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Excerpted From: Daanika Gordon, The Police as Place-consolidators: the Organizational Amplification of Urban Inequality, 45 Law and Social Inquiry 1 (February 2020) (10 Footnotes/References) (Full Document)


DannikaGordonQuestions of racial inequality in policing haunt our current moment. Many efforts to understand this problem focus on racial profiling, homing in on the practices of individual officers. These micro-level interactions are indeed important--police-citizen encounters initiate entry into the criminal justice system, expose citizens to the state's capacity for coercive force, and shape perceptions of police legitimacy. Yet, officers' inappropriate use of race in decision making is notoriously difficult to conclusively isolate. And racial profiling is but one potential source of racial inequality in policing outcomes. For instance, studies at the meso-level reveal that widely legitimated institutional practices can produce racial disparities, even in the absence of the racial intent of officers. This study further investigates dynamics of racial inequality in policing through an analysis of the interaction between meso-level organizational arrangements and the macro-level structural environment.

I focus specifically on the relationship between the police agency, as an organization, and the surrounding socio-spatial urban landscape. Organizations both respond to and further constitute their environments. In racially segregated cities, this environment includes longstanding inequalities between neighborhoods. The police react to the exigencies of these differences--for instance, in claiming a crime control mandate, they orient activities toward unevenly distributed criminal and social problems--but the police can also further produce differences. The aggregated activities of officers shape the experiences and meanings associated with place: whether an area feels secure or dangerous, cared for or neglected. This productive capacity is an underexplored facet of the role the police play in addressing, maintaining, or amplifying racially unequal social structures.

Police departments are increasingly likely to treat different places in different manners. As strategic innovations emphasize tailored, local approaches to problems across the city, police executives embrace a proliferation of differentiated goals and tactics. Spatially decentralized approaches enable district captains and police officers to respond to neighborhood-level concerns. If such problem-solving is done in a democratic fashion, it may have the potential to redress historic racial inequalities by giving local communities control over the governance decisions that affect them. But the mitigation of inequalities is not the only possible outcome of a local approach. Differentiated treatment can also reinforce symbolic meanings and unequal experiences attendant to segregation, a process I describe as place-consolidation.

This study documents a case of place-consolidation using a police department's efforts to pursue local approaches through a redistricting reform and subsequent special initiatives. The redistricting aligned police district boundaries with the city's stark racial segregation boundaries, intentionally opening the door for divergence in policing styles. I trace the logic and consequences--both intended and unintended--of efforts to address discrete district-level problems. This case allows me to ask: how do the police respond to segregated environments in an era characterized by proliferating and differentiated activities? And how do these responses further shape urban space in ways that can produce racial consequences? To answer these questions, I draw upon several sources of data, including public documents, interviews with decision makers and stakeholders, one year of ethnographic observation of police work in two districts, and data on 911 calls for police service. In highlighting the responsive and productive capacities of the police, I show more generally how organizational practices construct and reconstruct place and--in a racially segregated context--how they make and remake group differences. I suggest that these processes can be analytically clarified through scholarship on the ties between organizations and their environments.

Police agencies are prototypical organizations: clearly bounded entities characterized by rules, procedures, and hierarchy; oriented toward a set of goals; and engaged in activities that have outcomes for their members, the organization itself, and for society(Hall 1999, 30; Bordua and Reiss 1966). While the term "the police" is often used to describe individual officers, it can also refer to the broader organizational entity of the police agency. Focusing on the police as an organization brings attention to the mutually constitutive relationships between the urban environment, organizational goals and structures, and the activities of individual officers. Several insights from the sociology of organizations clarify these relationships and link existing findings from the policing literature.

First, the surrounding environment "constitutes, influences, and penetrates organizations". Organizations are open systems that respond to competing and varied demands from local communities and broader technical, political, economic, and cultural fields. Organizations incorporate formal structures, in part, to gain legitimacy and resources from this institutional environment. For police agencies, relevant pressures can flow from sources including the network of criminal justice institutions, the local political field, and the social ecology of the city. The evolution of policing strategy is one manifestation of organizational response to these environments. Differences in how policing occurs across geographic space is another. Neighborhood characteristics like crime levels, racial composition, and poverty rates have been shown to influence the degree and kind of police activity in an area. The geographic distribution of economic and political interests, on the one hand, and social and criminal exigencies, on the other, shapes organizational action.

Second, organizational activities are not mere responsive, they play an "independent role in the production, reproduction, and arrangement of urban social relations, neighborhood conditions, and individual outcomes and identities". Organizations distribute resources, and create meanings in ways that further shape the surrounding environment. This insight is often overlooked in urban sociology, where organizations are seen as entities that derive from the city, rather than entities that further generate the city. Police departments share in this capacity to craft the character of space. As they regulate the kinds of people and activities found in particular areas, the aggregate activities of police officers produce and reproduce understandings of how orderly, secure, dangerous, or criminal discrete geographies can be. In addition to responding to the environment, organizational activities actively construct it.

Finally, these responsive and productive activities are not always consistent within an organization or aligned with its stated strategic goals. Discrepancies between goals and activities arise from the multilevel and dual character of organizations. Complex organizations are multilevel in that they are comprised of hierarchical and differentiated departments, work groups, and individuals. They are dual in that norms and values infuse organizational action, giving organizations both a formal, strategic dimension and an informal, normative dimension. These features can intersect to produce subunits with distinct normative or cultural characteristics. Subunits may differ from each other and their activities may depart from the organization's strategic aims. Organizations, thus, incorporate activities that are only "loosely coupled" to their stated goals.

Klinger applies an organizational perspective in an account of how police behavior can vary across physical space. Klinger focuses on the importance of the police district as a territorial subunit. While officers often cross the boundaries of individual beats within a district, they rarely cross district boundaries. As a consequence, officers in the same district form a stable work group that shares geographically delimited responsibilities and activities. As crime and other social problems vary across districts, work groups develop normative expectations--about workload, "normal" crimes, the deservingness of victims, and levels of cynicism--that shape the vigor of police action. This theory draws attention to how the mid-level subunit of the district mediates the relationship between the environment and the norms and behaviors of individual officers.

This project builds upon work examining the ties between organizations and their environment to investigate the responsive and productive capacities of the police in the city. It centers the above insights: organizations respond to their environments, organizations also further constitute and produce their environments, and organizational activities can have both intended and unintended consequences. This investigation brings further attention to an understudied source of racial inequality in policing: the police organization's power to shape place. Policing not only responds to the environment, as Klinger describes; it further creates the environment. Often, these processes occur within a set of dynamics common to contemporary urban policing: decentralizing approaches, embedded in differentiated and unequal urban landscapes.

[. . .]

I have suggested that place-consolidation is an outcome of an underexplored source of racial inequality in policing: the relationship between the police organization and the surrounding urban environment. And an organizational perspective usefully clarifies several dynamics observed in this case. It reveals how the police agency can respond to and impact the urban landscape in both anticipated and unanticipated ways. As the department strived to enhance service and cultivate perceptions of safety in District A, the police further crafted the trajectories of neighborhoods. The multilevel and dual character of organizations contributed to outcomes in this case. The redistricting redefined a central subunit of police work and, within these work environments, distinct priorities and normative expectations developed. Some of these were aligned with the organization's overarching goals--for instance, in the thorough service that District A officers could provide and felt citizens deserved. Others, like the workload pressures and minimizing practices described by District B officers, reflected a growing inequality rooted in a tension between district-level priorities and resources. Efforts to understand the varied sources of racial inequality in policing can benefit from further attention to the organization-environment nexus.

Most broadly, this case suggests several insights into how organizations might mitigate, maintain, or amplify urban inequality. It shows that the production of spatial, and racial, difference requires acts of constitution and reconstitution. Segregation is not a static phenomenon; it is dynamically produced through the organizational and day-to-day construction of the symbolic and material qualities of unequal neighborhoods. These processes are fundamentally relational. Organizational priorities and resource allocations are determined by acts that partition and define the entire city, often overlaying race and class geographies with hierarchical ideas of worthiness. Finally, urban inequality is driven by processes that occur across multiple levels of social organization. The macro-level context of the urban environment informs meso-level organizational arrangements, which themselves structure individuals' micro-level experiences, practices, and subjective interpretations. In turn, everyday activities define the experiences and meanings associated with place, further crafting the environment itself. Together, these findings shed light on the constitutive capacities of organizations and their important role in shaping the racial inequalities attendant to urban life.

Daanika Gordon is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Tufts University, Department of Sociology,

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