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This article makes a twofold claim. First, the notion of ‘culture’ is inherently interwoven with the classification system that organises the daily work of police officers. In their understanding, culture is a one-size-fits-all category to produce boundaries in terms of gender, ethnicity, class, and the willingness of a population to submit to police authority. The second claim is that ‘culture’ has a particular functionality in the field of policing practices. For police officers, ‘culture’ solves complex problems. It breaks down the complexities of the social world that the officers face, as it operates both as a meaning-making and complexity-reducing mechanism that ultimately counters particular dilemmas. In this regard, ethnographic research of a vice squad conducted in a mid-sized German city in 2015 revealed the kind of dilemma that exemplifies the argument of this contribution: the dilemma of the absent victim and its counterpart, the irritated police officer. Keywords: Policing, culture, bureaucracy, human trafficking, state
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Sociologus, Volume 70, Issue 1, pp. 57 72
Duncker & Humblot, Berlin
The Category of ‘Culture’ in Vice Squad Policing
in Germany
By Julia Leser*
This article makes a twofold claim. First, the notion of ‘culture’ is inherently interwoven
with the classification system that organises the daily work of police officers. In their un-
derstanding, culture is a one-size-fits-all category to produce boundaries in terms of gen-
der, ethnicity, class, and the willingness of a population to submit to police authority. The
second claim is that ‘culture’ has a particular functionality in the field of policing practices.
For police officers, ‘culture’ solves complex problems. It breaks down the complexities of
the social world that the officers face, as it operates both as a meaning-making and com-
plexity-reducing mechanism that ultimately counters particular dilemmas. In this regard,
ethnographic research of a vice squad conducted in a mid-sized German city in 2015 re-
vealed the kind of dilemma that exemplifies the argument of this contribution: the dilem-
ma of the absent victim and its counterpart, the irritated police officer.
Keywords: Policing, culture, bureaucracy, human trafficking, state, emotion
1. The Dilemma of the Absent Victim
In a city somewhere in Germany, police officers with the local vice squad
(Sittenpolizei) were facing a dilemma.1 Problematised in the media and a focus
of recent debates about legal reform, human trafficking seemed to pose a signif-
icant threat to public safety and the social order. Concerning this matter, the le-
gal mandate of law enforcement was clearly defined: human trafficking is a se-
vere crime, the victims of which need to be protected and whose perpetrators
must be prosecuted and punished. In order to fulfil this mandate, the vice squad
officers conducted raids in the local red-light district, that is, they visited local
brothels and sex workers’ apartments to perform unannounced ID checks. The
* Leipzig University, Department of Political Science, Beethovenstr. 15, 04107 Leipzig,
1 Both the city and the participants in this study remain anonymous for ethical rea-
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objective of these raids was to keep track of the local red-light district and to
locate victims of trafficking. The police officers speculated that there would be a
higher probability of finding trafficking victims in the red-light district than an-
ywhere else. Yet right at this point, a dilemma began to unfold: although the
police officers interacted with a multiplicity of persons during their raids, vic-
tims of trafficking– the very people they were trying to find– were not among
them. While I was conducting my ethnographic fieldwork in 2015, the vice
squad officers did not identify any victims of trafficking during their raids. After
a few months, the officer in charge of the raids told me that in eight years of
service, he had indeed never found a single victim during a raid.
The failure to locate trafficking victims– or more precisely, to find, notice,
and identify particular persons as victims– is closely related to the officers’ pre-
conceived ideas about the trafficking victim as a figure that might best be under-
stood as an object of knowledge (Leser 2018) or, in other words, as an effect of
epistemological practices (cf. Bacchi 2012). The officers’ routine procedures
aimed at combating trafficking are based on certain epistemologies developed
over the course of their careers: they have attended special training courses of-
fered by the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany (BKA); have experi-
enced a (small) number of trafficking trials, from which they learned the factors
crucial to successfully convicting the accused; and know how to process files and
collect evidence. Yet they also– depending on their personal interests and moti-
vations– have read scientific literature about trafficking, have paid attention to
the news, and may have watched documentaries or movies on television. They
have therefore amassed a vast pool of both professional and everyday experience
and knowledge about victims of human trafficking– in the words of Valverde
(2003), a hybrid body of knowledge to classify and know certain kinds of people
and objects. In particular, the police officers relate to a specific victim figure,
known in the literature as the ‘ideal victim’ that is characterised by weakness,
innocence, and chastity. This figure has a certain affective appeal, too: it deserves
compassion and needs to be rescued (Christie 1986). Yet if such a victim is ab-
sent in policing practice– that is, if no victims are found and rescued during
vice squad raids– a dilemma emerges for the police officers. As Lipsky explained
in his seminal study Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Pub-
lic Services (1980), ‘street-level bureaucrats’ such as police officers frequently ex-
perience tensions and conflicts between different principles and rationales, and
dilemmas often arise at “the gap between action and expectation” (Scott and
Lyman 1968: 46).
A second dilemma unfolds in pragmatic terms because the victim is, for the
police officer in his quotidian work, a functional object (i. e., a means to an end).2
2 I use the generic masculinum in reference to the police officers, because all of the of-
ficers appearing in the ethnographic material in this paper were indeed male.
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The centrepiece of the police officer’s daily work is to handle a case using his
professional expertise and the resources available to him as a police officer
(Bergmann etal. 2014: 9). For a trafficking case, the officer needs personal evi-
dence in the form of a victim-witness. During the process of making a trafficking
case, the victim’s function is to prove a crime in front of a court by translating an
event into a criminal act. To do that, a victim must present a subjective perspec-
tive of said event and communicate the damage that has been done to him or her
in a credible and convincing manner (see also Dölemeyer and Darley, this vol-
ume). As the case proceeds, the functional victim emerges as an object of prac-
tice: it materialises in the form of a case file and objectifies in the form of inter-
rogation protocols, photo spreads, and investigation reports. The absence of the
victim-witness in this configuration leads to the failure of the case. In other
words, a case cannot be made if the victim fails to function as a provider of evi-
To do his job, the police officer needs the victim. Their relationship is one of
dependency. But if the figures of both ‘ideal’ and ‘functional’ victim remain ab-
sent, what implications does this have for the police officer’s everyday work? To
understand the implications of the victim in absentia, it is necessary to closely
examine both the officer’s everyday work and the event-like but routinised prac-
tice of the raid. This article investigates the rationale for the vice squad officers’
usage of the concept of culture to cope with the dilemma of the absent victim of
human trafficking, and how they turn towards ‘culture’ as both an explicatory
and a problem-solving category– and thus act as ‘para-ethnologists’ (Beek and
Bierschenk, this volume). While the global phenomenon of human trafficking
and its victims is well-researched, and although the issue of trafficking has been
conceptualised as a ‘moral panic’ due to a lack of evidence facing a conflated
problematisation and an overly emotionally charged framing (e. g., Doezema
1999, Feingold 2010, Weitzer 2007),4 the police force’s ways of handling traffick-
ing are rather under-researched (except, e. g., Farrell and Pfeffer 2014). Thus, as
part of the DFG-funded research project ‘Institutionalizing Human Trafficking.
A French-German Comparison’ (2014 2017), ethnographic research was con-
ducted over a period of six months in a vice squad department in a mid-sized
3 As a matter of fact, the official case numbers of trafficking are low: 364 cases were fi-
nalized throughout Germany in 2015 (BKA 2015), whereas this number does not indicate
the outcome of these cases. In 2015, only 65 persons were convicted of trafficking in a na-
tional court, according to the German Federal Statistical Office (Statistisches Bundesamt
2017: 102). The majority of trafficking cases resulted inacquittalof the defendants. We
explored some of the reasons for the institutional difficulties in prosecuting the crime of
human trafficking elsewhere (Pates, Dölemeyer, and Leser 2016).
4 The concern about trafficking might be relatively ‘new,’ dating back to the late 1990s
and early 2000s, according to Ticktin (2011: 173 – 4); however, as trafficking relates inher-
ently to prostitution, ‘trafficking’ joins a sequence of public concerns about sex and sexu-
ality, exploitation and abuse and women’s rights and mens privileges.
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German city of about 250,000 inhabitants. The focus was on police officers’ raids
to search for victims of trafficking in the city’s red-light district.
2. The Irritated Police Officer
Police officers are first and foremost, in Lipsky’s (1980) terms, ‘street-level bu-
reaucrats, and the police force is one of many bureaucratic organisations that
make up the state (Bierschenk 2016). A police officer’s job is to solve problems
(Lipsky 1980: 78), but, as we will see, many problems are not permanently solv-
able, nor do they end just because an officer attends to them. The issue of traf-
ficking seems to be one of those problems. Police officers handle a rather small
number of actual trafficking cases, yet they face the public’s high expectations to
combat trafficking effectively. These expectations shape the officers’ perception
of the success or failure of their own actions, and, in Lipsky’s words, they further
contribute to defining the goals of police operations within an ‘idealized dimen-
sion’ that eventually renders those goals “confusing and complicated to ap-
proach” (1980: 40). In reference to trafficking, a moral urgency is imposed on
the police force, which in turn produces neither the expected number of traf-
ficking cases nor the expected numbers of convicted traffickers and rescued traf-
ficking victims. The absence of the victim in the officers’ everyday practice (the
‘ideal’ victim) and the absence of the victim they need to make a trafficking case
(the ‘functional’ victim) are sources of irritation for the police officers in their
quotidian work.
To tackle trafficking, it seems that the officers need to manage the tensions
that stem from following bureaucratic logic in an emotionally charged framing,
as many instances require police officers to handle the complexities of the social
world they face. When interacting with this social world, Dubois (2010) has ob-
served that a police officer inhabits not one but two bodies. Similar to Kan-
torowicz’s (1997) ‘two bodies of the sovereign, Dubois speaks of the ‘two bodies
of the bureaucrat. On the one hand, bureaucrats are expected to be distanced
and neutral because they personify an official authority, an institution, and the
state as such. On the other hand, bureaucrats need to interact with the social
world on a personal level, and emotions and affective displays are significant
here. Being a police officer as bureaucrat implies the management of this double
identity (Dubois 2010). In ethnographic police research, this is a largely neglect-
ed area. Loyens (2015) and Mainsant (2010), for example, have used a state eth-
nographic approach based on Lipsky’s conceptualisation of ‘street-level bureau-
crats’ to understand how coping mechanisms function as a way of dealing with
the unique emotional challenges of police work. A volume edited by Fassin, At
the Heart of the State (2015), includes a discussion of those moral dimensions of
policing practices that serve to legitimise interventions against ‘dangerous’ and
‘unwanted’ populations. In the case of human trafficking, too, police officers act
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according to particular modes of knowing that are embedded within affective
and moral conceptualisations (Leser, Pates, and Dölemeyer 2017). The problem
of the victim in absentia and the officers’ resulting irritation cannot be explained
if we regard the police as an agency oriented solely towards a bureaucratic ra-
tionale. Police officers may be part of such an idealised authority, but they still
have to organise their own feelings, particular moral standards and attitudes,
and the moral economies of the state and the social world with and towards
which they work. Irritation and confusion emerge along the fault lines where
differing expectations, standards, and concepts collide.
Policing practices are always based on particular modes of knowing and situ-
ated in certain historical and local contexts, thus rendering any specific policing
practice a complex conglomerate of relations between diverse agents, objects,
institutions, narratives, and discourses. The practice of the raid can be used as an
example. The raid is, first and foremost, a conglomerate of police control prac-
tices (identification, registration, classification) that are directed at a particular
population or place and are conducted unannounced. The singular elements of
the raid are each legitimised by state police laws, and in practice, the raid is pre-
vailingly directed towards the crime complexes of drugs and prostitution. The
raid has been described as a ‘traditional vice squad strategy’ (Farrell and Pfeffer
2014) that used to be implemented to investigate the lack of work and residence
permits in the area of sex work. But sex work in Germany is legal, and since the
ratification of the German Prostitution Act in 2002, sex work is no longer con-
ceptualised as sittenwidrig; that is, it is no longer seen as adverse to public mo-
rality and thus is no longer punishable by morality law (Sittengesetz). Therefore,
from a purely legal standpoint, the vice squad’s raids are not about enforcing
laws because there are no relevant laws concerning the activities of sex workers
that can be enforced. This explains why the police officers in this study publicly
legitimised their raids to combat human trafficking, regardless of whether or not
this practice did, in fact, provide evidence of the crime and, especially, victims of
trafficking. In the international context, researchers make similar observations
regarding the effectiveness of police raids to identify victims of trafficking. Far-
rell and Pfeffer (2014: 47 8) concluded that raids “are not particularly success-
ful” at identifying cases of human trafficking. Therefore, the raid cannot be un-
derstood as either a purely rational-legal procedure or an effective measure in
the state’s endeavour to combat trafficking. It rather needs to be recognised as
embedded in larger social and political contexts, formed by particular historical
developments, and cohesively tied to the reason for the existence of the Sittenpo-
lizei– the vice squad– which has been responsible for maintaining public de-
cency and fighting against moral misdemeanours since the beginning of the 20th
century. In Germany, unfortunately, there are no historical or sociological anal-
yses of the genealogies of the Sittenpolizei– a term that is hardly translatable into
English but is consistent with the concept of the ‘vice squad’ or ‘morality squad’
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in anglophone regions. Valverde (2003: 16) made the same observation in Can-
ada: “Whereas “crime” has been the object of much theoretical reflection, the
“vice” of “vice squad” has escaped critical attention […] [d]espite its theoretical
importance.” Yet the relationship between policing and prostitution has hitherto
shaped the concept of the vice squad. Even today, officers in ‘police departments
of sexual offences’, the terminological successors of the Sittenpolizei, still use the
term Sittenpolizei or the informal acronym Sitte. And they still conduct raids
regularly, although that practice is not called ‘raid’ (Razzia) anymore. In this
manner, the officers continue to apply these ‘traditional’ strategies that were de-
veloped in an era when commercial sex as such “was criminalized and controlled
mainly via repressive policing” (Leser 2018: 120).
Thus, and despite the redefinition of the raid’s objective, its modus operandi
has not changed. The raids are thus a good example of an effect that Bierschenk
(2014) has called ‘sedimentation’, wherein state practices stay the same despite
changing contexts and legal frameworks. What has changed, however, is the ra-
tionale for the raid; the outcome is no longer supposed to be an arrested prosti-
tute but a rescued trafficking victim. A problem arises, though, when no (‘ideal’
and ‘functional’) trafficking victims are found during the raids. This dilemma
translates into irritation that the officers need to handle somehow. And this is
where the category of culture enters the officers’ practice– as an attempt to re-
solve both their irritations and the problem of the victim in absentia.
3. The Plausible Explanation
In the German city in which the ethnographic research was conducted, a mu-
nicipal ‘round table to combat human trafficking’ was organised by the Deputy
District Administrator (Stellvertretender Landrat) twice a year. This round table
assembled a multiplicity of local and official agents and agencies that were– in
theory– concerned with human trafficking. The attendees included representa-
tives of local authorities and offices (health, social welfare, tax and revenue, cus-
toms, aliens), social workers from specialised local counselling centres for vic-
tims of human trafficking, public prosecutors, and vice squad police officers.
During these meetings, the police officers and prosecutors were asked to report
on the latest trafficking case numbers, and they had to justify somehow why the
numbers presented were so low. The following vignette exemplifies this report-
ing practice– it is the public prosecutor’s turn to speak– as well as the respons-
es of the round-table participants.
The round-table meeting started at 3 p.m. in a spacious, wood-panelled chamber in
the city hall. At the front end of the table, the Deputy District Administrator has taken
her seat, and the other 19 participants are sitting to her right and left. Following the
representative of the local health office and the customs office, it is the public prosecu-
tor’s turn to give her report. In great detail, she describes how, in theory, a case of
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trafficking would be processed in her office. She explains that the police officer in
charge would provide her with the case file as soon as he finished the investigation. She
would then evaluate whether the evidence gathered in the case file was sufficient to file
an official complaint to a court of law. This would occur if there was adequate cause to
believe that a conviction of the accused trafficker could be expected. So much for the
theory, but in practice, the prosecutor explains, there is an ‘essential issue’: “Usually, the
evidence is weak.” Thus, it is one person’s word against the other, and the case law re-
garding these instances is strict, so the victim’s statements are examined closely– in
particular, for discrepancies and false testimonies. “Unfortunately,” the prosecutor says,
“this often leads to the conclusion that the statements are just weak” (i. e., not reliable).
And according to the prosecutor, there are many reasons for that: fear, language barri-
ers, being in a foreign country, being ashamed to talk about what happened, the possi-
bility that the victim is being threatened, and so on.
After listening closely, the Vice District Administrator wants to know how many cases
would result in conviction of the accused. The prosecutor responds that she does not
have the statistics, but the number would be negligible. She says an estimated 20 % of
cases would result in an official complaint. The vice squad officer sitting next to her
adds: “Rather less than that.” The public prosecutor says that last year, she had about
six or seven cases, but none of them resulted in an official complaint.
The discussion starts to focus on the last unsuccessful case they had here in the city.
The question the participants are pursuing is, what went wrong? The prosecutor tries
to find an explanation in the inconsistencies in the victim’s statement. The social work-
er with the specialised counselling centre notes that the translation in court is often
fallible. The interpreters would have difficulty translating statements ‘clearly’ when
they are not expressed ‘clearly’. Furthermore, a ‘fact’ that is not communicated ‘clearly’
is even more problematic when it concerns ‘such a complicated matter as a rape. The
prosecutor explains that she cannot go into detail, but when the victim talked about
sexual assault, the contradictions were blatant. First, the victim stated that she had
been raped, but anally, not vaginally, because she had had her period at the time. In a
second statement, it wasn’t her period but a urinary tract infection. And in a third
statement, the victim affirmed it was vaginal rape. Every judge, the prosecutor asserts,
would dismiss such a contradictory statement. She says: “We really would like to do
more, but…” The prosecutor does not finish the sentence, and an uncomfortable si-
lence ensues.
Now, the vice squad officer starts talking. His experiences with interrogations are sim-
ilar. And he is sure that the reason lies in the ‘culture’ of these people. “For them,” he
says, the presence of the police “is always associated with imposing sanctions because
of their culture.” Romania’s and Bulgarias ‘cultures’ are ingrained with the ‘influence of
Islam’ and of ‘dictators’. And in this particular milieu, it is difficult to get reliable state-
ments. But they (the police) want people to ‘be punished’ and they do their job ‘pas-
sionately’. The officer always tells his colleagues not to take it personally if they do not
get a conviction in the end.
(Field notes, round-table meeting, November 11, 2014)
All the participants at the round-table meeting were plunged into a dilemma
in view of the fact that law enforcement agents could not adequately quantify the
scope of the alleged problem. Over the last year, not a single case of trafficking
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had been made in the city. The lack of trafficking cases could have been seen as
an indication that law enforcement agencies have the problem under control, or
that trafficking is not such a big problem in the city. In fact, the opposite was
true. The absence of cases was rather deemed a failure of the police work done
in this area. And the police officer, when confronted with the annoyed partici-
pants, revealed his way of dealing with this problem: he shifted the responsibili-
ty away from the quality of the investigative work to the cultural embeddedness
of those with whom the officers interacted in their everyday work. Thus, the
culture’ of Romanian and Bulgarian sex workers was framed as the most plausi-
ble explanation for the failure of the police’s investigative efforts. During a con-
versation with the officers at the police station, this explanation was specified.
The vice squad police officer explains: “The judiciary should be more concerned with
the cultural background of the victims and the situation in their countries of origin. I
once heard a report by a liaison officer of the BKA who spent five years in Sofia. If you
haven’t been there, you can’t imagine what it’s like. A lot of our Bulgarians come from
Haskovo. That’s a district where the Roma minority lives. There are no letterboxes, no
doorbell panels. No one knows how many people live there at all. Garbage is just piled
up several metres high. They throw their rubbish out onto the streets. Kids are playing
in all this filth; 80 % probably don’t have jobs and the rest of them just occasional jobs.
So, they’re bringing their women to Western Europe. And here, I’ve been to one of
their apartments, it was horrible. But to them, it’s like a five-star hotel. There’s a roof,
running water, and heating. And these women grow up in the belief that they must
follow their men. What he says will be done, and if not, she gets a slap in the face. They
experience violence from an early age. They are not educated; they can’t read or write.
And when they turn 18, they are told they could work as waitresses in Germany. And
then they’ll find themselves in a brothel or a prostitution apartment. They can’t look
for help. They don’t know anything, don’t know the language, don’t trust the police,
and the pimps will exploit that. That’s why they’re intimidated and do anything they’re
told to do.
The officer becomes very emotional while he is talking. Then, an awkward silence fills
the room. I say that it must be difficult to deal with that every day. The head of the vice
department, sitting next to us, says that they have developed a routine and take care
not to get too involved (on an emotional level, I think). The vice squad officer uses the
expression ‘professional distance’ and says that one needs to try to do the best for these
women, even if they withdraw their statements at some point.
(Field notes, conversation at the police station, February 4, 2015)
In situations such as the above, the police officers performed as affected and
caring public servants who were using all their means to solve a seemingly un-
solvable problem. The victims absence was framed not as the fault of the polic-
ing agents but as one of the impediments inherent to this problem. The officers
explained they wanted to save victims and implied that all sex workers with a
specific ‘cultural’ background were victimised due to their ‘culture. The officers
further implied that due to their ‘culture, these sex workers would refrain from
giving reliable statements to the police and thus would not perform as ‘function-
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al’ victims of trafficking. To untangle this dilemma, the officers produced a cul-
tural boundary between the police and the policed, and they used a specific
category of culture to provide a solution to the baffling paradox of alleged vic-
tims who– from the officers’ perspective– did not operate as ‘functional’ vic-
tims, let alone as ‘ideal’ victims.
Now, it is not surprising that culture is such a significant category in bureau-
cratic organisations such as the police. The organisational and professional cul-
ture of the police has become an important analytical tool for inquiring into the
social life of the police institution. In addition to the formal norms and legal
restraints, the institution is believed to be guided by ‘cop cultures’: particular
attitudes and forms of behaviour that shape both policing practices (Behr 2006,
Ericson 1982, Reiner 2010, Waddington 1999) and the way police officers see
and make sense of the social world. Furthermore, police culture influences how
officers police certain groups, particularly as defined by gender (Mainsant 2013,
Westmarland 2001), ethnicity (Bowling and Philips 2003, Chan 1997, Jobard
2008), or class (Fassin 2013, Loftus 2007, Young 1991)– making “[t]he ‘them
and ‘us’ outlook” a prominent “characteristic of police culture” (Reiner 2010:
122). In this regard, and in line with recent police ethnographies (e. g., Beek
2016, Fassin 2013, Kyed and Albrecht 2015), policing can be described as a set of
boundary-making practices: in distinguishing one thing from another, bounda-
ries structure and order realities as they mark and unmark states, situations,
spaces, and people– that is to say, making boundaries is fundamentally making
order, which is ostensibly the core task of policing. In practice, boundaries are
not given but must be made, and they “produce ‘objects’ and ‘subjects’ and other
differences out of, and in terms of, a changing relationality” (Barad 2007: 93).
Thus, the vice squad officers’ use of the category of culture can be understood as
a discursive strategy to not only provide a solution to a problem but draw a
boundary between the police and the policed (i. e., between an ‘us’ and, in Said’s
(1978) terms, an ‘orientalised other’)– in the sense of: ‘we’ are civilised, ‘they’
throw their rubbish out on the streets; ‘we’ have door panels and mailboxes,
‘they’ do not; ‘we’ have jobs, and ‘they’ don’t even know how to read. The cultur-
al boundary that the officers draw in this manner produces order and structures
reality, as it reduces social complexities and offers a plausible explanation that is
compatible with police logic. Furthermore, it characterises the culture of the Ro-
manians and Bulgarians as problematic; in other words, the problem of absent
victims is shifted to the cultural group of the Roma minority. Additionally, the
officers use culture as a one-size-fits-all-category that comprises and produces
distinct properties of ethnic, gender, and class identities.
During the vice squad’s raids in the red-light district, trafficking victims (i. e.,
both ‘ideal’ and ‘functional’ victims) remained absent. Instead, the officers inter-
acted with a population of self-reliant and confident sex workers. Yet when the
officers tried to legitimise their raids– for example, in conversations with the
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researcher, during municipal round-table meetings, or in press conferences
they usually referred to a third victim: the ‘potential’ victim of trafficking or,
more precisely, the withdrawing victim of trafficking. That figure was, from the
officers’ perspective, a woman prone to be a human trafficking victim without
the officers’ being able to prove it. When the vice squad officers talked about
‘potential’ trafficking victims, they instantly referred to the Roma minority. Due
to their particular cultural embeddedness, the vice squad officers explained,
Roma women as ‘potential’ trafficking victims would just resist the polices ef-
forts to rescue them.
These different cultural beliefs and lifestyles are difficult for us. These women experi-
ence those things in our criminal code differently. For [them], violence is relatively
normal. … The things we mean are sometimes incomprehensible to them. And to
understand them and feel with these women and really help them– that often goes
completely against the grain of our criminal code.
(Interview, head of vice department, May 11, 2015)
To the officers, the ‘culture’ of ‘Roma women’ explained plausibly why they
refused to be victimised, did not operate as victim-witnesses, and did not pro-
vide proper and reliable statements leading to the conviction of their traffickers.
This was the general narrative the vice squad officers reproduced in interviews
and round-table discussions.
4. Practising ‘Culture
During the vice squad’s raids in the red-light district, the category of culture
was practised in a different manner than as it was discussed in interviews and
round-table meetings. While the officers’ raids prioritised those spaces (broth-
els, apartments) with Bulgarian and Romanian sex workers, they repeatedly ex-
pressed particular assumptions about those spaces, as the following vignette
The officers enter the brothel. It is dark inside. Apparently, the power is off. A handful
of women are standing in the hall, looking at the officers curiously. Officer Fuchs asks
the women for their passports. The other officers look around the brothel while he
inspects the documents and copies the details into his control sheet. When Fuchs is
finished, he asks the women for their mobile phone numbers and the pseudonyms
they use for work. Finally, he wants to know: “And who’s the boss here?” One of the
women, who stands out because of her dyed blond hair, says ‘Me’, but Fuchs is not
convinced. Assuming that the blond woman did not understand his question– more
precisely, assuming that she does not understand German because she is Bulgarian–
Fuchs again attempts to make himself understood: “You? The boss? But whos the
man? The man-boss? The real boss? I mean, you are the boss of these three women
here, but whos the boss here– the boss of all of this?” He uses expressive gestures to
support the fragmentary syntax of his sentences– for example, pointing his finger at
the blond woman and then raising and moving his arm to indicate that he is talking
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about ‘all of this’. The blond woman simply repeats her answer. Fuchs does not ap-
prove: “Registered? Trade office? Registered?” The woman starts laughing, then goes
into another room and returns with a document that confirms her business registra-
Officer Fuchs: And who’s your boyfriend?”
Boss: “I don’t have a boyfriend.
Officer Fuchs: “No boyfriend? You, the sole manager of this business? I don’t believe
it. A Bulgarian woman always has a man.
Boss: “Not me.
Officer Fuchs: “Never alone. Always with a man.
Boss: “Do you see a man somewhere around here?”
Officer Fuchs: “Well, no. He’s probably in the casino, squandering the money.
Boss: [laughing]
Officer Fuchs: “You have a boyfriend. A thousand percent. No woman does that on
her own. No Bulgarian woman does that on her own.
(Field notes, raid, February 24, 2015)
The vice squad officer in this scenario emphasised the significance of gender
in the culture of the brothel workers. He knew Bulgarian women for their ‘cultur-
ally determined’ qualities of passivity and subordination to men. To him, it did
not make sense that a Bulgarian woman would manage a business on her own.
Accordingly, the Bulgarian man was believed to be in a powerful position and
thus predestined to exploit women. This logic was common sense to the officer
and guided his practices. After the raid was finished, that officer told the re-
searcher: “We have various buildings with that kind of women, those Bulgarians,
this kind of breed: the Turkish minority among the Bulgarians, the Sinti and
Roma. And that’s usually the same clientele out of which the typical trafficking
victims are recruited.” He explained that in his experience, sex workers of other
nationalities were more self-reliant and able to manage both their own business-
es and the German language. “The boss of the brothel we just visited could speak
German, too,” he added, “but I don’t believe that there isn’t a man somewhere.
Before, the brothel was in fact managed by another woman, and before that, too,
but it changes a lot” (field notes, raid, February 24, 2015). The officer’s assump-
tions– embedded in cultural categories and the gendered constellation of victims
and perpetrators– structured his perceptions and expectations, and thus the re-
alities of the raid, but they were not corrected by contradictory experiences. Al-
though the officer noted that Bulgarian women had indeed managed this brothel
for a while, he dismissed the possibility that these women were acting on their
own. He still suspected that ‘a man’ was pulling the strings in the background.
During my six months of observation in 2015, two arrests were made– both
were women. One of them was wanted for trafficking in France, leaving the of-
ficers perplexed by her gender. A female trafficker, they commented, was highly
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atypical. They did not, however, encounter any male traffickers during the ob-
servation period. And despite two arrests in six months, the raid turned out to
be a rather unspectacular and routine procedure. On one occasion, the vice
squad officers encountered a sex worker from Bulgaria who was unable to iden-
tify herself, claimed she had lost her passport, and appeared reluctant about her
transgression. In fact, the officers took that sex worker to the station and spent
an hour trying to identify her, and they finally found an entry for her in their
prostitution database. At the end of the day, one of the officers explained that
they had tried to teach her a lesson because of her behaviour towards the of-
ficers– disrespectful, recalcitrant– but as the sex worker had remained unim-
pressed and unaffected by their encounter, the officers failed to reprimand her.
Again, the head of the department chose to rationalise the issue in terms of the
sex worker’s ‘culture.
We could, I’d say, swing the big hammer to show her how we do it and how it works,
so that she learns shed better have her passport with her at all times. But she comes
from an entirely different country, from an entirely different milieu, an entirely differ-
ent cultural group, and they don’t have a grasp of those things like we do. We always
carry our IDs on us, we’re always documented. With them, it’s different. And one tends
to force them to do the same, and of course we have requirements. But then, we’re just
saying, we’re having a look, okay, she has been recorded before, and we have her in our
files, have her documented with pictures, so we see that and say, “Have a nice day, and
remember to get your documents in order.”
(Field notes, raid, April 14, 2015)
The sex worker’s behaviour and her failure to identify herself was thus organ-
ised within the problem of a culturalised group that withdraws from being po-
liced and that, in the end, cannot be governed properly. It seems that the catego-
ry of culture not only produces certain boundaries in terms of ethnicity (the
Bulgarians, the Romanians), class (lack of education), urban living (lack of mail-
boxes and refuse collection), and gender (the normalcy of violence against wom-
en), but also in terms of the grip, the effectiveness, and the experience of the
state. How could the vice squad succeed in policing these people if they with-
drew from being policed? They could stop trying or, like the police officer in the
final vignette below, explain the requirements of being policed properly accord-
ing to ‘our’ culture.
Two officers are checking two men’s IDs outside a walk-in brothel. One of the officers
calls headquarters to cross-check their identities. Apparently, one of the men needs to
check in with the local public prosecutor because he has two open cases. The officers
confront him.
Officer: “You need to report to the public prosecutor’s office, you know that, right?
You have to go there tomorrow. Understood?”
The man: [nods]
Officer: “Where do you live?”
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The man: “Bulgaria.
Officer: “But the prosecutor needs your German address to send the summons.
The man: “Why do I have to go there?”
Officer: “If you don’t, they’ll issue an arrest warrant.
The man: “Why? I didn’t do anything!”
Officer: “Sure you did! Theft! Better go there tomorrow, or we’ll get you.
The man: “Why do I need to go?”
Officer: “They need your address to send you the summons. You need to have a
registered address.
The man: “Why?”
Officer: “That’s the way it is in Germany.
The man: “Germany is difficult.
Officer: “Only if you don’t behave.
(Field notes, raid, April 14, 2015)
Being policed, so it seems, requires both competent and compliant subjects
who are familiar with legal norms, bureaucratic processes, and official rules, and
are willing to police themselves as much as necessary. For the vice squad officers,
this is a matter of ‘culture, too: ‘us’ Germans always carry IDs on us, but ‘they’ do
not think it’s necessary; for ‘us’, it is a matter of course to have a registered ad-
dress, but for ‘them’, apparently not.
5. Conclusion
As ‘street-level bureaucrats’, police officers are supposed to be problem-solvers
(Lipsky 1980). Yet some social problems seem too complex and ambiguous to be
solved with a bureaucratic rationale alone. Human trafficking poses such a di-
lemma, but as the police are still required to attend to it, they draw upon alter-
native modes of disentangling complex relations and reducing ambiguities. And
“from social concerns, according to Mary Douglas, comes “the emotional ener-
gy for creating a set of analogies”(1986: 55). The set of analogies that becomes
the category of ‘culture’ plays a crucial part in the police force’s efforts to manage
the complexities associated with trafficking: the low number of cases, the ab-
sence of victims during raids, and the failure of victims to provide reliable state-
ments. By referring to the culture of the alleged victims as Bulgarian, Romanian,
Sinti, Roma, or Eastern European, the vice squad officers in this ethnographic
exploration were able to provide a plausible explanation for a striking paradox.
Thus, ‘culture’ has a particular functionality within the realm of policing practic-
es: it solves complex problems insofar as it reduces complexities and provides a
set of analogies instead. It continues to be an effective coping mechanism that
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enables the officers to avoid the emotional challenges and burdens of an insolu-
ble problem. It compensates for their irritations concerning the ineffectiveness
of a ‘traditional vice squad strategy’ (the raid) in combating human trafficking
(absent victims)– similar to Waddingtons argument (1999: 287), the articula-
tion of ‘culture’ can “give purpose and meaning to inherently problematic occu-
pational experience”. Moreover, ‘culture’ not only explains why the global issue
of trafficking is absent on a local scale, it also addresses a more general with-
drawal from policing as such. By referring to ‘culture’, the police officers explain
the problem of a ‘culturalised’ group of people that withdraws from being po-
liced and accordingly cannot be governed. Thus, in the realm of vice squad po-
licing, the category of ‘culture’ is installed as a problem-solving device to deal
with both absence and withdrawal.
The research on which this paper is based was conducted in the context of the research
project ‘Institutionalizing Human Trafficking. A French-German Comparison’ (2014
2017), which is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and the Agence
nationale de la recherche (ANR). I am very grateful to the editors of the special issue and
the anonymous reviewers for their important and constructive comments.
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Full-text available
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