The politics of crime. Who gets to define what’s illegal?

4 minutes to read
Paul Mutsaers

Alois Senefelder (1771), the Prague-born inventor of lithography, rises above the entrance of what used to be the Senefelder printing office, at the Admiraal de Ruijterweg in Amsterdam West.  Built in 1910 and declared a city monument, the ground level of the building now functions as a supermarket. I first set foot in this building in 2012 when I was on patrol with a Constable and a Senior Constable of the Amsterdam police.  

An April shower had forced the three of us into the car. We were cruising along a main street that cuts the city from the centre into western direction. While cruising we talked about everyday police business. Conversations and reminiscences fill much of the police officer’s time, especially during uneventful car patrols like this. This particular moment gave us the opportunity to have a long discussion on the central topic of my ethnographic study, police and migrants, which was of special interest to my companions, who both have their roots in Turkey. Just when we really started to engage the topic, however, we were interrupted by a message coming in from the area control room. A shop-lifter was caught red-handed in the local Aldi supermarket by a private security guard.

The man had been caught for the usual behaviors born out of street life. 

The senior officer, I call him Kerem, flexed his shoulders and threw the car into gear. Within minutes, Senefelder was in sight and Kerem slammed the brakes on the floor. The vehicle screeched to a stop. He and his junior colleague, Serhat, rushed inside expecting some serious action. But within seconds the adrenaline was gone. The shop-lifter turned out to be a man whose major problem was homelessness, not lawlessness; a man who had been caught for ‘the usual behaviors born out of street life’ (Scheper-Hughes). What is more, he had not even passed the counter, or so it seemed. If this was true, he officially had not yet stolen anything. The security guard had engaged with the man because he saw that he was hiding canned food under his jacket.

I noticed that it gradually came home to the patrolmen that opportunities for “real” police action are few and far between, and for a moment they were unsure of what to do next. Eventually they decided to take the man to a more private part of the building, to have a conversation. It turned out that the man did not speak Dutch; he was an immigrant coming from Morocco, who had lived illegally in Spain for most of his life. To make things even more complicated, the security guard spoke in broken Dutch and had difficulties to explain in unambiguous language what had happened (did the suspect pass the counter or not?). Disheartened by the lack of action, confused by the “superdiversity” of the linguistic situation (Blommaert) and moved by the suspect who beseeched them to be released, the officers decided to drop the case and leave. Prescriptions of police conduct are not carved in stone; adjustments can always be made if needed or desired. In this case it meant that a man was not drawn into the criminal justice system but pushed back into clandestinity.

When the offense is mild and the consequences negligible, watchmen sometimes condone law-breaking. 

In contrast to the degradation ceremony that took place in Rotterdam (which I described earlier in Diggit Magazine), the privacy of the suspect in Amsterdam was respected when he was brought to a more private part of the building. Rather than inflicting extra-judicial punishment upon the suspect through public shaming and deprivation of dignity, the officers respected the suspect’s dignity. They seemed to comply with the “watchman style” (Wilson) that officers often adopt to keep the peace. Watchmen gauge the seriousness of the reported offense based on its immediate consequences. When the offense is mild and the consequences negligible, the (suspected) law-breaking may be condoned.

In the car Serhat said that he pitied the man. He considered him a poor creature with a lot of bad luck in life. In his short career as a police novice, he had already seen many homeless people like the present suspect and held little hope that their life chances would improve.

Back at the station I jotted down the events of the day in my notebook and, while doing so, I remembered a book chapter by Janet Roitman that I had read a few weeks earlier. Roitman had written about road banditry in the Chad Basin and had developed a theory centered on what she called the “ethics of illegality”. This theory states that given the context in which people live, they etch out a space of ethics that cannot always be understood in reference to a fixed and external code of morality (like, for instance, the criminal law). People develop an ethical reasoning that helps them live with particular actions that are criminalized by the authorities. Simply put, poverty can force people to circumvent the law.

An anthropological perspective on such phenomena, I believe, is that it breaks through the discrete frame of the nation-state, accounting for social variations in the world as well as for similarities across different ethnographic contexts (Eriksen). The notion of the ethics of illegality, coined in a postcolonial context in relation to road bandits, is equally useful in the context of Dutch policing. It will help us to advance our global comparisons and understandings of policing, security and crime. To further this line of inquiry, some interesting questions can be put on the table for exploration: How is illegality contested by police and policed? How can we understand the politics of crime (as an informal redistribution of wealth?) How do social justice and criminal justice relate? How can policing be legitimized in a context of widening socio-economic inequalities?