Sociologist Forrest Stuart on Urban Policing

Seeing what’s wrong with society when people break the law.

September 11, 2020

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Sociologist Forrest Stuart on Urban Policing

Giorgia Virgili (collage); Stephen Zeigler/Creative Commons

The fieldwork of Forrest Stuart explores challenging aspects of urban poverty, including the reintegration of prisoners and the role of police officers as arbiters of racial identity. An associate professor of sociology, Stuart is an urban ethnographer, the director of the Stanford Ethnography Lab and the author of the prize-winning book Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row, which explores the impact of “zero-tolerance” policing. His findings are particularly relevant today as the George Floyd protests amplify demands for police reform and cities rethink their approaches to maintaining law and order.

Stuart’s path to sociology began during his childhood in San Bernardino, Calif., where he and his brother were raised by a single mother who was an English teacher. In the 1980s and ’90s, San Bernardino had one of the highest homicide rates in America. Gangs were prominent, and Stuart saw his friends, family and peers cycle through prison. “Gun violence is one of the driving factors that led me to dig into the questions I’ve taken up since,” Stuart says. “A lot of my work is very much tied to my racial and ethnic background. My father is Black. My mom is Mexican American, and I’ve been drawn to think about the impacts of the criminal justice system on Black and brown communities.”

As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, Stuart studied under the philosopher and political activist Angela Davis, a pioneer in the study of prison abolition. “She was asking this really difficult question,” Stuart says, “which is, ‘What might the world look like if we didn’t have prisons—what kind of radical transformations would we need to see in institutions and in the ways we resolve conflicts to stop putting human bodies in cages?’” This led him to advocacy and activism helping people reenter society. He went on to do graduate work in criminology but soon changed his academic path to sociology.

Profile photo of Forrest Stuart.Courtesy Forrest Stuart 

STANFORD: What led you to switch your graduate studies from criminology to sociology?

Stuart: The question criminologists typically ask is, “Why do people commit crime?” I was interested in a different version of that question. I wanted to ask, “Why do people break the law?” The first version naturalizes crime and takes for granted the notion that someone out there creates a law and has in mind a certain group of people who are more likely to break that law. It takes for granted that laws are political accomplishments and that laws impact certain people differently. By switching the question to “Why do people break the law?” I wanted to open that black box and ask more about law and why people end up on the wrong side of law in a historical sense and in a political sense rather than just assuming that when law is handed down, it’s naturally a good thing—objective and evidence-based—and, therefore, anybody who commits crime is violating this rational, objective, evidence-based thing. Trying to ask those questions among people who are in charge of making those laws didn’t get me very far. I expressed this frustration to one of my professors, who said, “Maybe you’re not a criminologist. Maybe your energies would be better used for the questions you’re thinking about, and the discipline for that is sociology.” So I actually took this professor’s advice, and I enrolled in a sociology program.

How did your doctorate in sociology at UCLA lead to your 2018 book, Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row?

I went to Skid Row originally with a pretty simple question: When someone is released from jail or prison, how do they reintegrate into society? How difficult is this, and is it even possible to pick yourself up from absolute rock bottom through sheer will and determination? I wanted to empirically study the trajectory that one goes on or the obstacles in people’s way. I figured that if we can really pinpoint the obstacles and understand them, then maybe we can build a society where people can rejoin mainstream society in a more humane, efficient and successful way. So I looked around, and, lo and behold, there was Skid Row on the other side of Los Angeles from UCLA, just east of downtown. It’s arguably the poorest 50 blocks in the entire United States, and it’s also arguably the largest reentry community, the primary starting place for people coming out of prisons throughout California. It’s also usually the first stop after people get out of the L.A. jail, which is a few blocks away and is the largest jail complex in the world.

‘So much of my first book is an investigation into what it does to the culture of a neighborhood—the social relations and feelings of community—when at any given time, you could have an officer putting you up against the wall.’

I spent sunup to sundown on the streets of Skid Row, interacting with as many different people as I could and establishing relationships. At first, I established relationships mostly with homeless guys and guys who were staying in flophouse hotels as they sold loose cigarettes on the street, or CDs, and some guys as they sold drugs. I asked how people got back on their feet and what the biggest obstacles were. The biggest obstacle that presented itself—and it presented itself violently on more than one occasion toward me—was the police. So here are folks who were trying to put food in their mouths and clothes on their bodies and to stay out of handcuffs, and at every turn there was an officer to bust them for the smallest thing. In 2006, the year I first went to Skid Row, the Los Angeles Police Department launched what is arguably the most aggressive policing campaign we’ve seen in this country. For instance, it’s a misdemeanor to sit, lie or sleep on the sidewalk in Los Angeles. It’s actually an arrestable offense. Let’s imagine you just got out of prison and you’ve got nowhere to go. You don’t have an income. You’ve got the clothes on your back. You head to Skid Row because this is where soup kitchens are. This is where flophouse hotels are. Maybe you can stay at the shelter. So you sleep in the shelter, but they kick you out at 5 a.m. because that’s when they kick you out, and you just have to bide your time until the soup kitchen opens or the benefits office opens. You’re tired of walking. You’ve been up since 4:35, and you sit on the curb to take a break. The area is so saturated with police officers that it’s literally a matter of minutes before an officer comes up and puts you in handcuffs, digs through your pockets, runs your name to see if you have any warrants, and, if he’s being nice, he might send you on your way. He might give you a $200 ticket. If he’s feeling aggressive, he can throw you in the back of the squad car and book you, and you could spend a day or two or three in jail for sitting on the sidewalk, depending on your record, depending on the interaction. Skid Row has a population estimated somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 people. In 2006, the LAPD gave 12,000 citations and made 9,000 arrests in Skid Row. Statistically speaking, if you were in Skid Row, you were likely to finish the year with an arrest, and certainly with a citation. And those citations and arrests don’t even account for the far larger number of police interactions that don’t result in a formal record. The police also crack down on jaywalking. Officers would stand on one corner, and, according to the law, once that hand on the stoplight meter starts blinking, you’re actually not allowed to take a step into the street. A lot of people don’t know that. Officers would exploit the vague nature of pedestrian crossing signals. This is a neighborhood with tons of pedestrians, so every time the light changes, you can have between five and 15 people coming across the street. Officers would just put them all up against the wall, hands behind their backs, foreheads against the wall, and would go one by one, going through their pockets and running their names through databases. So much of my first book is an investigation into what it does to the culture of a neighborhood—the social relations and feelings of community—when at any given time, you could have an officer putting you up against the wall. Standing on the sidewalk becomes a liability. What does that mean for neighbors getting together and building trust, people doing the kinds of things we want neighbors to do, like solving problems? It sends people further into the shadows. It makes people despair. For those folks who are dealing with mental health disorders or mental illnesses, it exacerbates those. It triggers people dealing with substance abuse issues. At needle exchange or safe injection sites, if officers are patrolling the sidewalks out front, you’re not going to go. That increases your risk of contracting hepatitis C and HIV, and now maybe you’re injecting in locations that are more dangerous.

During the five years that you worked on Skid Row, what were your interactions with the police like? You mentioned they were violent toward you as well. 

I was stopped by police 14 times. One of those times happened in my first year and was actually how I ended up getting to know cops. I am a lighter shade of brown than most of the residents in Skid Row, which is about 75 percent Black. Officers, I would come to learn, were really suspicious of non-Black folks in Skid Row, who they thought were coming into the area to score or sell drugs. At 11:00 one night, I was standing with a group of men who sold bootleg DVDs and CDs on the corner. A squad car came past and slammed on the brakes, and two officers charged out at me. They grabbed me and threw me up against the fence, and one of the officers held me there while the other officer ripped my backpack off and started to go through it. I said, “I’m a UCLA researcher down here studying police relationships with residents,” and they very quickly eased off. So I said, “Why did you stop me?” and they said, “You fit the description of a call we received about a white male with a black backpack selling narcotics on this corner.” Now, I had been on the corner all night. No one was selling narcotics, and there certainly was not a white man with a black backpack, so I knew this was made up. I was angry and frustrated, and I said, “I actually don’t believe that, because I’m not white.” They looked at the group of Black men and then they looked at me and they said, “Yeah, down here, you’re white.” I write about this interaction in the book in an extended way. It was this interesting moment of fieldwork discovery where it became clear that they had become arbiters of the racial order—of a racial classification system. The cops are deciding who’s Black, who’s brown, who’s white. They saw a racial trespass in the area—that they know a respectable white person would not possibly be in this majority Black and very poor place. It was this interesting way that in a criminalized Black space whiteness becomes suspicious.

Did you form any relationships with the police officers? 

This was one of the places where my initial assumptions were challenged. I think I had an oversimplified, maybe romanticized notion of officers as hyperracist aggressive men who woke up every day saying, “I’m going to make life as terrible as possible for poor Black folks.” But actually, after that run-in that night, they gave me the card for the senior lead officer and I ended up interviewing a lot of officers. I began to realize that these were often people who got into policing to make the world a better place—to catch bad guys and help damsels in distress. There were [military] veterans on the force patrolling Skid Row who wanted to make life better for the veterans they saw struggling. There were Black officers who wanted to make conditions better for poor Black folks. One afternoon I grabbed post-shift drinks with one of the officers who was a veteran, and he conveyed his sense of all the veterans on the streets dying from mental disabilities or PTSD or alcohol or drugs, and he said, “I want to help them, but as a police officer, I don’t have very many tools at my disposal. I’m not a social worker. I can’t put them into housing. I can’t get their disability or SSI [supplemental security income] activated. I can’t convince the VA to give them services. The only thing I can do is put them in handcuffs and put them in jail and hope that the three days they spend in jail or the night they spend in jail, maybe they’ll sober up, maybe they’ll get three square meals, maybe it might spark something in them that could make them change.” What I realized was that the city of Los Angeles, like many other cities, had badly contracted vital services while asking officers to pick up the slack and equipping them only with violent means of doing so.

‘People break the law because laws are structured in such a way to preserve the power and hierarchies and privileges that those in control of the law currently have.’

This counterintuitive discovery is a politically difficult pill to swallow for a lot of people, but it changes the question from “Why do bad people do bad stuff?” which is a pretty easy question to answer, to a more fascinating sociological question, “What systems must be in place such that the most well-meaning people end up doing the most damage?” It seemed to me that the officers who were the most compassionate were the ones who ended up acting most aggressively, who used arrest the most, who put people up against the wall the most. So a lot of my project in that book is to try and answer that question: What kind of structural conditions need to be in place and then how would we change those structural conditions so that people who are well-meaning can do good in the world?

Did you come to any conclusions about how we can change the structural conditions?

One of the big ones is that we are using the wrong institution to solve this particular problem. We are using policing to solve unemployment, substance abuse, mental health issues. If we think we can just train officers better, we’ve failed. We need a fundamental shift in which institutions we use to solve various problems. It turns out cops make really terrible social workers, but you know who makes a good social worker? A social worker. So it’s a matter of realigning our expectations and our demands on political leaders, to say we’re not going to pump additional millions into the LAPD so that they can be kinder and more compassionate, so that they can take a two-hour online training module to identify mental illness. We would go much further to throw that money into organizations that are underfunded, understaffed and overburdened so that they can do more of the life-saving work they’re already doing. That’s a really tall order because electoral politics make it hard to do that kind of thing. It’s really hard to win office if you’re the candidate who says, “I want to give less money to law and order.” Not only do you have to face ramifications from the police union, which is one of the most powerful political bodies in any municipality and any county, but you also have to try to justify that in quick sound bites to the voting population, which tends to be older, whiter and more middle class, and which doesn’t see the kinds of damage the police do on a daily basis and which has no empirical basis to question whether or not the police are doing good or bad. All they see the police doing is waving at them at the farmers market or making sure that kids down at the park aren’t smoking weed—things that make you quite satisfied with policing.

So now that you’ve done this work, can you say why people break the law?

People break the law because laws are structured in such a way to preserve the power and hierarchies and privileges that those in control of the law currently have. When we see people breaking the law, it should be a signal that the structural arrangements and conditions that people are living in are inadequate, inequitable and unjust. When people break the law, we should see that as a response to something else being broken in society.

Deni Ellis Béchard is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at dbechard@stanford.edu.

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