book review: Policing the City

Policing the City by Didier Fassin, Frederic Dubomy, Jake Raynal
Other Press, March 1, 2022. 112 p. 

Academic reports can be dry and difficult to absorb by those who aren’t in academia. Adapted from the essay ‘Enforcing Order,’ this ethnographic presents information in a thoughtful, accessible and creative format. It’s a fascinating exploration of law and order.

What is ethnography? Ethnography is a three-pronged social science practice. First, it involves sharing the everyday lives of those people studied over a long period of time. Second, the ethnographer establishes relationships and gradually makes discoveries, interfering as little as possible in the outcomes. Finally, it’s a writing practice that may take the form of articles , books, films, photographs to communicate their findings. 

Anthropologist and sociologist Didier Fassin spent 15 months in the mid-2000s observing an anti-crime squad in one of the largest precincts in the Paris region. The French people face many of the same challenges as those in the United States, particularly racism and police brutality against immigrants and minorities. Fassin wanted to understand the violence in these working-class, largely immigrant suburbs—“But more, perhaps, than the number of deaths, it is the police’s daily harassment of low-income groups and racial minorities and hence the experience of humiliation, discrimination, and violence, that leave the deepest marks in these communities.” 

Not only an academic, Fassin had first-hand experience as a resident of this urban community. His son was targeted by the police. In Policing the City, we see everyday routine and rituals and how police departments sustain prejudices and systemic violence against these communities. Fassin found that the police believe that judges can be too lenient and on-street punishment compensates for that. Police officers operate like vigilantes. Eight out of 10 officers were from rural areas or small towns with little experience in urban areas, leading to prejudices and leads to tensions and clashes between the police and residents of housing projects. He also observed that police have been given a lot of power and autonomy. This development led to more anti-crime squads throughout France. There needs to be greater diversity in police recruitment. In the UK, unarmed beat officers become integrated into the community. In the United States, an armed officer patrolling in a car with a limited relationship with the public is the norm. That’s the established model most everywhere worldwide. 

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