Post by Dr Bethan Loftus, Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Manchester

In an article recently published in Policing and Society, I ask policing scholars to conduct a series of ethnographies which scrutinise the culture and practices of state and non-state border police on-the-ground.

Throughout the world, resources are being shifted towards border enforcement. Along with the concerted political and financial investment afforded by states into defending territories, the apparatus of border policing now comprises a multitude of state agencies and an expanding range of private actors and commercial agents. While there has been much debate about the proliferation of bodies – and technologies – engaged in policing mobility, the values, beliefs and informal rules through which those who routinely enforce border priorities interpret their world and perform their job has garnered surprisingly little attention. In some contrast, ethnographic field studies have long provided an insight into the culture and hitherto closed world of ordinary police officers and social control professionals. In this article, I argue that much can be learnt from the existing knowledge and ethnographies relating to police culture, and appeal to policing scholars to conduct prolonged, ethnographic fieldwork in order to document the culture and practices of those diverse agents working at the coalface of border enforcement.

Although the concept of ‘police culture’ has become widely employed to convey the many facets of police work, little is known about the daily activities and working culture of those engaged in policing the mobility of others. With a view to examining the local life of border enforcement, I emphasise the following research questions. Do border police emulate aspects of traditional police occupational sentiments and practices? Or given the differences in remit and method, does the working culture of border police vary? If so, what are these variations and how can we explain them? A number of further questions emerge which, I believe, can be best answered by immersing oneself into the field in order to become familiar with border enforcers and their culture. In a changing and fluid policing landscape, who else controls the border? What events and people arouse suspicion on the border? How do border police use their discretion and the tools available to them? What are their dispositions towards different enforcement styles and kinds of mobility? In exploring the daily grind of border policing, a demographic profile of border police can be constructed. What are their motivations for and aspirations upon becoming border police? How do border enforcers relate to the various publics with whom they frequently encounter?

Key to reaching an understanding of the inner-world of border policing is to examine the decentred nature of the new border policing regime and interrogate who exactly the ‘border police’ are. To be sure, the border is dispersed and the agencies involved in enforcing it are diverse. It seems that two broad enforcement groups can be discerned. The first incorporate those official state agencies, such as the police, military, immigration and customs. The second group comprise those unofficial – and therefore less visible – civilian actors (or ‘vigilantes’) and commercial bodies engaged in policing mobility. The latter potentially raise implications for ethnographic research since they may be less amenable to the type of institutional study conducted with mainstream policing bodies. Such groups can operate outside of equitable frameworks of social justice, meaning that more controversial methodologies – such as covert observation – may be needed to document and make sense of their culture and practices.

As policing and security governance on the border becomes more innovative, I remind scholars to draw upon a holistic research strategy to track how new security frameworks are realised at the local level and acted out against national environments. I suggest that this would inform us of what is taking place at the sharp end of border policing in diverse settings. There is a growing body of theoretical and empirical work that considers how border regimes disadvantage social distinctions of race, ethnicity and gender. Much of this focuses on the subject making the passage into a nation state, either voluntarily or through force. In contrast, I have argued that policing scholarship can help to develop a deeper understanding of policing mobility through examining the stories, experiences and behaviour of those who routinely enforce border priorities on-the-ground.

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