Logics of Stop-and-Check: Exploring the Social Dynamics of Police Officers’ Decision-Making amid Multiple Challenges to Their Authority

Friday, 20 July 2018: 11:00
Oral Presentation
Patrick BROWN, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Nathale VAN EIJK, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
Profession(al)s' authority is often seen as declining and this can be connected to an array of interlinked social processes. While challenges to, and the erosion of, a monopoly of knowledge is one common line of inquiry, our case study of police officers draws the analytical focus more towards accountability. While professionals have always been accountable in some senses, their authority has often been depicted as centred on the professional in relation to a particular client. More recent work on authority, legitimacy and governance, such as that of Julia Black, has suggested a more polycentric set of power dynamics, however, by which authority and accountability flow in multiple directions.

This is the starting point of our analysis of ethnographic data collected within one police force in a larger Dutch city. The discretionary space afforded to police officers in order to ‘stop and check’ citizens has come under increasing scrutiny: from the public prosecution service who require a clear and legal/protocol-based logic for why a particular person was stopped; from the media who have recently been highly critical of practices of ethnic-profiling as a basis for stop and check; and by citizens themselves who are more likely to challenge police officers authority and, in some cases, to video stop and check interactions.

We analyse the logics by which police officers negotiated this discretionary space amid polycentric lines of authority, emphasising these professionals’ vulnerability amidst accountability as much as their power. Gut feelings, as a common decision-bases, had to be rationalised in line with various organisational protocols and norms. In analysing these decision-making logics we draw on Mary Douglas’s work on ‘thought styles’, particularly the ritual mechanisms and institutional ordering which underpin these. This analytical framework helps us understand the enduring presence of ethnicity-oriented logics within decision-making, despite accountability pressures against these.