University of Central Florida Undergraduate Research Journal - The Politicization of Crime and Its Implications
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The Politicization of Crime and its Implications

By: Komysha Hassan | Mentor: Dr. Jonathan Knuckey


The public outcry that followed the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, a young African-American man, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri brought to the forefront the issue of police violence and excessive use of force, particularly against African-Americans. But the issue is not a new one. A similar incident took place in 1991 when a number of Los Angeles Police Department officers beat Rodney King1 following a traffic stop. Though nearly a quarter of a century has passed between the two incidents, it appears as if little has fundamentally changed. Racism and racial tension in law enforcement and society has been addressed by a large body of research; however, the politicization of crime and its role in racializing crime, as well as the impact of federalization on crime control, has been less thoroughly scrutinized.

Owing to Scheingold (1984) and Reasons (1974), the concept of the politicization of crime has become more prevalent in scholarly research. In this paper, the politicization of crime is defined as the use of the crime issue as a political tool or construct to further policy and political agendas. As research by Murakawa (2005) and Lynch (2008) indicates, racialization of crime is a consequence of politicization rather than the inverse. Hence, we must look more closely at the politicization of crime control, particularly in the years leading up to and following the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, to understand the link between politics and crime. Federalization presents another angle of politicization. The ever-expanding role of the federal government in the process of crime control has had a profound effect on how law enforcement conducts itself and the types of crimes given the most attention.

This paper uses archival research to identify the historical link between the federalization and politicization of crime and its impact on the institution of law enforcement. It is not the intention of this research to be a commentary on racialization, but because race plays an integral role in the operationalization and exercise of crime control in the United States, inevitably it must be included. The public’s understanding of crime in society has evolved over time, and with the advent of social media and sharing platforms, the public has become more aware of crime beyond its political characterization. Despite this growing awareness, there remain disparities in the public’s perception of crime versus actual crime rates, which are also evident in the institution of law enforcement.

This paper proceeds in three parts. First, I overview the State’s2 police power to better understand the role and development of the institution of law enforcement. Manning (1999) and Cummings (1979) provide useful background on the evolution of police power in this aspect, while Reiner (2010) explicates the confluence of politics and law enforcement. Secondly, I scrutinize the federal shift in crime control, particularly with respect to its impact on the law enforcement institution and how crime has been quantified and variously controlled. The extensive research of Beckett and Sasson (2003), Schiengold (1984), and Simon (2009) document the evolution of crime’s politicization, as well as how the politics of crime has impacted other aspects of society. Simon (2009) and Surette (2006) provide further support for the influence of politicization on the crime narrative and the public perception of crime. Thirdly, I analyze the crime narrative itself, taking into account the influences addressed in the previous two sections. This narrative is an important component of the racialization of crime and how the public sees criminals, the agents of crime control, and the process of remediation. Findings by Lynch (2008) provide some of the most compelling evidence of the evolution of the crime narrative from a political point of view. This research will then elucidate further the larger social effects of the politics of crime.

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