Excerpted From: Osagie K. Obasogie and Peyton Provenzano, Race, Racism, and Police Use of Force in 21st Century Criminology: An Empirical Examination, 69 UCLA Law Review 1206 (January, 2023) (239 Footnotes) (Full Document)


ObasogieProvenzanoCriminology, as a field, has had longstanding partnerships with law enforcement. We can see this history with our home institution, the University of California at Berkeley. August Vollmer, the City of Berkeley's first Police Chief, was instrumental in creating the University's first criminology program in 1931, which became a School of Criminology in 1947. By the late 1960s, the School began to deviate from its origins as an extension of law enforcement, with some faculty taking a more critical approach that questioned the role of power and identity in the uneven application of criminal law. The perceived radicalism underlying this shift ultimately led the University to close the School in 1976. What is important to note from this saga is that the School of Criminology at Berkeley became untenable the very moment that it began to question, challenge, and move away from its roots in and relationship with professional law enforcement.

This connection between the field of criminology and various aspects of law enforcement is not uncommon. Indeed, it characterizes many aspects of contemporary criminological research. While the moment of opposition within Berkeley criminology that led to its disbandment was exceptional, many other schools of criminology maintained the status quo in continuing their close relationships with police--a dynamic that persists to this very day. This has given rise to a carceral sensibility within an academic field thought to provide neutral and dispassionate empirical assessments of crime and criminal behavior in law and society. In light of this transparent, yet pervasive perspective embedded within the discipline, important questions endure on what this means for how scholars in the field understand and articulate criminological phenomena.

One issue that has gained increasing public attention in the past few years is police use of force. The brutal treatment of countless Black and Brown people captured on video has led to a national uprising, with protests and social movements calling for change. Academic fields such as law, sociology, and public health have widely acknowledged not only the harm of police violence in our communities but also the racially disproportionate impact on Black people and other communities of color. However, there is little systematic knowledge about how the field of criminology approaches this issue. Given the known racial injustices involved with police violence, even less is known about how criminologists conceptualize the roles of race and racism in use of force situations. As the discipline that is thought to be the place where police and policing are most carefully studied, this is a curious gap in the literature. It is in this context that we attempt to provide an initial assessment of the criminological literature to better understand how these scholars research the multi-dimensional issues of race, racism, and police use of force.

Part I of this Article describes our research question and the methods we used to examine the existing literature. Part II provides a thorough examination of our findings, where our qualitative examination of the data shows significant deficiencies in how the field understands the history of race, racism, and police use of force, the theoretical models that motivate the research, and the methods used by criminologists as they engage this work. Part III then extends this discussion to reflect on the broader implications of criminologists' posture towards research on police use of force, highlighting the remarkable shortcomings and misframings that occur due to the limited ways that race and racism are conceptualized. We then conclude with a discussion on how to move this research forward in a more productive manner.

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This Article offers an empirical illustration of long-standing critiques of the field of criminology, notably the absence of analyses that center race and racism as foundational elements of the justice system. Despite this long history, a critical discourse on race, racism, and police use of force has remained peripheral to the discipline. Nicole Van Cleve notes that “the field [of criminology] continues to ignore how race and racism define criminal justice institutions and their norms of practice.” Van Cleve's intervention and call for a DuBosian Criminology draws our attention to the ways that “criminologists continue to examine African American involvement in the criminal justice system as the inherent social problem of their field and one which they seek to ‘solve.’ Solving the problem of ‘black criminality’ is a major preoccupation of the field; thus crime statistics and their interpretation perpetrate racist beliefs and practices.”

Our dataset and analysis illustrate the consequences of this orientation. By ignoring race and racism, mainstream criminologists studying police use of force and publishing in top journals produce scholarship that upholds the status quo of policing by rationalizing tactics that inflict violence and harm on communities of color. Our work also allows us to identify the scope of inquiry for 21st century criminologists who engage in research on police use of force. Inside, we see conversations about implicit bias, to the exclusion of explicit racism. We see place- and behavior-based variables wherein race is a latent category, which forecloses a conversation about structural racism. We see police-based data presented as unequivocally legitimate, while certain crowd-sourced databases are discredited. Finally, we see an emphasis on quantitative studies, to the exclusion of qualitative studies that center and validate the lived experiences of Black Americans.

Contemporary conversations on police use of force are largely rooted in the belief that administrative policy revisions driven by quantitative measures of existing data will bring about the changes necessary to reinstate the legitimacy of the police. The reality, however, is that police have always been in the midst of a legitimacy crisis. Mainstream criminological discourse, as exemplified by this dataset, has largely functioned as knowledge that carries water for the police state from the era of social Darwinism to the present era of colorblindness. This Article sheds light on the futility of contemporary criminology that continues to advocate for superficial reforms as a panacea for police violence, thereby contributing to the cyclical nature of citizen unrest that ultimately places the racism at the core of the institution beyond the scope of inquiry.

Several important steps are needed to move forward. First, scholars must commit to refuting the ahistorical notion that the history of the police, and of police violence in particular, can be uniquely traced back to the 1960s. Police violence needs to be understood in the context of settler colonialism, slavery, eugenics, Jim Crow, and other mechanisms of state surveillance and subordination of communities of color. Second, we need to talk not only about race but also racism as an ideology that motivates institutions, social structures, and state practices. There can be no transformative justice without a serious conversation about the continued salience of racism as it relates to police violence. Third, we need to be creative, compassionate, and critical in terms of the data we, as scholars, regard as “legitimate.” People's experiences are valid; we need to listen to them. Moreover, given the fact that most scholars acknowledge the inherent unreliability and incompleteness of police-collected data, there is little justification to exclude crowd-sourced databases of lethal encounters from research studies on police use of force. Police are not incentivized to accurately collect data that incriminates them, let alone give scholars access to it. It is a disservice to rely solely on police-collected data as the only legitimate type of inquiry into the issue of police violence.

The social scientific study of anti-social behaviors and the organizations given license to police them is an integral part of maintaining a just and healthy democracy. However, the findings from our study show that the field of criminology is not engaging this work as thoughtfully and carefully as it could. Scholars within the field simply must do better by embracing the legacies of race and racism in America as foundational to the study of police and policing. Failing to do so will only serve to further marginalize the most vulnerable in society.

Osagie K. Obasogie is a Haas Distinguished Chair and Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley School of Law (joint appointment with the Joint Medical Program and School of Public Health). B.A. Yale University; J.D. Columbia Law School; Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley.

Peyton Provenzano is a J.D./Ph.D. Student, University of California, Berkeley School of Law. B.A., University of California, Berkeley.