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Book Review | Race, Place, and Suburban Policing: Too Close for Comfort

Published onNov 01, 2016
Book Review | Race, Place, and Suburban Policing: Too Close for Comfort

Andrea S. Boyles. Race, Place, and Suburban Policing: Too Close for Comfort. University of California Press, 2015; 268 pp.; ISBN: 9780520282391.

The struggles of African Americans with police in urban environments are well documented in criminological and sociological research. Andrea Boyles in Race, Place, and Suburban Policing offers new perspectives by introducing readers to the relationship between African Americans and the police in Meacham Park, a suburban enclave of affluent Kirkwood, Missouri. The focus on suburbia depicts how race and place shapes interactions and sheds doubt that African Americans can escape the harms associated with living in low-income urban environments by relocating to the suburbs. Boyles spent two years conducting fieldwork and interviewed over thirty adults at length. Her findings provide theoretical insight into how African Americans make sense of their experiences with the police.

Boyles introduces the book by arguing for the need to analyze race, place, and policing and its interactive effects simultaneously. In particular, the focus on race and place informs us how discrimination and stereotypes are formed in suburban places, providing a platform to make theoretical and empirical comparisons to urban locales. Chapter 1 provides the historical context of race and place. Boyles recognizes that police interactions do not occur in a vacuum; rather, they are part of a larger history. Boyles weaves the history of slavery, segregation and associated Black-only laws (e.g., Slave Codes)  to explain how Blackness came to be regarded as deviant and used  to justify controlling Black bodies across space and time. Boyles links these broader historical narratives to the specific experiences found in Meacham Park and the desire of existing White residents to maintain primarily White suburbs. Using spatial-assimilation and place-stratification theories, Boyles explains how the desire of Whites to maintain distance from Blacks created the one-way-in, one-way-out Meacham Park enclave, separated physically, socially, and economically from the larger City of Kirkwood. The historical development of Meacham Park meant African Americans did not enjoy the privileges associated with suburbs; rather, they were segregated and became vulnerable to the social norms and control of the larger, White, and affluent Kirkwood community. Chapter 2 focuses on the consequences related to the contentious co-habitation of an African American community located within a largely White suburb. Boyles argues the rigidity of race, class, and place provides a medium to untangle the three. Boyles explains how the City of Kirkwood acquired Meacham Park and thus generated a steady stream of revenue from the community. Furthermore, by taking control over Meacham Park, the City of Kirkwood secured the safety of its White residents by taking responsibility for the policing practices. The long-standing history of tense race relations in Kirkwood were apparent; over half of the participants in Boyles’ study stated they did not trust the Kirkwood government. Through annexation the residents of Meacham Park became subject to increased involuntary contact with the police, with 22 out of 30 respondents reporting an involuntary contact. The associated fear and safety concerns of Whites led to new, stricter rules, increased police enforcement, and a loss of communal identity as Meacham Park became a part of Kirkwood.

In Chapter 3, Boyles elaborates on the involuntary police experiences of the research subjects. These experiences included stop-and-frisk, surveillance, searches, and arrests. Younger and male participants were more likely to be stopped and prior negative contact with the police led to future acts of police aggression, including physical brutality, falsified reports, and evidence planting. Chapter 4 presents the lives of two Meacham Park residents who, after a series of negative interactions with the community, killed two police officers. Boyles explains how Kevin Johnson, a youngster with a criminal record, and Charles “Cookie” Thornton, an older man with no record, both felt harassed by police. Without recourse, they retaliated against the police. Boyles uses these two separate events to highlight how everyday negative experiences in Meacham Park are part of the residents’ milieu. Chapter 5 moves beyond involuntary police interactions to examine police-community relations when residents call the police for assistance. Boyles reported fifteen residents called the police for help. Women and older participants were likelier to place calls for police assistance and reported favorable perceptions of the police. Conversely, younger participants who called the police were more likely to report less satisfaction following a service call. Boyles reveals how residents experienced delayed responses, no responses, or no resolutions following their calls, generating negative experiences with police even when the contact was voluntary.

In the final chapter, Boyles provides recommendations for addressing the harms found in Meacham Park. In particular, Boyles argues that officials within the Kirkwood government, including the police, need cultural awareness and sensitivity training; the police need to be courteous or friendly while patrolling the community. Further, Boyles contends the Kirkwood government needs to be aware that their roles, decisions, and practices matter and can have a negative impact on the disadvantaged Meacham Park neighborhood. Next, Boyles notes the residents in Meacham Park need to be included in the political process. The residents believed they were shut out of the government and were not provided with services and programs to sustain their community. In addition, Boyles argues there needs to be greater political accountability and transparency. Finally, Boyles identifies the need to address unemployment and a lack of relevant youth programs.

As with all research, there are limitations in this book. Boyles only interviewed 30 residents and lacked diversity in the age range of the respondents. Furthermore, Boyles’ recommendations would require complex changes that are not fully examined within her study. While officers being more courteous can improve procedural justice and legitimacy, the lack of political inclusion and political sensitivity will limit the impact of courteous officers. Boyles does not tease out the challenges of addressing the needed structural and social changes. After all, without political pressure to halt aggressive police practices, Meacham Park residents would continue to be exposed to aggressive, yet more courteous, police practices that do little to change the everyday experiences of race, space, and suburban policing.

Overall, Boyles presents a unique and innovative understanding of the relationship between race, place, and policing. By focusing on Meacham Park, Boyles successfully disentangles how historical and contemporary contexts generate racial tension and impact the everyday experiences of African Americans. The book reveals that the stigmas associated with minority, urban communities are perpetuated and potentially heightened when the minority communities are located next affluent Whites, even in the suburbs. Boyles successfully shows African Americans continue to confront policies and police action that control their use of social spaces. This book would be a great addition to any class focusing on race, police, or space. The book is accessible and would add value to a graduate or upper-level undergraduate course.

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