Police reform advocates often press police departments to shift away from fear-laden “warrior” survival trainings and toward reality-based or scenario trainings, which involve immersively role-playing scenarios such as making an arrest. Scenario trainings promise to teach officers to suppress fear, counter racial bias, and calibrate “reasonable” uses of force. Drawing on 16 months of ethnographic research with police officers in Maryland, Jessica Katzenstein explores how physical and virtual scenario trainings shape and even intensify officer fear rather than suppressing it. Police learn to “think threat first,” even in the most ordinary situations, and to assert command presence, an embodied language of authority whose ultimate object is the poor Black civilian. Moreover, scenario trainings that use virtual reality technology—often vaunted as a cutting edge of police reform—tend to produce an airtight certainty that threat could have been present, rendering inevitable the force required to stop it. Jessica argues that scenario trainings recruit officers into what she calls “police common sense,” a nominally colorblind framework that transforms anti-Black police violence into a mere technical concern and asserts the primacy of officer survival. We discussed why police training reforms often fail to accomplish their goals, and even worsen the problems they aim to solve.

Jessica KatzensteinJessica Katzenstein is a Harvard Inequality in America Initiative Postdoctoral Fellow. Jessica completed her PhD in Anthropology at Brown University in 2022. Her research traces how U.S. police officers absorb and resist reforms during a mounting legitimacy crisis, in order to understand why reforms perpetually fail to realize their promises to curb racialized violence. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork with officers and reformers in Maryland, she examines how the everyday labor of policing produces a “police common sense” that translates reform efforts into the terms of police discourse. She thus theorizes police reform as a productive failure, demonstrating how its very ineffectiveness reproduces state power and white supremacy even as it is animated by ethical commitments and anti-racist ideals. Jessica’s work has been supported by National Science Foundation grants and by the Center for Engaged Scholarship.

Moderated by Sandra Susan Smith, Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice and Faculty Director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management.