Introduction: The Perpetual Politics of Policing

Mathieu Deflem

This is a copy of the introduction to The Politics of Policing: Between Force and Legitimacy, edited by Mathieu Deflem. Bingley, UK: Emerald, 2016.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2016. "Introduction: The Perpetual Politics of Policing." Pp. ix-xiii in The Politics of Policing: Between Force and Legitimacy, edited by Mathieu Deflem. Bingley, UK: Emerald.

Readers familiar with the social-scientific literature on police and policing will recognize that the title of this volume references the famous book by colleague Robert Reiner, one of the authors in this book, concerning the role of police in society and its study from an informed perspective that discuses important dimensions of history, theory, culture, and politics (Reiner, 2010). Only slightly hiding an impertinent stealing of said title, this volume is not meant to suggest that all is the same in the world of police but that, instead, all that has been relevant before is relevant still, albeit it in different manifestations and with variable but always relevant consequences. More specifically, whatever the politics of police are, they will always involve central questions regarding the authority of police to rely on force, on the one hand, and its legitimacy from the viewpoint of the support police variably enjoy from the citizenry.

At the time of this writing it is almost too obvious to mention the special need to address questions of police force and legitimacy as almost no day goes by that problematic police conduct is brought up in the news media. All societies rely to some extent or another on formal mechanisms and institutions of social control, and the need for police as such is also recognized as a matter of course. But in the transparent age of technological visibility today, powerful institutions and agents of formal authority are also increasingly subjected to the possibility and reality that the panoptical eye is turned on them. In the United States over the past several years, issues of questionable police conduct, often discussed under the headings of police brutality and racism, have particularly been addressed in light of several high-profile cases of fatal police shootings. Legitimate or not, the number of cases involving citizens killed by police runs into the multiple hundreds in the United States each year, with indications that such cases of deadly police conduct may be underreported (Kindy, 2015). Among the most discussed of such tragic cases, mention can be made of the death of Eric Garner in July 2014 while he was being arrested by police in New York City, the August 2014 shooting of 18-year Michael Brown who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody in the Maryland city of Baltimore. All of these cases, in which the fatality was always African-American, have received much attention in the media and among the public at large and have led to protests and calls for police reform. These and other publicized acts of police (mis)conduct even brought about the formation of whole new social movements, such as the Black Lives Matter movement that was initially brought into action after the acquittal of a neighborhood watch volunteer in 2013 who had shot black teenager Trayvon Martin the year before.

Under the circumstances of heightened popular and media debates questioning the actions of police, it would be not only unbecoming but downright irresponsible for the social-science community interested in policing, norm enforcement, and social control to remain silent. Ever since Max Weber's (1922) famous dictum on the role of police in the modern state, scholars of policing in sociology, criminology, and other social sciences have developed many analytical tools needed to usefully address important societal dimensions of police (Deflem & Hauptman, 2015). This collective volume is therefore timely in bringing together sixteen analyses of a variety of issues of policing centered on important questions force and legitimacy.

The chapters of this book are grouped in four thematic parts. In Part I, four chapters are included that centrally focus on questions of police legitimacy from both theoretical and practical viewpoints. Maarten Van Craen takes the lead in tackling police legitimacy from the viewpoint of an approach marked as 'fair policing from the inside out.' Arguing from a multidisciplinary perspective, Van Craen suggests that police legitimacy can be enhanced by greater alignment of the police with citizens, but also that, internally, the role of supervisors is adequately acknowledged. Jordan Pickering and David Klinger pick up on the theme of police legitimacy by suggesting organizational innovations for police to lower the use of unnecessary force. Specifically, the authors suggest that research on organizations with low levels of errors and occupational injuries and deaths should be relied upon to transplant its relevant principles to police agencies, even when they are functionally quite distinct. Janet Ransley devotes her chapter to the idea of the policing through third parties whereby citizens can be effectively involved in crime-reducing strategies. Such third-party policing can only be efficient and legitimate, Ransley argues, when a number of conditions are met, such as carefully considering all costs and benefits and having clearly identified goals and protocols. The chapter by William Terrill, Eugene Paoline, and Jacinta Gau address police legitimacy by discussing issues of procedural justice in relation to police use of force and occupational culture. Although the authors realize their approach as yet lacks implementation, they hope their design because of its systematic nature can have a useful impact on police practice.

Part 2 of this book focuses on various issues of police legitimacy in a number of different national cultures. Leading police scholar Robert Reiner takes up his familiar and still very necessary critical stance by contemplating on the historical peculiarity of the politics of policing in Great Britain. Reiner argues that the police reform plans of the current Conservative Party government diminishes the resources and independent powers of the police, which is rationalized in a broader context of policies of neoliberalism. Turning to the country of Switzerland, Silvia Staubli shows a trend towards debates of a decreased respect of and increase accusations against the police. Rather than taking up a position in this debate, Staubli investigates foundations of police legitimacy and finds that a majority of the Swiss population does view the police as a legitimate force, a finding of benefit to inform the debate on police in the popular media. In the context of India, Arvind Verma argues, police legitimacy is generally attained despite the democratic nature of the polity. Verma argues that police legitimacy is missing in India because the police is heavily involved with corruption and violations of rights, itself a consequence of India's colonial history. Nicole Haas turns to the case of the police in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to examine police officers' perspectives on the use of force. The author finds that demographic characteristics, organizational conditions, attitudes toward citizens, and personal experience influence police attitudes. Comparing conditions in the United States and France, authors Jack Greene, Christian Mouhanna, Sema Taheri and David Squier Jones examine ways in which police institutions can improve transparency and accountability. Relying on research about police in Boston (USA) and Bordeaux (France), the authors argue that police legitimacy is also determined by, but not usually discussed in connection with, the social support roles police perform to help their communities.

In Part III, the discussion centers on questions of race and ethnicity which have been at the forefront of recent discussions, not only in the United States but elsewhere in the multi-cultural world as well. Melissa Thompson, Kimberly Barsamian Kahn, Jean McMahon, and Madeline O’Neil bring the dimension of mental illness into the equation of the problem between police and race. Relying on research in Portland, Oregon, the authors show that the race and mental health status of suspects affects citizens’ perceptions of police use of force. Charles Klahm, Jordan Papp, and Laura Rubino undertook an analysis of media reports concerning the impact of race on perceptions of police. Their findings show that explicit racialization of relevant stories was relatively limited, contrary to expectations. Centering on the link between concerns for crime and anti-Blackness, Aaron Roussell and Jason Dunbar critically examine aspects of the broken windows theory. They argue that the theory emphasizes disorder so much that it neglects deindustrialization, integration, over-policing, and a history of anti-Blackness in the United States.

The final part of this volume focuses on aspects of police technology and organization. Ashley Farmer and Ivan Sun examines how so-called citizen journalism with the use of video cameras affects legitimacy among local residents and police officers. Relying on interviews, they find that local residents are more willing to obey police commands, while a lack of trust in the police will hinder willingness to cooperate. Kirk Miller also examines the use of videos to document police interaction with citizens and the role it has played to propel contemporary debates on policing. Miller's research shows that high-profile shootings of minorities by police play a significant role in the diminished legitimacy police today face. Turning to organizational dimensions, Massimiliano Mulone takes on the case of private security and argues that legitimacy is lower in the case of private policing institutions. However, Mulone also argues that the gap with public police is narrowing and that private police do not ned to rely on legitimacy as much given its more confined role. Maria Haberfeld, finally, addresses important aspects of police recruitment, selection and training. Haberfeld shows that these important elements of the police force are typically not conceived as dimensions of police professionalization, with all due dire consequences for the role of policing in the 21st century.

  • Deflem, M. & Hauptman, S. (2015). Policing. In J.D. Wright (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Second Edition (Volume 18) (pp. 260-265). Oxford, UK: Elsevier.
  • Kindy, K. (2015). Fatal police shootings in 2015 approaching 400 nationwide. The Washington Post, May 30, 2015. Retrieved from:
  • Reiner, R. (2010). The Politics of the Police. 4th edition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Weber, M. ([1922] 1958). From Max Weber. New York: Oxford University Press.

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