Post by Sigmund Book Mohn, PhD research fellow, Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law, University of Oslo. This is fourth instalment of Border Criminologies themed week on Immigration Control: Staff Perspectives organised by Thomas Ugelvik.

Why would anyone want to work with deportations? Although traditional patrol policing might be ‘dirty work,’ it’s not close to anything like the low status of the deportation police officers I’ve been following through my field study of the Norwegian National Police Immigration Service (NPIS). Street patrol police get their share of binge drinkers and psychiatric patients; of spitting, vomit, and the like. And criminal investigators might also get ‘tainted’ through their intimate relationship with criminal milieus. ‘Everybody loves the fire brigade,’ as one officer put it. Unlike the heroes riding in their red trucks, the police are usually called upon not to rescue but to arrest. But while the archetypical peace keeping and crime fighting image of the police in general still has some glory to it, immigration police officers are left with a nice salary but also the stigma and bad conscience of a nation. Sending children back to war and misery; what’s lower than that?

So why would anyone do it? Money might be a part of it as well as exotic travel destinations and rest periods in places such as Dubai. Yet Norway has a high general income rate and a low unemployment rate, so no one is really forced to do this work. However, for immigration police officers this work allows them to exercise specific professional skills. It also involves the adoption of an immigration police identity. The central deportation unit in Norway, like in many European countries, is part of the national police core. The ambitions and identity of immigration police are best understood as part of the general police culture. The police officers at NPIS have the same three-year police bachelor’s degree that all police officers in Norway must complete. And they come to the profession with the same goals and dreams of becoming police. Some come to the NPIS after careers in other parts of the police service, whereas others use the NPIS as a ladder to more attractive positions elsewhere.

The NPIS is seldom the first choice of employment for police officers, but it’s one of the few police units in Norway that has been growing the last decade. Its numbers have expanded from less than 200 in 2004 to more than 900 at the end of 2015. Compared to other parts of the Norwegian police force, its budget is second to that of the Oslo police district. And when the police men and women from around the country― a relatively high percentage with minority ethnic backgrounds who are valued for their language skills―start to work there, most find professional satisfaction in the specialized police work that many were unaware even existed. This is possible because parts of the job closely emulate the police work of criminal investigation. For example, ‘ID investigations’ are conducted to get the needed travel documents for deportations. And although based on immigration law, these investigations draws on the same means as prescribed by criminal procedure such as interrogations (‘ID interviews’), register searches, house searches, and sometimes even stake-outs, undercover operations, and the use of informants.

Parts of this deportation work can in fact be seen as closely linked to widely shared ideas of ‘attractive police work’: ‘being out’ (i.e., not in the office), being creative, and being ‘operative’ (i.e., employing restricted police measures). A political discourse seeing deportation as crime prevention tool has been eagerly adopted by deportation police officers, resulting in focused efforts to deport known offenders as well as the use of criminal justice language in relation to immigration offences. People actively avoiding deportation were often perceived to be something akin to criminals who, as one informant put it in a language that one would perhaps expect among police officers working with criminals, ‘is pissing on the asylum system’ at the expense of the people who are actually in need of protection.

Through my fieldwork I observed a degree of professional commitment and pride among immigration police officers, which can be seen as a positive counterbalance to the trend of neoliberal steering of deportation work by target figures and cost effectiveness. To be a professional immigration police officer also includes concerns about the well-being and dignity of deported or (un)deportable ‘clients.’ However, the internal push towards harder aspects of the police identity, putting ‘crime’ fighting in the foreground, might also lead in the direction of even more punitive immigration enforcement. Thus, understanding the growth of immigration and border police professionalism is crucial for making sense of how policies in this field are translated into practice. How the immigration police in Norway talk about and do their job isn’t only a result of how they want to be perceived as persons, but also about how they want to be perceived as police. The politics of immigration control is in this sense also tightly connected to the politics of professionalization and the identity of the police.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Mohn, S.B. (2016) Finding Professional Satisfaction in Low Status Police Work. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/02/finding (Accessed [date]).