Against the normative definition of punishment as the infliction of pain on an offender by an appropriate legal authority, this essay argues that the police, although they are not entitled to administer retribution, commonly do so on the street or at the precinct, including against innocent individuals. Such punishment is disproportionately imposed on working-class men from disadvantaged neighborhoods belonging to ethnoracial minorities. It is justified in the eyes of the police by representations of these publics as potential criminals and of the judges as increasingly lenient, both allegations being contradicted by facts but serving as moral justifications for their discriminatory exercise of violence. Developed on the basis of a fifteen-month ethnography of police units, notably anticrime squads, in the area of Paris, this argument has a much broader significance. It demonstrates that extrajudicial forms of retribution exceed judicial forms and that more often than not the police are the punishment.

You do not currently have access to this content.