Policing Geographically

Written by Patrick M. Bigger

Policing is an inherently spatial activity. That is, policing happens somewhere. This may sound obvious, but many politicians and theorists seem to have either forgotten about the geographic component of police work or never thought about it at all. Further, it is not just that policing happens somewhere, it’s that all somewheres, despite their potential commonalities, have histories, economies, relationships with law enforcement, and numerous other facets that make them unique. For this reason policing strategies and tactics that may have proven effective in one place may be complete failures in others.

One way students of criminal justice in general, and policing specifically, can start to come to grips with the differences and commonalities in places is through an engagement with the discipline of human geography. Human geography has a long history in the United States, but has shifted in the last 40 years from being a primarily descriptive discipline toward a theory-building discipline backed up by observations. While human geography now covers a wide intellectual terrain, there are a number of specific intellectual points of contact with criminal justice.

Policing is an inherently visual activity, and geographers have refined this type of seeing to include historical, cultural, and economic through their engagement with landscape. Police must understand the specificities of neighborhoods or even individual blocks; geographers have studied and theorized this through engagements with differences between space and place. Geographers have thought extensively about globalization, the process by which places are becoming more connected through trade and communications- students of policing would do well to consider these theories when trying to come to grips with contemporary issues like the drug trade. Right now, geographers are contemplating the impacts of new spatial technologies and visualizations, like geographic information systems (GIS) and information gathered through unmanned areal vehicles (Eaves, or ‘drones’). As police departments have more access to these technologies, they could learn from geographers who have been thinking about the ‘politics of knowing’ in these exciting, but often problematic ways. As the world continues to grow more complex, it will become increasingly difficult to make sense of the world from a single disciplinary perspective. Collaborations between disciplines, like policing and human geography, will be mutually beneficial, improving the accuracy of our theories and the effectiveness of our practices.

Patrick M. Bigger
Police Studies Program
Eastern Kentucky University

Published on January 22, 2013