‘Since that day, I only felt hate for the police’ – Narratives of police violence and insults

”The police is here to protect the society. But they don’t protect you. They protect the society against you. That’s the feeling you have.” (Man, 19 years)

Narratives and rumors of police violence circulate among ethnic minority men in some socially deprived neighborhoods in Denmark. They tell and retell stories of being treated more harshly than the Danes, and recount stories of discrimination, harassment and humiliation.

Listening to their stories occurred when we interviewed 76 young men as part of a research project on young ethnic minority men’s experiences with the Danish police. Within their stories, we heard a refrain of police practices that undermined these men’s trust in the impartial behavior of the police.

Our intention was not to explore the verisimilitude of the young men’s narratives, but to understand how they made sense of their encounters with the police. Three types of behaviors were recounted:

Unnecessary force: These young men described encounters with the police that seemed disproportionate to the severity of their offenses. While not denying their culpability, they nevertheless described the extent to which the police used unnecessary force during routine stop and search procedures. Such force included being violent, whether by physically restraining them—twisting their arms too hard, or forcefully pressing them to the ground, or by employing police dogs to scare them.

Inconsistent use of force:  In encountering the police, these young men described how they did not know how the police would respond. Would they be violent and insulting, or would they be civil? Such inconsistency meant that these men always felt uncertain as to how they would be dealt with, and therefore they were often unable to predict police behavior. They referred to the police as “two-faced,” because their behavior would alter depending on whether the encounter took place in private or in public, or on whether the men were accompanied by friends or by social workers.

Humiliation and insulting violence: The most emotionally upsetting accounts by these young men were their descriptions of being publicly humiliated by the police. They described incidences of being strip-searched or groped in public. Such experiences left these young men with little dignity, and they felt that their masculinity was questioned and diminished.

Overall, these types of negative experiences led these young men to believe that they were different from other, ethnically Danish young men. Unlike others, they experienced a sense of being pre-judged and treated as second-class citizens. Their trust in the police, as a benign force to protect them, was very low. Consequently, in encountering the police they were on their guard and ready to take precautions.

Based on the article: Haller, M.B., Kolind, T., Hunt, G., Søgaard, T.F. (2020) Experiencing police violence and insults: narratives from ethnic minority men in Denmark. Nordic Journal of Criminology, 21:2, 170-185.
Photo of Mie Birk Haller. She is standing outside, green leaves in the background, dressed in a red t-shirt. She has blond hair in a braid and is smiling.
Mie Birk Haller. Photo: Private.

By Mie Birk Haller, social anthropologist and assistant professor at Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research at Aarhus University, Denmark. Her research has focused on marginalization, prisons, crime and drug and alcohol practices. Currently she conducts research on ethnic minority youth perceptions of the police.