Screening the Social: Cinematic Lessons for Policing and Ethnography
In this blog post, Christina Aushana traces the impetus for her article “Seeing Police: Cinematic Training and the Scripting of Police Vision,” which was recently published in Surveillance & Society
Policing is cinematic. The formation of this claim coalesced over the course of six months in 2014, during which time my roommate attended the San Diego Regional Public Safety Training Institute (SDRPSTI) at Miramar College in San Diego as a police academy recruit. He was roughly midway through the academy when I came home one evening to find him watching a clip from Antoine Fuqua’s 2001 film Training Day on his computer. “Check this out,” he encouraged, shuffling stained Chipotle napkins and other post-training comforts aside to make room at his desk. In the tiny theater of our shared office, we watched fictional LAPD officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) and Detective Sergeant Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) drive through “The Jungle,” a neighborhood in the not-so-fictional Baldwin Village of South Central Los Angeles. He explained that earlier in the day, this clip was screened for his academy section (a group of about 100 recruits) as part of a “learning module” on officer safety. “It was interesting,” he pressed in defiance of my barely-disguised skepticism. He continued, “We discussed the types of neighborhoods we will have to police in the field, places where we may not be welcome.”
Despite his synthesis of a few fellow recruits’ responses and comments from training officers present during the film screening, it was my roommate’s utterance of “we will” that struck me. This seemingly innocuous phrase not only illustrated the important symbolic and imaginative work that films like Training Day (2001) perform for police recruits (what “will” be), but also summoned the conditions of sociality within the academy classroom that shaped how this cinematic intervention was collectively interpreted (“we may not be welcome”). Fuqua’s film suggests we consider recruits’ and officers’ interactions with cinema as meaningful social practices structuring how these recruits may and, for some, “will” see themselves, each other, and non-police officers (citizens and denizens of their police beats) in the field upon the beginning of their tenure in local police departments across San Diego County and, perhaps, elsewhere.
In my contribution to the special issue of Surveillance and Society on “Visibilities and New Models of Policing,” I take these cinematic lessons to task in relation to everyday tacit conventions of patrol work, examining the premises of power and control upon which policing’s visibility depends and circulates. As an ethnographic researcher invited to co-witness the conditions of this visibility alongside officers in on-duty patrol vehicles, I am answerable to my own visibility as readily as I am forced to confront the tools of interpretation at work in both the scholarly enterprise of ethnography, and in police work. While the ethnographer is not authorized as a discrete agent of State power, she is — not unlike the police officer — called to perform acts of interpretation, description, and categorization to make encounters experienced in the field sensible, documentable, and visible to the institutions that “authorize” her research. What are the stakes for an ethnography of contemporary policing in a time of ongoing crises of racialized police violence (including broader systems of carceral state violence) when we compare these two disciplinary worlds and their methods?