Violent Symbiosis: The History of CCJ's Role in Legitimizing Racialized Police Violence.

Date22 September 2022
AuthorPhillips, Ryan

The protests fueled by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor during the summer of 2020 provided another catalyst for conversations about racialized police killings in the United States. For at least the second time in a decade, the nation's attention shifted toward calls for police reforms. However, any real conversation about resolving racialized police violence must contextualize the role of Criminology and Criminal Justice (CCJ) in legitimizing police and perpetuating harm. Through a historical analysis we seek to demonstrate the symbiotic link between CCJ and police. By tracing August Vollmers early role in the development of the field to the current state of funding and research, we demonstrate that CCJ is inextricably linked to racialized police violence.


The recent uprisings in Minneapolis and Louisville following the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have renewed calls for police abolition. This conversation has received more attention, particularly in so-called mainstream circles since the Ferguson uprising in 2014. One somewhat limited aspect of this discussion is the complicity of the academic field of criminology and criminal justice (CCJ) in the violence of the criminal legal system. CCJ emerged in the tradition of what is popularly known as the enlightenment, a project intended to promote the supremacy of the western world and the need for colonization (Agozino 2003, Horkheimer & Adorno 2007). CCJ exists in a symbiotic relationship with the criminal legal system; police terrorize poor communities of color while CCJ provides them legitimacy through reform-minded research and policy suggestions (Seigel 2018).

CCJ's own research, in addition to media and advocacy organizations, documents the police's history of brutality and oppression of poor and/or Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). Despite this, CCJ continues to act as policing's tool of legitimacy. Criminologists deflect from questioning policing's existence, and instead, reproduce the same redundant research (i.e., do police disproportionately harm BIPOC?).This paper outlines the historical context of CCJ and its role as a tool of police legitimacy with the purpose of illuminating the magnitude of orthodox CCJ's harm in supporting racialized state violence. The importance of highlighting the violence inherent in CCJ is to open spaces for criminological scholars to accept responsibility for their own complicity in the criminal legal system. By doing this we can challenge the structures of our work in the discipline, the university, and the community.

The Racist History of Policing in the United States

Organized policing in the United States emerged following periods of social unrest in the 1700s (Barlow & Barlow 1999). The first police departments were direct descendants of slave patrols, which consisted of mostly white men across the socioeconomic spectrum surveilling and terrorizing BIPOC (Conroy 2006, Du Bois 1904, Potter 2013) As the United States expanded by stealing land from Indigenous people, the state implemented what Estes et al. (2021, 9-10) refer to as "frontier police" who "were the scalp hunters recruited into Indian Country to murder Apaches in the 1840s and 1850s," and who today exist alongside police in bordertowns. Once policing was formally established in the United States, it was modeled after the London Metropolitan Police (LMP). Throughout the 1800s, these patrols were set up and formalized by state and local agencies. When contextualizing the history of slave patrols with the colonial history of the LMP, it becomes clear that policing as an institution was built from its beginning to enforce racialized hierarchy and quell dissent (Vitale 2017).

After the Civil War, many police agencies participated in various types of violence against BIPOC. For example, police were active participants in lynchings across the country during the Jim Crow Era (Equal Justice Initiative 2017). In 1898, after a coup against the mostly Black government in Wilmington, North Carolina (which was considered the only successful coup within the US empire), 250-300 white militiamen killed dozens of Black people in the city and were then deputized to "restore order"(Zucchino 2020, 227). During the US empire's expansion southwest, anti-government ranger units developed and were responsible for various types of egregious violence toward BIPOC (Cox 2008, Grandin 2016, Hixson 2013, Reft 2019, Teague 2018,Tyx 2018). The ranger units were eventually organized into police agencies under the umbrella of state control. These informal ranger units also emerged in California following increased controls of the US border in the late 1800s. Along the California/Mexico border, "[s]mall informal units were mobilized to limit unauthorized entry of Chinese immigrants" (Vitale 2017, 176).

Policing further expanded its power with the development of the Bureau of Investigation in 1908. Later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI),it continued the historical legacy of racialized violence and surveillance to quell dissent (Weiner 2012). The Bureau actively worked to surveil US citizens and disrupt various social movements throughout the mid-1900s. They also surveilled Russian immigrants and raided the Russian People's House in New York City in 1919 following the Russian Revolution (known as the Palmer Raids) (Speri 2019). Leading up to the civil rights and antiwar movements, the FBI focused predominantly on terrorizing, arresting, and disbanding groups like the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. They also facilitated the assassination of Fred Hampton in collaboration with Chicago Police, blackmailed Martin Luther King, Jr. in attempts to have him commit suicide, and persecuted leaders like Angela Davis, Leonard Peltier, and Assata Shakur, among others (Aptheker 1999, Churchill & Vander Wall 1990, Sanchez et al. 1999, Shakur 2001).

Another federal policing unit, the US Border Patrol was created in 1924 via the National Origins Act (Vitale 2017). The US Border Patrol was vital in racializing Mexican people at the US-Mexico border. Border Patrol officers "used the monopoly on violence granted them as immigration law-enforcement officers to both maintain and manipulate the world in which they lived by policing Mexicans as a proxy for policing illegals" (Hernandez 2010,69).This monopoly on violence included revenge killings and other brutalizations. Overall, their role was to enforce the precarious labor conditions of migrants and the boundaries of whiteness. Today, immigration enforcement is one of the largest growing sectors of policing and has evolved in the violence it invokes (Vitale 2017).

In response to the civil rights movement, rising crime rates, and the diminishing legitimacy of police, tactics and policies were enacted to convey policing as a race-neutral institution. Using the dog-whistle rhetoric of war on crime and drugs, police were given ideological cover that reinforced their legitimacy while they continued with their violence (Alexander 2012). Police put communities of color under siege by increasing militarization, SWAT raids, and arrests, much of which was justified as a response to the Central Intelligence Agency-led crack cocaine explosion (Webb 2011). Using civil asset forfeiture laws, police were given free rein to loot the homes and communities of BIPOC under the slightest suspicion of drug activity (Alexander 2012).

In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act with bipartisan support. The bill gave states authorization to further criminalize activities that increased the contact between police and citizens. For example, it instituted mandatory arrest laws for domestic violence offenses, which led to more arrests of women of color for defending themselves from abusers (Crenshaw 2012). It provided funding for 100,000 more cops and instituted grants that further encouraged them to arrest people for drug crimes (Lopez 2019). Overall, it increased BIPOC contact with police, leading to more violence and additional traumas connected to mass incarceration (Crenshaw 2012).

In the late 1990s and early 2000s legislators instituted new racialized policies such as the 1033 Program and the USAPATRIOT Act (Balko 2014, Browne-Marshall 2013). The 1033 Program increased local police department access to military weaponry. Since 9/11, police have received over $34 billion in military equipment, which is most frequently deployed in BIPOC communities (CBS News 2014, Mummolo 2018).This equipment is also often used to police dissent, as we have seen since the 1033 Program's inception (Cobbina 2019, Cobbina et al. 2019, Fernandez 2008).The USA-PATRIOT Act provided police nearly unlimited power to search personal property, including homes, businesses, and various personal records (Evans 2002). Research shows that the law disproportionately targets Muslims and Middle East and North African people for detention and arrest by police (Pitt 2011). Beginning around 2010, the narrative on policing and surveillance began to shift as more attention was drawn to the disproportionate effects of these policies on BIPOC.

Since the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 after the acquittal of Trayvon Martins killer and the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, a national discussion has developed that focuses on the number of people police kill every year. (1) Most conversations center on police reforms through increased funding and training and ignore the historical context of policing in the United States. Moreover, and for the purposes of this article, it absolves the CCJ academic discipline of its role in legitimizing the police in the popular conscience.

The History of CCJ in the United States

The emergence of American CCJ begins with the Berkley, California, police chief August Vollmer. Prior to his work as police chief, Vollmer...

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