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Racialized Bodies within Policing and Surveillance

Amber Amin, University of New Haven 

The death of Freddie Gray in 2015 kick-started a movement of modern day civil rights that continues to this day. Gray was a 25 year old African American, who was arrested by the Baltimore Police Department for possessing a knife. After sustaining injuries while being transported in a police van, he died seven days later due to a spinal cord injury. None of the officers involved were prosecuted. Following Gray’s death, the city of Baltimore experienced organized protests for weeks. Protesters were angered by the abuse Gray endured at the hands of law enforcement officials, followed by the lack of prosecution of those involved. In a post-Freddie Gray world, Baltimore is still trying to remedy the negative effects of racist policies and decisions (Pappoe, 2016).

The treatment of minorities by the criminal justice system is a heavily researched area in the field of criminology. Data show that minorities, especially African Americans and Latinx individuals, come into greater contact with the police than whites (Piquero, 2008). Proactive policing efforts increase this likelihood of police contact as well. In proactive policing, officers patrol hot spot areas that have high levels of crime. These areas tend have significant minority populations (Rinehart Kochel, 2011). Proactive policing turns black and brown individuals into targets, due to the connection between law enforcement practices and race. In addition, surveillance of minorities creates high levels of distrust between citizens and the state (Ellis et al., 2013). In sum, proactive policing and surveillance efforts in the United States disproportionately target minorities and create anxiety, police distrust, and a potentially a feedback loop of more crime. 

Despite these concerning research findings, proactive policing has been promoted as an effective way of reducing criminal activity (Harmon, 2009). This approach to policing shifts officers from reacting to calls for services to such practices as foot and car patrol in areas of high crime. This form of policing initially emerged in the aftermath of social and political unrest in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was strong (Walker & Justice, 2016). It gradually became a preferred way to control crime and disorder, particularly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

This paper aims to discuss the convergence of race, policing, and surveillance in a post-Freddie Gray world. Utilizing studies that focus on the racialized effects of proactive policing and the use of fusion centers, a pattern of injustice is revealed. Modern day proactive policing efforts and surveillance methods target racialized bodies and turn minorities into targets of anxiety. This information is important for policy makers and others concerned about young minority individuals who experience racial injustice from law enforcement.

Contemporary Research

There is a growing body of research on racism and law enforcement, but more recent studies take into account the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and the longer term effects of police contact with minorities. In this section, three studies encompassing different aspects of race and policing are examined. The first is a longitudinal study of the effects of proactive policing on high school minority students, the second discusses the topic of black respectability, and the third looks at fusion centers and their targeting of racialized bodies.

To begin, Del Toro et al. (2018) studied the long term effects of proactive policing on crime, using a sample of minority youths. Although there is a solid amount of research on proactive policing, the previous literature lacks examination of the potentially negative effects of this approach on police legitimacy and related criminal activity. Del Toro et al. (2018) focused on the experiences of 1,401 nonwhite high school boys in the southern United States, including their police contacts, psychological distress, and delinquent behavior. There were three hypotheses for this study. The first stated that a higher number of police stops would lead to higher levels of delinquency. The second proposed that police stops would cause psychological distress for young minority boys. The final hypothesis asserted that delinquent behavior would produce more police contact. The authors followed the sample of minority boys through high school and conducted surveys every six months.

The research was guided by labeling theory, life course theory, and general strain theory. Black and brown individuals, especially young males, are more likely to be targeted by the criminal justice system at a very early age (Del Toro et al., 2018). This results in labeling them as deviant, which is a factor that may contribute to future criminality. The process ensues, according to life course theory, when early encounters with the criminal justice system contribute to the continued labeling of an individual as deviant. Ongoing labeling, and the associated societal reactions (e.g., in school and with peers), then contribute to an increasing level of strain that minority individuals experience at a greater level. Agnew’s general strain theory states that possible sources of strain include a failure to achieve goals, a removal of positive stimuli, and/or the experience of negative stimuli (Agnew, 1992). These strains can lead to negative emotions, and in the absence of effective coping mechanism, negative emotions then produce antisocial and delinquent behavior among minority boys.

After collecting data over the course of the boys’ high school years, Del Toro et al. (2018) found support for two of their three hypotheses. A higher frequency of police stops predicted more frequent delinquent behavior up to eighteen months after a stop. It also was discovered that the high school boys experienced psychological distress resulting from being stopped by the police. This subsequently led to more delinquent behavior, as supported by general strain theory. The authors’ final hypothesis was not supported, however. Delinquent behavior did not predict more frequent police stops in the future. Boys who did not engage in delinquent behavior were just as likely to be stopped by the police as those engaging in delinquent behavior, which suggests important policy implications for the future of proactive policing.

Through this research it was discovered that proactive policing imposes a great cost on young minority boys. Hot spots tend to consist of mostly minority citizens, and the over policing of these areas can cause great stress and anxiety for these individuals. Reforms to proactive policing and corresponding deterrence expectations should consider the adverse effects of targeting minorities. Future research on this topic also must address the issue of retaining vulnerable populations in longitudinal studies. Del Toro et al. (2018) could not adequately account for individuals who were not in school and who may be more susceptible to police contact. There was also a level of recall error and social desirability bias within the self-reporting approach to data collection. With this in mind, future research should support self-report surveys with analysis of administrative records.

Data collection by Del Toro et al. (2018) was finished in 2015. This year corresponded with Freddie Gray’s death and the associated protests in Baltimore, MD. This and other subsequent events brought to light the reality that people who “look like” Freddie Gray need to navigate a challenging and dangerous world, making it harder for minority citizens to evade unwarranted police suspicion. With this in mind, in a study conducted by Kerrison et al. (2018) in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray protests, African Americans were interviewed about their own experiences with the police and the occurrence of victim blaming from elders within their own community.

This study focused on the concept of black respectability, which is a “black citizen’s ability to distance themselves from every disdainful element of black culture that white majority community members publicly resent” (Kerrison et al., 2018, p. 9). This means black individuals must be performative when operating in public spaces, in order to avoid police contact, and this method of thinking is perpetuated by black elders in highly policed communities. Kerrison et al. (2018) explored how black youth navigate the expectations of black respectability politics, while utilizing previous research on critical race theory and legal cynicism. Critical race theory explains how legal institutions play a role in sustaining racial hierarchies (Crenshaw et al., 1995), and also suggests that the “get tough on crime” approaches of the late 1980s and early 1990s are only sustainable due to the social construction of race and racism. In this context, legal cynicism refers to individuals perceiving law enforcement as illegitimate and not being equipped for insuring public safety.

In order to study these concepts, the research employed in-depth face-to-face interviews with a sample of 23 young adults. These individuals were black, Baltimore city residents, or they participated in community action efforts in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray’s death in 2015. These interviews included questions relating to Gray’s death, subsequent events, their own experiences with the police, beliefs about police perceptions of minorities, and projections for future actions and solutions. For analytical purposes, the interviews were coded for aspects relating to critical race theory, legal cynicism, citizen trust, black respectability, and police legitimacy.

Overall, the interviews brought to light how young African Americans felt after the events of 2015. There was a general belief that “white performance” will not help black individuals avoid the police. They stated that even “well dressed” black people generate police suspicion, as officers may believe the clothes are stolen. Interestingly, black citizens also reported a heightened fear of black police officers, due to the belief that harsher treatment would be provided by black officers. Moreover, police lack legitimacy in the eyes of minority citizens, who believe they are forced to avoid law enforcement for their own safety.

The findings of Kerrison et al. (2018) suggest that the state should be held accountable to its people, and there should be an investment in substantive justice in order to heal the relationship between the state and its people. Criminal justice reform also should involve the investigation of how police are incentivized to target black citizens, and general criminal justice reforms should aim to end the structural conditions that appear to generate state-sponsored violence. In addition, future research would benefit from studying individuals who are part of the modern Black Lives Matter movement, along with samples of various races, ages, genders, and sexualities, in order to understand how different individuals feel about police presence.

Black respectability politics are challenging in a world of hyper surveillance. After 9-11 and the associated enhancement of homeland security efforts, the government generally increased its targeting of minority citizens through different surveillance methods (Harcourt, 2018). Fusion centers, which are facilities that promote the sharing of data among government agencies, promote data collection directed at possible threats to the country and local communities. There are currently 79 fusion centers recognized by the Department of Homeland Security. A recent study by Ritchie (2020) examined at how fusion centers target minorities and turn them into “out of place bodies.”

This research focused on Fanon’s (1986) idea of racial phobogenics, which is the process of turning a raced body into an object of anxiety. This occurs because a minority body causes fear in white citizens, potentially turning all minorities into objects to be feared. The labeling of young minority individuals as “super-predators” in the 1990s is an example of this phenomenon. In modern times, this leads to digital epidermalization, which is when the simple property of races turns a person into a target of data collection. This is done through biometric data, such as finger printing and DNA collection, and fusion centers typically focus on collecting data from raced bodies under the rationale of public safety. Individuals working at these centers are trained in “situational awareness,” or the ability to find suspicious behavior in individuals that may harm society. Fusion center employees also produce suspicious activity reports (SARs) to turn their situational awareness into data, which involves creating files on those who are showing signs of terrorist activity. Ritchie (2020) argues that SARs are “digital skins for racial minorities… [where] law enforcement can keep tabs on racialized bodies with…ease” (p. 17). In the end, the process of surveillance that generates SARS “fuses” race with something out of place, and consequently, racialized bodies become moving targets for the state.

Ritchie (2020) observed within a fusion center in Texas and conducted interviews with employees. She planned on looking at several fusion centers, but only one provided clearance and access. The findings revealed that this fusion center inexplicably focused on race as a factor in surveillance. To illustrate, Ritchie (2020) observed fusion center employees looking at a Muslim black man’s Facebook page. He was under suspicion for preaching online in Arabic, through the application WhatsApp. This shows the difficulty in separating race and surveillance, because employees are trained for connecting it through situational awareness. In other words, surveillance and public safety seem to hinge on keeping an eye on minority bodies. Future studies should examine additional fusion centers in various locations, as each is different. However, studying fusion centers is difficult, because these centers hold an abundance of sensitive data and require strict security clearance for research access.

Conclusions and Implications

Surveillance and proactive policing efforts are racially charged methods of controlling minority bodies. This is revealed in the studies reviewed in this paper, and it is being amplified today with growing social unrest and the power of the Black Lives Matter movement. The study by Del Toro et al. (2018) shows how proactive policing has long term negative effects on young black and Latino boys. The Kerrison et al. (2018) study uncovered important findings regarding the concept of black respectability politics and victim blaming, with regard to police officers targeting minorities. Finally, Ritchie (2020) generated evidence on how fusion centers target individuals based on race and associated characteristics. These are three studies from a growing library of literature on race and surveillance.

Both proactive policing and surveillance efforts have negative effects on minorities. Labeling and resulting strains can cause young minority boys to engage in delinquent behavior. Labeling these individuals as deviant and delinquent, through increased police contact, also potentially can increase crime. With this in mind, along with concerns about the added role that fusion centers might play in this process, it is important to implement policies that prevent law enforcement agencies from specifically targeting minority bodies.

These polices should go beyond surface level changes to policing and surveillance. In order to change how minorities are affected by these institutions, systematic shifts must happen within the United States that alter the focus on racialized bodies. Increased police contact through proactive policing disproportionately impacts on areas with large minority populations and higher levels of crime. At a minimum, in addition to proactive policing, police departments should emphasize building relationships with community members in true community policing fashion. Changes likely cannot be made without a stronger push from civil rights advocacy and groups such as the Black Lives Matter movement.


Agnew, R. (1992). Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency. Criminology30(1), 47-88.

Crenshaw, K., Gotanda, N., Peller, G., & Thomas, K. (1995). Critical race theory. The Key            Writings that formed the Movement. New York.

Del Toro, J., Lloyd, T., Buchanan, K. S., Robins, S. J., Bencharit, L. Z., Smiedt, M. G., ... &    Goff, P. A. (2019). The criminogenic and psychological effects of police stops on        adolescent black and Latino boys. Proceedings of the National Academy of     Sciences116(17), 8261-8268.

Ellis, D., Harper, D., & Tucker, I. (2013). The dynamics of impersonal trust and distrust in            surveillance systems. Sociological Research Online18(3), 85-96.

Fanon, Frantz. 1986. Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Charles Lam Markmann. Pluto            Press.

Harcourt, B. E. (2018). The counterrevolution: how our government went to war against its own            citizens. Basic Books.

Harmon, R. A. (2009). Promoting civil rights through proactive policing reform. Stanford Law            Review62, 1.

Kerrison, E. M., Cobbina, J., & Bender, K. (2018). “Your Pants Won’t Save You” Why Black   Youth Challenge Race-Based Police Surveillance and the Demands of Black            Respectability Politics. Race and Justice8(1), 7-26.

Pappoe, Y. N. (2016). Remedying the effects of government-sanctioned segregation in a post            Freddie Gray Baltimore. U. Md. LJ Race, Religion, Gender & Class16, 115.

Piquero, A. R. (2008). Disproportionate minority contact. The future of children, 59-79.

Rinehart Kochel, T. (2011). Constructing hot spots policing: Unexamined consequences for            disadvantaged populations and for police legitimacy. Criminal Justice Policy            Review22(3), 350-374.

Ritchie, M. (2020). Fusing Race: The Phobogenics of Racializing Surveillance. Surveillance &  Society18(1), 12-29.

Walker, S., & Justice, O. C. (2016). The History of Proactive Policing in the US. Panel on            Proactive Policing, National Academy of Sciences.

Photo by David Veksler on Unsplash


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