Uprooting Academic Complicity in State Violence

Image of militarized police in Ferguson, Missouri.
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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

1 Comment

  1. The whole criminal justice enterprise as a field of scholarly inquiry came out of massive federal funding through LEAA and LEEP which created academic departments to train criminal justice functionaries and do research for social control agencies. In subsequent years the domination of research funding by NIJ, and to a lesser degree the United Nations, herded researchers into projects (1) useful to the state(s); (2) defined by the state(s); and, (3) using data provided by the state(s). As was pointed out by Platt, et. al. in The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove and then by Quinney in the The Problem of Crime the whole enterprise served the interests of a repressive state. Little has changed except that there is substantially less money these days for those criminologists who are willing to sell their souls to the company store.

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