Perpetual Suspects

Dr Lisa Long

I continue to live my body in Black within a culture where Blackness is still over determined by myths and presuppositions that fix my body as a site of danger (Yancy, 2008:59).

In December 2018, twenty years on from the publication of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report (Macpherson, 1999), the Home Affairs Committee launched an inquiry to examine the progress made against Macpherson’s 70 recommendations over the last two decades. However, it is evident from a cursory glance at the statistics that race continues to shape policing outcomes. Black people are over nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white peers (nationally with some regional variation) (Home Office, 2018a), are almost four times more likely to be subject to use of force and are more likely to be subjects of taser use (Home Office, 2018b). It follows, that Black people, especially men, disproportionately die in police custody or during or after police contact (Athwal and Bourne, 2015). In this context, my research sought to understand the experiences that Black and Black mixed-race men and women have when they come into contact with the police. I interviewed twenty participants about their experiences of police contact over the life course. Utilising a Critical Race Theory (CRT) framework, the research prioritised racialised voices and, through an intersectional analysis, presented a counter-narrative to the dominant police narratives which engage in denial of racism as an explanation for the police focus on Black bodies. I submitted to the recent inquiry, in brief, the findings of my PhD research which has been recently published as a monograph (Long, 2018) Perpetual Suspects: A Critical Race Theory of Black and Mixed-Race Experiences of Policing with Palgrave Macmillan. Some of the key findings are outlined here.


The research finds that both Black men and women have their first encounter with the police at a young age. This may be through an awareness of surveillance in the place where they grew up, through observing treatment of family members or direct contact by being asked to account for their presence or behaviour. This is particularly apparent in ‘racially Othered spaces’; those spaces which are occupied by the Black (and ethnic minority) Other and resultantly are imagined as dangerous, criminogenic spaces. Further, several participants experienced ‘unjustified’ arrest in their early teenage years, often resulting in no further action. Black bodies are perpetually suspect, even in childhood. These negative experiences in the formative years cement their understanding of the relationship with the police as ‘Us vs Them’. So normalised is its occurrence in the lives of Black men, stop and search was broadly unremarked upon in the interviews without prompting. Whilst these forms of contact lessen with advancing age and lifestyle changes such as having children, no longer working shifts and not socialising outside at night, other forms of contact, including car stops, serve as reminder to them that they are the perpetual suspect. Several participants recalled being the subject of use of force, in the context of restraint, in ways which were perceived as being to excessive in order to contain the threat of the ‘big, Black, man’.  The experiences recalled by Black mixed-race men (and some women) are undifferentiated from those of Black men. Through the ‘white [police] gaze’ they are seen as ‘monstrous blacks’ and are policed as such (Long and Joseph -Salisbury, 2019).  For (some) women, race can be negotiated, to varying extents, through acceptable versions of femininity; however, for men their Blackness poses the ultimate threat.

(Un) Victims

One of the significant findings of this research is that, for Black and Black mixed-race people, negative experiences of reporting victimisation to the police, particularly in the case of non-hate crime related incidents, can have significant consequences for their trust and confidence in the police. This is an area that has hitherto been overlooked in research. The process of becoming a victim is an ‘emergent process of signification’ (Rock, 2002:17), the police are significant actors in this process and racialised ideas about ‘suspect’ bodies are negotiated within the police encounter with the victim. This negates the ‘ideal victim’ status (Christie, 1986) constructing them as the (Un) Victim (Long, 2018).  This is evident in the themes emerging from this study; Black and Black mixed-race victims of crime are not taken seriously and they are treated as suspect when they report victimisation. This is more significant for men; the women who took part in the study reported more satisfactory experiences of reporting victimisation. This is with the exception of one participant, Alice. Alice had a history of police contact due to petty offending linked to drug addiction. She is an offender in the victim/offender dichotomy and is therefore unworthy of victim status. For the women who were not ‘known’ to the police, a display of appropriate and acceptable forms of femininity can negotiate race and enhance their experience in comparison to that of men. This can be displayed through compliance and/or professional status. However, despite more satisfactory experiences of reporting crime, the women were aware of the need to prove their worthiness within these encounters. These experiences, often in the context of minor/petty crime, have significant and long-lasting consequences for trust and confidence in the police and expressed willingness to report future victimisation.

The majority of the participants in this study said that they would contact the police if they needed help or to report a crime, dependent on severity; however, all participants expressed low expectations of the police response to them. Further, they rationalised reporting crime through their citizenship or payment of taxes, which they felt ‘entitled’ them to a service.  For a minority of the participants, the police were completely disregarded as a source of help, regardless of the nature or severity of the incident (also, see Yarrow, 2005).  The participants who professed to a complete avoidance of the police had in common that they had experienced extended and cumulative negative contact with police over several years and in various contexts or, alternatively, had one significant and defining experience which altered their perception of the police. When racialised relations force the (Un)Victim to view themselves through the ‘white gaze’ (Yancy, 2008), and consider that race may be the reason that they do not have access to justice, this has brutalising racist affects which trump the impact of victimisation resulting in ‘racial re-victimisation’ (Long, 2018).


In summary, the research finds that institutional racism continues to shape Black and Black mixed-race people’s experiences of policing, facilitated by a culture of denial. The analysis shows that there is not one Black experience or perception of policing, but several. These experiences are produced differently through identity and identification as Black on a continuum, which relies upon subordinate masculinities and femininities for the reproduction of White power (See, Mills, 1997) a system upheld (knowingly or unknowingly), by the state police.

The full implications of this research are explored in Long (2018). Perpetual Suspects: A Critical Race Theory of Black and Mixed-Race Experiences of Policing. London:Palgrave.

The experiences of victims will be analysed through a re-conceptualisation of Christie’s (1981) ‘Ideal Victim’ thesis in a paper to be presented at this year’s BSC Conference in July.

Dr Lisa Long is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Leeds Beckett University,

Email: Twitter: @therealljlong


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