To elaborate a more trenchant feminist critique,” she writes, “I suggest a few entries and analytical threads to the online version of Police: A Field Guide: carceral feminism, trafficking, U-Visa, gender-responsive prisons, #sayhername, chemical endangerment, inadequate supervision.” Ian Shaw makes a similar suggestion when he asks if the book shouldn’t have included also “a section on how to survive and thrive beyond the police.” These suggestions, we think, are spot on and, at the same time, reflect a misunderstanding of what Police: A Field Guide sets out do. Every entry in Police: A Field Guide examines a police term or concept. These are concepts that come to us from police and reinforce the authority of police, and are terms police and its allies rely on when seeking to legitimize the police powers. Cop terms such as discretion, justified, the public, security, jurisdiction, and others are terms defined, and controlled by, police. When we use these terms as police intend, we do the work of legitimizing police for them. Police: A Field Guide sets out to demystify these terms, and to offer alternative, radical definitions. Body Cavity Search, for example, is a common police tactic, defended and expanded by courts as necessary for security and safety. In our book, we define it as state-sanctioned rape. We would love to read a book that included terms like carceral feminism, gender-responsive prisons, and the others suggested by Loyd. It strikes us that this is precisely the work that scholars of police and prison abolition should contribute to. But Police: A Field Guide is not a guide to abolition, or to anti-police violence movements. It is a book about copspeak.
Why do we need a book, you might ask, that pulls back the curtain on cop terms and cop concepts? Because, as Camp explains in his review, copspeak is a language
“that depicts police as a natural and inevitable response to crime, disorder, chaos, and savagery. Copspeak, they argue, appeals to the fears and anxieties of middle and upper class whites rather than the concrete grievances of Black, Brown, Native, and working class communities most impacted by police violence. This effort at decoding is particularly essential since copspeak is widely treated as legitimate by journalists, scholars, and even some activists. Correia and Wall encourage readers to refuse not only copspeak’s ways of seeing the world—but also its authoritarian solutions to crisis.”
We agree with Ian Shaw that a politics of police abolition must imagine a world without police, all while living in a world full of police. But the central premise of Police: A Field Guide is that the abolition of the ‘police we have’ will remain a distant dream as long as the language we use to talk about police comes to us from police—a language that sees threats and emergencies everywhere and finds police as the source of, and indispensable force for, “civilization.”
Emily Kaufman is skeptical of this approach. She doesn’t take issue with our analysis of the police power, but rather finds troubling absences in our book. “Yet despite the book’s thorough unpacking of taken-for-granted practices and language, the treatment of gender, sexuality, and sexual identity is incomplete.” She notes limited references in the book to “gender non-conforming people.” Kaufman argues that “Trans lives are rendered… as lives not worth mourning, and apparently, not worth mentioning in this book.” This is a difficult criticism to respond to without sounding defensive, but here it is: the deaths of trans women are worth mourning and are worth mentioning. And we do both in the book. And not in passing. Our “mentions” are not relegated to footnotes, or in throw-away sentences. They are at the center of entries throughout the book, entries such as “Rape”, “Body-cavity Search”, “No Human Involved”, “Nightstick”, “Crime”, “Broken Windows”, and “The Public,” among others. Our entry on “Rape” relies on Andrea Ritchie’s (2015) analysis of police violence directed at women and LGBTQ people of color. Our entry “No Human Involved” draws on the work of Sylvia Wynter (1992) in order to focus attention on the everyday patterns of police violence against women, including women of color and trans women. Police: A Field Guide does not ignore the role police play in enforcing and producing gender norms via their violence, it specifically names this as an essential element in the logic of police.
Police: A Field Guide is exactly that, a field guide on police. This is a book that sets out to take police power seriously, as a specific kind of power that needs further explication and critique. Hence our “field guide” approach is not a gimmick, but a way to theorize the police power by taking apart the routine lexicon and logics of police. This requires a discussion of the various victims and targets of police violence. Police violence is not random, obviously. Yet our point throughout the book is not simply that there are victims of police violence and we should be outraged by that victimization and in solidarity with those targeted groups. But also, if we’re going to stop that violence, we need a deeper analysis of police as a project. As we explain in the book, the victims of police violence – men and women of color, Indigenous people, the unsheltered, trans men and women, the multiracial working class and poor – are structurally positioned by police as a “threat” to “good order.” Police see “threats” everywhere, and no doubt some populations are deemed more serious threats by police and therefore have different experiences with police. Our job is to name this targeting, and those victims in the book. But it must also be more. We need an analysis of police that centers a rigorous critique of police under racial capitalism.
A minor point, but worth mentioning, is Kaufman’s misreading of our engagement with Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore and Mariame Kaba (2014, for example), whose critiques of police reform and calls for non-reformist reforms we highlight in the book. We share Gilmore’s and Kaba’s calls for non-reformist reform and we find their overall analyses of police reform brilliant. As we argue in the book, not everything “under the heading of police reform should simply be dismissed.” We criticize standard “reformist reform” in the last paragraph of the entry on “police reform”, but a typo in the book renders “reformist reform” as “non-reformist reform” and thus makes it appear as though we are criticizing, rather than agreeing. This is the worst kind of typo—one that transforms agreement into disagreement. But despite the typo, a close read of the entire argument as it unfolds in the preceding paragraphs demonstrates our shared, not divergent, view of Gilmore’s and Kaba’s position.
Mat Coleman’s review engages what he sees as the methodological implications of the book. He writes about his own field experience, explaining that “there can oftentimes be a pronounced gap between the world of policing as it actually exists and the ways that police power is spoken about as well as written about.” What cops and those who study cops say about policing, and what cops actually do (coppractice) are two different things. One strength of Police: A Field Guide, he explains, is that it brings readers into the world of coppractice, while at the same time refusing what we might call cop “epistemology.” He wonders, however, if “less attentive readers” might miss this move entirely, and shift perspective from an existing and abstract reformist view of cops to a still abstract but now abolitionist perspective of police. Both views are troubling, he thinks, for the way they miss the on-the-ground, everyday coppractice of U.S. policing. His answer is to encourages scholars “to return to the nitty gritty of something we might call ‘coppractice’” so as not to miss “the world of actually existing policing, and to not forget about the problem of police power as a practice.”
We agree with Coleman about the importance of concrete, historical analysis. Our hope for Police: A Field Guide is that it works directly against abstractions that somehow divorce police from concrete reality. There’s nothing abstract, after all, about a nightstick crack to the skull. This is why it’s called a “field guide.” It offers a concrete analysis of the police power as state prerogative, or the normalization of emergency powers in the violent constitution of racial capitalist order. It offers a diagnostic of actual police power – its violent mandate, its animating logics, its racist and sexist animus, its indispensability in defending property lines and color lines. The book peels back the skin of police to expose what lies rotten beneath. We don’t find “bad apples” below the skin, we find police power itself an inherently rotten political project.
Coleman’s comments are particularly useful in highlighting what we hope is a strength of the book: as Coleman describes it, policing as a violent “whole” and not isolated “parts” (i.e. specific tactics, strategies, paradigms, mandates, etc). This might seem strange given that Police: A Field Guide consists of almost 100 separate entries and can be read as a glossary of the various “parts.” The entries are cross-referenced. In each entry readers will find other entries rendered in bold, with corresponding page numbers provided in the margin. This is not some gimmick. The purpose is to stitch together the various “parts” of policing in order to reveal the “whole” of policing: racist state violence designed to protect and serve the interests of racial capitalism, settler colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacist order. In our view, any analysis of police based on the “parts” of policing is on shaky ground if it fails to connect the scrutinized part to the foundational violence structuring all police presence or activity. This is a point police sociologist Egon Bittner (1970) has made, and we try to radicalize this basic, though often ignored, fact by pushing it to its logical and empirical conclusion. All policing is racist state violence, even the “part” of community policing, and policing is always an expression of, and conduit for, the larger political economies of the settler state.
One way to tease out the implications here is to briefly consider a story Coleman tells from his own fieldwork: after interviewing a sheriff in the US south, Coleman walked away feeling “hopeful” on the possibility of “good policing”, since the cop expressed heartfelt concerns about police problems. Just months later it was revealed that this same department was carrying out all sorts of cruel celebrations of racialized police violence. Coleman explains that this experience engendered a great skepticism of “any form of knowing the police that is based primarily on things said or written down about policing.” But what if Coleman entered the field anchored with a view of the “violent whole” of police power? This is what we set out to do in Police: A Field Guide, to inoculate readers from the mystifying language of copspeak, so that the horror of policing (coppractice) comes fully into view. A cop explaining policing, as the Sheriff did to Coleman, is always the seductive narrative we call “copspeak. And it is designed to be seductive, appealing, and reassuring. Sheriffs and police chiefs become sheriffs and police chiefs because they’re good at copspeak. They’re good at admitting to some problems in the various “parts” of policing as a way to protect the “whole”, that rotten core at the heart of police. They are good at admitting a little bit of evil to hide a whole lot of evil.
Bittner E (1970) The Functions of the Police in Modern Society. National Institute of Mental Health.
Brown W (1995) States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Dubber M (2005) The Police Power: Patriarchy and the Foundations of American Government. Columbia University Press.
Gilmore R and Gilmore C (2008) Restating the Obvious, in Sorkin M (ed) Indefensible Space: The Architecture of the National Insecurity State. London: Routledge: 141-162.
Kaba M (2014) Police ‘reforms’ you should always oppose. Truthout, December 7. Available at https://truthout.org/articles/police-reforms-you-should-always-oppose/ (accessed 1 October 2018)
Neocleous M (2000) The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power. Pluto Press.
Ritchie A (2015) Say her name: What it means to center Black women’s experience of police violence. Truthout, September 18. Available at https://truthout.org/articles/say-her-name-what-it-means-to-center-black-women-s-experiences-of-police-violence/ (accessed 1 October 2018)
Wynter S (1994) No humans involved: an open letter to my colleagues. Forum H.H.I. Knowledge for the 21st Century 1.1: 42-73.
Here we are directly drawing from Roland Barthes’ notion of inoculation.