Policing Marginalized Communities in the Global South: Examining Contextual Realities

  • Danielle Watson


In policing scholarship, communities not conforming to social and political ideologies of the ‘powerful’ are usually presented as problematic spaces for police organizations. What is not at the forefront of such scholarly discussions is the community as a space where ‘insiders’ are made to adjust or accept the positions of ‘outsiders’ carrying out a mandate which may not necessarily align with ideologies at work within the particular social space. The author presents a description of what is meant by marginalized communities in the Global South and highlights problems associated with applying general descriptions to such communities and the need to create literature which is historically, contextually and socially specific if solutions are to be derived to address issues of problematic police and community relations.


Marginalized communities Crime hotspots Policing margins 

Marginalization, Hotspot Communities and Police/Community Relations

Marginalized communities around the world are alike in their optional or assigned non-compliance with mainstream ideological, political, social and economic standards. This categorization is usually assigned to peripheral dwellers or groups of socially excluded or ignored individuals within a society (Sokoloff and Dupont 2005). It is also not concerned with group size. In this sense, marginalized communities can account for majority populations who are set apart from powerful social, political and economic actors within a society. Descriptions also extend to include groups of individuals designated marginalized because of socially or contextually determined vulnerability. In essence, marginalization relates specifically to assumed or apparent disadvantage. For many Caribbean territories, including Trinidad and Tobago, marginalization is premised on perceptions associated with social class or residential address, education and/or perceived status within a society (Berkman 2007). It is therefore not unusual for persons to be marginalized on the basis of residence within a community deemed a ghetto or by virtue of not having attained the level of education deemed normal by governments or policy makers.

Although marginalization is generalized when referring to communities in developing countries, it is often the case that such classifications are not intended to apply to all communities but end up being inappropriately assigned as a matter of convenience. Socially excluded communities in the Caribbean and Latin America are often generalized as spaces where persons live in fear of becoming victims of violent crimes and police and non-law-abiding citizens present a potential threat to residents, who in turn are left without options for justice (Berkman 2007; Goldstein 2003). Such literature on high-crime communities suggests that within these spaces, residents view their neighbors, the police and persons outside their immediate circle as a threat (Buff 1994). Studies also categorize these spaces as well known for high incidents of violence, homicide rates higher than other areas within the same national borders and lower-class populations compelled to illegitimate and violent acts as a primary source of income (Caldeira 2000). These arguments do not apply to many marginalized communities as continuance of these social spaces and the way of life of the people are premised on notions of group solidarity and outsider exclusion (Watson and Kerrigan 2018). Berkman (2007) argues that the violence assumed to be commonplace in many marginalized communities is reflective of the actions of the minority and accounts are usually sensationalized by the media, politicians and residents of the middle and upper classes. Several scholars acknowledge such generalizations as appropriately assigned to some communities but highly problematic and inaccurate when assigned to others. Butcher and de Tagtachian (2016) suggest that communities on the margins uphold and value bonds that signify belonging and acceptance to a collective and are compelled to the sense of inclusivity the group provides. They are held together by their ability to identify with each other’s economic, social and political struggles and trust, togetherness and solidarity are strengthened and fortified through identification with a shared reality of otherness (Watson and Kerrigan 2018). Language and communication among individuals belonging to the group are premised on systems of solidarity and social distance. According to Marais (1992), communities do not hold like ideals concerning social order, nor are they concerned about the same social ills. Within the researched community, the language used within various social contexts is determined by specific characteristics which may be unknown or abnormal to non-residents. Understanding the relationship between language, power and social context is essential to providing an understanding of how the community works (Barton and Tusting 2005). Where the language used by police officers contradicts established values and norms within the community, attempts at interaction by the police are likely marked by alienation and possibly hostility. Residents are likely to work together to maintain safety and security at the community level (Woolcock 2005). Rejection of mainstream paradigms of acceptable social behaviors and standards of conflict resolution position members of marginalized communities as conflicting with persons adhering to upheld ideologies of those with authority over justice, economic and political power. Despite identified similarities in economic disadvantage and limited access to resources among such communities, they are constructed differently dependent on dynamics at work within the space informing adaptation and specificity of context.

While groups of individuals or entire communities can be marginalized for a multiplicity of reasons, the focus here is on communities deemed marginalized because of their identification as crime hotspots by powerful social actors. In August 2011, a partial State of Emergency (SoE) was enforced by the then Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, in an attempt to combat the escalating ‘crime epidemic’. A total of 57 areas were identified and branded as high-crime areas or more specifically ‘hotspots’. This decree translated to overnight curfews being enforced in the designated hotspot communities and police being granted increased powers to conduct searches and make arrests (Hutchinson-Jafar 2011). Arguments provided to validate the decision included Trinidad being used as a transshipment point for illegal narcotics and firearms, and the spiraling murder rate. The arguments give rise to assumptions about residents from such communities and their propensity to engage in unlawful acts. Marginalization in this sense is premised on assumed propensity for violence based on place of abode. The categorization does not state that all residents of the community are violent, yet the non-violent community members share the assigned brand and are subject to the consequences of their residence. What is also relevant is the non-conformity of the 57 communities to common general description of marginalized. The community within which the study was conducted, for example, differs from the two neighboring communities with which a border is shared. The community is situated between one of the communities known for the highest murder rate in Trinidad and Tobago, and a community well known for the sale of illegal substances, narcotics and gang-related activities. The community also differs from neighboring communities in that there is planned infrastructure and a considerably higher rate of employment than neighboring communities (Caribbean Human Development Report 2012; Central Statistics Office National Census 2011; London 2013; Ministry of Planning and Development, Trinidad and Tobago 2012). The documented instances of crimes occurring in the community are also significantly lower than other marginalized communities as well as communities not labeled marginalized. These known differences provide a glimpse into the problematic nature of establishing one-size-fits-all responses to problems in developing countries or more so in any context. Categorizations appear more based on the checking of boxes against established indicators of marginalization than focused on accurately describing a social space.

The labeling of a community as a ‘crime hotspot’ not only has negative social implications for individuals residing within the community, it also adversely affects policing within the community, how residents interact with individuals from outside the community and how these individuals interact with each other. The assignment of a stigmatizing label impacts how individuals are treated. These labels hold power as their assignment is believed to alter behavior to match the assigned identity (Becker 1963, 2003; Lein 2009; Oboler 1995; Ray and Downs 1986). According to Cooley (1902), people define themselves according to the view of society’s perception of them. Individuals’ self-concept is informed by the way others label, perceive and treat them. Their conception of self and community is contextualized by the act of labeling and the reaction it warrants (Becker 2003; Mead 1934). The power of a label is evidenced in its ability to result in negative action, transform image and categorize associations. For residents of hotspot communities in Trinidad and Tobago, interaction with the most visible arm of governance, the police, is likely influenced by the assigned brand. Marginalization in this context translates to increased police presence in communities, increased military presence, military interaction with residents in a manner that is not relegated to residents of non-marginalized communities and enforced penalties for non-compliance with community-specific enforced restrictions (Reiner 2010). Subjugation to constant surveillance and the continued anticipation of violent crimes erupting within the space present a sense of limited access to justice for inhabitants of the space. In such communities, there is the sense that access to conventional methods of obtaining justice is limited as individuals on the margins are prone to becoming the problem as opposed to being victims themselves (Reiss and Roth 1993). Justice in such context is not conceived as conventionally administered by the state but instead the result of actions taken by those within the communities who take up the task of administering justice in the presence of failed state provisions intended to satisfy community requirements. It is therefore not unusual for justice, or as some might argue vigilante measures, to be administered by members of the community where they view the state as being unwilling or unable to provide justice through normative institutional means (Concha-Eastman 1991). Berkman argues, ‘the issue of security, authority, justice, identity and economics are tangible in the violent acts used to secure [individuals] in socially excluded areas, beyond the influence of the state institutions and mainstream paradigms of conflict resolution’ (2007: 5). Such rejection of mainstream paradigms of acceptable social behaviors and conflict resolution position members of marginalized communities as conflicting with persons adhering to upheld ideologies of those with authority over justice, resources and political power. For residents of such communities, the decision to trust police officers as agents of the state is likely colored by knowledge of an inefficient judicial system and hard-line policing policies, knowledge of police corruption, complex and conflicting ideas about justice and security and skepticism about the ability of the police to enforce true justice.

The Assigned Brand as Part of the Problem

For many marginalized communities, categorization as marginalized or ‘othered’ becomes less an indicator of prioritized areas for development and more an indicator of the assigned status of ‘other’. In the case of Trinidad and Tobago, the enforced partial SoE brought to public awareness the high degree of interface between police officers and residents of marginalized communities. During the SoE, the assumed realities of individuals from the communities were communicated by the media in such a manner as to lead to the stereotyping of citizens as marginalized victims and to the triggering of prejudices against police officers, which was likely to significantly compromise the effectiveness of relationships between the groups. Although the roles of the different arms of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) are well documented, the contextual meanings or parameters of operation attached to these roles are sometimes unclear to members of marginalized communities.

Prior to the introduction of community policing perspectives in Trinidad and Tobago, the issue of police and community relations in marginalized communities has been dealt with in a manner placing specificity on either police officers as agents of the state or community residents as social actors within a branded space. Existing research provides frames for understanding and analyzing policing and police perspectives (Bowling 2010; Chevigny and Chevigny 1995; Deosaran 2002; Mastrofski and Lum 2008; Pino 2009), civilian perspectives on policing (Maguire et al. 2010) and discourses on police power (Fairclough 2001), power ideologies, its manifestations and shifts within societies (Watson 2014). The existing body of literature presents police and community members’ interactions within these marginalized communities as delicate and requiring improvement strategies to eradicate high occurrences of problematic relations. Some of these scholars made assertions about power relations between groups as significant to interactive processes on the margins. They identified human interaction as underscored by understood, accepted or contested power dynamics. This points to a key area in understanding police and community relations as an analysis of the discourses reflective of this assumed power may enhance understanding of police and community relations in marginalized communities. Language paradigms, in this sense, reflect the structural characteristics of power between police officers and the policed.

The structure of language reveals differences in experiences, positions and assumed power. In most instances, police officers are seen in marginalized communities where an arrest is being made or during an altercation, both of which require a certain degree of authority demonstrated through specified speech acts. Police presence is marked by a high degree of anxiety, skepticism or fear on the part of individuals in communities known for problematic police/community relations. In most documented instances of police/community relations in high-crime communities, community members complain about the manner in which they are spoken to by police officers, while police officers complain about the unwillingness of the policed to communicate openly. What is usually not taken into consideration during interaction is that police and community responses to each other are impacted by the subject or topic, the desired communicative goals, time, location and audience. It is also affected by speaker class, mental state of being and other stable features, such as interest and appearance. The relationship between participants largely determines language choice. Where there is an assumption about social status, power and lack of familiarity, the output varies as opposed to situations where there is an interpersonal relationship marked by familiarity and a sense of belonging or personal identification. An example of this is reflected when examining the meaning of the word ‘informant’, which (preliminary research shows) varies significantly for police officers and the policed in Trinidad and Tobago. For residents of negatively branded communities, it is very likely that the reason for interaction and the narrative framing such interactions do not work in the service of positive, peaceful or non-problematic relations. If we consider the nature of interaction during an enforced SoE, it is very likely that neither police officers nor residents of the policed marginalized communities are keen to engage with each other. The branding of the space sets the tone for all interaction and serves as a forecast for interaction between police and the policed.

It is also critical to our understanding of branded hotspots to identify police officers and the policed as two separate categories of individuals interacting from two varied standpoints—police officers as agents of the state and the policed as independent agents. Police officers are individuals bound by institutional conventions, which directly impact their identities and functional capacities in the field. In essence, policing is a bureaucratic act ‘deconstructed’ by its discretionary nature (Watson et al. 2018). There are legislations to guide officers, but some situations require alternative measures be used. An example of this is seen in the handling of female suspects by male officers. Although policies do not state male officers are not permitted to handle female suspects, precautions are taken during such interactions to guard against future allegations of inappropriate handling. It is likely that female officers present are placed at the forefront of matters involving female citizens. There is a sense of existing regulated discourses infused with contextualized discourses influenced by varied ‘truths’ about the social world, which operate independently of ‘categorical grids of specifications’ about policing (Foucault 1980; Derrida 1978). The policed are not bound to such conventions and in this sense can be regarded as free agents. They are however bound by communal ideologies informing existence within a particular space or social group. Despite common assumptions about police having absolute power over individuals from marginalized groups, both groups possess different forms of power during interaction (Watson 2014). The police possess state-vested powers, while the community residents are uniquely positioned to influence what happens within their space.

Insight into the impact of an assigned brand on a group of individuals can also be derived from examining their interaction with another group. In the case of hotspot communities, interaction with the most visible arm of governance is likely to provide vital insight into how members of such communities are positioned within a society. Such interaction is likely to produce what Sower describes as ‘competing discourses of political struggle that give contested meaning to national/ethnic identities and define particular power relations’ (1999: 751). These ‘competing discourses’ or occasions of language in use are pervaded by ideology. It is the perspectival, plural and partial ideologies held by police officers and residents of the community they police that provide a context for examining their talk-in-action. Empowering one group of individuals to maintain the ideals as perceived by a certain sector of society creates a context for problematic relations where other sectors within a society are excluded or marginalized. Interaction between police officers as agents of the state and community members belonging to ‘othered’ sectors of society is bound by problematic discursive conventions. The authoritative bodies determining the legislation of the country operate within different spheres. Discourses within these contexts are shaped by ideological power relations excluding the margins. Such discourses expose veiled ideologies which emerge and are reproduced by individuals, groups and institutions (Mayr 2008).

Several researchers have produced literature to demonstrate the power of words and their impact on categorizing individuals as well as influencing interactions with others within and outside of marginalized communities. In The Language of Oppression, Bosmajian (1983) described the negative powers of language. He described language as a ‘metaphorizing’ tool used to assign stigmatizing labels, which construct and suppress marginalized groups within a society. His research highlighted the categorizing of African Americans as ‘beasts’, Jews as ‘parasites’ and American Indians as ‘uncivilized barbarians’. This research points to the power of discourses to suppress or incite power discourses during police and community interaction in branded spaces. His research suggests that the manner in which individuals are perceived is enormously consequential to interactions as language acts have consequences during interaction (Coston and Kimmel 2012). For Goffman, ‘society establishes the means of categorizing persons and the complement of attributes felt to be ordinary and natural for members of each of these categories’ (1976: 11). In the context of my arguments which follow in the later chapters, labels, stigmas and stereotypes are interpreted as discriminatory concepts that impact the lives of all individuals on a daily basis. Some of these concepts have become commonplace categorizations that make for ease of interaction among individuals, while others are employed in the service of initiating, protracting or compounding relations underscored by problematic or discriminatory over/undertones.

By categorizing individuals belonging to a specific group as marginalized, we impute a sort of social identity that informs interaction. These have the power to impact individuals’ social standing and are therefore critical to building stable patterns of associations between police officers and residents of negatively categorized communities. Research shows that communities bearing stigmatizing labels develop bad reputations which not only affect interaction with individuals from outside the community but also the community’s prospects for economic development (Clear et al. 2001). Stigmatizing labels generate stereotypes that result in negative reactions from members of a society about a group or individual. These lead to the generation of negative beliefs about a person’s personality as well as clichéd behavioral expectations. Goffman describes this as the construction of ideologies to justify inferiority and animosity based on ascribed differences that translate to ‘truth’ in discourses produced (1976). The manner in which a group or individual is defined allows for the application of a form of control—emotional, social, physical—which underscores interaction. Marginalization can discredit, alienate, complicate, exaggerate and/or inform social identity. Research shows that these may work in the service or disservice of preserving societal order (Coston and Kimmel 2012; Goffman 1976). While they may represent specific meanings to one group, they hold the possibility to convey something different to another group. Individuals are more accommodating of persons belonging to the same categories, thus resulting in a sense of interconnectedness and alignment. Perceptions inform community connectedness as well as disconnections with persons perceived to be a part of the ‘othered’ group of ‘outsiders’. They are therefore power manifestations in and of themselves.

The act of policing a ‘crime hotspot’ is reliant on the ability to navigate social spaces. A police officer is therefore required to understand the space, its inhabitants, underlying ideologies and discourse properties of inhabitants. A failure to understand the group and their language presents a challenge to officers. The same is true if residents within the community fail to understand the acts of policing in practice. Fairclough (2001) describes this as an ability to understand the positions set up for participants—police or the policed—within the community discourses or policing discourses, and the extent to which these are occupied during interaction. This points to a degree of expectation during interaction as perceptions held not only influence discourses but frame responses. Linguistically defined social spaces—crime hotspot community—impact social relationships of occupants and language choices. It is primarily through language that individuals demonstrate acceptance or resistance during interactions and assert social identity and purpose, thus demonstrating forms of power—power informing the discourses or reflected through the discourses. An understanding of these linguistic manifestations of power or power discourses therefore requires a commitment to analyzing the relationship between discourse processes, immediate social conditions and remote social conditions.

Because police officers cannot exist in isolation and their effectiveness is dependent to a large extent on their relationship with the public, policing within marginalized communities branded crime hotspots and tainted by negative assumptions about inhabitants of a specific geographic space is unlikely to be anything but problematic. Police perception of their roles and the public’s understanding of these roles affect their relationship with the public (Marais 1992). An understanding of the ideologies governing the discretionary act of policing must therefore be held by all stakeholders—police officers, legislators, community members—involved, and the reality of the assigned brand must therefore be considered.

Media Sensationalization and the Margins

The media significantly accounts for how communities are represented and portrayed. It contributes significantly to the setting up of identities for individuals (Fairclough 1995). The media promotes choices—headlines, label, jargons—which contribute to discourses constructed by individuals to define self and others. In most instances, filmed reconstructions are perceived as actual realities and interpreted as such by the population. The issue of how the mass media affect and are affected by relations between particular groups has also been brought to the forefront by several researchers (Hall et al. 2013; Kress and Hodge 1979). The relationship between police and residents of marginalized communities is primarily portrayed as problematic. The constant portrayal of individuals dissatisfied with the assumed ineffectiveness of the law provides meaning in the service of producing unequal relations of power and relations of power domination (Fairclough 1995). The representations of turn-taking, topic control and formulations are depictive of versions of realities constituted by the media, thus the ideological and language processes involved display a prejudiced representation of police/civilian interaction (Barak 1995). The media gives rise to propositions that generally figure as implicit assumptions.

The representation of reality in one way as opposed to another reflects a particular ideology. Where police and the policed are portrayed in the media, the representations are ‘emotionally charged’ to depict a negative quality of one group against the backdrop of a positive quality of the other. There is also the purposeful creation of an exaggerated public threat from ‘communities overrun by rampant criminal activities’ or ‘violent police beating’ of ‘unarmed’ civilians. The discourses present a villainized group while downplaying any challenge posed by the other group involved. These transmissions of participation by individuals belonging to the different groups influence as well as shape interactions. Individual participation forms reality as much as it is informed by reality, a widespread edifice of meanings, explanations, propositions and institutions that Berger and Luckmann (1966) refer to as the ‘dialectic process’. This dialectic process posits individual interpretation as dependent on experiences and communities of operation, which invariably impact the construction of meaning. The media is therefore of paramount importance in the formation and presentation of power relationships on the margins as they orient how individuals see themselves and others in the world. The media presents definitions of interactions and realities that become objectified, internalized and accepted as true by the larger society.

The media’s role as a communicative medium to the larger population places its architects in a position to shape the world of police and community residents’ interaction, ascribe roles to the actors and determine the extent to which the roles are developed, idealized or ‘villainized’. It is regarded as a moral entrepreneur in that the media defines and redefines groups or individuals, thus informing how interactions should be defined and establishing cycles of internalizations and externalizations which inform interactions. The media can construct reality in a manner which results in a state of moral panic by ‘manipulating’ language to promote or portray judgments, force or other situations requiring ‘responsible’ individuals to react in a particular way. In keeping with Marx’s (1956) arguments about the power and propagation of dominant positions, individuals thoughtlessly adopt media ideologies and interpret them as objectively true. As such, media ideologies impact the output, meanings and definitions of interactions and the authoring of what a marginalized space is or is not.

The media plays an important role in the creation and maintenance of societal domains as it publicly represents social relations. These social relations may include the presence of particular groups within a society and the portrayal of general characteristics of these groups as deemed identifiably relevant, while also representing instances of social relations with other majority or minority groups within a society. It serves as the main source of attitudes and ideologies for civilians (van Dijk 2000). It is also believed to be one of the primary transmitters of labels, stigmas and stereotypes and serves as an important form of information for individuals as it unambiguously affects social attitudes and beliefs (van Dijk 1988). All media representations depict a choice of ideology which may idealize or dehumanize particular groups with an aim of influencing public opinion. Invariably, the media—print, video or radio—influences how individuals acquire information about the world and shapes their opinions about a multiplicity of topics. Unlike any other source of communication, the media functions as a principal discourse and outlook context for opinions and dialogues about police/civilian interaction and ‘hotspot communities’. Research shows that the media selectively transmits messages with the goal of influencing human behavior (Johnson 2005). According to Santa Ana, the media is important to studies examining social relations between groups as it is ‘the single most influential source of the public’s daily comprehension of the changing social climate’ (2002: 49). The issuing of a national SoE in a country is transmitted solely through the media. The media then becomes charged with the sole responsibility of issuing directives about what is meant by such an occurrence and the expectations of citizens during such times. In the same way, they transmit labels, stigmas and stereotypes and shape how they should be internalized by the public, thus informing opinions. What is transmitted in the media often becomes truth for individuals without prior or contradicting knowledge about an issue, activity or social occurrence. The media’s access to the public and power to determine who has access to the public through them allows for the control and shaping of public opinions. For van Dijk (1991), the media is believed to play an integral role in the emergence and reproduction of how the margin is constructed and reconstructed. Sensationalized and biased media footage grants unequal access to particular groups to express their position while not affording the same opportunity to other groups. This bias sways individuals’ opinions on current issues, which in turn shape public opinions and behavior and lead to the dissemination of further messages with the same intent but informed by public opinions.

Chapter Summary

The approach to describing marginalized communities within different contexts works in the service of defining reality for groups of individuals operating within a specific space. While communities described as marginalized bear similarity in terms of acknowledged disadvantage, it is important to acknowledge they differ significantly in many regards and do not adhere to one-size-fits-all descriptions. Although ghetto, favela, project, plannings, purlieus, slum and shanty are synonyms commonly used to describe disadvantaged spaces in the Caribbean and Latin America, these descriptors do not apply to all marginalized communities and are likely to provide a very different sense of a space when arbitrarily applied. It is as important to acknowledge such contextual differences as it is to formulate descriptions based on what such spaces have in common. Theoretical and operational misappropriations are likely to skew opinions of a location and work in the disservice of interactions with members of the space.

Within marginalized communities, the face of policing changes as the communities are regarded high risk. Communities identified as having a higher propensity for instances requiring police interaction ‘benefit’ from higher levels of police presence and heavily armed patrols conducted by tactical unit officers (Samuel 2014). This is not the reality in non-‘hotspot communities’. Police presence in such communities is likely unwelcomed and marked with distrust and recordings of interactions. Instances of police interface with the policed in ‘crime hotspots’ garner maximum media coverage and welcomed unsanctioned and precarious elucidations resulting in controversy, overreactions and strained interactions. This suggests the power of the brand to not only inform problematic relations but as an indicator of the need for strategies to provide redress as opposed to symptomatic responses with little to no acknowledgment of the problem. Any attempt at addressing the reality of policing marginalized communities must begin with an examination and understanding of the context.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Danielle Watson
    • 1
  1. 1.University of the South PacificSuvaFiji

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