It’s life Jim, but not as we know it

When I arrived in Oslo recently I had forgotten that the doors to hotel guest rooms open outwards towards you. My oversight became abundantly clear when I encountered the door to my room; it did not open for me. My initial thoughts were that either the door was faulty, the lock was broken, the key card was not correctly encoded, or that I had arrived at the wrong room. A moment later, after a brief inspection of the door fittings, I realised that I had unwittingly become, once again, the nitwit in Gary Larson’s cartoon Midvale School for the Gifted (see below). However, putting this to one side, as well as the smug feeling of achievement at solving the most routine of problems, I began the inevitable luggage-wrestle while trying to pull open the door. This moment of observation-assumption-action-failure-annoyance-puzzlement-assumption-success-smugness acts as a reminder to us, as scientists, of the importance of being sensitive to differences of the cultural norms of the world we aspire to describe. We mustn’t assume, as I did, that while one object may seem familiar, perhaps due to our exposure to it in our own cultural context, that it may be have the same meaning or function in another cultural context.


Figure 1: Gary Larson, Midvale School for the Gifted. 2nd First Look 09/09/2012. Web 18/01/2016.

Much of the literature which examines the behaviour of the police occurs within a single jurisdictional or country specific context. While there are some notable exceptions, (see for example: Banton 1964; Waddington et al. 2009) many studies only make comparisons of different geographical areas within a single jurisdiction. While there is much to be learnt from these comparisons, such as differences in practice of metropolitan and rural policing, or maybe between affluent and socially deprived communities, there can be a danger in making generalisations. While most hotel doors in England open inwards, by pushing, this is not always the case in all countries.

I was recently reminded of the importance of jurisdictional-sensitivity when participating in an online discussion about a piece of writing about ‘stop and search’ and police legitimacy. An argument was being made using British and American data that ‘stop and search’ could negatively affect police legitimacy. I had no problem with the use of this data to support the argument as it seemed to follow a logical path. However, when I finished reading the article I sensed that the message to the reader was that ‘stop and search’ mechanisms in law were a fundamental risk to police legitimacy. I took pause at this point to consider this. Had I interpreted the message correctly: was this the message that the authors’ wished to portray? I accepted the merit in using data from two jurisdictions to support the argument however I felt that the analytical narrative overall was weak. I felt that it was missing a broader discussion of ‘stop and search’ practice in other countries, especially those countries which were more aligned with the ‘British’ style of policing.

At the time it was my view was that ‘stop and search’ can pose a risk to police legitimacy, however this is not necessarily always the case. I have experienced – as a practitioner – that ‘stop and search’ can also have a positive effect on police legitimacy. For instance, the most common ‘stop and search’ encounters in New Zealand relate to road traffic stops for alcohol breath testing. Police routinely stop vehicles for random breath tests or deploy static breath testing checkpoints. While drivers are stopped they provide a sample of their breath to be tested for the presence of alcohol. Somewhat different to a physical body search, or ‘pat down’ for weapons or drugs, yet still a ‘stop and search’. While there is little empirical evidence to support my proposition that this type of breath testing ‘stop and search’ does not contribute to a decline in police legitimacy, my experience tells me that this is the case. (Mazerolle et al. 2012 explore this relationship to some degree, but not from a cross-cultural context.)

Consider the recent experience of American Huffington Post Reporter Janis Powers. She wrote an article of her experience of being stopped for a speed infringement while holidaying in New Zealand, and about her objection to having participate in an alcohol breath test:

As a visitor in any foreign country, I never expect my rights as an American to supersede those of the nation where I am traveling. But things just didn’t seem right when I was given a mandatory road-side breathalyzer test, just because I was speeding. […] When I look back on the situation, I understand that in New Zealand, innocent drivers like me will be inconvenienced by mandatory breathalyzer tests in order to nab someone who is driving under the influence of alcohol. And that drunk driver, if not caught, could bring harm, even death, to others and/or to him/herself. Was I frustrated that I was delayed in getting to the hotel? Absolutely. Was I upset that I had to perform this test with my children looking on from inside the car, confused and bewildered? Of course. The fact that I was compelled to take a breathalyzer test is certainly on the low end of the spectrum of potential civil rights abuses.

Powers also then attempted to draw a link her own experience to that of American Sandra Bland who died after a routine traffic stop in Texas. After posting her article, Powers received a very public rebuke from New Zealand media outlets and the online community. Not only had she misinterpreted the law, she invoked a flurry of comments from members of the public who expressed displeasure at Powers’ perspective. Some of the online comments are of particular interest as they show support for the actions of police officer who conducted the breath test. One example from Dianne van Dulken a reader from Adelaide posted the following:

“Awww you poor baby. You were breaking the law, and they treated you like someone who might be breaking the law! FANCY THAT! Both in NZ and Australia, you can be pulled over at any time and breathalised. And no one objects because it stops people dying. Remember that, when police where [sic] there to stop people dying?”

Van Dulken’s comment offers an interesting insight in to the public’s perspective of the necessity of this particular type of ‘stop and search’. In addition, it shows how, when used correctly, ‘stop and search’ can be seen to have the potential to have a positive impact on police legitimacy. Furthermore, it illustrates how there can be a variation in public perception of police practice from country to country. It appears that Powers’ response to the traffic stop was deeply routed in her cultural perspective (an American who believes strongly in her constitutional rights) that her civil rights were abused. This is opposite van Dulken’s message, that it is not an issue of individual civil rights, that the police action is designed to prevent harm to the community. Van Dulken suggests that the necessity of the police action outweighs the inconvenience and intrusion into the individual’s rights. As such, her comments add legitimacy the police officer’s actions.

My thoughts in this post are not intended to adequately debate the utility of ‘stop and search’, nor discuss how ‘stop and search’ affects police legitimacy. My message is to highlight the importance for us as scientists to consider how culture, jurisdiction, nationhood, can affect views of police behaviour and as such to consider the utility of cross-cultural and cross-jurisdictional methodological approaches to research projects. This is important for two reasons. First, as scientists, to understand that findings from a research project are a product of the culture from where the study originates. As a police officer practitioner researcher from New Zealand I am often sceptical of literature which leads the reader to believe that its findings are broadly generalisable from one location to another, or from one jurisdiction to another. Second, that any cross-cultural, cross-jurisdictional, or cross-national research may have a greater potential to discover phenomena which are truly generalisable in some way. My ‘stop and search’ example shows that problems may in fact lie with the interpretation or implementation of a legislative mechanism rather than the mechanism itself. While I am sure that most of us understand this, we need to make an effort to consider this in our own work and make this clear in our publications.

Ross Hendy is a PhD Student at the Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge. Email: Twitter: @Ross__Hendy


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