Campus Policing: A New Arena of Ethnographic Inquiry

By Sophia Balakian

What does an anthropological engagement with policing look like? What can ethnography contribute to urgent practical issues in contemporary policing?  These questions were among those explored by students in a recent class on The Anthropology of Policing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (ULUC). Offered as part of the Ethnography of the University Initiative (EUI), the class took the university’s own police department as its focal object, asking students to develop and carry out ethnographic projects that would explore the university as a policed space. Josiah Case, a graduate student in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, developed a project that explored Chinese students’ perceptions of the campus police, and brought these perceptions into dialogue with the police department’s ideas about working with an increasingly international student body. Case published an article from this research in the Campus Law Enforcement Journal, and found himself unexpectedly at the forefront of an almost completely unstudied area of practical concern to universities and university police departments across the country.

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UIUC’s Officer Snow engages with international students. Photo courtesy Lt. Joan Fiesta.

What does an anthropological engagement with policing look like? What can ethnography contribute to urgent practical issues in contemporary policing?  These questions were among those explored by students in a recent class on The Anthropology of Policing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (ULUC). Offered as part of the Ethnography of the University Initiative (EUI), the class took the university’s own police department as its focal object, asking students to develop and carry out ethnographic projects that would explore the university as a policed space. Josiah Case, a graduate student in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, developed a project that explored Chinese students’ perceptions of the campus police, and brought these perceptions into dialogue with the police department’s ideas about working with an increasingly international student body. Case published an article from this research in the Campus Law Enforcement Journal, and found himself unexpectedly at the forefront of an almost completely unstudied area of practical concern to universities and university police departments across the country.

Case’s article, “Campus Police and International Students: Dealing with Uncertainty and Unfamiliarity to Ensure a Mutually Beneficial Relationship,” examines the ways in which cultural norms, differences between Chinese and US police, and between Chinese and US laws and law enforcement practices lead Chinese international students at UIUC to avoid reporting crimes.  Fear of US police and lack of knowledge of how to engage with them, Case argues, can also put students at risk.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign currently has the largest number of Chinese students in the country—5,000 as of last year.  Drawing on his interest in China, Case set out to understand how policing issues were playing out on a large, diverse campus and with Chinese students in particular.  Attending meetings and interviewing campus police, Case found right away that police felt challenged by their attempts to reach out to international students.  Police officers explained that they feel that many students do not trust them or understand their job.  The police were aware that they needed help creating a better relationship between the department and international students and Case was pleased to find that the police were looking for answers to questions that he was investigating as part of his project.

Speaking to Chinese students, Case found that many students felt “that the American police are dangerous, violent and mean,” a perception heightened by appearance and the presence of guns—a significant contrast to Chinese police, who do not carry firearms.  He also found that Chinese students were accustomed to norms of interacting with the police that directly conflicted with US practices.  For example, Case told me that in China if you are pulled over while driving you get out of your car, rather than wait for the police officer inside your vehicle, as in the US.  This, Case said, could lead to actively dangerous situations and highlights the need for better systems to inform international students about police both on and off campus.

EUI is crucial to enabling students to engage with the university as an object of inquiry.  A project that has existed for over a decade at UIUC, the EUI has created an institutional framework for the university to be not only a place of research, but also an object of study.  As Jeffrey T. Martin, who taught Anthropology of Policing UIUC put it, the EUI “has done an enormous amount of work towards preparing the grounds on which the university can become aware of itself as an ethnographic object.” Of Case’s project and others that grew out of his class, Martin said, “The EUI itself, as an institution that takes responsibility for facilitating and processing the ethics review for all the research done under its auspices, has established itself as a kind of trustable node for facilitating the sort of transient, ephemeral, network connections involved in ethnographic research. When a student approaches a potential informant and says ‘I’m a student in this class, and I want to hear all your secrets,’ that might not always work.”  But the police know the EUI, know that it takes ethics seriously and this “enables a level of critical discussion that would otherwise be impossible,” Martin says.

After publishing his article, Case was contacted by a police chief at the University of Maine, who was interested in how his own department could improve to better serve a changing, increasingly international student body.  The police chief had found almost no research on the subject other than what Case had written.  They spoke about Case’s research and how his department could better serve students with diverse perceptions of US police and a range of expectations about law enforcement based on their different backgrounds.

Case says that when he began his research project, the University of Illinois police department was already discussing issues related to international students, but seemed to have some blind spots.  Drawing on his background in the study of contemporary China and the Anthropology of Policing course, he was able to say to the police department, “I think something that’s important is knowing what international students think about police.”  The UIUC police department was receptive.  A mutually beneficial project, trust created by the unique Ethnography of the University Initiative and a course on policing allowed Case to produce research that is of interest to police on his own campus and beyond.  His ethnographic project was able to point out both a challenge and possible solutions: “Things like having an orientation where students can learn firsthand from police about who they are and what they do.  Uncertainty can be tackled with that kind of information,” Case says.

Sophia Balakian is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; she holds aMellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship for “The Fraudulent Family”: Humanitarianism, Security, and Competing Ethical Claims in Refugee Resettlement from Kenya.

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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