Police in the urban peripheries of the welfare state

Research and teaching fellow Kıvanç Atak. Photo: Stockholm University

By Kıvanç Atak

Urban segregation and neighborhood disadvantage pose dire challenges to the welfare state ideals of social justice and equality. In Sweden, few institutions have taken as much attention as the police recent years, for better or worse, concerning the question of what should be done about the problems in relatively isolated and underserved suburbs in large cities. There are solid grounds to take issue with a focus on policing as a panacea for the perils of urban exclusion and inequality. However, if security is defined as a public good for all, not just for a privileged minority or a particular class of people, much talk about the police is perhaps not unwarranted.

In my current project, I address the issue of policing in disadvantaged neighborhoods from the perspective of locally engaged actors in two suburbs of Stockholm. My aim is to understand the kind of local frames that exist around policing in the eyes and experiences of people who are in one way or another immersed in neighborhood associations. At the NSFK Research Seminar in May 2022, I presented some of the ideas coming out from this project.

Local engagement indicates a certain level of interest in, and concern about, neighborhood issues. It can mean different and, for some, multiple commitments. I interviewed people who are active in tenant organizations, help students with their homework, go out for night patrolling, organize cultural events, support women or the elderly in various fields of the quotidian life and so forth. Such activities can be found in many places but in this specific urban setting, local engagement also becomes a means to counteract the consequences of neighborhood isolation and disadvantage.

These local actors can also be seen as important bearers of knowledge about the various incarnations of the state in these neighborhoods. This means that by listening to the experiences of these actors we can learn about the neighborhood concerns as well as aspirations related to police work and security in the urban peripheries. Such a bottom-up perspective can indeed help us decipher the kind of vulnerabilities that are engendered through specific ways police are present and absent – vulnerabilities that perhaps most notably haunt the minority youth in these neighborhoods. On a broader level, voices from the locally engaged actors can also be taken as meaningful hints about the particular ways in which policing may work against or else exacerbate existing conditions of disadvantage and exclusion.

Extant literature shows a certain tendency to think about policing from the standpoint of legitimacy and procedural justice. Such an understanding has its virtues but also limitations. How policing is framed and experienced at the local level, not least in disadvantaged neighborhoods, is not merely a matter of (dis)satisfaction, (non)compliance or (un)willingness to cooperate with the police. Hence, there is much wisdom in placing research on policing within broader discussions about social and structural inequality.

Kıvanç Atak is a research and teaching fellow at the Department of Criminology at Stockholm University. He is interested in the sociology of policing, social movements and protests, race/ethnicity and urban exclusion.