Police, Anonymity and Power
Dr. habil. Nils Zurawski, Universität Hamburg

SP4: Trusted Relationship. Anonymity, Citizens and the State, examines police work in their encounters with citizens in the UK and Germany. The project is based on the assumption, that power is mitigated by identifying, making visible or exposing something or someone, just as much as by anonymity and anonymization. Anonymity may serve as a safeguard against misuse of power and a mode of social equality, e.g. in elections or anonymous whistle blowing. States reserve the right to meet citizens anonymously, e.g. police officers performing their duties as non-identifiable persons, equipped with the power to make citizens identify themselves. This displays an asymmetry of power.

As anonymity constitutes relations of reciprocity, identifiability, accountability and power, such relations are regulated by legal provisions, technologies or practical infrastructures (guidelines, rules of engagement, settings, such as the police station, equipment), as well as by cultural scripts, and interpersonal or institutional trust. As a mode of social formation, anonymity is subject to change and adaptability, which is why the state-citizen-relations are a suitable field to study and understand the dynamics of possible changes – both within the relationship, and of the regime itself.

In this case study we look at contrasting examples of police-citizen-interactions in which regimes of anonymity (a.) are an important dimension of the overall constitution, and (b.) may represent different ends of a continuum of the relations between state and citizens, i.e. police as well as mundane agencies representing the state. The leading nexus for the study is anonymity of power (police) vs. power of anonymity (citizens). Fieldwork will investigate into the practices of police to remain anonymous (undercover officers, informers, public order policing) and explore the experiences of citizens in encounters with state authorities and police, regarding anonymity (e.g. anonymous reporting, informing).

Main questions leading this research are:

  • How do the actors negotiate, construct and perform anonymity in practice, in the very encounters and to what ends?
  • What kind of power is provided by regimes of anonymity such as those performed and upheld by the police?
  • Does transparency create a new atmosphere of reciprocity, accountability and trust?

These questions and encounters will be explored in two different and contrasting political settings (Hamburg and Belfast) to gain a diverse, but complementary overview of how anonymity is configured, shaped and changes affect issues of trust,  accountability and reciprocity: Belfast has a long and difficult history of citizen-state-police-relations. Anonymity did and does play a role on various levels, from hiding the fact of being a police officer from friends, family and enemies, to the fact that anonymity was and still is a vital aspect of survival and security. Hamburg, although having a different history regarding its police and its general past, has experienced violent protests several times in recent years and a broad discussion concerning the demand to make police officers identifiable, especially in public order policing situations emerged subsequently, and is still dwelling.