American Police and the Danger Imperative

Despite the fact that policing is getting safer, there exists a persistent and paradoxical rhetoric that claims police work is more dangerous than ever. This pervasive understanding of policing as dangerous creates a shared perceptual lens that is preoccupied with violence and the need for officer safety– a cultural frame that I term the danger imperative. How the danger imperative is constructed at a time when policing is objectively safer, and how this danger imperative affects officers' behaviors in this historical moment, are open questions.

Unfortunately, while policing and the criminal justice system are currently in the spotlight of academic attention, current sociological research on the criminal justice system and social control more broadly does little to investigate police officers directly. While sociological inquiry has not passed over police and the salience of danger in police work, these topics have gone largely unattended since research spurred by the police reform era of the 1960s and 70s.

Further, though much contemporary sociological research recognizes that police are intimately involved in the process and consequences of social control—particularly in the lives of inner city residents—this growing body of work has done little to directly explore the lived experience of police officers or the role that real and perceived danger play in police work. In short, it has been far too long since sociological inquiry into institutions and agents of social control has attended specifically to those doing the controlling.

Drawing on nearly 1000 hours of participant observations and interviews with 94 police officers in the Elmont, West River, and Sunshine police departments, this research project looks to address this weakness in the current literature on the most visible agents of the legal system by re-engaging with scholarship on police and the role of danger in their professional lives. Preliminary findings from this study demonstrate that officers are socialized into the danger imperative through formal and informal processes within the police department. Beyond the departmentally-sanctioned behaviors and tactics used to keep officers safe, however, officers also learn behaviors—such as not wearing their seatbelt—that directly contravene departmental policy. This policy-deviant behavior, though against rules and regulations, is taught and perpetuated by officers that believe a seatbelt will prevent them from exiting their vehicle to chase a suspect, or from reaching their weapon to defend themselves. Though done in the name of safety, such behavior places officers at risk of serious injury and death in high-speed car accidents.

A brief write-up of the findings

Full working paper 

Michael Sierra Arevalo is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Sociology and an Affiliate Fellow at the Instiution for Social and Policy Studies. This work has received funding through the Justice Collaboratory’s MacArthur Foundation grant.