Understanding 'Depolicing': Symbiosis Theory and Critical Cultural Theory

21 Pages Posted: 23 Feb 2003

See all articles by Frank Rudy Cooper

Frank Rudy Cooper

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law

Date Written: February 2003


We usually associate police officers' dis-identification with certain types of suspects with the practice of racial profiling - the systematic over policing of whole classes of suspects based on their racial status. Recently, we have seen police officers' dis-identification with certain suspects manifest itself in systematic under policing of those communities - "depolicing." Depolicing is a police response to criticism of police tactics toward racial minorities. It has two functions: avoiding further racial controversy over police tactics and threatening critics of the police.

Nancy Ehrenreich's Subordination and Symbiosis: Mechanisms of Mutual Support Between Subordinating Systems helps us understand that "beat" police officers are "hybrids" of subordination - class status - and privilege - authority on the street. Officers experience public criticism of racial profiling as a loss of their usual privilege to exert authority in relations with fellow citizens. Depolicing allows officers to exercise their privilege of discretion in a way that is beyond political control: political authorities cannot punish officers for abuses of Terry discretion if no "stop" reports are filled out. Ehrenreich's symbiosis theory is especially valuable in providing a framework for understanding the perpetrator's perspective. I have written this essay, however, because I want to say "yes, and . . ." The "and" is the need to recognize the importance of cultural context.

I argue for incorporating cultural studies into identity theory because it helps us understand how arguments about policing are translated into practices. First, we must understand that the "discourses" cultural studies methodology analyzes are not just a way of talking, but also influence ways of doing. Second, we must understand that discourses are "intertextual"; they respond to one another. Third, we must understand how discourses are related to cultural power. Discourses are the means by which individuals or groups convince others to consent to a certain ordering of society.

By merging doctrinal analysis, identity theory and cultural studies, we arrive at a series of questions that help us fully understand the practice of depolicing: (1) What social practices does a specific doctrine encourage or discourage? (2) How has the doctrine been translated into practices in specific contexts? (3) Whom does the doctrine affect as practiced in specific cultural contexts? (4) What counter-discourses emerged from the practices? (5) How did the discourses about a doctrine and its effects relate to struggles for cultural power? Calls for reforming depolicing must be sensitive to both the problems and the opportunities created by the answers to those questions.

Keywords: cultural studies, critical race theory, racial profiling, police, criminal procedure, identity, culture, race, gender, intersectionality, postintersectionality, jurisprudence, Terry v. Ohio, stop, frisk, feminist theory, 9/11, latinos

Suggested Citation

Cooper, Frank Rudy, Understanding 'Depolicing': Symbiosis Theory and Critical Cultural Theory (February 2003). University of Missouri-Kansas City Law Review, Vol. 71, 2003. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=380022 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.380022

Frank Rudy Cooper (Contact Author)

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law ( email )

4505 South Maryland Parkway
Box 451003
Las Vegas, NV 89154
United States

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