The Praxis of Mobility Policing

We can begin to better understand how human mobility becomes the object of criminal suspicion if we first recognize that the default position for state officials is not necessarily one of antagonism to mobility. Human mobility is not a phenomenon that most law-enforcement officials can reasonably or practicably deem to be threatening or problematic—even if they are specifically charged with monitoring and regulating human movements. Allow me to develop this point by way of illustration. Let us take what is perhaps the classic and most recognizable image of law enforcement on the African continent: the road block. To the casual observer— particularly if that observer is in the unfortunate position of being an impatient motorist seeking to get past—the police officer or customs official manning a road block appears to be a means of strategically preventing human movement. He or she slows down traffic, obstructs people who are trying to get where they want to go, and appears to take the mere presence of a driver on the motorway as grounds for suspicion. However, when you observe an officer at a road block over an extended period of time, you soon come to realize that he or she is not in fact categorically opposed to, or interested in preventing, mobility, but rather with the somewhat more subtle art of detecting and defining a specific type or range of mobility which constitutes, in his or her mind, evidence of a criminal act. For example, a police officer will be familiar with a series of visual cues as grounds for concluding that the driver of an approaching vehicle is inebriated: excessively slow speed, poor steering, etc. The art of policing here is in ‘reading’ a whole range of mobile acts—the officer at the roadblock is caught in a constant swirl of human mobility—in order to isolate the ‘mobile criminal element’.

In cases like these, of a hypothetical traffic offender at a road block, the issue of whether the population under surveillance is mobile is not in dispute. The officer can see the movement of actors with his or her own eyes. The task of reading mobility becomes less self-evident and more inferred as we move from an act of policing a transport route to examples of law enforcement in other sites. Take, for example, the border guard who is responsible for checking the passes of incoming passengers at an international airport. Here, the guard may not have witnessed the arrival of the flight in question but may infer that anyone presenting themselves at the immigration desk has flown across an international border. The guard may then move on to determine whether or not the form of mobility was an authorized one. Here, the forms of evidence that an official uses to decide whether a person’s movement contains elements of criminality may in fact have little to do with the act of mobility itself. Criminality is instead inferred from the articles in a suspect’s possession or from documentation on his or her person. This example points us back to the fact that the act of mobility itself is often not the object of suspicion or the focus of an official’s gaze. The more important issue is rather the form of mobility an official can read into the person’s appearance, possessions, and behaviour. As we move from direct to indirect forms of investigating mobility, the official becomes engaged in a more interpretative exercise: not simply seeking to see criminal behaviour, but creating a plausible narrative of a potential crime.

This process of reading mobility becomes more indirect and imaginative when we move completely outside transport systems, ports, and channels. Here, the very act of moving cannot immediately be imputed from the context of the interaction between the official and the civilian. For example, how does a police officer begin to develop a tale of mobility which might form the grounds for suspicion of an immigration offence when the officer confronts an unknown civilian in his or her home, far away from any border? In this context, mobility can only be inferred from a range of more indirect forms of ‘evidence’—the individual’s story, nationality, speech, dress, documents, etc, which may be used as proxies for the act of movement itself. The crucial issue here is that—unlike the case of the airport immigration officials—there are no reasonable grounds at this point for assuming that a person has crossed a border, other than what the officer has been trained or conditioned to infer from these various artefacts, symbols, and cues.

The most common and widely discussed manner in which officials conduct this type of criminal investigation is through ethnic or racial profiling. ‘Profiling’ refers to ‘situations in which race or ethnicity functions as an indicator of criminal propensity, typically by law enforcement officers in the context of a traffic stop’ (Batton and Kaldeck 2004: 30). This form of policing has been intensively studied in the context of US race relations (for a useful review, see Engel et al 2002) but also forms a part of the way in which we have theorized the development of antiimmigration policies over the last few decades. Here, the central argument is that many states have come to perceive members of migrant groups as responsible for certain forms of criminal activity. Drawing from this basic assumption, government officials have focused their anti-crime policing practices on particular minority groups, often leading to systematic harassment, persecution, and cases of wrongful imprisonment. While this sort of profiling comes in many different forms, perhaps the most widely publicized version in current discourse is the profiling of Muslims, and Muslim youths in particular, as suspects in anti-terrorism investigations.

In arguing that profiling is a form of ‘investigating mobility’ I am attempting to distance myself from the claim that profiling is merely a form of prejudice. Police officers commonly target minority groups as criminal suspects because they hold racist, ethno-centric, or chauvinistic attitudes towards these groups, or (misguided) beliefs that these groups are particularly prone to criminal activity. In other instances, law-enforcement officials simply desire to victimize and antagonize minorities whom they see as less deserving of rights than themselves. While simple prejudice of this sort no doubt accounts for a significant portion of profiling activity, to suggest that all forms of profiling can be reduced to mere prejudice would be to neglect the manner in which law-enforcement officials rationalize and justify profiling as a practice, and why it remains such a highly regarded practice within many police services. When asked to explain why they target minority groups, the South African law-enforcement officials we spoke to tended to offer a relatively cautious set of arguments which accounted for migrant groups’ criminal motivations as a plausible and understandable outcome of their history of mobility.

Echoing familiar stereotypes of migrant groups, police officers might reflect on the very different conditions in other African countries—including the lower level of development, higher level of organized violence, and greater incidence of institutionalized corruption—and use these to explain why migrants are more prone to commit crimes. Alternatively, they might reflect on the fact that migrants are less vested in South Africa and therefore more willing to flaunt its legal system. Finally, they might consider the considerable responsibilities of foreign migrants to support families and businesses in their country of origin and suggest that this might drive certain groups to extreme forms of wealth accumulation. In each of these ways, law-enforcement officials in South Africa move beyond the simplistic prejudices that involve equating foreign populations with criminality and develop a more nuanced story of how mobility leads certain migrant groups to adopt specific forms of criminal activity. In recognizing this connection between profiling and mobility, I do not want to suggest that law-enforcement officials necessarily develop accurate portraits of the criminal motivations and propensities of subgroups or that the act of profiling helps them to effectively detect, prevent, and prosecute criminal activity. Instead, I merely want to show how, in the act of profiling, police officers develop and draw upon a narrative about mobility which they believe constitutes an accurate account of the pre-history of a crime.

Profiling is one amongst several ways in which law-enforcement officials develop ‘narratives of criminalized mobility’. In the next section I examine two different examples where I have observed this practice in operation in South Africa. The first case discusses how South African officials have been trained to implement human trafficking legislation. In that example, even though migrants are conceived as victims, international mobility has been made central to the way officials investigate and respond to criminal forms of labour exploitation. The second case discusses South African efforts to implement intellectual property law. This discussion shows how migration and mobility laws constitute a ‘fall-back’ or ‘default’ position which officials deploy when confronted with forms of crime that they are poorly equipped to control.

 
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