Getting Hassled by the Man

Nancy Ng

“We know everything about you. We know where you live. We know where you work. We know who your friends are.”

Guillermina Seri, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida in Gainesville, heard these words during an interview with the police. From that, she got the name of her Monday lecture, “We Know Everything about You: Police Discretion, Narratives and Democracy.”

Seri felt that this threatening message effectively represented the scope of police power.

Seri expressed that she was puzzled by how little attention political scientists have paid to the issue of police power, given that police power is such a large part of government.

Seri made the case that in encounters between civilians and the police, the encounter has many potential outcomes: the situation may be pleasant and nothing may happen, the officer may make an accusation and arrest or, in the worst case scenario, the officer may take the civilian’s life.

She pointed out that the incident is open to a whole range of possibilities, but people only take notice when the outcome involves death or other obvious excessive uses of force.

“In civilian-police encounters, there is a moment when the law is suspended and an officer must make his or her own judgment given the situation,” Seri said. “This kind of power that the officer exercises is a kind of sovereign judgment in the sense that the laws are there, but it’s up to the police officer’s discretion on how to apply them. This tremendous amount of power is scary.”

Junior Brian Byrne agreed with Seri’s views.

“I feel that she made an interesting point as to the need to have guidelines in police interactions with civilians, because of the potentially dangerous sovereignty of police power,” Byrne said.

The way that most governments – especially democratic ones – have attempted to reconcile this sovereign power with the protection of civil liberties is to pass even more laws governing the behavior of the police. Seri points out that this is not a viable way to address the problematic issue.

“At any one point in California in the 1970s, an officer was expected to abide by 30,000 laws and regulations, which is ridiculous, since no one can possibly hold that much information in their minds,” Seri said.

The problem is more complex than it seems because officers feel that they need absolute power to make split-second decisions.

According to Hobbes, the exercise of discretion requires judgment and that “judgment makes one sovereign.”

The means by which Seri gathered information to support her views came from interviews conducted with police officers in various and diverse regions of the world, including Argentina, the Philippines, Uruguay, the United Kingdom and the United States. This was a work in progress for Seri, who intends to conduct additional interviews.

From her current data, Seri asserts that embedded within these interviews are myriad of interlocking metaphors, strophes and narratives.

Seri argued that it was not the laws that direct police discretion, but the narratives. She pointed to the influence of films like Rambo and Serpico, a film about a police officer working within the system to combat corruption.

Seri found the British and Uruguayan narratives to be more civic, while those of the U.S., Argentina and the Philippines were more ambiguous and militaristic. The U.S. currently falls under the category of state policing that was also characteristic of Augustan Rome.

Out of the four categories of policing -citizen/denizen, state, clientele and private – Seri favors the self-policing aspects of the Athenian model of citizen/denizen policing as most compatible with democracy.

The practice of civilians policing themselves still exists in the Rondas Campesinas of Peru and the Zwelethemba model in South Africa and Argentina, but is limited to grassroots societies.