here are a number of ways to study policing but arguably the dominant approach is at some remove from the actually existing world of police practice, through an analysis of ‘things said’ about policing as well as ‘things written down’. This is especially the case for qualitative research on the police, which typically accesses the world of policing through interviews, focus groups, and surveys with police officials and rank-and-file officers, supplemented by written accounts of police work found, for example, in court cases, city ordinances, police handbooks, formal police policies, community group reports, government reports, as well as in the media. The same holds true for most quantitative research on the police, which relies on data recorded and released by police agencies, and which is treated by most researchers as a reliable representation of everyday police work. With the important exception of in situ fieldwork with police officers ‘on the beat’, which “confronts discursive propositions with actual facts, thus allowing for the unveiling of discrepancies between what is said and what is done” (Fassin 2017, 5; see also Armenta 2017), the everyday life of police work remains somewhat of a ‘trust us’ problem when it comes to relying on ‘things said’ and ‘things written down’. There is certainly something to be learned from the latter about the performative as well as affective aspects of policing, and to be clear I am not suggesting that research anchored in the above sorts of evidence is without merit. However, it is important to emphasize that doing firsthand research with police is increasingly difficult, and that studying policing via ‘things said’ and ‘things written down’ is to assume that what the police say is happening behind the ‘blue wall’ – either qualitatively or quantitatively – actually means something tangible in relation to the discretionary, nitty-gritty life of police work itself. My own experience in the field suggests 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.

The tension between ‘things said’ and ‘things written down’, and police practice, was highlighted for me in an interview I did with a police chief several years ago. The chief in question presided over a majority-minority jurisdiction and had been feted in the news for his pioneering police-community outreach efforts, especially with respect to undocumented residents. During a lengthy and animated interview, the chief discussed a range of issues related to ‘driving while undocumented’, civil rights, community policing, racism, and racial profiling. I left that meeting feeling enthused about the possibility for ‘good’ police work, and especially about ‘community policing’. A couple of years later that same department, under the same leadership, was in the national spotlight for a SWAT video posted on its website, featuring a song titled ‘Die, Motherfucker, Die!’ The video – apart from repeating the song’s refrain, ‘Die! Die! Die!’ – included footage of the department’s armed personnel carrier in action, alongside celebratory images of the Marvel Comics anti-hero, The Punisher, for whom policing is a brutal, murderous undertaking governed by a willingness to take lives without respect for the law (Coleman 2016). The contrast with how the chief had narrated his department’s practice and street ethos couldn’t have been more marked, and I was left wondering which ‘text’ spoke more accurately to the everyday life of police practices in this jurisdiction. Since then I have been increasingly circumspect about the utility of interviews, but also frankly, any form of knowing the police that is based primarily on things said or written down about policing – especially if it originates from behind the ‘blue wall’, which is frequently the case. Among other things, I see this approach as relying too heavily on a liberal conceptualization of the police – as hemmed in, and as responsive to (under duration, or otherwise), things that are codified or publicly articulated, as if words precede and determine practice.

Seth Stoughton (2014) makes this point – about the very real difference between what is said about policing and what happens when police encounter civilians – in his research on the constitutional regulation of policing. As Stoughton argues, one of the central difficulties with looking to court cases to understand the everyday, grounded world of police work is that the language and logic entertained before the courts concern “legislative facts” rather than “adjudicative facts”. The latter refer to “case specific details: the who, what, when, where, why and how of a particular suit”, whereas the former refer to “generalizations about the environment in which police services typically are delivered, statements about common police practices, and assertions about what motivates individual police officers” (2014, 849-850). As Stoughton explains, there is a significant gulf between legislative and adjudicative facts with respect to police work, and as such the courts’ overwhelming emphasis on legislative facts about police work “deserves more scrutiny” and is “deeply troubling” (2014, 851).  One excellent example of the way in which courts approach police work through a legislative lens, rather than through an analysis of actually existing police practices, concerns the dominant assumption that police work is race-neutral with respect to detention practices. As Carbado (2002) shows in his work on racial profiling, racialized markers of difference are difficult to unearth in the facts put before the courts in even those cases explicitly related to 4th amendment violations where race is very much in question. For example, in the landmark Supreme Court case Terry v Ohio (1968), which ruled that the constitutional prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure is not violated in the case of street frisks done without probable cause,  one has to read carefully before the racializied nature of the police stop before the court comes to light! Similarly, Epp et al (2014, 34-40) show that despite the fact that rookie cops are methodically taught how to stop and detain individuals on unconstitutional grounds, the courts have largely dismissed the problem of racialized (and other) pretext – not as unreal or fictional, but as essentially legally unspeakable or inaccessible before the courts. As a result, the courts end up interrogating only the expressly ‘legal’ reasons for stopping and interrogating individuals, which again is to work within a legislative universe of somehow commonsensical tropes about how police do their work.

The challenge of relying on ‘things said’ and ‘things written down’ with respect to policing is carefully and compellingly laid out in Correia and Wall’s excellent new book, Police: A Field Guide (2018).  This is an accessible and engaging book –a sort of chose-your-own adventure where each reader can wind their way through the text in ways which best suit their interests – which will be of use to seasoned police researchers as well as students new to the field. But the ways in which the book will be useful will also certainly ruffle feathers. As Correia and Wall stress in the introduction, their goal is to push scholars and activists out from under the suffocating blanket of “copspeak”: “What we think we know about police, and how we talk about the police, too often comes to us through a register patrolled by police and police reformers … Police reform speaks in a language carefully calibrated to limit our ability to understand police as anything other than an equitable force and indispensable institution … The vocabulary of police reform is a justification machine” (Correia and Wall 2018, 7). As a corrective, Correia and Wall offer “a different vocabulary, one we hope could replace the taken-for-granted definitions that depict a police view of the world” (Correia and Wall 2018, 7-8). Their focus is specifically on police violence, and on turning the tables on the manifold ways in which “copspeak” rationalizes or explains the state’s use of violence. In almost all of the nearly 100 entries in the book, Correia and Wall draw the reader’s attention to police power as constitutively violent, and as such they work against the way that police agencies and officials typically explain violence in terms of exceptional, emergency contexts, or as a response to disorder.  This opens up on to a full-blown critique of police reform, which of course entails an understanding the relationship between police and violence as contingent, or anomalous. As Correia and Wall put it, “police reform has always and only sought to improve the image of police and to shore up police legitimacy more generally. It has never sought to confront police as the lethal force it is, one charged by the state with managing poverty, controlling the color line, and ruthlessly protecting establishment and economic interests” (Correia and Wall 2018, 3).

The best reason for picking up Police: A Field Guide, and giving it serious consideration is because, in treating “copspeak” as an object of problematization, it refuses to hang an analysis of the ‘whole’ of police power on its ‘parts’.  It is a definitive feature of so much of what is said about the police, especially within the mainstream police sciences, but also in the media, that the violences that inhere in complex police bureaucracies result from ‘bad’ cops or perhaps ‘bad’ policies, meaning that the ‘whole’ is accounted for – and ultimately excused – in terms of some of its ‘parts’. Correia and Wall reject, wholesale, this interpretation by repeatedly drawing the reader’s attention to large-scale structural aspects, or realities, of policing which persist in the aggregate, and not on a case-by-case basis, despite the efforts of police reformers. For example, Correia and Wall discuss the chokehold not as a rogue, illegal tactic but as a “common police strangulation method” which cuts off blood flow, and which is supposed to stop short of rendering someone unconscious. The Eric Garner case is mentioned, as perhaps the most well-known recent case on record, but it is situated within a long history of strangulation as a police tactic (Correia and Wall 2018, 63-66).

What will also strike the reader as remarkable – and this holds for almost all the entries in the book – is the affective dimension of the book’s entries. To return to Stoughton’s work, there’s a reworking of the legislative facts of police work going on here – a quick, brief, to the fact, non-case-specific and head-above-the-weeds generalization about the environment of police practice which does not require delving into messy adjudicative facts. And so where police reformers and mainstream police scientists typically anchor police violence and misconduct to opaque and disappearing adjudicative facts on the basis of an apparently unassailable set of legislative facts about policing, Correia and Wall do the opposite. In so doing they effectively put the burden on police reformers and mainstream police scientists to show, adjudicatively, how and where their new set of legislative facts about policing are not in play.

This is a refreshing move, and one which straightforwardly breaks the log jam constructed by mainstream police scientists where the burden is on critical researchers to substantiate where the legislative facts come undone on the ground.  Policing is racialized? Prove it. This is the rabbit hole that critical researchers get sucked into by virtue of the power of legislative police facts, or what Correia and Wall call “copspeak”. And turning the evidential tables in this way is certain to make waves, especially at a methodological level, in disciplines like criminology where mainstream and critical scholars alike are overwhelmingly oriented towards documenting police violence in specific contexts in response to the legislative command to prove the exception. I also think that Correia and Wall’s commonsensical (re)definition of police work will be very useful in the classroom, given the way that students are so often already Officer Friendly’s graduates (see the definition for 'Officer Friendly' in Correia and Wall 2018, 141-144).

This said, I wonder how a vocabulary book will be taken up by its readers. Whereas Correia and Wall are primarily interested to dislodge and dethrone the hegemony of “copspeak” with an alternative lexicon, and thereby shed much-needed doubt on the reform model of policing, less attentive readers could easily come away from the book wearing a new set of legislative goggles, and thereby fall into the difficult position of (again) defining police power remotely and abstractly as a coherent and commonsensical structure, albeit from an abolitionist standpoint. For me, the value in Police: A Field Guide is that it suggests, differently, the need to return to the nitty gritty of something we might call ‘coppractice’, in order to attend to the ways in which the aspects of policing that Correia and Wall highlight in their book come into being. For example, one of the things that strikes me most about policing, if we take it seriously as an assemblage, rather than as a sutured and coherent totality subject to a neat legislative logic, is that while its violences are structural and essentially patterned, and while violence can’t be meaningfully anchored in distinct and anomalous situations or contexts, the ‘whole’ of police violence is an immanent property of its ‘parts’ in interaction. In other words, police violence can be anonymous and generalized and predictable (or a legislative fact), but because police violence is an emergent property of the many ‘parts’ that make up police bureaucracies and not because violence is transcendent to those ‘parts’ and wholly definable in the abstract. In short, my take away from this important new book is that we still need an account of policing ‘parts’ in interaction, even if we hold on to power and violence as having an overarching non-part-like reality or truth. As such, rather than recourse again to text or ‘things said’ and ‘things written down’ to explain policing, even if resolutely and productively critical, we should use Correia and Wall’s prompt about “copspeak” to return reinvigorated to the world of actually existing policing, and to not forget about the problem of police power as a practice. 


Armenta A (2017) Protect, Serve and Deport: The Rise of Policing as Immigration Enforcement. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Carbado D (2002) (E)racing the Fourth Amendment. Michigan Law Review 100 (5):946-1044
Coleman M (2016) State power in blue. Political Geography 51 (1):76-86.
Correia, D and Wall T (2018) Police: A Field Guide. London: Verso.
Epp CR, Maynard-Moody S. and Haider-Markel D (2014) Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Fassin D (ed) (201) Writing the World of Policing: the Difference Ethnography Makes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Stoughton SW (2014) Policing facts. Tulane Law Review 88 (5):847-898.