Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police

Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police

by Micol Seigel

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In Violence Work Micol Seigel offers a new theorization of the quintessential incarnation of state power: the police. Foregrounding the interdependence of policing, the state, and global capital, Seigel redefines policing as “violence work,” showing how it is shaped by its role of channeling state violence. She traces this dynamic by examining the formation, demise, and aftermath of the U.S. State Department's Office of Public Safety (OPS), which between 1962 and 1974 specialized in training police forces internationally. Officially a civilian agency, the OPS grew and operated in military and counterinsurgency realms in ways that transgressed the borders that are meant to contain the police within civilian, public, and local spheres. Tracing the career paths of OPS agents after their agency closed, Seigel shows how police practices writ large are rooted in violence—especially against people of color, the poor, and working people—and how understanding police as a civilian, public, and local institution legitimizes state violence while preserving the myth of state benevolence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478000174
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 08/27/2018
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Micol Seigel is Professor of American Studies and History at Indiana University, Bloomington and the author of Uneven Encounters: Making Race and Nation in Brazil and the United States, also published by Duke University Press.

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The Office of Public Safety, the LEAA, and US Police

In September of 1967, Otto Kerner brought an important witness to testify to the presidential commission he chaired, the US National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The witness was Byron Engle, then director of the Office of Public Safety, a federal agency established in the early 1960s to provide allied foreign nations with training for their police. "Mr. Engle," Kerner explained to his colleagues, "will talk about the lessons learned from civil disorders in both this country and abroad, and the fundamental basic principles which apply internationally." Kerner and his commission were charged with understanding the causes of the terrible urban disturbances of the mid-1960s, and preventing their recurrence. Crucial to their conceptualization of both the problem and the solution was, as Kerner signaled, a convergence of foreign and domestic spheres, with the hinge provided by a border-breaching body of police.

There is a great deal worth drawing out from this snapshot of a US national policy discussion around violence work. There is the glimpse of global conditions mattering to domestic policymaking. There is the notice of a federal agency that sent US police across international borders, flouting a fairly widespread sense that US police are local in the scope of their activity. Behind it, there is the racist state-market violence that provoked the riots the Kerner Commission was organized to consider, and ahead, the policies that emerged from this process, which precipitated the stunning expansion of the US criminal justice system that people today invoke with the shorthand "mass incarceration." Most importantly, there is the suggestion of the equivalence of domestic and foreign conflict and police response, which Kerner clearly found important. Engle didn't come up with this idea, but he and the agency he directed were active in its amplification.

In calling the work of the Office of Public Safety (OPS) to the attention of the influential Kerner Commission, Engle reveals a key facet of the legacy of that agency, which this chapter will shortly introduce in full. This important aspect ofOPS's impact is underexplored. OPS has had its historians, both critical and laudatory, but they have focused on the agency's work abroad. Even OPS's most vehement critics have thus accepted the parameters of the autobiography its protagonists would write for it and for themselves. None have placed it in domestic context, much less in the fully transnational landscapes of police and state activity in which it emerged, operated, ended, and was reborn in various forms.

This chapter opens by telling the OPS story as an account of global and local currents swirling together, with OPS and its agents among the instruments doing the stirring. Thus reframed, the OPS story elucidates phenomena of far greater importance than the details of a minor federal government body. Moving along multiple levels of scale from the broadest ideological contours of the day to institutional formation to the microlevel of the individual, it shows the transnational history of the federal legislative acts of the late 1960s that poured federal dollars into policing, prisons, and other aspects of the US criminal justice system, primarily the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, or LEAA, that dominant player in US criminal justice policy throughout the 1970s. To see the LEAA and its policy contemporaries as part of the legacy of OPS is a radical revision of both the histories of domestic policy and of foreign police assistance. Telling the story in this way reveals the geographic, public-private, and civilian-military border crossing involved in the expansion of violence work and its rising lethality in the period in which it was deployed to suppress domestic dissent in US antiwar and racial justice movements.


The grounds on which violence work in the United States and abroad would shift and grow in the 1970s depended on the ascent of the notion of economic development. As salve for global inequality, development theorists in the United States and Western Europe prescribed a regimen of modernization and economic growth. They claimed a progressive mantle of cultural relativism by rejecting colonial conceptualizations of the world as divided into civilized and barbaric peoples, though their views preserved much of the hierarchies of earlier generations. Against the political and economic claims of the anti-imperialist formation coming to call itself the "Third World," development discourse defined "Third World" spatially and specified it economically as "poor." By the 1950s, the notion that the Third World required "development" in order to progress was powerful common sense, with Walt W. Rostow's Stages of Economic Growth (1960) articulating widespread consensus.

With "development" as the cornerstone of hopes for victory over communism, policing moved to a privileged position in US foreign policy. Extending the logic of the postwar Marshall Plan for Europe to the rest of the globe, American officials crafted foreign aid to promote development and therefore faith in capitalism and in the United States. In this framing, assistance to foreign police had a number of attractions. It would (its champions thought) help maintain the order required for economic increase, and the ostensibly gentler approach of police seemed more promising than brute force in the famed Cold War struggle for "hearts and minds." Police assistance could be portrayed as technical and civilian; using it to replace military aid was more politic in a world in which military matériel was subject to critique as neo-imperial or interventionist. Finally, police were closer to the people, and therefore better poised for the gathering of intelligence.

This developmentalist, police- and order-focused, intelligence-centered approach comprised counterinsurgency, the series of fighting techniques developed to respond to guerrilla tactics and implemented by US military and police together as early as the Greek civil war of 1944–49. While the term reached a general public sphere only in the early 1960s (still new enough in 1962 for the Washington Post to call it "the latest gobbledygook for finding and killing guerillas"), it had already emerged as the United States' premier military priority globally at that point, its theoretical precepts elaborated in a "sprawling" literature by the early 1960s.

Counterinsurgency entered diplomatic policy under Eisenhower, who inaugurated a police assistance program in 1954. Building on the US police role in occupied Japan and postwar hotspots including Korea, Greece (figure 1.1), and Iran (figure 1.2), and incorporating academic, private-sector, and government elements, this program was organized under the auspices of the International Cooperation Administration (ICA), relied for training facilities on US universities and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (a domestic organization despite its name), and was substantially supported by the CIA, whose eventual involvement with OPS would be constant and often acknowledged.

Kennedy was also concerned to avoid the perception of imperialist positions, hopeful about humanitarian aid, and, more to the point, avid about counterinsurgency. His foreign policy was increasingly concerned not with actual attacks on the United States or its allies but with subversion from within, or "internal security," as the Cold Warriors called it. Police were closer to the people, and lived among them, which was key for tracking insurgency, and the service work police performed helped portray democratic governance as benevolent. So in 1961 when Kennedy replaced the ICA with the Agency for International Development (USAID) to oversee foreign aid, he gathered there the police programs he inherited, under the aegis of a new agency, the Office of Public Safety, or OPS.

Retaining many ICA personnel and offices, OPS expanded its operations dramatically, eventually reaching nearly fifty countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. It opened the Inter-American Police Academy in the Panama Canal Zone in 1963, moving it to Washington in 1964 after protests by Panamanians over sovereignty became violent clashes; there it was renamed the International Police Academy.

Over the course of its dozen years of life, OPS distributed $200 million in arms and equipment to police forces in forty-seven countries, trained over 7,500 senior officers at its academy and other US schools, and sent nearly 1,500 advisors overseas to train over one million rank-and-file policemen. Its champions tout accomplishments in professionalizing and modernizing corrupt and haphazard police, and continue to praise its legacy even today.

The agency also had many critics. The Office of Public Safety was dogged by allegations that it did not improve democratic police. It was accused of teaching torture and practicing political policing, and a number of scandals rocked its tenure at State. One such scandal involved the dictatorship in Brazil, whose abuses were increasingly evident in the United States in the early 1970s, casting less than favorable light on the branches of the US foreign policy apparatus that had supported the 1964 coup and continued to shore up the military government. Another focused on a prison in Vietnam that OPS advisors helped run. Named for its location on Con Son Island, the prison featured tiny, dank cells denounced as "tiger cages" by critics in 1970, and a delegation of antiwar activists including US congressmen visited and condemned the site. Just as this crisis was hitting the airwaves, the kidnapping and murder of OPS advisor Dan Mitrione by Tupamaro guerrillas in Uruguay brought stark publicity to the accusations concerning torture, particularly when the incident became the subject of a popular movie, State of Siege, released in 1973 by Greek filmmaker Constantin Costa-Gavras.

As the 1970s dawned, OPS employees were already nervous about their agency's future, and many began to seek new positions. Those who thought they saw the writing on the wall were correct. Congress held hearings in 1973 and 1974, ending by prohibiting police assistance through an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act. With this, lawmakers terminated OPS, instructing its offices to wrap up their affairs within the calendar year.

Yet the end of OPS was not the end of police assistance. Congress had allowed several exemptions, including one for narcotics policing, and another for programs paid for by the receiving countries. By the end of the decade, Congress had added exceptions for police assistance to countries where it seemed indispensable, and others on a temporary basis that proved to be quite durable, and so on, until police assistance was once again a quotidian part of US foreign policy as it is nowadays. Former OPS agents continued in that line of work throughout; when ICITAP, the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program, which represents the reestablishment of officially recognized police assistance, was founded in 1986, ex-OPS were still around to join up.

Unable to predict this vindication, OPS employees were stricken by Congress's 1973 decision. They testified, lobbied, protested, and strategized about how to save their sinking ship. Solidarity, fed by frustration, led these workers to stay in touch, finding each other at conferences, in social visits, and working together again in new positions they often helped each other secure. Their desire to communicate led them to produce a circular, the Public Safety Newsletter, initiated soon after OPS's formal termination. Never distributed far outside its original audience, the PSN survived on the labor of dedicated volunteers, editors passing the baton to others when they tired of the task. From the early garage mimeograph operation featuring tiny-print pages dense with addresses and news of career moves and personal lives (figure 1.3), it evolved in sophistication, surprising even its editors with its staying power (figure 1.4). It is still published regularly in 2017, now in online, full-color digital editions, these days featuring many memorials as this generation of civil servants passes on.

The Public Safety Newsletter is a bedrock of this project. I found it when I began to communicate with former OPS agents, after my research led me to one person's presence on Facebook. After lengthy conversations with him and others to whom he kindly introduced me, I was granted the opportunity to solicit copies of the PSN in its own pages. With hunger for their story to be told, ex-OPS responded generously. One former agent sent me his near-full set of back issues; others sent smaller caches. While I have not told the story of vindication that many ex-OPS yearned to read — and despite my protestations that I would not, I'm afraid some still held out hope — this project makes other stories possible: the PSN will be archived in the Indiana University libraries for public consultation in perpetuity.

The Public Safety Newsletter allowed ex-OPS to follow and support each other's progress, and it allows the historian to see something of their lives and thoughts. It has been invaluable in my attempt to understand the phenomena of which OPS and its former agents were a part. The project of professionalizing and modernizing police, it helps to reveal, was consequential at home as well as abroad.


In the 1940s and 1950s, most US development theorists paid little attention to domestic events, assuming underdevelopment to be a foreign malady. In the 1960s, however, they found a domestic application, when riots rocked US cities from Watts to Harlem. The urban disturbances that began in 1964 and extended to some three hundred cities before the end of the summer of 1967 felt to many Americans like waves of threatening chaos, particularly amid the assassinations of JFK in 1963 and of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968; widespread violence following King's assassination; unrest at the Democratic National Convention that same year; other civil rights and antiwar protests; and the 1968 archipelago of protest and violent state repression worldwide.

The protests were stunning to observers who had thought the United States immune. Many people had been convinced of the difference between the United States and the "less developed and newly emerging Free World countries" with their "emotional imbalance," as OPS founders had put it in 1962. Their profound confidence in the superiority of US law enforcement and national character turned out to be, in retrospect, uncannily predictive: "It is not hard to visualize what civil disturbances and riots our own country might experience if we lacked the respected and efficient and well established Federal law enforcement investigative mechanism for preventing such Communist-inspired activity and insuring internal security, and did not possess the economic, social and political maturity we have evolved since emerging as a free nation." Contemplating the assumptions required to pen such a passage makes it easier to imagine the shock and confusion evoked when the protests began.

The 1960s protests allowed development theorists to bring their favored framework home. Observers were attracted to the notion that downtrodden domestic sites required development, as (they thought) Third World locations did. Rather than suggesting any structural interdependence between immiserated inner cities and wealthier areas, or finding racism in housing, health, education, or employment conditions, this interpretation displaces the source of the ill entirely onto the problem zone — just as development theory at the global scale denies the relations of capital that distribute wealth unevenly around the globe. In this they echoed OPS founders who in 1962 explained that Third World nations' unrest owed fully to "reasons rooted in their own political, social, cultural, and economic histories."


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. Policing and State Power  1
1. The Office of Public Safety, the LEAA, and US Police  25
2. Civilian or Military? Distinction by Design  52
3. "Industrial Security" in Alaska: The Great Public-Private Divide  73
4. Corporate States and Government Markets for Saudi Arabian Oil  99
5. Professors for Police: The Growth of Criminal Justice Education  121
6. Exiles at Home: A Refugee Structure of Feeling  146
Conclusion. Reckoning with Police Lethality  179
Appendix  189
Abbreviations  191
Notes  193
Bibliography  249
Index  293

What People are Saying About This

Suspended Apocalypse: White Supremacy, Genocide, and the Filipino Condition - Dylan Rodríguez

“To follow the richly detailed, archivally researched story of Micol Seigel's Violence Work is to access a nuanced and convincing conceptualization of policing as a strategic socialization of the imminent and permanent threat of police violence. Reading Violence Work is a sustained exercise in demystification: any notion that policing is remotely separable from military power is thoroughly disrupted. Seigel's tremendously impactful book will reshape academic and public conversations and will serve as a pillar in the ongoing work of critical carceral studies, critical ethnic studies, and American studies.”

Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War II - A. Naomi Paik

“By looking at the short life and extended afterlife of the Office of Public Safety, Micol Seigel identifies how policing has always violated the ‘mythic borders’ that define it—between civilian and military forces, the state and market, and the local and global. Violence Work addresses urgent questions regarding contemporary policing and its supposedly increasing militarization, excessive brutality (with impunity), relation to corporate capital, and spread beyond local and national borders. It is required reading for anyone interested in state violence.”

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