Q&A with “Uniform Feelings” Author, Jessi Lee Jackson

by Briana Johnson on May 9, 2022

This guest author post is a Q&A with Jessi Lee Jackson, author of Uniform Feelings: Scenes from the Psychic Life of Policing, from the University of Michigan Press. This book is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

How did your years of experience as a psychotherapist inform how you approached researching and writing Uniform Feelings

After more than a decade and a half of practice, being a psychotherapist is a key part of how I see the world. I value the creation of spaces in which we can be curious and reflective about our own experiences, relationships, ideas, and emotions. I know that this process can be a transformative one. And yet the fields of psychology and counseling can also be used to further state-sanctioned violence in large and small ways. It is important to be curious about what we do with the power we have as mental health professionals and to wield that power in ethical ways. 

My research and writing practice is very similar to my psychotherapy practice. It functions as a kind of parallel process, in which I can continue to explore questions that arise in my therapy practice and stay in places that feel unresolved. With Uniform Feelings, my research began as a response to my confusion about how I was interacting with police power in my role as a counselor. It kept coming up in the counseling room, whether I was seeing people impacted by policing or people working as cops. There was something about my relationship with policing that I felt I was circling around. And so I started researching and writing, to try to move myself closer towards what I didn’t understand. I sought out other narratives around psychology, emotion, and policing—in police psychology manuals and self-help guides, in implicit bias trainings, at memorials and police museums—in order to get a sense of the types of stories that were being told about the psychic life of policing and the role of mental health professionals in relation to policing. 


What does the research in Uniform Feelings reveal about the emotional dynamics that underlie policing? 

One thing that I’m interested in is the pleasures that people find in their affiliations with policing. While some of the benefits that people get from their affiliations with police power are material—like wages or protection of wealth—other benefits occur in the realm of fantasy. Fantasies of police power are shaped through TV shows, movies, video games, childhood play, school environments and curricula, stories that travel within families and communities, our built environments, and all of our encounters with police. Everyone in the U.S. has an internalized set of emotional relationships with police power. And some aspects of those relationships can be really pleasurable ones. People might relax and spend their evenings with Olivia Benson or Columbo or Dirty Harry; or we might take pleasure in stories about justice being served through the criminal legal system; or we might enjoy thinking about people we detest being sent to prison; or we might experience our relationships with police power as providing a feeling of security at different moments in our lives. Some of these fantasies may be more easily accessible for people whose privilege shields them from the realities of police violence, but they offer themselves up to people who are targeted by policing as well. These intrapsychic relationships with policing can be hard to give up, even when they exist alongside deeply felt critiques of state violence because they feel good. 

When people encounter information that challenges their internalized relationships with police power, they can defend themselves against taking in this information and turning it into knowledge. This happens within policing, but it isn’t confined to those who work as cops. Simple facts become harder to recognize, or are denied. Sometimes the facts are acknowledged, but the meaning is dissociated. For example, in the book, I examine a recent guide for responding to “officer-involved shootings” that discusses the traumatic impact on the cop who shoots, with little acknowledgment of the traumatic impact on witnesses, people who survive police shootings, or the loved ones of those murdered by police. Even though the entire guide revolves around the scene of a shooting, the person who was shot simply disappears from the story. The people who were there disappear as well. This is an example of a psychic defense mechanism against reckoning with the long history of U.S. state-sanctioned violence. Within the book, I am particularly interested in the ways that mental health professionals can participate in these defense mechanisms, rather than challenging them. 


When you discuss innocence and criminality, you use the term “vulnerable protector.” How do the narratives around this term affect the discussion around policing? 

Working with cops, visiting museums and memorials, attending trainings, and reviewing psychological literature aimed at supporting cops, I was struck by how often the vulnerability of police officers was highlighted. For example, I trace some discussions around reduced life expectancy in policing. My clients who worked as cops brought it up as a very real fear that weighed on them–they expected to die young. It makes sense that they had this fear, because police trainings, memorials, and public relations stories constantly stress how dangerous it is to work as a cop, and these narratives are often focused on the risk of being violently attacked.

And yet there is a lot missing from these stories of risk. First, there are many other professions that are a lot more dangerous—like being an airplane pilot or a sanitation worker. Secondly, within policing, this isn’t the most dangerous time to be a cop. There were more police officer deaths in 1930 than there were in 2019, despite the police workforce having grown dramatically since that time. If we take out COVID-19 related deaths, cops are getting safer at their jobs. And this connects to the third missing part of the story, which is that these discussions of risk don’t reflect the riskiest parts of the job. In 2020 and 2021, the biggest threat to police officers’ lives was COVID-19. The persistence and omnipresence of this narrative of risk, alongside the missing parts of the story, raise questions for me about how these narratives of police vulnerability function in relation to police power. 

When you go to memorial sites and police museums, or when you examine some other aspects of police culture like self-help manuals or critical incident protocols, they present a fairly consistent idea about how we should handle this perceived vulnerability. Which is that we should treat it as absolute fact, that the police are our “vulnerable protectors.” They argue that everyone should unite to support and protect law enforcement, because if we recognize how at-risk and courageous they are, they’ll be safer. In this narrative, the paternalistic idea of it being the job of cops to protect civilians gets flipped. It’s the job of civilians to defend our vulnerable protectors. This rhetoric doesn’t engage as much with ideas around the protection of innocent civilians. Instead, it marks out two sides. On one side, there are cops and people who support them. On the other side, we have the enemy, which includes people marked as criminals or sympathetic to criminals, as well as anyone who questions police power. Rather than cops protecting civilians, within these narratives about vulnerable protectors, it becomes the civilians’ job to protect cops through their displays of loyalty and gratitude. 


How do relationships with state violence in the United States extend beyond individual interactions?  

Police power in the United States is a part of a long history of state violence in the service of racial capitalism, and it is also constantly shifting in response to challenges. One way that we can look at relationships with state violence on an institutional level is to take a look at the way that the field of psychology has contributed to the ongoingness of police power.

Psychological professionals have, throughout the history of U.S. policing, offered up our expertise in reformist interventions that actually function to protect police power. We make it seem as though the problem of racist policing can be solved by psychological interventions, but these reform strategies are either ineffective or actively promoting ongoing racist practices. For example, psychological testing to pre-screen potential police officers has been presented as a strategy to prevent racist police violence. And yet the history of these tests suggests something quite different. In his article discussing his use of the very first pre-screening tests, adapted Stanford-Binet intelligence tests administered to police recruits in 1917, Louis Terman cites eugenicist ideas of “feeble-mindedness” and suggests that the test can screen out racially suspect immigrant applicants. Although the types of pre-screening tests used have changed in over a century of use by police departments, concerns about racial bias in testing remain. A 2015 Philadelphia Inquirer investigation of police pre-screening assessments found that they actually screened out more BIPOC applicants; rather than stopping racist outcomes, they created them. Similarly, implicit bias trainings for police can create the appearance of anti-racist action, while having little demonstrable impact on police practices.

And so these psychological interventions into policing can function to shield police power, creating an appearance of anti-racist action that promotes institutional legitimacy, while actually furthering racist outcomes. 


What do you hope readers will take away from reading Uniform Feelings?

First, I hope that readers will consider their own relationships with policing. Are there dynamics of policing that you contribute to? Are there aspects of innocence or neutrality that you claim in relation to police violence, and if so, what would it mean to give them up? When we understand our investments, then we can begin to disinvest. 

And secondly, I hope that readers will come away with a feeling of hope that the things we do every day can challenge state violence. This happens through protest, through organizing, through connecting with others who share our values, and we can also integrate abolition into our day-to-day practices in our work and in our relationships. Every time someone refuses to treat police power as inevitable, benevolent, or necessary; this refusal contributes to building a world without police and prisons.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: