Against the normative definition of punishment as the infliction of pain on an offender by an appropriate legal authority, this essay argues that the police, although they are not entitled to administer retribution, commonly do so on the street or at the precinct, including against innocent individuals. Such punishment is disproportionately imposed on working-class men from disadvantaged neighborhoods belonging to ethnoracial minorities. It is justified in the eyes of the police by representations of these publics as potential criminals and of the judges as increasingly lenient, both allegations being contradicted by facts but serving as moral justifications for their discriminatory exercise of violence. Developed on the basis of a fifteen-month ethnography of police units, notably anticrime squads, in the area of Paris, this argument has a much broader significance. It demonstrates that extrajudicial forms of retribution exceed judicial forms and that more often than not the police are the punishment.
The Police Are the Punishment
Didier Fassin is James D. Wolfensohn Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and Director of Studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. Anthropologist, sociologist, and physician, he has conducted research in Senegal, South Africa, Ecuador, and France. Author of sixteen books, he was awarded a gold medal in anthropology at the Swedish Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016, and in 2018 he was the first social scientist to receive the Nomis Distinguished Scientist Award. His current work is on crises, their construction, their meaning, and the responses they generate.
Didier Fassin; The Police Are the Punishment. Public Culture 1 September 2019; 31 (3): 539–561. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-7532691
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