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The Reconstitution of Law in Local Settings: Agency Discretion, Ambiguity, and a Surplus of Law in the Policing of Hate Crime

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An important yet poorly understood function of law enforcement organizations is the role they play in distilling and transmitting the meaning of legal rules to frontline law enforcement officers and their local communities. In this study, we examine how police and sheriff's agencies in California collectively make sense of state hate crime laws. To do so, we gathered formal policy documents called “hate crime general orders” from all 397 police and sheriff's departments in the state and conducted interviews with law enforcement officials to determine the aggregate patterns of local agencies' responses to higher law. We also construct a “genealogy of law” to locate the sources of the definitions of hate crime used in agency policies. Despite a common set of state criminal laws, we find significant variation in how hate crime is defined in these documents, which we attribute to the discretion local law enforcement agencies possess, the ambiguity of law, and the surplus of legal definitions of hate crime available in the larger environment to which law enforcement must respond. Some law enforcement agencies take their cue from other agencies, some follow statewide guidelines, and others are oriented toward gaining legitimacy from national professional bodies or groups within their own community. The social mechanisms that produce the observed clustering patterns in terms of approach to hate crime law are mimetic (copying another department), normative (driven by professional standards about training and community social movement pressure), and actuarial (affected by the demands of the crime data collection system). Together these findings paint a picture of policing organizations as mediators between law-on-the-books and law-in-action that are embedded in interorganizational networks with other departments, state and federal agencies, professional bodies, national social movement organizations, and local community groups. The implications of an interorganizational field perspective on law enforcement and implementation are discussed in relation to existing sociolegal research on policing, regulation, and recent neo-institutional scholarship on law.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: University of California, Davis 2: University of California, Irvine

Publication date: 2005-12-01

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