Structural Determinants of Police Violence: Interview with Kimberly Cecilia Burke

Kimberly Burke

Kimberly Cecilia Burke, a PhD candidate in Sociology at UC Berkeley, researches the relationships between institutional violence and social stratification, utilizing multi-level mixed-methods analysis. Her dissertation uses an interdisciplinary approach to examine how Black-White interracial couples understand and experience police violence in their relationships. Her current research aims to determine how the dynamics of intimate partnerships can perpetuate and challenge patterns of racial inequality structured by police violence. As a scholar-activist, Kimberly is guided by feminist ethics of love and mutuality and seeks to bring insights from social science to the broader public to advance social equity.

For this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Matrix Content Curator Julia Sizek interviewed Burke about her research. Listen to this talk as a podcast below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts. An edited transcript of the interview is included below.

During the past few years, public attention has turned toward policing, and specifically to the negative effects of policing on people being actively policed. But your research turns this around by examining the effects of policing on intimate relationships. Can you tell us about why you chose this research topic and what you’ve started to find?

The research that has been most exciting for me coming out of the policing literature has been from scholars looking at the broader impacts of policing, beyond the direct targets of police violence or police activity, to examine the ways that it’s impacting educational outcomes, civic participation, emergency room usage, and other unexpected spillover consequences of harsh policing tactics. I’m taking that to look at how policing is impacting our most intimate relationships, our capacity to love and connect and realize our humanity in these most sacred spaces. 

That was largely inspired by my conversations with police officers themselves. Unprompted, they shared with me the challenges that being a police officer has brought to their romantic partnerships, their many divorces and breakups, and their experiences of intimate partner violence. I wanted to understand–how can we love in a punitive society? What does it mean to try to forge relationships of mutuality and respect in the context of policing, which requires a lot of blame and domination and control? What does that mean for the people doing the work of policing? And what does it mean also to those people who are living in the context of police violence?

You’ve outlined an amazing research goal to try to figure out what love looks like in a policing state. How do you approach this somewhat capacious topic? Who are the people you’re talking to, beyond the police themselves?

I started with civilians, and I’m looking at Black and White interracial couples, because police violence in the US is largely painted as a problem for the Black community. I wanted to examine these relationships where race is a boundary-making process that keeps people separated, and policing is a mechanism of that racializing process. 

So I’m trying to understand first, how is it that Black and White couples are able to love and connect in the context of police violence, and to ask questions that try to get at how policing structures their racial identity, and how they are resisting and negotiating that within their relationship dynamics. In the few pilot interviews I’ve done, there are some really exciting strategies that couples are employing that point to a kind of socialist understanding of relationships, rather than this transactional, hierarchical, capitalist, punitive dynamic, that makes me feel as though the strategies these couples are using to enact love in this relationship in a way that garners mutual respect and support could also be a vision for how we can imagine public safety to look differently. 

That points to the ways that people are finding ways to resist a structure of domination that is really important in their lives. What are some of the strategies people are using?

Yes, it’s a re-envisioning of work, and a transfer of the kinds of risks that are definitive of the Black experience. So every couple talks about the labor — mental, emotional, and sometimes physical labor — that White partners have to do to show up and support their Black partners, specifically when they are thinking about interactions with police (or ways to prevent interactions with police) because of the fear of the kind of violence that the Black partner would be subjected to. It’s a shift in labor, for sure, but it’s a way of thinking about labor, like I said, almost in the socialist lens, where it is, what do I need to do to enable my partner to realize their full humanity? And in doing that work, it’s not even work. It’s almost just what it means to be human, what it means to love. And in turn, the Black partner also has recognized their work in helping the White partner to understand their experiences. And so it moves beyond, I do this, you owe me this, to just this beautiful understanding of what we need to do for one another so that we can all be human and experience safety and support in every space that we occupy.

This is obviously a touchy topic to bring up with your interlocutors. How have you been able to forge a relationship with them, and also to bring people into this study, which is about a very personal topic?

I felt really motivated to do this project because of my past interviews with police officers. As I said, unprompted, they would share with me details of their personal life, of their marriage, of their intimate partnerships, and how becoming a police officer negatively impacted those relationships and distanced them from their civilian friends or families. And that was without me asking. So I thought, okay, if police officers, who are notoriously skeptical of outsiders and researchers (this is documented in the literature) — if they are willing to share with me these stories, then certainly civilians who are perhaps open to participating in social science research would be willing to do so.

I started recruiting just through my network. And it has snowballed, and already I’ve gotten 25 participants who want to talk about their relationships and their experiences and what it has meant to love across race during the COVID pandemic and George Floyd protests of 2020. Particularly this time period has been incredibly salient and important for people in navigating these relationships, many of whom were quarantined, locked down together, and couldn’t escape these issues, couldn’t turn away from issues in the way that they had in the past. And they’ve just been really forthcoming. I get to be pretty direct. And I don’t have to say a lot, and they just share.

That relates back to some of the other work you’ve been doing with police trainings, particularly around use of force. Can you tell us about what this use-of-force training looks like on the ground?

I will speak to the use of force trainings that I have participated in, because we have thousands and thousands of departments in the US, and they all have a lot of leeway in what their trainings can look like.

Here in California, there is a state-level standard called POST that regulates trainings. I was able to go through a use-of-force training that was really aimed at de-escalation tactics, and it was shocking. What I found was this dynamic where officers are simultaneously trained to be wary of over-perceiving threat — not seeing threat or reacting to threat where none exists or where they could respond with more minimal force — and also under-perceiving threat, not discounting someone as a victim or as non-threatening, when perhaps they could present a safety issue for the officer.

This presented officers with almost a double bind. It seemed inescapable. If I have to assume that everyone could potentially take my life, and also not overreact to the fear that someone could potentially take my life, what tools do I have left to use? This is where the department that I observed — we’ll call it Pacific Police Department for anonymity — really trained officers to close the distance between them and the suspect or the person they were interacting with, and use basic control holds — gripping, grabbing, handcuffing — to maximize the officer’s control of the person. And in that way, that person is no longer presenting a threat to the officer. So it’s reducing the risk that officers will respond with potentially lethal force, and it’s also reducing the risk that the person could be a threat and harm the officer.

That raises a question for an ordinary person like me, who would say, isn’t putting someone in a control hold a use of force? How is this portrayed as a use of force (or not as a use of force) by these officers or by the training?

Per Pacific Police Department policy, basic control holds, handcuffing, and even brandishing a weapon are not considered reportable use-of-force incidents or interactions. And so officers really reflected that policy language, the training reflected that policy language, and the law reflected that assessment of those kinds of force encounters as often not meeting a threshold of harmful force, and being treated in the law as a minimal intervention to achieve peace or compliance with the law.

Legally, what does that look like? What are the legal standards that we use in the US, and in California more specifically, to understand what a use of force is?

All police use of force is adjudicated under the 1989 Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor, which established that police use of force must be objectively reasonable, according to a reasonable officer at the time of the encounter, rather than assessed with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. The court also held that objectively reasonable force was not capable of precise definition or mechanical application. So this created the conditions whereby all of these 16,000+ police departments in the US could create their own specific standards of what reasonable force is.

There are states like Washington that are moving away from the reasonable standard toward a necessary standard, so police use of force “when necessary.” But other scholars have pointed to the limitations of the existing laws, and actually regulating and constraining police use of force. A scholar here at Berkeley, Osagie K. Obasogie, published an article looking at police policies and court decisions when citizens try to sue for excessive force. And he found that overwhelmingly, courts defer to police departments’ own policies and standards in determining whether or not force adheres to the Graham v. Connor standard. So in this way, he uses the term “legal endogeneity,” which was a concept developed by Lauren Edelman, a scholar at Berkeley, which essentially means that the law is being defined by the very organizations it’s meant to regulate. I think that is very much the case here in California, as well. [Editor’s note: the scholar mentioned, Lauren Edelman, Agnes Roddy Robb Professor of Law and Sociology at Berkeley Law, passed away in February 2023, after this interview was recorded.]

What does that look like in the use-of-force training that you attended? What would be an example of a kind of situation that a police officer would be put in?

I actually think that the department I observed is laudable for its interpretation of what reasonable force is, and that their goal is really to reduce officer-involved shootings. Their number one goals are officer safety and public safety. Unfortunately, that prioritization is what led to what I call a “forceful de-escalation standard” in this department, where the best way that they can see to protect their officers, while also empowering their officers to protect communities, is to use these lower levels of force early in interactions, as soon as individuals present any signs of non-compliance, as a way to prevent the potential that the officer is going to respond with force, even if the courts would decide that that higher level of force would be reasonable, as well as to protect the officers from any sort of harmful behavior on the part of the citizen.

If someone is being non-compliant, how do they define that? What does non-compliance look like?

In the department that I observed, non-compliance could look like failing to identify yourself. An officer told me a story of an unhoused woman who had thrown water at the manager of a Starbucks, and he went to respond to the call from the manager, and the woman would not give the officer her name. So at that point, he describes it as a red flag. This is a sign that this interaction could go sideways, meaning that it could escalate to something that is harmful for both of them. So the officer decided at that point to grab her and handcuff her and remove her from the establishment. In telling me the story, he said, so that was my de-escalation tactic. I didn’t use any force. I just cuffed her and removed her after she failed to identify herself. So that’s a kind of passive form of resistance or non-compliance that to officers can mean, okay, this person is not going to “go with the program.” That’s cop lingo meaning, they’re not going to cooperate with me. And that could mean an argument, but it could also mean that this person presents a threat to me or to others. And so at that point, they can decide to detain the person to maximize their control of this non-compliant person. So again, failing to identify oneself, failing to follow orders — even if those orders are not necessarily lawful orders, even if they are not compliant with search and seizure laws or within the scope of an officer’s rights — can also signal non-compliance to officers and present this early warning sign of potential threat.

That points to a lot of the conflicts that we’ve seen in terms of people whose cars are searched, and then are subsequently detained by police in ways that result in serious injury or even death. And it points to this real disconnect between what an ordinary person might see as use of force or compliance or non-compliance, and what police officers think is compliance or non-compliance. How do police police officers deal with this disconnect, because presumably, they feel it, too? They’ve also been civilians.

I had an interesting conversation with an officer who was born and raised in the town he policed, a predominantly Black and Latinx town. He had experiences with being unhoused; his mom was unhoused for a long time. He’s a Black officer, in every way the kind of model police officer that’s held up in reform efforts. And he described a traffic stop where the driver — I believe it was a Black man — was not going with the program. He wasn’t doing what he was trying to tell him. He was asking him to get out of the car because he didn’t want to have a conversation with the guy with kids in the car or something. The man refused to get out of this car.

The officer explained it to me as, look, if I tell you to do something, you do it, because my safety and your safety is on the line. He’s implicitly understanding that he’s assessing this non-compliance as a threat to his safety, and then also when he’s threatened, guess what? You’re threatened, because he can respond with lethal force. And so if at that point, you feel I’m violating your civil rights, then you pursue actions after the interaction is over. You go and make a complaint, you file a lawsuit. But in the moment, both of our lives are on the line.

That was so striking to me that he was able to articulate that assessment of the interaction, that even though I might be violating your rights, and I understand that, you also have to understand that I perceive my job as danger, as potential deadly interactions, every single one. So if I’m telling you to do something, you do it. And that is just the way that they understand how they can do their job safely.

That raises real questions about police reform efforts and efforts for community policing, or for moving away from policing altogether. Based on what you’ve learned, how do you think about these efforts to change the system of policing in the US today?

I think it is very important that I observed these logics among egalitarian minority officers in what I consider one of the departments that’s leading the way in equitable policing standards, because for me that signals, if this is the best of the best — the best of the best officers in the best of the best departments — and they are still having these problematic interpretations of what reasonable force looks like and how to manage interactions with civilians, then the most effective thing we can do is to reduce police contacts overall, to reduce the footprint of policing.

And we’re seeing agencies implement these kinds of reforms. Right here in Berkeley, Chief Greenwood announced that they wouldn’t be enforcing lower-level traffic stops. Traffic stops are one of the most fearful interactions with police officers, especially at night, because they can’t see in the car, they can’t see the driver, they can’t see your hands. So these are more likely to result in unnecessary uses of force. So that’s one thing. In Norfolk, Virginia, they did something similar, where lower-level offenses, misdemeanor offenses, are now being handled over the phone or over Zoom calls. So if civilians have a complaint of petty theft, or these other misdemeanor-type crimes, officers aren’t going to interact in person. They are managing these cases virtually. And those are the most exciting interventions for me right now is, how do we think about reducing policing overall, so that they’re having fewer contacts and fewer opportunities for things to escalate into lethal force?

What are some of the other potential benefits of changing these strategies? What are the harms of “forceful de-escalation” or other forms of police violence on communities? 

Aggressive police encounters, or living in a neighborhood where there is high police activity, is shown to have really negative impacts on mental health and well-being, and all of these spillover effects that I mentioned earlier — reduced civic participation, negative educational outcomes, just a myriad. And now I’m looking at how it impacts our personal relationships. So I think if we can reimagine the scope of policing, we can also refocus on building alternative public safety systems that actually provide people with positive resources for their mental health well-being. It can force us to rethink about the kinds of financial instability that is contributing to some of these crimes. It can force a reckoning with how we think about property and property crimes, and how we value that over the well-being of these communities that are subjected to harsh and burdensome policing practices.

How did you come to start studying policing?

I’m actually trained in Women’s Studies. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Women’s Studies, and  I was broadly interested in issues of social justice, gender, race, and class — those intersecting identities and power dynamics in society. And I started working at the Center for Policing Equity following my master’s program, which focused on race and equity in the context of policing.

When I started, I knew nothing about policing. I knew nothing about the social psychology measures they were using to assess what kinds of policing attitudes predicted negative outcomes. And it was really a grad-level course in criminal legal systems under Phillip Atiba Goff, who’s the co-founder and CEO of Policing Equity. He’s a professor in African-American Studies at Yale now, but he was my really my mentor and professor and entrée into the world of policing.

From 2013 to 2017, I managed various initiatives that Policing Equity aimed at reducing harms. We were asking the question, how do we make policing less deadly for Black communities? A s part of that, I was the project director at the Department of Justice-funded National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. And we partnered with six police departments across the nation to test out interventions at building community trust, at reducing police use of force, in the communities most burdened by policing outcomes. And so that’s when I was working on issues of implicit bias and these other cognitive predictors of negative policing outcomes. And that’s also when I saw that, in the best of police departments, there were still the stubborn, intractable issues of unnecessary force. And that’s what really got me interested in pursuing my doctoral degree and pursuing my own research that asked these questions.

I’ve come full circle now with these questions of love and mutuality, back to my Women’s Studies and feminist theory background. I’m seeing a real marriage of those disciplinary trainings. I have my Women’s Studies, my social psychology training, and now my sociology training, where I’m really able to study the dyad, the the most basic building block of society, the partner, and to look at how those dynamics both create and are created by the structures that define our society.

Burke won second place in the 2022 UC Grad Slam Competition: watch her presentation below or on YouTube.


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