Understanding 'Depolicing': Symbiosis Theory and Critical Cultural Theory


The final version of this article is published in the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law Review, Vol. 71, 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.


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure

Date of this Version

February 2003

This document is currently not available here.