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Book Review | Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row

Published onNov 01, 2017
Book Review | Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row

Forrest Stuart. Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row. University of Chicago Press, 2016; 352 pp.; ISBN: 9780226370811.


Aggressive crime control strategies such as stop-and-frisk and poverty governance bring forth contentious debates on their impact. Proponents argue the policies are needed to combat crime, while opponents contend they are oppressive, harmful, and discriminatory. It is rare in these discussions that the perspectives of the control agents and the public impacted by the policies are simultaneously engaged. Forrest Stuart in his book Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row fills this gap using ethnographic and historical data to depict how poverty governance impacts the everyday interactions of Skid Row residents, police, and community organizations. Stuart’s five years observing police officers, residents, and community organizations in Los Angeles’ Skid Row illuminates how the police are an effective cultural agent, able to shape and reshape the contexts and collective strategies in neighborhoods where some of America’s most disadvantaged live. Stuart organizes his work into two parts and five chapters.

Part One focuses on the history of policing in Skid Row and the officers tasked with controlling crime. In Chapter One, Stuart traces the historical conditions in Skid Row and how forms of policing have changed beginning in the 1850’s and ending with the initiation of the Safer Cities Initiative, a zero-tolerance model of policing. Stuart argues Skid Row policing strategies evolved in relation to shifts in welfare governance. At a time when welfare programming is at its strongest, police are less intrusive into resident’s lives, tending to yield the role of support to other state agencies. On the other hand, when welfare programming is low, police and non-profit organizations become more involved in residents’ lives. This form of involved policing is referred to as therapeutic policing, which is an outreach that works to convert residents back into conventional society by encouraging productivity and responsible behaviors upon them through mandated rehabilitation and strict adherence to rules. Therapeutic policing is exacerbated by the inclusion of private welfare organizations, such as the Skid Row mega-shelters, that play an important role in promoting zero-tolerance models of policing that push individuals into seeking help. In Chapter Two, Stuart depicts how therapeutic policing shapes police officers’ understandings of and efforts in Skid Row. Police officers adopt the logic of therapeutic policing and believe residents who take advantage of social services can turn their lives around and become productive members of society. Those residents who refuse to seek help are subjected to increased criminalization where officers will arrest or cite a resident and offer them the choice of going to jail or enrolling at one of the three mega-shelters in order to receive social services. The police in Skid Row use zero-tolerance approaches not for punishment, but to guide residents to more responsible choices.

Part Two shifts from understanding the purposes and practices of therapeutic policing to its impact on residents’ relationships with each other. In Chapter Three Stuart introduces the reader to the term “copwise,” a cognitive schema residents develop to avoid unwanted police contact. Stuart spent time with a group of men, led by “Steel,” who work out together as a means of insulating themselves from threats to sobriety. The men showed Stuart how residents of Skid Row vary their schedule to avoid being on the streets when the police are present in order to limit possible interactions with them. Similarly, the work-out group is careful with whom they interact in order to avoid drawing extra attention to themselves, knowing that when trouble occurs the police subject everyone in the vicinity to increased control. Yet, these evasive tactics only work for so long, before they are placed back under the blanket of suspicion and the group was fractured. Chapter Four reveals the copwise strategies of street vendors. While selling their products, the street vendors are adamant that no illegal activities be completed near them. The vendors commonly interrupt illegal behavior and force the subjects to move elsewhere. Illegal, odd, or threatening activities are likely to draw police to the area, making the vendors more susceptible to arrests and citations. As a result, the vendors forcibly push away residents who are women, look well-off, or entertain illegal activities. The interaction between the vendors and the residents demonstrates how the vendors of Skid Row have taken up an informal social control of the area. The vendors’ informal social control only protects a small group of people while excluding others, resulting in greater exclusion and generating fear, anxiety, and hostility between residents undermining solidarity and breeding new forms of harm.

In Chapter Five, Stuart describes his involvement with the  Los  Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN) and its Community Watch team, a grassroots organization attempting to combat aggressive police practices in Skid Row. LACAN maintains a different “neighborhood frame” than both Steel and the vendors. While Steel and the vendors view Skid Row mainly   as a place of degradation, Community Watch perceives Skid Row as a legitimate neighborhood, filled with people who are being unfairly judged and harassed by police. LACAN confronts and is confronted by the police as they work to follow the police and record police interactions in hopes of achieving evidence that could help local residents in the courtroom, reveal the detrimental impact of therapeutic policing on Skid Row, and challenge forms of poverty governance.

Overall, Stuart does a great job examining the motives and impacts of therapeutic policing on Skid Row residents, demonstrating that police strategies reshape residents’ interactions as they become copwise, and thus limit the ability of residents to work together. Stuart’s analysis leads to the proposal of two alternatives to current forms of poverty governance, suggesting that the Housing First and Harm Reduction models would be more effective. As is the case with all ethnography, Stuart’s findings are not entirely generalizable to other locales; however, his analytic framework can be used to study the impact of therapeutic policing models and residents’ responses. Down, Out, and Under Arrest is a good resource for graduate or upper-level undergraduate students studying criminology, sociology, or ethnography or for graduate students specializing in urban housing, homelessness, poverty governance, and public policy.

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