Tensions of Force: Policing, Security, and Public Safety in New Orleans

The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics congratulates faculty committee member, Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús, and faculty associate, Laurence Ralph, on winning an NSF grant in support of their study, "Tensions of Force: Policing, Security, and Public Safety in New Orleans," an ethnographic examination of police use of force through the lens of structural competency.

Public outcry in response to police force has captured the national imagination. As police confront nonviolent protesters in American cities such as Ferguson, MO and Baltimore, MD, a new generation is experiencing police militarization techniques that harken back to the race riots of the 1960s. African Americans have been targeted as “looters” rather than protected during national disasters, harassed as “broken windows” and stop-and-frisk policies create a climate of repression, aggressively fined as police departments use quotas to supplement shrinking city budgets, and disproportionately impacted by the prison-industrial complex, by predatory lending in the financial industry, and by neighborhood displacement—all of which have led to residential and institutional re-segregation. Social inequality simmers beneath the surface in urban America, causing the tempers of community residents to bubble over whenever a person of color is killed by the police.

We can begin to understand how communities of color grapple with continuing anguish about police use of force by exploring the problems articulated and the solutions proposed by the neighborhoods most impacted in New Orleans, Louisiana. As the city with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, New Orleans is ground zero of America’s historically fraught relationship between police and African Americans. Given the current climate of police violence, racial angst, and heightened awareness around policing, a comprehensive study is needed to think critically about the intersections of race, ethnicity, policing, and militarization that takes advantage of the critical tools that cultural anthropology provides.

Ethnographic inquiry offers the unique opportunity to explore a community’s social world. By disciplinary design, ethnography demands active listening without preconception or judgment, with subsequent analysis to find patterns amidst vast amounts of unstructured qualitative data. We believe that this approach is urgently needed to understand and examine the current problems of policing, security, and governance in the United States—a country where young black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts. Our methodology ensures that the human experience of police use of force will remain at the center.

Quantitative data has been effective for tracking major trends in police use of force. Exciting new research examines racial disparities in policing, racial bias among police officers, and attempts to standardize data on police use of force. Yet what constitutes force remains elusive. That is, the scholarship on policing often assumes a coherent definition of police use of force, when in fact no such coherence exists. Ethnographic evidence is noticeably absent from many studies of policing in the United States to the detriment of understanding the problems at hand. Our approach, rooted in rigorous, historically-situated, ethnographic analysis, offers a nuanced understanding of violence that promises to forge new constructs for interpreting police use of force. More specifically, through a mixed-methodological approach that employs qualitative surveys, participant observation, in-depth interviews, social media analysis, ethnographic mapping, and team-based qualitative data coding, our research has the potential to change the way police force is measured and understood.

The central research questions that motivate this study are as follows: How have cities succeeded or failed in defining appropriate or excessive use of force? What factors have led previous attempts at police-community dialog to be deemed a success or failure by different constituents? And, to what extent do ethnocentric philosophies of governance shape legal understandings today?

The project hypothesizes that the police’s notion of reasonable force is premised on the “ideal theory” assumption that society is the product of a mutually agreed upon enterprise to divide benefits and burdens in an equitable way. By contrast, African Americans in New Orleans have long seen racism as central to the basic structure of the United States. For the police, the use of force is a split-second decision based on a threat assessment in the moment. For the community, the use of force is a symptom of the refusal to perceive systemic discrimination, a convenient amnesia about the past and its legacy in the present. We take this tension as a point of departure by exploring the indigenous strategies that under-resourced communities harness to hone a distinct political imagination—one that is rooted in injury and consistently wrought from instances of police violence.


PLEASE NOTE: This project is supported by the center but is not based at the center. Any inquiries should be sent to the PIs directly.


Team: Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús, Laurence Ralph