“Observing police stops” by Mike Rowe, Liverpool University (UK)

Published on 12/12/2019

May 2015 (Rowe, 2017)

Two officers, Charlie and Neville, patrol a neighbourhood early one warm summer evening. They are looking for people, mainly young white working class men, who might be involved in gang crime associated with drugs and violence. The category is ill-defined in some respects but, having observed these officers on a number of occasions, their interpretation of the category is clear. They are interested in young men, wearing a particular style of dress. They might be alone or in groups, in a car or on the street. They know some of the names and faces of those they drive past and will stop them, greeting them almost as long-standing friends. They might ask about the family: “is your brother still in prison?”

On this evening, as they turn a corner in a large marked police van, a young man fitting their categorisation, wearing a hat and silly shorts, is walking towards them. He sees the police van before they react to him. The young man laughs and raises his arms as if in surrender, giving the thumbs up. He stops and waits for the van to pull up alongside him. He is ready to be searched, almost giving the officers no choice in the matter. As they search him, the young man talks. He is off to the cinema. He knows there has been some trouble in the area recently and, as the officers have their back to the road while they conduct their search, he remarks on a passing car. “That lot are some of the trouble round here!”

The officers find nothing. They don’t believe he is off to the cinema. Who goes to the cinema alone? He was laughing because he knew he was clean – this time. And as the evening progresses, they see the same man in the same hat, seated in the passenger seat of a car driving at speed. There isn’t the opportunity to pursue him. But, in their minds, their category has been confirmed. They just need to be luckier. ‘You have to dip a pocket or two.’ ‘You have to be in it to win it.’ These are the working philosophies of the officers assigned to the work of proactive patrol.


February 2015 (Rowe et al., 2016: 280-281)

On another occasion, two experienced male officers, Billy and Timothy, tasked with an anti-burglary patrol of a community, stop a male shortly before 11am on a cold day. They see a middle-aged man with a complexion as grey as his tracksuit. He is walking rapidly in the opposite direction. Billy spins the unmarked car around, winds down the window and tries to have a chat. The male makes to walk on, wanting nothing to do with them. He says he has had a shit day already, just back from seeing his doctor and getting his medication. He waives a small bag from a pharmacist. He is angry and walks away. Billy pulls the car up, gets out and stops him. “Don’t eyeball me! We are going to have to search you now!” Timothy has put on his body camera to capture it all, but it quickly becomes clear that the man has mental health issues. He reacts to every effort to calm him down. Timothy tries and the guy just reacts: “don’t tell me to calm down!” He says he has just been to his psychologist and he needs his medication. Again, he waives his paper bag from the pharmacist. Billy is now being as calm as he can be, certain that there is nothing in this stop now. The man doesn’t want a copy of his stop form. Then he turns round. Yes, he wants the form. Then he doesn’t want to wait for it. But he does. He doesn’t want to be on camera, so turns away. Now he wants to get away to take his tablets. He is a jumpy, nervous and aggressive wreck. “Wind your neck in” doesn’t help any. “I can’t. I’m on edge.” Timothy tries to calm things again, but it only aggravates the man further. “I need to go. I am no good for any of us right now.” He is shaking violently. He heads off with his stop form. Later in the shift, Billy thinks about this stop, stroking and scratching his head as he ponders what he might have done differently, knowing he didn’t handle it as well as he might.



Both of these encounters occur after the introduction of Best Use of Stop and Search in England and Wales. As an observer, I understand why the officers stop these two men. But, in each case, it is almost as if they have little choice. The first literally surrenders to a search, the second’s conduct raises suspicions. But in neither case did the officers find, or even expect to find, anything. What were the grounds? What were they searching for? The forms suggested it was a search under MDA, but it wasn’t really. The officers were polite, even in the face of aggression, and it is all on camera. But the camera doesn’t catch the lead-up to the encounter (Rowe et al., 2018) and so we don’t really grasp that neither stop was as it appeared on the official record.

For the officers, neither search was controversial. We might even suggest that it wasn’t as far as the two stopped were concerned. Why then should we be concerned, as independent and distant observers?




Rowe, M. (2017), ‘Conspicuous Compliance: on citizen interactions with the police’, paper presented to the Annual Ethnography Symposium, Manchester, August 2017.

Rowe, M., Pearson, G., & Turner, E. (2018), ‘Body-Worn Cameras and the Law of Unintended Consequences: Some Questions Arising from Emergent Practices’. Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, 12(1), 83-90.

Rowe, M., Turner, E. and Pearson, G. (2016), ‘Learning and Practicing Police Craft’, Journal of Organizational Ethnography, 5(3), pp 276-286.

Police stops in Croatia

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24 thoughts on ““Observing police stops” by Mike Rowe, Liverpool University (UK)

  1. Everything was fine with the police acting, they reacted to suspicious behavior of passing People with a regular approach.

  2. In Croatian police, police stop is a basic police authority that is often exercised and can bring about the resolution of various criminal offenses, and in my opinion the powers should not be reduced.

  3. I think you did a good job of legitimizing them, but it might be better if you had a little more authority.

  4. I think that police officers in england should expand their police competences.

  5. Police officers worked very professionaly. They did not use any unnecessary force and they approached regulary. Every person with suspicious behaviour should be checked because this is the key to sucessful proactive work.

  6. All things considered I think ID checks are a very useful tool to acquire information and keep track of people’s activities.

  7. I think that the conducted searches were justified and done in good faith. The community would be safer if all police officers were that through.

  8. I think that English police officers need to check all of the people,not just ones who are very suspicious to them. And also,you should have more police patrols on the street.

  9. I believe that the act was legal, and I also believe that you English police officers should have greater police powers

  10. There are a lot of similar cases in croatia i would say. Althought I have no experience because I am not a police man, i would say england police should have wider police powers and have there body cameras turned on all the time so the reaction of a suspect could be seen at any moment.

  11. I think that there shoud have been a more specific area for the search of suspicious people instead of the whole neighbourhood

  12. I think it’s good that English police officers stopped both men, because if there is any suspicion then the police officers need to act. Maybe in the second case they could have had a different approach because the man was mentally sick.

  13. My experience as police officer is very similar, but I think that English police officers should have much wider police powers in stopping citizens. Known perpetrators should be subjected to more police powers because that is a way to make community safer.

  14. ID check is neccessery and lawful police power which can be usefull in many occassion

  15. I think that police proceeding towards known perpetrators as in the English example above, was founded and needed for general crime prevention.

  16. I agree that proceeding of police was totally ok. People must know that police need to have some police powers so they can do their job. People who respect police wouldn’t mind it and they will understand that all that is for their safety

  17. I think that proceeding towards known was legally founded and needed for crime prevention. it is good for our common safety.

  18. Identity verification and person searching is a basic police action that must be applied in regular patrols as it helps to identify potential perpetrators of crime but also to eliminate suspicion

  19. I think identity verification is important in getting a police job done for the sake of job security.

  20. I think that in both case they did good job.
    But in the first case they should pursue that car who was speeding, because most likely this man who surender himself to search could be involve with those man in a car and this was all scene so they could go away with any other kind of crime
    Second case was all good.

  21. Very hard is work with small police power, we need big police power for crime prevention

  22. Police job is hard, their powers are already narrow. ID check or to check person for wepons is something every police officer should have powers to do for public safety.

  23. It is obvious for more then just english and croatian police that todays police acts more profesionally then in the past, it seems most civilians took this new and moderan approach by the police as somewhat of a joke, thus creating public opinion that present law enforcment seems to be nothing more then a helping hand to the general public, BECAUSE of this most basic police work, such as police stops should be widened in authorit, and not restricted in any case.

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