Young people with ethnic minority backgrounds need to deal with stigmas and over-policing

By Elsa Saarikkomäki, Randi Solhjell and David Wästerfors.

Photo by Devin Avery on Unsplash

In our recent article, we employed narrative analysis to interview data on how young people dealt with being policed. We used a large qualitative comparative data set including Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Our novel finding was that the young people are not passive subjects, but rather actively take part in handling and reflecting on police encounters. We found three categories of narratives, (a) practical (b) emotional and (c) analytical, that the young people used in discussing their experiences and assessments of the police.

In the first, the young people described how, in their daily lives, the police frequently ask for their IDs, write down their names and ask them to leave, sometime imposing fines and engaged in official and unofficial reporting. The interviewees/young people described how they not always accept this behaviour by the police but also used many practical ways of opposing and resisting these police controls. This could be talking back to the police – such as “but I live here, how can I leave the area” – running away, or even withdrawing from neighborhoods at certain times (e.g. night time). 

In the emotional narratives, being targeted by the police was an emotional situation where they carved out an understanding of why them and not the others. These could be emotions such as embarrassment, shame and humiliation, such as being labelled as a criminal immigrant in their own communities. But over-policing produced also anger and feelings of being rejected. 

In the final type of narrative, we found that the interviewees carefully observed and analyzed how the police worked. By knowing characteristics and behavior police officers found suspicious, they would use this information to ‘dress up’, ‘act more quiet’ and other ways of tactically avoiding attention. The young people were able to disclose the logic behind local police work, and capable of gaining knowledge and skills from the experiences of discrimination. However, they could also engage in debunking myths about how everyone is a criminal in ‘their’ ethnically labelled category. Some of them also discussed how police officers differ in their behavior.

The study concludes that we need a more dynamic perspective to understand and analyze how targeted groups constitute agency, resistance and active responses to ethnic profiling or labelling. To understand how “policing works” and how young people understand and actively resist or avoid over-policing and labelling, we must listen carefully to the stories told in the field. Policing and structural discrimination affects their daily lives in many ways.


Elsa Saarikkomäki, Randi Solhjell & David Wästerfors (2023) Dealing with police stops: how young people with ethnic minority backgrounds narrate their ways of managing over-policing in the Nordic countries, Policing and Society, 33:8, 937-952, DOI: 10.1080/10439463.2023.2216838

Other articles from this project

Haller, M. B., Solhjell, R., Saarikkomäki, E., Kolind, T., Hunt, G., & Wästerfors, D. (2020). Minor harassments: Ethnic minority youth in the Nordic countries and their perceptions of the police. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 20(1), 3-20.

Solhjell, R. (2019). «Hele skolen trenger ikke den oppmerksomheten». Nordisk politiforskning, 6(2), 156-168.

Solhjell, R., Saarikkomäki, E., Haller, M. B., Wästerfors, D., & Kolind, T. (2019). “We are Seen as a Threat”: Police Stops of Young Ethnic Minorities in the Nordic Countries. Critical Criminology, 27(2), 347-361.

Saarikkomäki, E., & Alvesalo-Kuusi, A. (2020). Ethnic Minority Youths’ Encounters With Private Security Guards: Unwelcome in the City Space. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 36(1), 128-143.

Saarikkomäki, E., Birk Haller, M., Solhjell, R., Alvesalo-Kuusi, A., Kolind, T., Hunt, G., & Burcar Alm, V. (2021). Suspected or protected? Perceptions of procedural justice in ethnic minority youth’s descriptions of police relations. Policing and Society, 31(4), 386-401.

Wästerfors, D., & Burcar Alm, V. (2020). ‘They are harsher to me than to my friend who is blonde’. Police critique among ethnic minority youth in Sweden. Journal of Youth Studies, 23(2), 170-188.

About the authors

Portrait of Randi Solhjell
Photo: Maud Hol

Randi Solhjell is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law, the University of Oslo. (She currently studies Scandinavian states’ export of criminal justice through foreign policy and development aid.) She holds a PhD in Political Science from the London School of Economics (LSE).

Portrait of David Wasterfors
Photo: Lund University

David Wästerfors is professor in Sociology at the Department of Sociology, Lund University, Sweden, and teaches in sociology and criminology. His research is often focused on interactions, institutions, emotions and social control. 

Portrait of Elsa
Photo: Ida Tokola

Elsa Saarikkomäki is a University Lecturer and an Associate Professor of Criminology at the Faculty of Law, University of Turku, Finland. Her current areas of interest include experiences of policing among marginalized groups and young people, plural policing, private security, and procedural justice.