Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Police Anthropologist: An A**hole?



Time to read

4 Minutes

Post by Paul Mutsaers, a postdoctoral researcher at the Tilburg School of Humanities, Tilburg University, The Netherlands. He was previously employed by the Police Academy of the Netherlands. Paul is on Twitter @MutsaersPaul. This is the final installment of Border Criminologies’ themed week on the Anthropology of Police organised by Paul.

The police anthropologist is a relatively new creature populating the social sciences and humanities departments of universities in Europe, North America, and beyond. As might be expected from an anthropologist, it has already begun to cover quite a bit of the earth’s surface, including countries such as France (Fassin, Karpiak), Brazil (Caldeira, Denyer Willis, Robb Larkins), the United States (Garriott, Simpson), India (Jauregui), South Africa (Hornberger), and the Netherlands (Çankaya, Mutsaers). One of the key characteristics of the police anthropologist is that s/he is engaged and commitment to the world of policing. S/he isn’t afraid of public debate and takes the task of translating academic work into the pragmatics of everyday policing very seriously. Despite our recent appearance, some of us are already working, for instance, in government positions from where we advise on law enforcement and criminal justice issue. We may therefore justifiably talk about a ‘public’ anthropology of policing (see work by Fassin and Mutsaers, Simpson and Karpiak).   

Photo by Paul Mutsaers
However, this isn’t to say that we can all skip merrily off into the sunset. Police anthropology has also become the object of much politicking and, sometimes, mockery. In this blog post, I give three examples: Didier Fassin’s Enforcing Order, Graham Denyer Willis’s The Killing Consensus, and my own A Public Anthropology of Policing. Interestingly, all three of us have been critical, albeit in a highly nuanced fashion, of police and the criminal justice system more generally. Fassin addresses the overrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the French criminal justice system, a phenomenon which we can understand with Ines Hasselberg in terms of a postcolonial penal system. Denyer Willis critically discusses the structural and institutional failures of the public security system in Brazil. Finally, in my own PhD project I tethered the Dutch police to the notion of ‘thickening borderlands,’ arguing that the police are complicit in arousing a feeling of ‘deportability’ among migrants in the Netherlands. Now, let us briefly turn to the reception of these works and embrace Fassin’s call to take the ‘afterlife’ of (police) ethnographies as a genuine object of discussion and inquiry. Considering the scope of the post, this occurs with simplifications compared to the authors’ own reflections, which are definitely worth reading.

Fassin spent 15 months with an anticrime squad operating in the deprived Parisian suburbs, scrutinizing interactions between police and (mainly) ethnic minority youth through the lens of the vernacular and action of the day. However, applying for a follow-up project in a different police region he was confronted with the closed and secretive nature of the French police. He explains: ‘I came up against a ban on the continuation of my work. A ban couched in “civil” terms, but imposed with a persistence that left little doubt as to the determination to prevent me from completing a study that had been initiated under the best auspices.’ When his study was published (and widely mediatized) several years later, police comments were rare due to an embargo on police voices in the media. Those who did respond argued that the described practices of racial profiling and discrimination were individual incidents rather than a structural problem. We are immediately reminded of Maurice Punch’s comments on police misconduct, which is automatically framed by police as a ‘rotten apple’ problem, prioritizing a human failure model of deviance, even if such deviances are clearly of a systemic and endemic kind―a ‘rotten orchard’ problem.

Denyer Willis’s The Killing Consensus is a valuable contribution to the debate on statehood and sovereignty. The book is a product of intense ethnographic labour that took place in São Paolo, that Brazilian megacity where crime and violence run rampant and where routinized killing takes place involving police and organized crime groups such as the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC). Denyer Willis discusses the ‘security vacuum’ that has left urban residents to devise their own security solutions. It’s in this light that he understands collectives such as the PCC―they are also security-oriented collectives, which sometimes make the streets of São Paolo safer with their clandestine justice systems. His op-ed in the New York Times on his research project led to a number of surprisingly positive rank-and-file responses. Street cops felt they had been given a voice. However, the governor refused to respond and when another article appeared on the online news site Universo On-Line, a rebuttal of the Public Security Secretariat was published that framed Denyer Willis in a highly inappropriate way as someone creating ‘myths’ and romanticizing criminal life.

Photo by Adarsh Sewgobind
When my own dissertation on law enforcement and migrants in the Netherlands was published it went viral in the Dutch media. Just like Denyer Willis, I was approached off the record by many police officers who acknowledged the validity of the study, despite its critical nature. In contrast, the upper layer replied in a different manner. Immediately after the press release I was approached by a spokesperson of the National Police (NP), who tried to nudge me to use different, less critical wording. In police press releases and newspaper articles, the Chief of the NP refused to accept my conclusion that police discrimination is a structural problem―in contrast, he talked about ‘incidents’ (steering clear of Punch’s rotten orchards idea). Specific instruments to counter ethnic profiling―such as ‘stopforms’―which I had negotiated on a local level were all of a sudden taboo. When the Minister of Security and Justice was questioned in Parliament with respect to my dissertation and the stopforms specifically, he replied in writing that such stopforms are damaging police capacity and performance and as such he ignored the core message of the dissertation: bureaucracy is needed to slow down and keep police in check, to prevent ‘sloppy’ police work on the basis of stereotypes, and to work without regard to person (Max Weber’s sine ira et studio principle).

In his much-cited 1978 text on police typifications, John van Maanen distinguishes ‘The Asshole’ as someone who doesn’t accept the police definition of the situation. Obviously, he’s referring to street encounters, but we may use this ‘ideal type’ to think about critical anthropologists in the police’s sight. Are we the assholes? As argued at the beginning of this post, not necessarily. Some police anthropologists now have a hand in police policy and practice. On the other hand, others have suffered under the yoke of police power. We have been denied access, we have been accused, and we have been mocked. Considering the nature of policing, this is a serious problem requiring continuous attention. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Mutsaers, P. (2016) The Police Anthropologist: An A**hole? Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/03/police (Accessed [date]).

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