• Film the Police Anyway: Questioning the “Ferguson Effect”

    photo of protester holding a sign that states, "film the police anyway"
    photo of protester holding a sign that states, "film the police anyway"

    Photo by Ashley K. Farmer in Washington, D.C., December 2014

    It is no secret that police officers are dealing with changes and increased media attention to their profession, especially since the expanded use of technology that has prompted citizens to record them more often. Current FBI Director James Comey suggested these changes have occurred due to police-citizen encounters being caught on film with increasing frequency, which has led to a vocal backlash and intense scrutiny against officers, making them reluctant to do their job and combat crime. He called this the “Ferguson Effect”.

    The suggestion that citizens filming police is the reason police are hesitant to do their job is not only unfounded but lacks reasoning. The real issue is that if police are fearful their tactics are going to be scrutinized, perhaps those are questionable tactics that do not align with the letter of the law. The implication, as some have pointed out, is that the police cannot do their job without using excessive force or racial profiling. It is unfortunately unsurprising how Comey described police scrutiny. Throughout interviews conducted with police officers, many referred to the “Post-Ferguson Era” – a time when citizens are expressing their discontent with police more often and as part of a movement that challenges the legitimacy of the police institution.

    Surely public scrutiny has always been a part of policing, and the filming of police has perhaps only raised awareness about police-citizen interactions. The public, of course, could argue that excessive use of force has been around since long before Ferguson, and bringing injustices to light is an important way to push reform and change tactics in policing. Being videotaped should not make an officer question how they do their job. As one police chief told me, officers should act as if they are always being recorded even if they think no one is watching. This was repeated many times by other law enforcement officers who noted that if you are doing your job the way you are supposed to be doing it, there should be nothing to worry about. Yet while many officers seem agreeable to being filmed by the public and wearing uniform body cameras, there remains some uneasiness about letting the public film their everyday activities.

    While numerous police departments are beginning to implement body worn cameras in an effort to promote transparency, this differs significantly from videos captured by the public, as in most cases officers are in control of turning uniform body cameras on/off. Indeed, this is one of the primary concerns citizens have about body cameras – the question of who is in control of creating and disseminating video evidence and facts. The issue of legitimacy is crucial here. Citizens still feel the need to videotape the police, even when uniform body cameras are in use.

    Several high-profile incidents have become a matter of public discourse, although officers seem hesitant to denounce the questionable tactics used in these videos (for example, with Eric Garner and Walter Scott). Officers routinely noted that they would not “Monday morning quarterback” the officer involved because videos only show one point of view, and oftentimes this one-sided view does not include what lead up to the incident. As one officer said regarding Eric Garner: “…[W]hat was actually placed wasn’t a full, what they would consider an actual chokehold…But when you wanna sit there and argue, you wanna not comply with what you’re told…You see how one little incident of selling loose cigarettes just turned into a huge incident now because you…just cooperate!” Comments like this align with the notion that police are ‘outsiders’; they are different from other citizens and the public does not understand police work.

    Ultimately, being videotaped should not make officers question their job or how to do it. Following the law, respecting the rights of citizens, and adhering to policies of the department would mean there is no reason to question how they perform their public duties. However, as one officer stated, poor tactics can unfortunately lead to justifiable actions. Perhaps this is the real change we should be paying attention to – not necessarily how the police departments attempt to justify their actions, but the poor tactics that led up to those actions in the first place. Regardless of how the police perceive what is happening, the public should film the police anyway, as it remains an important part of the dialogue on police legitimacy.

    Ashley K. Farmer
    Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice
    University of Delaware

  • Uprooting Academic Complicity in State Violence

    Image of militarized police in Ferguson, Missouri.

    Image of militarized police in Ferguson, Missouri.

    States are violent. Violence in fact may be the foundation of all state power; at their core they tacitly and explicitly wield violence (both symbolic and real) in order to ensure compliance, cooperation, and control. But of course we all know from many different theoretical schools of thought that state power and legitimacy also involves a very complex array of more subtle techniques, arrangements, and narratives that if employed properly, will minimize the state’s use and/or reliance on crude forms of violence.

    Till recently, it was quite fashionable in academic circles to focus almost exclusively on the matrix of late-capitalist controls – as if state violence were receding or becoming less relevant. And when I first began writing about state violence in the form of the military becoming more police-icized, and the police becoming more militarized (1994) – I was very much a lone voice resurrecting what most social analysts felt was an antiquated view of the late-modern capitalist state. State physical violence, or the threat thereof, simply wasn’t that relevant.

    The trend I documented and highlighted was a little noticed yet highly consequential shift in state governance: a blurring of the distinctions between police/military, war/crime control, external/internal security. One of the hallmark features of the modern nation state – the attempt to bifurcate its violent core into a military institution targeted at external security, and a civilian police force designed to “protect and serve” internally – was eroding in significant ways. The state’s attempt to soften (or perhaps just conceal) its violent core was unraveling.

    The media reported extensively on the research I produced throughout the late 1990s and 2000s. I assumed that this type of longitudinal data documenting this significant and consequential shift should have impacted the academic community – particularly the field of Criminology and especially Police Studies. Instead, near complete silence (except for just a few detractor crickets). And the trends I exposed pointed clearly to an aggressive, punitive shift in U.S. policing – complete with DOJ-funded Armored Personnel Carriers, militarized stop and frisk procedures, and nightly drug contraband raids on private residences done by “tactical teams” modeled after the U.S. Military Special Operations playbook.

    Obviously the public, and even a few academics, have recently taken notice of these punitive trends, not just with policing but our entire crime control industry. Remarkably we have politicians on the left and right calling for criminal justice reform, and I’m being invited to guest speak all over the country to conservatives, liberals, and radicals. In my opinion, the militarization phenomenon has changed little over the last 20 years (with the exception of 9/11 accelerating trends well under way).

    I have a long list of items that deeply bother me about this trend, and the way in which this trend has been either ignored or portrayed. However, the one that keeps haunting me, and to be candid frustrates me almost as much as the trend itself (not really I guess), is the role Criminology has played in concealing and perpetuating police militarization. A litany of generously funded “academic” endeavors have gone a long ways toward both pushing the police institution in a militarized direction, as well as providing academic legitimacy for long-entrenched punitive proclivities.

    I have been investigating and attempting to uproot the strong likelihood that mainstream criminology has been complicit in the police militarization trend. I will begin to present this line of thinking to this forum, and to academic audiences in writing and through guest-speaking. The academy must be held accountable for assisting the state in so brazenly reasserting its violent mandate. And I greatly appreciate this forum – Uprooting Criminology – for helping me to think these issues through on paper. I would appreciate any feedback or help that you all might want to provide. More to come.

    Peter B. Kraska
    School of Justice Studies
    Eastern Kentucky University

  • Police Shootings: A New Problem or Business as Usual?

    street art stencil image with police officer surrounded by the words "police everywhere justice nowhere"

    street art stencil image with police officer surrounded by the words "police everywhere justice nowhere"

    Over the past year that has been a heightened awareness of police brutality of the ugliest form: police officers who shoot and kill unarmed citizens. It has been suggested by many that this is a new phenomenon. Others suggest that police across the United States routinely kill unarmed people and that those killed are most often young Black men. Although statistics are not readily available on this point, the best estimate is that on-duty police officers in the United States shoot and kill approximately 1,100 people each year. Almost all of those shooting are found to be justified. That is, the officer had a reasonable apprehension of an imminent threat of deadly force or serious bodily injury being imposed against the officer or some other person. Until recently, investigations into fatal police shooting have relied upon officers’ veracity in making statements and writing incident reports as the basis for a determination that in officer’s use of deadly force was justified.

    During the calendar years 2005-2014, only 47 police officers were charged with murder and/or manslaughter as a result of an on-duty shooting where an officer killed someone. To date, only 22% of these officers have been convicted. Juries seem reluctant to second-guess the split-second life-or-death decisions of police officers to employ deadly force in street encounters. So far in 2015 there have been 12 police officers charged with murder and/or manslaughter as a result of on-duty shooting. That is more than in any single year during the prior decade (although 11 officers were charged in 2007).

    When an officer is charged with murder and/or manslaughter there are often one or more factors present: another officer gave a statement indicating that the shooting was not justified, the victim was unarmed, part or all of the incident was captured on a video recording, or the victim was shot in the back. It does not appear that there is a higher incidence of police officers shooting and killing someone without justification in recent years. It does appear, however, that the citizenry, media, and even the courts are much more skeptical of police claims of justification after having shot and killed someone.

    Philip M. Stinson, Sr.
    Criminal Justice Program
    Bowling Green State University


    Today we are featuring a post from guest blogger Hal Pepinsky, who is known as the co-founder of ‘Peacemaking Criminology.’ Hal retired in 2009, but blogs regularly about crime and criminal justice at http://pepinsky.blogspot.com/ where this piece originally appeared.

    My recent critique of NYPD-based, CompStat enabled, “broken windows” police (“’Broken Windows’ Unjustified,” May 6) rests on two decades of trying to understand what “crime” and “criminality” statistics mean, from a law-school class in 1967, through the study “Explaining Police-Recorded Crime Trends in Sheffield (UK)” (Contemporary Crises, 11, pp. 59-73, Jan. 1987; pdf’s of this and other articles cited here available on request to those who can’t get them online).

    The class on “crime and society” was taught by the Executive Director of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, James Vorenberg, and the Director of its Task Force on Assessment of Crime, just before the Commission issued its reports in 1967. There we were introduced to national victim surveys, the first of their kind. Our primary question on the final exam was to imagine oneself to be a congressional intern advising on the significance of rising police-reported crime rates. I wrote that the connection between what police reported and what actually happened in communities they policed was unknown. I got one of my two worst law-school grades in that course, which inspired my choice of sociology dissertation topic several years later.

    For my dissertation, in a “high-crime” area of Minneapolis, I gathered over 80 items of information, starting with the date, time, and code given in the call for service, describing and detailing any interactions with complainants/witnesses, ending with what offense, if any was reported. In 373 calls for service during 500 hours of patrol, on all shifts, over a period of about one year, 97 offenses of all kinds were reported. Ninety-three of those reports occurred after the dispatcher had named an offense in the call, where the police founded a complainant’s naming of any offense, while in at least 22 calls where the dispatcher had not named an offense but complainants had described one, no offense reports were filed.

    In sum, when dispatchers sent police to check on offenses and they found corroboration of any offense, they created crime statistics. Without that signal from dispatchers, police never reported offenses, regardless of what complainants reported. The police, meanwhile, believed that their decisions were simply based on the evidence at hand, and were surprised by the results. The study was published as “Police Patrolmen’s Offense-Reporting Behavior,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 13 (Jan. 1976, pp. 33-47). And so I learned that police discretion whether to report create crime statistics can rest heavily on factors independent of “the true” incidence or rate of crime.

    I am grateful to my dissertation adviser, Marvin Wolfgang, for the access he gave me to his copious files of reprints of articles on the history of crime measurement from Europe to the United States. I supplemented my Minneapolis findings with a critique of “The Growth of Crime [Measurement] in the United States” (Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, Jan. 1976, pp. 22-30). I traced how the size and political weight of “the crime problem” had grown, from judicial data beginning early in the 19th century, to newly touted victim and self-report survey data. This comparison of measures of crime evolved into a book, Crime Control Strategies: An Introduction to the Study of Crime (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1980), where a chapter at a time I “evaluated chances of controlling rates” of convictions, arrests, police offense reports,” victimization reports, self-reports, and recidivism, plus a chapter on cost-benefit analyses. In each category, compared choices of rate numerators and denominators, type I and II error factors in applying statistics using the measures, political considerations in implementation, and side effects of policies based on those data, where I traced trends in victimization and differences in self-reporting to changes in interviewing and in respondents’ relationships with data collectors. Fundamentally, crime and criminality trends reflected trends and differences in the behavior of the data gatherers and in how the data providers perceived themselves in the eyes of their interrogators.

    This was followed by two longitudinal studies of police crime reporting. The first was an analysis of police offense reports and arrests, with William Selke: “The Politics of Police Reporting in Indianapolis, 1948-1978,” Law and Human Behavior, 6 (Dec. 1982: 329-342). Police data were supplemented by news reports from the Indianapolis Star and News. When two-way radios in patrol cars were introduced in the latter 1950s, “index” crime reports shot up. Criticized for failure to curb mounting crime, the Indianapolis police turned their focus to making arrests, which rose as reported offenses declined. Then public complaints that police weren’t taking offense reports and weren’t clearing offenses by arrest. In the uproar, offense reports swung upward while arrests declined, until public alarm over police losing control of crime swung the trends back. I labeled these recurring cycles “the roller coaster effect” of law enforcement reporting. This brought home to me the inverse relationship between trends in index offense rates, and arrests, most of which are for public order offenses rather than “serious crime.”


    In the Sheffield study cited above, I had great assistance of the police in gathering extraordinarily detailed monthly printouts of crime recording records, and in interpreting patterns there from 1974-1979. In this and in trends from earlier years, a variety of demographic changes failed to correspond to social and economic shifts. However, with a surge of more highly educated recruits, during their first two years of probationary status, reports of “notifiable” offences climbed dramatically. It was followed by a wave of criticism that the police “clear-up” (crime solving) rate had fallen below the normally acceptable fifty percent. Patrol constables were reportedly instructed to avoid taking nuisance reports for offenses that could not be cleared. AS IN INDIANAPOLIS, records in Sheffield show an ensuing rise in arrests on one hand, in offense reports being “no crimed” (wiped off the books) more, and in previously reported offenses being “cleared” as “taken into consideration” (TIC-ed) during suspect interrogations, while notifiable offenses dropped, and clear-up rates rose back to acceptable levels.

    I concluded the Sheffield study by calling for a moratorium on using counts of crime and criminality to evaluate and implement criminal justice policy. I had also envisioned how police and community members together could formulate and apply performance evaluation criteria that included a variety of ways police could “protect and serve” communities (in “Better Living Through Police Discretion,” Law and Contemporary Problems, 47, no. 4, 1984, pp. 249-267), for police and civilians to build trust, respect and growing sense of safety and security together. Not only does “broken windows” policing endanger police and civilian lives alike; statistical evidence that it works is illusory.

    It took me a long time to give up on finding any connection between reported crimes and the lives of people in the communities from which reports are taken, and has led me instead to focus on ways human relations deteriorate or grow safer and more dependable in parallel fashion at all social levels, in all social settings (a paradigm laid out in Peacemaking: Reflections of a Radical Criminologist, University of Ottawa Press, 2006; final page proofs for free download at www.critcrim.org).

    I am aware that how centrally grounded criminological knowledge, and criminal justice policy and practice, are grounded in the assumption that lower crime rates and more crime control activity are evidence that the criminal justice system works. I want colleagues especially to know that I have not arrived at my rejection of the validity of this research construct lightly.

    See related posts:
    May 6 – “Broken Windows Unjustified”
    January 6 – “Good News from NYPD”

    Hal Pepinsky
    Professor Emeritus
    Department of Criminal Justice
    Indiana University

  • Public Relations and the Velvet Glove of Policing


    In a semester that hit the ground running with discussions of the killings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Michael Brown, James Boyd and others at the hands of police, it was with great joy that I brought news of London, Kentucky’s Officer Justin Roby’s altruistic act into the classroom.  Officer Roby used his discretion and bought baby formula for a single father caught shoplifting it rather than taking him to jail. He explained how as a father he could relate to the man’s predicament. The story was widely shared on social media sites like Huffington Post and made national news like CBS, FOX, etc. Next week, I will mention Deputy Casey Caudill from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office just a few miles further up the road. Caudill, responding to a report of a grass fire, found a homeless man attempting to stay warm.  Instead of making the decision to arrest he took the man a county away and gave him money for dinner.

    Caudill’s action could surely be critiqued on a certain level by those familiar with King and Dunn’s (2004) concept of police-initiated transjurisdictional transport (PITT), but I suspect that overall the general response to his decision in this situation is a positive one.  These stories, and their propensity to go viral, may tell us a great deal about public perception of the “ought of policing” in America.

    In the wake of all of the bad news related to the police institution in the US, it’s nice to hear some uplifting and positive stories of individual officers protecting and serving in such ways.  Much like Tom Waits, “I want to believe in the mercy of the world again.”  The thousands of comments that rain admiration and support on these officers and express a sort of public sentiment that “this is what police SHOULD do” and/or “if we only had more officers like these” provide an important addition to the ongoing discussion about what police should NOT do.

    Still, with my educational background in sociology and criminal justice, it is difficult for me to draw too much inspiration from these accounts.  Anecdotal evidence would be the charge from many of my mentors, and I’d have to agree.  Regardless, it begs the question (that I hear from undergraduate students every semester): “But what about the good things police do?” Often, this question is accompanied by an informal analysis of the “if it bleeds it leads” nature of news media. The idea being that public opinion of police is lower than perhaps it should be due to the fact that the media only bring us the bad news.  Brutality, misconduct, killings and corruption make for far better headlines and ratings than random acts of kindness.  Or at least that is the assumption.

    But, is it so?

    Do the media tend to focus on police negatives to the detriment of positives?  Much research seems to indicate that although the relationship between the police and newsmakers is sometimes tenuous that more often than not it is a positive one.  Police benefit from the power to help craft narratives on crime and criminal justice.  Even in situations where officers kill citizens the resulting coverage generally gives the benefit of the doubt (and often the first and last word) to police or their representatives (Chibnall, 1975; Hirschfield and Simon, 2010; Mawby, 2010).

    In fact, with major investments in public relations by major city police departments it is the police side of the story that usually predominates. That’s easy to understand. Reporters are given packets on an almost daily basis explaining and justifying the “official story” and steering media attention to issues the police wish to raise. Individual citizens have no such power to plead their side of the story. In addition, cutbacks to news divisions by media corporations means that corporate news is more dependent than ever on pre-packaged “stories” from state sources and occasionally NGOS.

    To quote another late modern bard, Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”  Perhaps an exception to the rule can be seen in social media.  Activist organizations critical of police violence, misconduct and corruption such as Cop Block, Filming Cops, and others have hundreds of thousands of subscribers to Facebook and Twitter feeds that broadcast the latest bad news in the world of American policing (Cop Block has over 1.4 million “likes” on Facebook as of this blog).

    Whether or not good news or bad news predominates either the old or new forms of American news media is beyond the scope of this blog.  However, the utility of good news in policing will hopefully provide some way to conclude.  Is it possible, for example, that reports of Officers like Justin Roby and Casey Caudill going viral could create a sort of contagion effect?  Might we see more examples of similar situations in the news soon?

    Call it “copycat criminal justice.”

    Perhaps police officers might exercise such discretion in order to reap the rewards that come along with being clickbait and/or YouTube famous.  Which makes for fun philosophical discussion of whether doing the right thing for the wrong reason is still the right thing, I suppose.  Still, if random acts of police kindness multiplied along with tweets, likes or shares of such situations, I for one would be inclined to help spread the good word.

    Then again, perhaps this good news does more harm than good?  In a historical context where national level political action, discourse and analysis is focused on issues of police violence and repression might these anecdotes be the equivalent of the “not all men” trope where conversations of patriarchy and sexism are concerned?  The historical analysis of American policing titled The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove by Crime and Social Justice Associates (1982) described how public service programs and functions that legitimate police enable them to increase the level of violent repression in society. They refer to such programs and functions as the velvet glove of policing, which can help to hide the underlying iron fist that represents the repressive nature of the institution.

    According to killedbypolice.net, at least 110 people have been killed by police so far this year. In response to calls for civilian oversight, St. Louis police have threatened work slowdowns similar to those implemented by the NYPD in the aftermath of the killings of Eric Garner and Akai Gurley. Instead of enacting the kinds of reasonable and necessary reforms demanded by concerned citizens in New York City, the NYPD has instead unveiled plans to police protest with machine guns and to raise the charge for resisting arrest to a felony.  Iron fist, indeed.

    As stated above, “I want to believe in the mercy of the world again.”  In order for that to happen, as Tom Waits wrote, “You’ve got to make it rain.”  Perhaps good news on American policing is about to run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream? If so, I hope that it is a reflection of a new reality and not simply another velvet glove.

    Carl Root
    School of Justice Studies
    Eastern Kentucky University


    Chibnall, S. (1975). The Crime Reporter: A Study in the Production of Commercial Knowledge. Sociology, 9, 49-66.

    Crime and Social Justice Associates. (2006). Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove. In The Police and Society: Touchstone Readings (3rd ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

    Hirschfield, P., & Simon, D. (2010). Legitimating police violence: Newspaper Accounts of Deadly Force. Theoretical Criminology, 14(2), 155-182.

    King, W., & Dunn, T. (2004). Dumping: Police-Initiated Transjurisdictional Transport of Troublesome Persons. Police Quarterly, 7(3), 339-358.

    Mawby, R. (2010). Chibnall Revisited: Crime Reporters, the Police and ‘Law-and-Order News’ British Journal of Criminology, 50, 1060-1076.

  • Blood on Many Hands


    Protests have sprung up around the country, indeed the world,in response to the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Kajieme Powell and many others.  As a result, police executives across the nation spearheaded a conversation with government and the public about how to reform the institution of policing to ensure that such tragedies can be avoided in the future.

    Oh wait, that didn’t happen.

    Instead, a Cleveland police union President was given the spotlight and the microphone to lambast Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins for exercising his First Amendment rights and to declare the shooting of 12-year old Tamir Rice justified.  Since, Jeffrey Follmer has been lampooned on the Daily Show and voted out of his position.

    Follmer’s logic seemed to be that since Cleveland police provide security for the Browns, that Hawkins should not have disrespected them by wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford” onto the field.  As it turns out Follmer is not alone in his disdain for any discourse critical, or even skeptical, of the police interpretation of recent killings, corruption, etc.  Also taking full advantage of the current attention to such matters is Pat Lynch, President of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) in New York City.  Lynch has accused the NYC mayor of “throwing cops under the bus” and the PBA has recently encouraged officers to sign a waiver that reads, in part: “I, as a New York City police officer, request that Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito refrain from attending my funeral services in the event that I am killed in the line of duty.”

    This tension came to a head as officers turned their backs on the mayor and Chief Bratton at a press conference following the fatal shootings of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos Saturday.  A statement from Lynch proclaimed that “There is blood on many hands, from those who incited violence under the guise of protest all the way to the mayor’s office at City Hall,” and went on to exclaim how “those who allowed this to happen will be held accountable.”  A further statement allegedly from the PBA declares the NYPD to be a “wartime department,” and asserts that officers are to “act accordingly.”

    In an article for The Guardian, Steven Thrasher uses Mbembe’s concept of “necropolitics,” dealing with who has the power to kill in order to explain the interconnectedness of recent police violence and these recent acts of violence against police.  Police are in a unique position in that their violence is socially sanctioned and legitimated by the state.  The outrage over the grand jury decisions in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has challenged the venerated position of police violence, ultimately challenging the institution as a whole in the minds of some.

    These challenges have put police on the defensive.  Decades of militarization, shifts in policing strategy, and a “war on drugs” exacerbated by a “war on terror” have created a culture within the police of combat with the society they are charged with protecting.  It is no wonder then that representatives of the police would rather express rage at their critics than dismay at the culture that fosters citizen outrage.  Police have been “at war” with the public for decades; recently the public has chosen to “fight back” with protests and direct action.  The tragic murder of two police officers as part of one man’s killing spree (let us not forget that his first victim was his ex-girlfriend who is as of this writing in critical condition, but expected to live) doesn’t negate the largely peaceful protests and reasonable demands of police critics.  Nor does the seemingly senseless violence committed by Ismaaiyl Brinsley negate the very real anger and frustration felt by communities of color, people with mental illness, and the poor and working class at their treatment by police in this country.

    As the protesters have tried for months to demonstrate, these issues are bigger than the actions of just one man.  They are systemic and systematic parts of the way in which policing operates in America.  If we are to move beyond this moment, we must make peace despite declarations of war and turn rage into positive action for change.

    Carl Root
    School of Justice Studies
    Eastern Kentucky University

    Stanislav Vysotsky
    Sociology, Criminology & Anthropology Department
    University of Wisconsin – Whitewater

  • Police Violence, Racism, and the State: Essays Related to the Ferguson and Staten Island Grand Jury Decisions and Subsequent Protests

    We’d like to give the first and last word to someone whose voice (and ability to talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand) should be remembered in times like these:

    In November, many of us attended the annual American Society of Criminologists conference. This year it took place in San Francisco, California with a theme of “Criminology at the Intersections of Oppression,” which was fitting (or ironic) since San Francisco is one of the most vivid illustrations of inequality and injustice in the United States, indeed the world. Still, we got to converge on the city with some of our favorite criminologists from around the world and it was good.  There were several tributes to the late, great Jock Young and at least through one set of loops and spirals around the program a strong sentiment of “a moment for critical criminology” and of the importance of engaging with some sense of “left realism.”  One of the first panels of the week, entitled “What’s Left?” discussed the renewed relevance of a radical criminology in times like these and alluded to important collaborations between reform and revolution.  One particularly salient line was “we’ve got to realize that it is not counterrevolutionary to support policies that can free 1,000s of people from prisons and jails.”

    In spite of the overwhelming social and political injustice and inequality all around us, or perhaps because of it, there was a strong sense of the optimism of the will almost in spite of the old pessimism of the intellect.  Maybe it was due to this sense that radical and critical perspectives and analysis are crucial in combatting the kinds of social problems we find rapidly increasing all around us?  Einstein said that “those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act, and in that action are the seeds
 of new knowledge.”  We here at Uprooting Criminology certainly believe in planting seeds as much as hacking at the roots. So, in that regard we offer a series of blogs that attempt to apply some of those perspectives and analyses to current collective actions against the state’s role in perpetuating those problems.

    Jock Young encouraged us to revisit C. Wright Mills, and especially the concept of “personal troubles and public issues”.  He called it “the criminological imagination”. When we see thousands (millions?) take to the streets to protest the structural inequalities and injustices embodied in the micro-level interactions between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, Eric Garner and Daniel Panteleo, Tamir Rice and Timothy Loehmann, and many others we can’t help but think that perhaps the criminological imagination of a nation is slowly, but perhaps surely, reawakening.  Likewise, we can imagine the possibilities should this be the case.

    “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” – Arundhati Roy

    What follows is a summary of the reactions and analysis presented in this blog over the last few weeks.

    In “The Day After: Confronting Political Policing in Ferguson” Carl Root summarizes the relevance of an earlier Critical Essay by Victor Kappeler on the promise and aftermath of the 1960s protest movements.  Carl points out the pattern noted by Kappeler that the hope of the civil rights and antiwar movements were met with increasing state violence and control.  The situation seems to be replaying itself in the aftermath of grand jury decisions in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner with heavy police presence and the deployment of National Guard troops in Ferguson.

    The raw emotion of the moments before and after the Ferguson grand jury decision is captured beautifully in Deborah Landry’s piece “Flash Bang Policing.”  In place of the often dry material of scholarly analysis, she offers music and the reminder that the “nostalgic notion of the ‘good cop’ never existed.”

    Gary Potter provided a critical summary of the Ferguson grand jury decision in “The Ferguson Grand Jury and the Coercive State.”  He systematically demonstrates the unwillingness of the criminal justice system – in the form of the office of the prosecutor and the Ferguson police – to adequately pursue this case.  The analysis points not to individual failures, but to the systematic (and systemic) use of state violence to uphold white supremacy and a racial order throughout this nation’s history.

    Most recently, Carl Root shared his personal experience with police use of force in “Police Violence and PTSD.”  This highly personal account points to the ease with which police turn to violence in order to achieve compliance and the traumatic effects it has for victims.  His piece also locates his survival and subsequent ability to successfully challenge the state in white privilege.

    Back in September, Richard Thomas dispelled myths about equality in the American criminal justice system and Carl Root offered some supplements to the Ferguson Syllabus. Shortly thereafter, Danielle McDonald urged us to talk about Ferguson, and Kishonna Gray critiqued the way that the “Boogeyman of blackness” is a spectre haunting American policing, and offered suggestions as to how this might be addressed. 

    We invite you to return to this page or the main blog index for our continuing analysis and response to the ongoing issues of police violence and police racism.  There is no better way to end than how we started.

    Carl Root
    School of Justice Studies
    Eastern Kentucky University

    Stanislav Vysotsky
    Sociology, Criminology & Anthropology Department
    University of Wisconsin – Whitewater

  • Police Violence and PTSD

    Uncle Sam image: I want you to care about PTSD.

    In May 2009, I was a victim of police violence.  Initially, my encounter with two officers seemed to be one of a failure to communicate.  Unfortunately, this issue escalated quickly and as more officers arrived I experienced nearly every stage of the “use of force continuum.”  Even after being handcuffed and placed in the backseat of a police car, I continued to be assaulted with fists, pepper spray and a TASER.  The next morning at the county jail, a pretrial officer informed me that I had been charged with 3 misdemeanors: alcohol intoxication, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest and 1 felony: assaulting a police officer.  Having committed none of these crimes, I “lawyered up” and fought the charges.  The grand jury chose to indict me on only two of the charges, which were then subsequently dismissed by a District Judge with prejudice.

    After the criminal case was over, I brought my own charges against the officers, their supervisor, and the City that gave them authority.  The confidentiality agreement I signed mandates that all I can really say about how that turned out is that “the matter was resolved.”

    Legally speaking, I suppose that is the case.  However to say that “the matter was resolved” still stings a bit to this day.  After the beating, and during both the criminal and civil parts of the case, I was treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  All of the major symptoms were present — fear, bad dreams, flashbacks, hyperarousal, anxiety, anger, the whole bit.  By extension, my family and friends were vicariously traumatized, none more so than my wife who witnessed the whole event all while trying, in vain, to utilize conflict resolution skills learned through her career as a nurse.

    Still, after a few years had passed I was able to look back reflexively on my experience and to think about how it might be similar to, and different from, others’ violent encounters with police.  Drs. Jeff Ferrell of Texas Christian University and Wilson Palacios at the University of South Florida helped me turn this exercise into an autoethnography that became my first peer-reviewed publication.  We called it an exercise in cathartic criminology and cultural victimology and titled it “Brutal Serendipity.”  Part of the article dealt with negotiating the victim identity, and the way many victims of violence find strength by instead claiming a survivor identity.

    It was earlier today while reading Twitter posts associated with the #crimingwhilewhite hashtag that the extent of my serendipitous survival became most evident. I hesitate to call it a privilege because shouldn’t it be a human right to expect not to be beaten, or worse, by those sworn to serve and protect us? Still, when seeing the news surrounding Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford and others, I must admit that I feel quite fortunate to be alive.

    And today, on the anniversary of the murder of Fred Hampton by Chicago Police and in the wake of the non-indictment in the killing of Eric Garner by Officer Daniel Panteleo of the NYPD I think about Dr. King’s statement about how “a riot is the language of the unheard.”  Likewise, I wonder where the social psychologists are with regard to translating this language and interpreting its meaning as it pertains to police legitimacy, or the lack thereof, in communities repeatedly oppressed, silenced, and traumatized by police violence.  I think about the anger, the fear, and the anxiety I felt after a severe beating and for months, even years, afterward and I can relate to Michael Brown’s stepfather’s blurting out “burn this bitch down” and Esaw Garner’s “Hell, no.”

    What I cannot wrap my mind around, no matter how hard I might try, is how much more exponentially traumatic such experiences must be when compounded by generations of systemic and systematic brutality and oppression.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “reliving the trauma over and over” is a major symptom of PTSD. “Some people get PTSD after a friend or family member experiences danger or is harmed” and “The sudden, unexpected death of a loved one can also cause PTSD.” Also, “Children and teens can have extreme reactions to trauma” and “Sometimes large numbers of people are affected by the same event.”

    While I would like to believe that current events and their associated protests and proposed reforms will lead to the kind of social change that could give whole populations the possibility of becoming survivors, rather than victims, of state violence…I am hardly optimistic.

    Instead, I think of my own privilege.  My attorney said more than once “if anyone has a chance to win a case like this, it’s you.  You’re not the usual suspects.”

    In America, “the usual suspects” is a phrase chock full of racial and class-based bias.

    In America, “the usual suspects” are 21 times more likely to be killed by police.

    In America, a camera documenting excessive force by departmental standards leading to homicide as declared by a coroner is not sufficient to indict.

    Not when the victim is one of “the usual suspects.”

    Apparently, “the usual suspects” category even includes 12 year olds.  Hell, even 2 year olds.

    I would go on, but I’m feeling that old familiar fear, and like so many others in this traumatized nation right now, #icantbreathe.

    Carl Root
    School of Justice Studies
    Eastern Kentucky University

  • The Ferguson Grand Jury and the Coercive State

    Juxtaposed images of Mike Brown and Darren Wilson

    There are so many obvious things to say about the grand jury investigating the Michael Brown shooting that I was reluctant to write this piece because they are so egregiously apparent. But in the past few days I have been stunned by the amount of confusion among friends for whom I have respect. That confusion was created by the media, the police and the prosecutor. So I am compelled to make a few observations from the Grand Jury report itself.

    First, this was without doubt the strangest presentation of evidence by a prosecutor in the history of grand juries. It is the prosecutor’s responsibility to present the evidence which demonstrates probable cause that a crime was committed, not to present the evidence for the defense nor to prove guilt. In this case the prosecutor:

    1. Allowed the person being investigated to testify, although he did not ask him relevant questions about whether Michael Brown was running away or had his hands up when he shot. He allowed Darren Wilson to comment at great length about his personal fear of large, African American males and asked him leading question after leading question, apparently fearing he would get his story wrong.
    2. Presented contradictory eyewitness testimony. Some might think that fair until you read the grand jury report. He failed to ask relevant questions almost half of the time and he presented evidence from two witnesses who he knew were lying (see below).
    3. He did not present relevant forensic and medical evidence and failed to point out egregious violations of police procedure.

    Let me be clear about that last point. The police investigation was a farce:

    1. Darren Wilson was allowed to drive himself back to the police station alone.
    2. He washed up before being photographed. It is interesting to note that on the police station surveillance video he appears to be unharmed at all. But after “washing up” a small bruise appears on the right side of his face.
    3. Darren Wilson bagged and logged in his own evidence.
    4. Police interrogation of Darren Wilson was not taped.

    To say that all of these are gross violation of police practice is an understatement. But it gets worse. Wilson testified that Brown struck him while he was in his SUV and therefore he feared that he would die from the blows being administered. First of all, the hospital report cites a minor bruise on Wilson’s face. I and many of you have been punched over the years and looked much worse than the police photograph of the alleged injury. Second, if Wilson was sitting in his SUV Michael Brown would have to have been sitting on his lap to strike him on that side of his face. Third, it is possible to throw a jab through the open window of a vehicle but not a haymaker. Fourth, of those six witnesses who were asked whether Brown approached the SUV, two stated it was Wilson who grabbed him and pulled him toward the vehicle. Another five witnesses said it never happened and fourteen eyewitnesses were never asked the question by the prosecutor.

    The prosecutor never pursued the issue of Wilson’s apparent lack of preparation and inept police procedure either. Wilson testified that he couldn’t find his mace. Well, where was it? It goes on his holster where every other police officer carries it. Wilson testified he forgot his Taser. Really? To say that a police officer forgot a weapon is at best an unbelievable anomaly. He was driving an SUV, a very large vehicle with a gas pedal. Are we truly to believe he was defenseless? And finally, when he did shoot he was a considerable distance from Michael Brown. Surely he learned in the police academy how to move out of danger.

    The medical examiner did not even diagram or measure the crime scene because he said “I thought it was obvious what happened.” What?!? As Cyril Wecht, one the best forensic investigators in the country said, the physical evidence actually presented makes the case clearly a homicide. So it appears that what is obvious depends on whether you have the slightest idea of what you are doing.

    To me the eyewitness testimony is relatively clear. I present it below.

    Question Eyewitnesses answering yes Eyewitnesses answering no Eyewitnesses who did not now Eyewitnesses not asked the question by prosecutors
    Was Michael Brown running away from Darren Wilson when fired upon? 15/54% 5/18% 0/0% 8/29%
    Did Michael Brown put hands up when fired open? 16/57% 2/7% 3/11% 7/25%
    Was Michael Brown kneeling when fired upon? 7/25% 6/21% 3/11% 12/43%
    Did Michael Brown charge at police car or police officer? 6/21% 5/18% 3/11% 14/50%

    There are several key points to be made from the eyewitness testimony. First it is clear that Michael Brown was moving away from Darren Wilson and had his hands up. Therefore, he posed no threat to the police officer. Second, the suggestion that Michael Brown charged the officer or his SUV is weak at best. It is actually even weaker than the numbers suggest because a careful reading of the testimony of two of the witnesses answering in the affirmative revealed that one of them wasn’t even there and another admitted that she was suffering from mental illness, had racist beliefs and often believed things that turned out not to be true. In addition, the implication of the question was that Michael Brown was attacking the officer, but two of the witnesses said the opposite, that Darren Wilson grabbed Michael Brown and pulled him to the SUV. Third it is clear that the prosecutor had no interest in determining the truth because he failed to ask relevant questions to eyewitnesses 25-50% of the time. It could be inferred that he knew their answers would not help him avoid an indictment.

    The prosecutor did everything possible to avoid an indictment even though probable cause, which is not guilt, made an indictment a slam dunk.

    But, the real issue here is not Darren Wilson or the grand jury. The point here is state violence. We live in a society in which the only response to social crises is massive state violence and coercion both at home and abroad. We have destroyed the social safety net; we have forced young people, the poor and the unemployed into low wage jobs with little or no job security. Socially excluded and marginalized populations now dominate the social structure, particularly in urban areas. These groups become the targets of the law and the police. Urban areas are segregated into secure, protected “gated” locations and “wild zones,” areas beyond the capacity of the state to control or regulate. Everyday life looks more like the 1850s rather than the 21st Century. A frenzied war on its own population becomes the last gasp of a dying system of state sovereignty. The desperate foraging for short term profit and capital becomes the last gasp of an economic system that can no longer expand, no longer produce, and must therefore consume itself as its only source of wealth. The United States in late modernity has entered an era of “destructive self-reproduction” where it eats itself to sustain its failing life. Crises and economic dislocations have become permanent features of the system, rather than episodic crises like the Great Depression. These crises are spreading across both time and space creating an endemic, permanent crisis. And society’s response is a pervasive fear of the mythical “other” and pervasive state violence under the color of law as the only response. It is virtually impossible for the contemporary American state to respond to the politics of rage with any policy other than repression and the use of coercive state power.

    Gary Potter
    Professor, School of Justice Studies
    Eastern Kentucky University

  • Flash Bang Policing

    Angry and inspired by several cases of senseless violence against youth, I wrote this song as an attempt to critique how we talk about ‘heroes’.

    As I write this blog post about this song, it is 15 minutes before a grand jury in Ferguson will announce if it has decided to lay charges against Darren Wilson in the August shooting of Michael Brown. Although the verdict has been passed down, officials are holding off on the press release until 8pm, prime time viewing: not a coincidence. Flash bang grenades make for better TV in the night time.

    I offer this song to suggest that the nostalgic notion of the “good cop” never existed, except in our cultural imagination. Nostalgic ideals about “good cops” and “bad kids” prevents us from thinking about these undeniable patterns as systematic violence. Yes, it is messy thinking…

    Certainly mass media has changed since the “good old days”: social media and mainstream news accounts circulate, refract, escalate and curate those narratives that burn on the least amount of fumes. And when all this comes to rest, please remember this: “Lyndsay Duncombe@lyndsayd: Hearing first calls of ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ across from #ferguson police station. Still more media than protesters. #cbc.”

    Deborah Landry, PhD
    Department of Criminology
    University of Ottawa