BSC Policing Network Prize 2022

The British Society of Criminology (BSC) Policing Network awards an annual prize to acknowledge and celebrate excellence in policing research. In line with society rules, nominations are only open to members of the BSC. When reviewing the nominated articles, the panel look for the advancement of policing studies, or a valuable contribution to the field of policing studies either through innovations in theory, methodology or the application of research in a sole-authored journal article.

The prize is sponsored by Policy Press.

This year’s prize winner is Dr Jonah Miller, for his article ‘The Touch of the State: Stop and Search in England, c.1660-1750’ (History Workshop Journal 87 (2019)).

Jonah is a Research Fellow at King’s College, Cambridge, studying the history of British policing and its relationship to other forms of social and state power. You can find out more about his work here, including a forthcoming book on Gender and Policing in Early Modern England. Jonah is now working on a new project about a murder committed by a constable in the early years of the City of London police.

“I’m thrilled to have won the BSC Policing Network Prize, and especially pleased to have the chance to share some historical work with the network’s members. Some of the most helpful and interesting feedback I’ve had about the article has come from lawyers, criminologists, and former police officers. I’m excited to be part of a conversation across disciplines which can only benefit everyone involved.”

‘The Touch of the State’ uncovers a piece of the long and generally neglected history of stop and search. This controversial policing tactic was used in England (especially in London) for centuries before it was given any formal basis in law. The article uses court records from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to reconstruct how constables and night watchmen stopped and searched people on suspicion of various crimes. These officers – who were all male – were especially prone to stopping women walking through the capital’s streets alone, usually on suspicion of theft, selling sex, or both. They searched these women for evidence to provide grounds for arrest and evidence for potential prosecution. Such searches took place in a legal vacuum, unregulated by either statute or common law.

Male suspects tended to be searched relatively unobtrusively, typically by patting down their outer clothing. Officers thought female suspects were particularly ingenious in hiding small stolen goods like coins or watches, so searched them far more invasively. Some women were subjected to extraordinarily intrusive searches, which we would now consider forms of sexual assault. In the long run, women’s resistance to this kind of searching by male constables and watchmen played a crucial role in the rise of police matrons and eventually female police officers. Until then, patriarchal prejudices about women’s urban mobility, combined with wide discretionary powers, produced highly gendered practices of stop and search.

The article represents a significant contribution to the history of policing and to policing studies more broadly. Dr David Churchill, who nominated Jonah for the prize, said it ‘draws skilfully on original legal records, and combines this with a reading of historical, sociological and criminological literature. The article thus provides a deep historical excavation of stop and search and state authority of a kind rarely encountered in the literature, which offers new perspectives on policing, power and marginalization in contemporary contexts’.

Reviewers thought the paper’s fundamental message, that the historical use of stop and search powers needs to be understood against a broader context of state power and gendered powerlessness, provides a new perspective on this area of police studies. Not only does it challenge our collective tendency to present stop and search as a relatively recent problem for societies, it also signals a long overdue focus on gendered experience of stop and search. In doing so, it touches upon broader historically-located issues of state power, police discretion, the vagueness of legislative frameworks and the distinction between formal and informal control. Throughout there is rigorous historical research contextualised with reference to contemporary criminological debates and this is written in a very engaging and sympathetic style.

This kind of historical research helps us to think about current problems of policing in different ways. First, it can provide a genealogy for present-day practices. Stop and search did not begin in the 1970s, or even in 1824 with the legislation that provided a basis for ‘sus law’. It is a practice with deep historical roots in British policing, especially urban policing, and it has tended to reflect the prejudices and power dynamics of British society at any given time. This is especially true where the law provides officers with wide discretionary powers. A second way history can illuminate present policing is through comparison. Parallels can be drawn between laws against nightwalking and contemporary laws on the possession of controlled substances; in both cases almost anyone could be a suspect, so it is left to officers to decide who to stop and who to leave alone. In cultures which associate poverty and crime with particular demographic groups, it is hardly surprising that these conditions lead to gendered and racialised practices of policing.

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