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.