The policing of belonging: Youth, marginalisation and ‘stop and search’

This article examines the impact of policing  on the lives and sense of belonging for young people within disadvantaged communities.  It will critically explore how young people’s encounters with the police can result in a stigmatising and marginalising effect. It questions the effectiveness of current policing practice that is based upon instrumental goals, i.e. targets and outputs rather than an inclusive role which recognises the importance signals such practices send to young people and communities. It concludes by advocating for the need for a form of pastoral policing that fosters a dialogue and trust with young people, and an approach that acknowledges the importance of social spaces to young people’s identity and feelings of belonging.

The role of policing

Policing has always played a pivotal role in ensuring the safety of communities, as Storch (1975) suggested since its inception policing can best be described as a form of “domestic missionary” whose role stretched beyond crime and public disorder. He argued they operated as an ‘all-purpose lever of urban discipline’ and ‘brought the arm of municipal and state authority directly to bear upon key institutions of daily life in working class neighbourhoods’ [1]. Thus it was a routine practice for the police to monitoring and control the streets, which often ran counter to working class customs and leisure pursuits and has led to rioting, protest and forms of resistance.  More recently, Loader has described contemporary policing as a more intrusive and visible presence which can be described as ‘ambient policing’ [2], indicating a move from the maintenance of social order and community safety through to zero-tolerance and more pervasive forms of policing. Similarly, Reiner uses the term ‘police fetishism’ [3] to describe contemporary forms of policing, meaning that police services are perceived to be the panacea for social difficulties and social problems. In this sense Storch’s notion of the ‘domestic missionary’ is again a common place feature of today’s police work, as he prophetically described:

‘the basic technique of daily surveillance of the streets and recreational centres of working-class districts proved a lasting one, and would ultimately be applied not only to nineteenth-century Leeds or Manchester but – in highly sophisticated variants – to twentieth-century police work as well’ [4].

Therefore, the role of policing is as much about visibility and reassurance than it is crime-solving, and as such they act more as a social pacifier and problem-solver alongside crime detection or prevention. Therefore, being visible has become central to the role of policing through targeting crime hot spots and focused upon prolific offenders through strategies including the wider use of public order legislation, i.e. police curfews, dispersal orders, and the introduction of anti-social behaviour, parenting orders.

Scarman Report and the controversial nature of ‘stop and search’

scarman-reportThe Scarman Inquiry Report into the 1981 Brixton ‘disorders’ identified that the relationship between the police and minority ethnic communities was problematic (Souhami, 2014), and cited the excessive use of the “sus laws” as a key contributory factor. Within policing the practice of ‘stop and search’ has long been controversial, known as one of the earliest police powers the “sus laws” (Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824) provided the police with the power to search a “suspected person”, i.e. someone considered likely to commit an arrestable offence.

Later, the MacPherson Inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence concluded that institutional racism was endemic in the police services and had significantly contributed to the failure of the police investigation. In particular, it noted that the disproportionate use of ‘stop and search’ within disadvantaged and minority ethnic communities played a salient role in undermining the ‘legitimacy of the police, they are likely to weaken the public’s willingness to comply with the law’ (Quinton, 2011, p. 257). After the Scarman Report (and more recently) revisions have been made to the use and monitoring of ‘stop and search’ powers, firstly, the introduction of the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), which Reiner (2010) described as the ‘single most significant landmark in the modern development of police powers’ (p.212). Other key legislative changes such as the introduction of Section 60 powers (Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994) which provided the power to ‘stop and search’ with “no grounds of suspicion”. Also, Section 47A Terrorism Act 2000 (Remedial) Order 2011 (which replaced the previous Section 44 the Act, after Liberty (no date) won a landmark legal case in the European Court of Human Rights in 2010.

However, despite such reforms the practice of ‘stop and search’ remains highly controversial. It featured prominently in the causes of the English ‘riots’ of August 2011, sparked in the wake of the shooting of Mark Duggan by the police. The Guardian Reading The Riots stated that ‘a key factor in the August riots was discontent with the police – with stop and search one of the most hated aspects’ (Prasad, 2011, online). The Home Secretary, Theresa May (2014) speaking following the publication of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) review of ‘stop and search’ in England and Wales, which indicated that only 38% of young people (18-24) thought ‘stop and search’ powers are effective. She indicated she had long been concerned about the misuse of ‘stop and search’ and recognised that it can be counter-productive, stating that ‘when innocent people are stopped and searched for no good reason, it is hugely damaging to the relationship between the police and the public. In those circumstances it is an unacceptable affront to justice’ (May, 2014, online).

Policing and the ‘usual suspects’

These forms of targeted policing are having a dramatic impact on the lives of young people and their use of social spaces. Muncie suggests youth justice policy over the last two decades can be characterised as the demonisation and criminalisation of young people [5]. The process of demonisation of young people occurs as a result of the distortion of the symbolic and simagepunishignifying role that policing can play, for whilst the visibility and presence of the police can offer reassurance and security for young people and communities, it also sends signals related to social acceptability and respectability. As Waddington has identified that these signals come with a set of beliefs within police culture and the missionary zeal can lead to some young people on the streets becoming categorised as ‘police property’ which results in the formation of what are termed ‘the usual suspects’, i.e. those young people subject to a series of frequent police initiated contacts, under the guise of suspicions [6]. Ariza’s research into police-initiated contacts with young people aged 10-25 suggested that police practice tends to focus on the ‘usual suspects’ meaning ‘individuals with prior police contact and whose friends have had prior police contact’ [7] and it is through the process of what Ariza terms ‘policing by association’, which that young people’s draw the gaze of surveillance leading to them being over-policed and their interests often under-represented. Also,  McAra and McVie identify that the over-reliance upon profiling and early identification is unreliable and young people’s experiences of such interventions are both punitive and stigmatising and serve in the long term ‘to amplify rather than diminish offending’ [8]. Ralphs, et al. identified that being labelled as a gang member or associate created a greater vulnerability to police attention and surveillance and noted that becoming a ‘permanent suspect’ was based on ‘socio-economic status as much as on serious and persistent offending’ [8].

The research undertaken by Bradford indicates a need for greater acknowledgement and recognition of the stigmatising effect of negative police encounters on young people’s perceptions and sense of well-being. The study highlighted Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) young men from London are encountering negative policing styles which ‘may serve to encourage a pre-existing or nascent sense of difference and alienation from the wider social and political community’[9]. Bradford identified that there is a strong link between being treated fairly and people’s willingness to cooperate with the police.

Importantly, in terms of ‘stop and search’ the research suggests that a young person’s ethnicity is a more significant factor in determining the probability of being stopped than self-reported offending behaviour. These findings suggest that policing in disadvantaged communities through regular surveillance, police raids, stops and searches were common and brought stigma on individuals and families. Bradford states the police ‘are a highly visible representation of the state, a concrete instantiation of its (often failed) claim to protect and represent all its citizens’ [10], and importantly he concludes that those excluded or included will draw important lesson regarding
their social status from such encounters with the police. Therefore, policing plays a symbolic and significant role in enabling individuals to make sense of their lives and formation of collective identifies and a sense of belonging.

The policing of belonging

Loader’s study of youth encounters with the police clearly articulates the impact on young people and communities of such representations. Lefebvre (1991) uses the idea of space as ‘lived experiences’ – as part of the production and reproduction of everyday life. He uses the concept ‘representations of space’ to understanding how a young person’s use of space in mediated by official discourse and government policy. Suggesting how places become socially constructed and shape the way spaces are used. riots-police-arres_1967397iRalphs, et al. examine the importance of place and space as a key function for young people’s identity and belonging. They refer to the ‘spatialisation’ of young people’s experiences and state that ‘[g]rowing up in poor neighbourhoods, leaving the parental home and the navigation of everyday life all have physical and metaphorical spatial dimensions’ [9]. They describe a collection of experiences, emotions and imaginations which inform the character’s actions as well as forming the backdrop to them. They suggest that those young people categorised as ‘the Others’ are identified as problematic and ‘high risk’, leading to them having to ‘continually negotiate a range of risks bound up with the territory that they inhabit and subsequent spatial boundaries that are formed’ [10] which have resulted in exclusion, marginalisation and victimisation. Loader states that:

Every stop, every search, every arrest, every group of youths moved on, every abuse of due process, every failure to respond to call or complaint, every racist snub, every sexist remark, every homophobic joke, every diagnosis of the crime problem, every depiction of criminals – all these send small, routine, authoritative signals about society’s conflicts, cleavages, and hierarchies, about whose claims are considered legitimate within it, about whose status identity is to be affirmed or denied as part of it. [8]

Moreover, Lefebvre (1991) refers to ‘spatial practices’ to define social acts and interventions such as policing methods and the types of strategies deployed that inform their work. In a similar vein, Wacquant (2008) thesis on ‘advanced marginality’ elaborates upon how such representations and discourse are manifested ‘[a]mong the institutions that stamp their imprint on the daily lives of the population and on the climate of “problem” neighbourhoods special attention must be afforded to the police [a]s the “frontline” agency and frowning face of the state directly turned down towards the precarious and marginal categories’ (Wacquant, 2008, p.12). So accordingly, ‘spatial practice’ is the form of social interaction and encounters which become governed by dominate discourse or ‘representations of space’ which in turn inform public policy. Thompson et al., (2013) go a little further to suggest that social places become categorised as ‘marginal spaces’ e.g. sink schools, depressed areas, crime blackspots. This categorisation of a place a marginal or ‘special’ will can have a significant impact on ‘spatial practice’, he notes that which on the one hand it can attract regeneration grants and new resources, but equally importantly these ‘representations of space’ can generate increased levels of surveillance, stigmatisation and marginalisation. Also, the research study demonstrated how policy formation and responses for disengaged young people are spatially conceived, which they term as ‘marginal places’ (2013, p.67) such as special units with alternative curriculum in mainstream schooling, or separation of learning spaces through exclusion units, pupil referral units (PRUs) and work-based learning provision.

This is an extract from my recent book chapter Murphy, S. (2017) [B]othered Youth: Stop and search, marginalisation and the policing of belonging (Book Chapter) in Blackman, S. (ed.) The Marginalisation of Young People in the UK. Polity Press 


  1. Storch, R. (1976) ‘The Policeman as Domestic Missionary: Urban Discipline and Popular Culture in Northern England, 1850-1880’ Journal of Social History, Vol. 9, No. 4 pp. 481-509
  2. Loader, I. (1996) Youth, policing and democracy, Macmillan:Basingstoke
  3. Reiner, R. (2010) The politics of the police, 4th edn, Oxford University Press: Oxford
  4. Storch ibid. p. 496
  5. Muncie
  6. Waddington (1999)
  7. Ariza (2014) p. 219
  8. McAra, L. and McVie, S. (2010), ‘Transitions and Crime Youth crime and justice: Key messages from the Edinburgh Study of Youth’, Criminology and Criminal Justice 2010:10 p.189
  9. Ralphs, et al. (2009) p. 487.
  10. Bradford, B. (2014) ‘Policing and social identity: procedural justice, inclusion and cooperation between police and public’, Policing and Society: An International Journal of Research and Policy, 24(1) p.23
  11. Bradford, ibid. p.23
  12. Waddington, P. A. J. (1999) ‘Police (Canteen) Sub-Culture: An Appreciation’ The British Journal of Criminology 39(2): 287-309.
  13. Loader (2006) ‘Policing, Recognition and Belonging’ The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2006 605: p. 211
  14. Ralphs, R., Medina, J. and Aldridge, J. (2009) ‘Who needs enemies with friends like these? The importance of place for young people living in known gang areas’ Journal of Youth Studies 12(5) p.493
  15. Ralphs et al., ibid. p.483

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