Disciplining the City: Policing and Incarceration in Urban Space

Photographed by Tiziana Matarazzo

The Metropole is excited to debut a new series on urban policing, edited by Matthew Guariglia, a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Connecticut.

“The basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder as an alternative to the repression of crime and disorder by military force and severity of legal punishment.” With this statement, British politician Robert Peel began his “Principals of Law Enforcement,” often considered the foundational text of modern policing. The nine points, published in 1829, create the framework for a system of coercive governance that relied on “persuasion, advice, and warning,” and sometimes the state’s monopoly on violence, to protect the developing liberal capitalist state. “The police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public,” Peel writes, “that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police.”[1] In a society that declared civil liberties sacred, police were to be a constant reminder of what the consequences could be when an individual failed to maintain “public respect.”

[Squad of Chicago Mounted Police], Geo. R. Lawrence Co., 1907, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
The history of urban policing, however, is plagued by a continuity of brutality. The recent highly publicized killings of urban residents of color by police and the international Movement for Black Lives that arose in response have made more people around the world aware of a problem many people of color have always known. Almost as quickly as Peel wrote that police should operate by “offering individual service and friendship to all members of society without regard to their race or social standing,” police across the Atlantic world and its colonies were deployed to create and enforce legal and extralegal regimes of control in the name of public safety and with the full support of less vulnerable members of society.

This continuity also obscures a long history of change and experimentation as police departments across the world developed and shared new tactics to control urban spaces and new rationales to justify that control. Technology changed, the racial and gendered makeup of police departments became more diverse, crimes were invented or disappeared from enforcement, and a fearful public continually renegotiated its relationship to policing in exchange for the promise of protection and safe streets. “The institution of the police,” said Michel Foucault, “which is so recent and so oppressive, is only justified by that fear. If we accept the presence in our midst of these uniformed men, who have the exclusive right to carry arms, who demand our papers, who come to prowl on our doorsteps, how would any of this be possible if there were no criminals?”[2]

[Detroit, Michigan. Police officers removing sit down strikers from Yale and Towne manufacturing plant], March 1937, Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Disciplining the City: Policing and Incarceration in Urban Space is open to historians from all fields and time periods, and will explore the multifaceted and complex history of policing, crime, and incarceration in urban and suburban spaces. We are soliciting submissions to the series concerned with a number of topics, including: analysis of both change over time and continuity in the history of policing; the relationship between policing and racial and gender formation and sexuality; the classed, ethnic, racial, and gendered make up of the police force; policing as labor; the act and challenges of policing specific spaces and populations within the urban landscape; the technology and material culture of policing; urban incarceration; medicine and criminality; crime and the law; methods of preserving law and order in slave and colonial regimes; activism, police reform, and prison abolition; and, finally, the history of policing cities through an international or global lens.

[Mexico City, Mounted Police], Harris and Ewing, 1913, Harris & Ewing Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress
Studying the history of policing in urban spaces is a complicated endeavour filled with ambiguous and often purposely-obscured archives. The series is therefore interested not just in publishing original research, but also posts that involve archive stories and close readings of specific primary sources central to one’s research. Historiographies and bibliographies of topics related to the history of policing, crime, and incarceration, book reviews, and author interviews are also encouraged in order to help readers follow the emerging field of carceral studies.

Submissions should follow The Metropole’s submission guidelines and should be sent to Matthew Guariglia.

[1] Emphasis in the original

[2] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings 1972-1977, New York: Vintage Books, 1980, 47.

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