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Disproportionate Policing Against Certain Social Groups

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Published: 13th Dec 2019

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Discuss the proposition that contemporary forms of policing and/or social control are used disproportionally against particular social groups and assess the implications of this.

Social control can be defined as purposive instruments applied to manage individuals or groups who do not conform to social norms and values. People who are perceived as criminal, bothersome, or different by the society. The idea of what can be perceived as deviant changes over time. Moreover, it differs within different cultures (Innes, 2003). The problem of nonconformity can be connected to different factors, such as: depravity, obstinacy, deviance, or a mixture of these. Correspondingly, the instruments applied to obtain social control can vary. They may range from treatments, prevention or deterrence of certain behaviour, isolation, and various forms of punishment (Cohen, 1985). The main motivation of social control is therefore, to enforce control over certain behaviour that are considered by society as deviant. Furthermore, different elements of social control are implemented within different components of private and public life of citizens, even if the behaviour is not viewed as deviant (Innes, 2003). Social control can be found in institutions such as the education system (Willis, 2017), healthcare, especially regarding the control of mentally ill (Horwitz, 1982), the welfare state (Gough, 1987; Offe, 1982), or workplaces (Zuboff, 2010). However, social control is more evident regarding the control of criminal behaviour (Garland, 2001). There are various forms of social control. Formal social control refers to circumstances where the social control is imposed based on existing law, and informal social control is exercised through societal values, norms and customs (Black, 2010). Furthermore, social control can be enforced as a reaction to something, for example the police investigating a crime. Moreover, social control can be proactive therefore creating some methods of prevention, before deviant behaviour occurs. Moreover, punishment is one of methods of social control. Therefore, incarceration, probation, penalties, curfews, but also stigma attached to these forms of punishment serves as methods of social control over deviant behaviour (Innes, 2003).

Additionally, the typology of social control can include hard edge and soft edge control, where hard edge control is linked to more coercion, and soft edge control involves subtle control involving psychological and therapeutic interventions (Cohen, 1985). Furthermore, forms of social control can differ depending on the power differences often prevailing in societies. The most common type of social control regarding power differences is downward social control. This type of control involves more powerful and authorities influencing the behaviour of less powerful. However, upward social control, can be maintained by people with less power influencing the behaviour of ordinarily more powerful individuals and authorities (Black, 2010). Lately, the notion of social control and the way it is exercised has changed through distribution and layering of methods of social control. New methods of control have been introduced adding to the existing ones, therefore strengthening social control but also making it less transparent (Innes, 2003). Increased crime and fear of crime greatly influenced changes in the apparatus of social control in modern social life (Hudson, 2002). Private and public organisations, such as the police, social workers, prisons, or doctors, started working together to tackle crime and fear of crime. Moreover, the introduction of community policing programmes intended to strengthen police relations with communities to increase citizens participation in order maintenance (Innes, 2003). Additionally, the media and educational institutions play an important part in social control. Schooling through introducing young people to certain norms and values (Willis, 2017), and the media through directing people’s attention to certain topics and concerns (Innes, 2003). Moreover, by concentrating on certain issues the media can exploit people’s fears and direct requirements for increased control (Altheide, 2017). Another modern change in the application of social control was reduction of people’s opportunities to participate in deviant behaviour (Felson & Boba, 2010). Introduction of situational crime prevention  strategies is one of the predominant elements of social control in current times (Hope & Sparks, 2000).

Policing involves various controlling tasks conducted by many different agencies or individuals. These tasks serve as crime detection and prevention (Innes, 2003). In modern times it is referred to as ‘plural policing’ to account for the involvement of various public or private agencies (Johnston, 2005). Previous research shows that majority of people from minority communities assume to be methodically under-policed when they are crime victims, but over-policed when they are suspected of crime (Innes, 2003). People belonging to more economically and politically excluded groups are subjected to more extensive forms of policing and social control as compared to the rest of the society. Therefore promoting further exclusion of these groups (Garland, 2001; Rose, 2000; Young, 1999). This essay, therefore, will discuss the proposition that contemporary forms of policing and social control are used disproportionally against particular social groups. Furthermore, this essay will assess the implications of disproportionate policing and social control in relation to these groups.

Due to recent events such as the arrest of two Black men sitting in Starbucks arrested for trespassing because they did not order anything (Hanson, n.d.) or the shooting of unarmed Black young man by police officers (Mindock, 2018) that happened in the US points to a particular control and over-policing of Black members of the population, as opposed to White males. Therefore, this essay will focus on disproportionate policing and social control of Black males, with attention to young Black males.

There is a wide scope of research demonstrating that Black minorities are more likely to be poorer than White citizens, and earn less (Bonilla-Silva, 2017). Moreover, the level of unemployment among Blacks is much higher than among Whites, even with the same level of education. Also, the number of Black men who are arrested or sentenced is visibly higher as compared to White males (Ferber, 2007). Furthermore, White suspects are five times less likely to be a victim of officer-involved shooting as compared to Black suspects. This may be explained by a widespread stereotype painting Black man as armed. Moreover, Black communities are viewed as more disorderly, therefore they may be subjected to stronger policing and control as they appear more hostile (Correll et al., 2007). Black people are stereotype by the society as inherently violent, poor, or predisposed to a manual labour (Feagin, 2010). Moreover, historically Black males were often described as animalistic and hypersexual and threatening to White females if not constrained. These stereotypes are used to explain the presence of modern White supremacy and the new racism (Ferber, 2007). The new racism is based on a presumption that discrimination does not exist in modern societies. Therefore, if certain groups, such as Blacks, are not prosperous, it is a consequence of their own bad decisions. Moreover, these stereotypes are so deeply embedded they have become facts for the majority of population. Additionally, the media portrayals of Black masculinity as excessively physical, incontrollable, and violent deepen these stereotypes. For example, disproportionate media attention to violent and sexual charges against Black athletes, as compared to the charges brought against White athletes (Collins, 2004). Moreover, race is never debated as important factor regarding crimes committed by White men (Heitzeg, 2015). When portraying White perpetrators, the media often present them in everyday photos surrounded by family and friends demonstrating disbelief and attesting to the character of the suspect. While Black perpetrators are often presented via mugshots, while highlighting their race (Heitzeg, 2015). This is particularly interesting since the majority of all types of crime in the US are committed by White individuals (Simon & Eitzen, 2002), and they are also constitute the majority of serial killers and mass murderers (Fox & DeLateur, 2014). However, criminality is still mostly associated with Black men. Moreover, White perpetrators are presented as ‘sick’ justifying their behaviour, with the emphasis on the condition not on the retribution. While Black offenders are immediately presumed guilty and harsh punishments are demanded (Heitzeg, 2015). Therefore, stereotyping of Black man as violent and criminal leads to the fear of Black males by the majority of population. It also aids the explanation of racial profiling by the police and unproportionate sentencing and imprisonment of Black males (Walker, Spohn, & DeLone, 2012). Therefore, Blacks are more likely to be stopped by the police (Ridgeway, 2006) and have their car searched (Kahn & Martin, 2016). Moreover, the police is less likely to use force while dealing with White suspects as compared to Black offenders (Walker et al., 2012). Additionally, many police officers involved in the shooting of Black males are never formally accused of crime which strengthens the bias against Black men (Kahn & Martin, 2016).

Legitimacy of the police suggests that they are given some authority by the state to maintain order and control within the society (Mazerolle, Antrobus, Bennett, & Tyler, 2013). Moreover, the legitimacy of the police is also the degree of public perception of the legitimacy (Eck & Rosenbaum, 1994). Therefore, the recognition of police legitimacy increases public readiness to comply and assist the police (Hawdon, Ryan, & Griffin, 2003). Police officers face variety of situations that require them to use their own judgement. (Buvik, 2016). Police discretion depends on situational context, such as the gravity of the crime (Carter, 2006), such attributes of the offender as: age, gender, race, or appearance (Buvik, 2016). Although, police officers also employ their personal values when deciding the course of action (Mastrofski, Worden, & Snipes, 1995). The police follows formal rules and procedures, but discretion permits them to choose the course of action (Buvik, 2016). The police is characterised by unique culture with unofficial norms and values that assist them with making a decision (Paoline III, Myers, & Worden, 2000). Moreover, fellow police officers can indirectly or openly pressure an officer to behave accordingly to the informal police norms (Gaines & Kappeler, 2014). Police culture is said to be characterised by masculinity and suspicion (Chan, 1996). Moreover, the Macpherson Report (Macpherson, 1999) concluded that the police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, a Black man murdered in London in 1993 was partially obstructed by institutional racism. Moreover, the report identified that young Black males are unequally targeted by police stop and searches. But the problem of stopping Black drivers, colloquially called ‘Driving while Black’ was still a serious issue in 2000 (Clancy, Hough, Aust, & Kershaw, 2001). The use of stop and search powers in England was influenced by ‘zero tolerance’ policy implemented in New York, mainly based on order maintaining (Tyler, 2011). Furthermore, racial bias and stereotypes aided the criminalisation of drug use. The War on Drugs is mostly based on manipulation of racial stereotypes (Provine, 2011). Drug dealers were predominantly pictured as Black, strong, and unaffected by authorities (Steiner, 2001).

Policing based on racial bias reduce trust between the police and discriminated groups. People are reluctant to report crime, or testify at trials, therefore decreasing chances of crime deterrence. Moreover, when young Black men are constantly treated by the police as suspects, the societal perception of these men may be affected. Therefore, also treating them as criminals. Furthermore, acknowledging the race-based policing may imply that every police officer is racially biased. Therefore, influencing how communities perceive the police (Leitzel, 2001). Moreover, Black youths are most likely to avoid any type of contact with the police (Gau & Brunson, 2010) due to prospective use of violence by the police (Brunson, 2007). Moreover, Black suspects who die in police custody are presented as deserving of violence since they are viewed as violent and dangerous (Pemberton, 2008).

Another social group disproportionally policed and socially controlled is sex workers. This group was chosen due to the frequency of news describing violence against sex workers. The accounts of sexual violence frequently introduced by the media continue to portray sex workers as victims of exploitation and coerced into prostitution (Brooks-Gordon, 2013). That opinion is also reflected by some feminists, however some feminist groups believe that sex work is a valid occupation condemned by the society (Sloan & Wahab, 2000). Also the sex workers’ right movement proposes that a large number of women freely enter sex work and prostitution should be recognized and respected as any other profession (Jenness, 1993). However, strategies to criminalise sex work have resulted in marginalisation, increased vulnerability, mistreatment, and abuse of women in sex trade. Strategies to manage sex work produced restrictions and further stigmatisation of women in sex work (Sloan & Wahab, 2000).

Negative portrayal of sex workers have been partially supported by the myths surrounding prostitution, suggesting that sex workers are depraved and cause their own victimisation by engaging in high-risk behaviour on a regular basis (Hough, 2004). Myths surrounding prostitution are linked to culturally reinforced opinions that justify and de-emphasise violence against sex workers or rape. Moreover, acceptance of these myths causes further stigmatisation of sex workers (Cotton, Farley, & Baron, 2002). There is also a common condemnation of prostitution within the society. Moreover, other myths about prostitution include blaming sex workers for spread of sexually transmitted disease. Additionally, prostitution is responsible for other criminal activities in areas where sex workers operate, therefore, criminalisation of prostitution would decrease the number of other crimes in the neighbourhood (Menaker & Franklin, 2018). Historically, legislations regarding sex work have been shaped by a perspective that individuals engaging in buying or selling sex are perceived to be as depraved and deviant. Lately, trafficking of persons for sex re-examined problem of prostitution and introduced legislation that identifies people who enter prostitution involuntary or people who are pressured into prostitution as victims. Before the beginning of the 20th century the police had minimal control over prostitution (Farrell & Cronin, 2015). In 1960s public concerns regarding prostitution in urban zones moved away from the problem of protecting women from victimisation and concentrated on reduction of noticeable signs of disruption created by prostitution (Weitzer, 1999). Policing effort of order-maintenance in Time Square in New York is one of the most significant instances of this approach that was combined with regulations preventing businesses linked with commercial sex such as strip clubs and hotels function in the neighbourhood. Therefore, increased policing forced prostitution to less detectable districts (Hubbard, 2013). Moreover, arrests forced sex workers into specific zones where prostitution would not affect the rest of society as much as it would become less visible (Weitzer, 1999).

Anti-trafficking narrative changed the way prostitution is viewed (Baker, 2013). The police previously charged with maintaining order within areas of prostitution is expected to discern between someone victims of trafficking and voluntary sex workers (Farrell & Cronin, 2015). The police, for the most part, have trouble implementing definitions of human trafficking and usually treat victims of human trafficking as sex workers (Farrell, Owens, & McDevitt, 2014). Example of this would be arrests of potential victims of trafficking by the police during the 2014 Super Bowl. Numerous arrests have been made by the police but most of the arrested were women engaged in sex work not men seeking to buy sex (Farrell & Cronin, 2015). Another agency involved with controlling prostitution includes social workers. Social workers are mostly affected by opinions that women are forced into prostitution and sex work exploits women (Sloan & Wahab, 2000). Moreover, by concentrating only on women with the application of efforts to ‘save’ them from prostitution therefore adding to the opinion that women are the centre of problem with prostitution (Stephanie Wahab, 2002). Sex workers seldom reveal their profession to providers of social services fearing the stigmatisation and arrest. Additionally, women who are not able to conceal their status as a sex worker are often the most exposed on the account of being homeless or having a drug problem. Moreover, many sex workers who disclose their profession are denied programs such as domestic shelters or long-term drug treatment (Weiner, 1996). The perception of sex workers as deviant that was held by social workers mid-20th century still impacts the way social workers view prostitutes today (Stephanie Wahab, 2002). Therefore, social workers often cooperate with the police, treating arrests of prostitutes as the way to ‘help’ them escape sex work industry. During project ROSE (Project Reaching Out to the Sexually Exploited) in the US in 2013 sex workers were offered a choice of being detained or to undergo a six-months diversion program. However, only prostitutes with no previous charges regarding prostitution or with no drugs found in their possession during arrest were permitted to join the program. Therefore, these conditions made the program unavailable to many of the prostitutes and instead of getting help sex workers were left facing criminal charges. Moreover, the most frequently targeted by the police for the arrest are prostitutes working on the street (Stéphanie Wahab & Panichelli, 2013). Additionally, the working conditions of street sex workers further their stigmatisation while at the same time expose them to threatening situations (Sterk, 2000). Besides the threat of violence from a client street sex workers can also be victims of intimidation by the members of the neighbourhoods where they work (Sanders, 2004). Moreover, containing street sex workers to certain, invisible spaces increases the dangerousness of their working conditions (Hubbard, 2004).

There is an ongoing debate between the supporters and opponents of criminalisation of prostitution. However, zero tolerance policy, arrest or risk of arrest and prosecution have an immense effect on the most marginalised and noticeable sex workers, those working on the street (Sanders & Campbell, 2007). Street sex workers, fearing arrest, frequently move to sequestered areas to meet their clients. However secluded areas offer no protection from possible violence (Maher et al., 2011). Policing and criminalisation of prostitution also hinder street sex workers’ access to more secure indoor working conditions (Krüsi et al., 2012). Moreover, the criminalisation of prostitution has impacted the willingness of sex workers to report physical assault or rape (Okal et al., 2011). Additionally, criminalisation of sex work can provide a significant obstruction to the access of healthcare and sexual health services (Lazarus et al., 2012). Furthermore, criminalisation of prostitution increases discrimination and stigmatisation of sex workers, and provides additional barriers to the health and community-based support resources (Lazarus et al., 2012).

To conclude, this essay discussed the proposition that contemporary forms of policing and social control are used disproportionally against particular groups and assessed the implications of this. This essay discussed forms of policing and social control being disproportionally used against Black men and sex workers. The implications mostly relate to safety concerns for both groups. Black men are at risk of police violence, whereas the over-policing of sex workers forces them into secluded areas where they are at risk of violence from their clients. Moreover, both groups are stigmatized, Black men as inherently violent, and sex workers as deviant. Therefore, further marginalising and reinforcing society attitudes towards both groups, therefore influencing the amount of social control for both Black men and sex workers. Furthermore, race-based policing and criminalisation of prostitution reduce trust in the police and decrease the impact of community policing, hence diminish deterrence of crime.


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