The enforcement of the established order

Guest post by Dr. Sinan Çankaya 

Police officers cannot tackle all crime, enforce all laws and stop all people. They have to make choices. During proactive policing so-called street cops make use of generalizations. This practice is ineffective and has a stigmatizing impact on ‘communities’.

Traditionally, the police organization functions as ‘fire fighters’: they react as quickly as possible to a fire, extinguish it and then wait for the next call. This type of officer is unfortunately always late. Since the eighties there is a development whereby the officer who is always late, wants to be early – in fact, the police officer is preferably at the occasion before the fire even ignites. The proactive police organization waits no longer for the reports of citizens, but attempts to prevent, disrupt and deter crime from happening.

The street cop as a “Where’s-Waldoseeker”

During proactive policing, officers use generalized images of potential suspects and work with a selection profile. Citizens who tend to the profile, are more inclined to be stopped and checked. I define this decision-making process with the notion where’s-Waldo-seekers. In my childhood I ‘read’ almost the entire series of Where’s Waldo? In this comic book for children, which has an A3-format, the reader is supposed to find Waldo. The drawings represent a variation of realistic scenes, but also imaginative worlds. However, the ‘description’ of Waldo remains unchanged: a white man with glasses and a cane, dark brown hair, blue jeans, brown shoes and a red and white striped sweater.

My argument is that the officer also searches for Waldo, who apparently looks a certain way. Here, Waldo symbolizes the archetypal and decontextualized images of a ‘criminal’. Consciously and unconsciously, street cops define civilians not only as suspicious because they have committed or are committing a criminal offense. Partly they judge their appearance – such as skin colour, age, gender, clothing and jewellery – in a positive or negative way. The judgments about the personal facades of civilians are not neutral with respect to class, ethnicity, age and gender. Some facades work to the disadvantage of civilians, while others form privileges. Yet the appearance is not necessarily the decisive factor in the daily decision making processes of police officers. For the same reason there is not just one Waldo, but there are several variables that constitute numerous Waldo’s.

Ethno-racial profiling

This selection process is partly consistent with what is described as racial and ethnic profiling. This method is problematic for several reasons. The first false assumption is that so-called ‘communities’ can be identified on the basis of biological, thus racial, characteristics. This is highly unworkable, because the physiological variations within ethnic categories are too large. Secondly, the reasoning jumps from individual offenders to ‘groups’. An overrepresentation of for example Moroccan-Dutch young men in specific offenses does not justify the association of the total population with that offense. Thirdly, the present practice can undermine the trust of ‘groups’ of citizens in the police organization. Fourthly, criminals who do not tend to the ‘picture’ of police officers can be overlooked. Bad policing in my opinion.

It is remarkable that the deleterious effects of the current practice are unconvincing in public opinion. The fact that innocent civilians are subjected to proactive checks is perceived as collateral damage. The most persistent objection is the over-representation of ethnic minorities in the visible forms of crime. In the same category, officers say: “What should we do? ID check grandmas?” But the current practice has little to do with robust intelligence-led policing. Instead of focusing on individual, specific and concrete delinquents and ‘suspicious behaviour’, it leads to (self)management at the level of risky profiles. In other words: social categorization, stereotyping, status and prestige are inextricably linked to proactive policing.

 From the officer as a ‘crime fighter’, to the officer as an ‘information broker’

Moreover, the proactive stops do not result in a significant number of arrests. The reason is that the stops rely on the intuitive and vague suspicions of the police officer. A ‘gut feeling’ as they will say. As a result, street cops usually have insufficient legal grounds for an arrest. The relative low numbers of arrests are in sharp contrast to how street officers justify selective attention to certain ethnic categories.

So what is it that cops do? The result of the proactive control is generally (a) a record in a police system and (b) the assumption that crime is prevented in the preliminary phase of its execution. When we look at the first ‘hit’, it becomes clear that Intelligence-led Policing (Informatiegestuurde Politie), an abstract policy concept of management cops, has seeped to the level of street cops. However, the formal and informal norm of “the more intelligence, the better” is at odds with the Police Data Act (Wet op de Politiegegevens, WPG). For much of the records the basis for processing data is general and unclear, and seems redundant and irrelevant. Besides, it is unclear how many records are actually used in concrete investigations.

This practice has a curious side effect. The choices of street cops in the present affect the focus areas in the future. Intelligence is also proactively acquired, created, edited and added. In addition, the supplemented intelligence focuses on the already defined ‘target groups’ and perpetuates these categories. The everyday decisions of street cops not only relate to stops and checks, but also to who is and is not recorded in police systems.

Preventive Policing = black box

When looking at the second ‘hit’: the effectiveness of preventive interventions are difficult to be determined. There is no actual crime in the present, but an imagined act in the future – that does not necessarily need to occur, even without the intervention of the police officer (see also Schinkel 2009). Preventive policing is basically a virtual business. Police officers avoid a hypothetical and a future scenario from taking place. At the same time, it is possible that street cops paradoxically prevent hypothetical criminal acts from happening.

Inclusive and exclusive function of the police organization

The labels and categorizations of street cops are not about hostilities towards certain social or ethnic groups. In my interpretation, ethnicity and social class are the criteria by which a given social order manifests itself. What matters are the underlying power relations in a society. All together, the enforcement of public order is accompanied by the consolidation of the boundaries between positively valued ‘normal’ groups and the groups ‘who do not belong’ to society.

Sinan Çankaya is a cultural anthropologist and researches the police organization and inclusion – and exclusion processes. This article is a snapshot of his latest publication (in Dutch) “The control of Martians and other scum: the decision making process during proactive policing”. Anyone interested can mail to


Schinkel, W. (2009) ‘De nieuwe preventie: Actuariële archiefsystemen en de nieuwe technologie van de veiligheid’ Krisis (2): 1-21

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About Otto Spijkers

Otto Spijkers is Assistant Professor of Public International Law at Utrecht University, and researcher at the Utrecht Centre for Water, Oceans and Sustainability Law. He is a member of the Committee on the Role of International Law in Sustainable Natural Resource Management for Development of the International Law Association, and guest lecturer for Amnesty International The Hague. He was a visiting professor at Leiden University, Xiamen University (China), Wuhan University (China), University of Salerno (Italy) and the Université catholique d'Afrique Central (Yaounde, Cameroon). Previously, he was a PhD candidate and lecturer at the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies at the University of Leiden. His doctoral dissertation, entitled The United Nations, the Evolution of Global Values and International Law, was published with Intersentia in 2011. He worked as public services coordinator at the Peace Palace Library, as international consultant and coordinator for the United Nations International Law Fellowship Programme, as intern for the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and as intern for the Office of Legal Affairs of United Nations Headquarters. Otto Spijkers is editor and author of the Invisible College Blog, the blog of the School of Human Rights Research. Otto Spijkers studied the basics of international relations at the University of Sussex. He then studied international law at the University of Amsterdam, New York University School of Law (exchange student), and the Hague Academy of International Law (2009 session). He studied philosophy at the University of Amsterdam and the University of Malta (exchange). He obtained a Diplôme approfondi de langue française.

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