Article begins

Many crimes build on the ability to blend into the scenery of everyday life—to become part of people’s regular routines, but with clandestine intentions. “Criminals,” in other words, often have an impressive anthropological capability. They are not just good at stealing stuff or cheating people. To commit a crime, they must first have a detailed understanding of the way people behave and live. They must know not only different cultural codes and conduct but also, and especially, those of their potential victims.

Criminals’ ability to emulate conventional living and take advantage is perhaps best portrayed in David W. Maurer’s old descriptions of pickpockets and con artists. Pickpockets, Maurer demonstrates, have stunning insights into how people act, knowing from tiny tells who a potential target might be and why someone who seems like the perfect victim really isn’t. As Goffman might have put it, the pickpocket “scans” crowds like Google scans the internet—quickly, almost imperceptibly. Con artists are much the same. They understand people. They know our dreams. They get us to place our confidence in them. And they prey on it.

But police, too, profit from having a kind of nonacademic yet no less effective anthropological knowledge about the world they observe. The undercover cop or an officer on a stakeout needs to blend in, to go by unnoticed, not merely by hiding in a corner but by shrouding themselves in the flows of routine living. And just as the criminal needs to be able to unveil the camouflaged officer, the officer must be able to read the small signs that give away the criminal in the crowd.

It’s a game of trickery. A racket of deception in a sea of almost unnoticeable cues. This much I know from having studied detective work and police stakeouts for more than a decade—a game of anthropological double-dealing, so to speak. Hence, when the game is afoot, one must remain ever vigilant, as clues can come from the most surprising directions.

The Start

It’s 5 a.m. I’m dead tired. And so are the detectives. Yesterday, we spent the entire day searching for credit card thieves in downtown Copenhagen, Denmark. No luck, though. Although the numbers of thefts indicate that there are many to be found, locating them isn’t as easy as it may sound. Professional thieves from countries such as Romania, Poland, and Bulgaria, as well as Morocco and Chile, roam the streets of Copenhagen and many other European cities. Many reports have established this. But yesterday we came up emptyhanded. Again.

After a few hours of sleep, we are back at it. Drinking coffee like fiends, we slowly come to life. “It has to be like this,” Detective Andersen explains to me and his four colleagues, who all belong to a specialized unit within the Copenhagen Police district. “We know there are many thieves in town right now and that they are especially active during morning rush hour. So we also must be ready, right?” I nod. I have been with this unit for months now. It makes sense.

We exit the station and enter the streets. The detectives all wear their own private clothes. They have selected their outfits to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible. Jeans or cargo pants. A black or grey hoodie. Trainers. Clothes many people sport in Denmark and on the streets of Copenhagen. It’s a convincing look. The main giveaway is that the detectives are required to wear their police gear underneath their camouflaging covers (weapons, vests, cuffs, radio, etc.). They hate it. All this extra gear makes it more difficult to blend in. “We would prefer wearing nothing but a short-sleeve shirt,” they say. But there’s nothing they can do about it. “Orders, you know.”

The Stakeout

This morning, we go to Copenhagen Central Station—a known hub for slick thieves looking to relieve you of your pin and credit card. We split into two groups but keep in contact over the radio. A few words and commands are exchanged alongside the usual police banter. An attractive woman never goes by unnoticed. The radio scatters compliments. Always.

For an hour or so, we browse. We circle the station and its many shops and go up and down escalators, trying to look like any other traveler. Every now and then, the detectives spot someone of interest. A Polish-looking male. A couple of North African–looking youths. A nondescript guy seemingly hiding in the corner next to a coffee shop. But they decide against it. Some things fit, but the conclusion is that they are not the credit card crooks that the detectives are paid to apprehend.

Suddenly, they do see something. Or someone, that is. A spotlight is on a group of Eastern European–looking males. Possibly Polish. Detective Clausen points me in their direction. “Look over there. You see that guy who’s standing in line to buy a ticket. And now look at these other two men some 5–10 meters to his right. They are together. They are thieves. It’s 100 percent certain.”

The Shoes

I locate the man in the queue. At first, he looks like any other person. He’s 40 or 50 years old, give or take. He has a haircut with a touch of old age and a mustache that any reasonably priced barbershop could produce. The man wears glasses, nonfitted blue jeans, and a beige blazer. “Look,” Detective Clausen urges. “Look at his shoes. You see. They’re a bit off, no? No one in Denmark wears those. Those are Eastern European shoes. And look at the bag. Together with this blazer, jeans, and glasses, it is meant to produce the image of a traveling businessman or something like that, but the truth is that in his bag you will only find a hat, a phone, a bit of clothes, and perhaps a wad of cash that he and his friends have already stolen. . . . The hat they use to hide their faces when they take out money from the cards they’ve stolen.”

True. As I think about the hours upon hours of CCTV footage I’ve seen, the culprits almost always wear a hat and glasses to make their faces harder to recognize.

The Act

“And it’s not just about clothes,” Detective Clausen continues. “Nor is it—because I know what you think—only about his ethnicity.” These things matter, of course. They are part of the profile. But what really sticks out is the way he acts. Or, rather, the way he and the others don’t act. Give it a couple of seconds, and you’ll see what I mean.”

I look again. The guy slightly repositions himself, moving a bit to the right as he approaches the front of the queue. “There! You saw it, right? That tiny move gave him the angle he needed to track the way the person in front of him pushes in her pin. He probably can’t see the actual tapping of the keys. But these guys are so skilled, that they can tell from the way your underarm and hand moves. It’s pretty amazing, to be honest. Now look again. See what happens.” I glance toward the guy, yet try not to look too hard as to give us away. As the woman who had just purchased the ticket leaves, the man goes to the machine, stands for a few seconds, but then leaves without buying anything.

“That’s the act, the MO. That’s how you tell.” Detective Pedersen states, adding to the conversation. “While you and I and any other person who is here at the train station, or any other location for that matter, act according to the rules of the place, these guys only mimic it. They wear the clothes, and they look the part. They pretend to be on their way, to be buying a ticket or to be window shopping, but what they are actually doing is scoping out their next victim through the window. 99 percent looks just perfect, but these small cues tell us that they are not here to travel but to steal.”

The Arrest

As the man who had pretended to be buying a ticket leaves, we follow him. “Not too fast, though,” Detective Pedersen warns. “What we need now is to mind the two others. This is how they work, you know. You might think they are alone, but they are almost always working in teams. They never walk close together all three or four. They spread out. Keeping an eye out for us as we are keeping an eye out for them. So if we for example follow this guy too obviously, the others will notice. So what we do is allow them to feel at ease and observe their next move. And then we pounce!”

And so they did.

The detectives arrested the three men and found more than $8,000 (55.000 Danish kroner) in their bags, even though they could see that the men had only flown in from Poland that very morning. Stealing bank cards is a fast and lucrative business.

The Story

What is the story I’m trying to tell, then? What does this day—and many others—spent covertly chasing professional thieves teach us?

Obviously, it shows what Maurer and others have already finely portrayed. It bears witness to how criminal activity—although illegal and often immoral—isn’t just a simple matter of malice and brutality. Criminality is not just about being “Other,” even though thoughts about ontological alterity have increasingly become a mainstay in today’s criminal policy and public discourse. Neither is it merely about shifty transgressions, finding loopholes and weaknesses and exploiting them. These aspects do of course belong to the criminal enterprise, at least in some measure, but what this story shows us is that deception binds the unlawful and the lawful, the irregular and the regular. We simply mustn’t underestimate the criminal ability to weave itself into the fabric of normal, everyday life and to use this ability as a deceptive cloak—nor the ability of law enforcement to deploy deception as part of their search for criminals.

Although crime is upsetting, for a criminologically interested anthropologist like myself, there is something deeply fascinating about the criminal ability to analyze cultures. To think that (would-be) criminals are all just opportunistic brutes is to grossly underestimate the work and skills they put into their exploits. A capable police officer knows this. The more professional criminals study the places they go. They often know how we look, how we move, how we react to things, and how social life is supposed to be carried out in different places, online and offline.  

It rings a bell, doesn’t it?

The Discrimination

Much the same can be said for the police detective. In a day and age where we commonly discuss the discriminatory aspects of police work, racial profiling is a frequent culprit. It makes sense, especially in the United States, where racist and violent policing might be more prevalent and entrenched than in Denmark.

But what my many years of studying policing and detective work not just in Denmark but in different European contexts have shown me is that the illegitimate type of racial profiling we so heatedly (and rightly) discuss is often committed by the officers who take not too much but too little interest in the people they are trying to catch. What made the specialized unit of Copenhagen detectives special was their ability not to forget about race and ethnicity but to look beyond it—to add to it more than just disregard it (or let it pass by as an unconscious bias). They noticed the “Polishness” of a potential suspect. But what made the Poles in our story really interesting was not their ethnicity as such. The detectives did identify the Polish signifiers in potential suspects, it’s true. But they didn’t confine them to an ethnic cage. Rather, ethnicity was just a piece of the puzzle. More intriguing were the discreet nuances—the specific clothes donned, the unconventional choice of shoes, and most crucially, the conspicuous imitation, not genuine integration, into the interactionist rules of the train station. The detectives, in other words, saw the criminals’ game, not just their ethnicity—an ability many other police colleagues don’t necessarily have as they become too obsessed with appearance rather than the broader anthropological clues.

The Anthropologist

And what about the anthropologist, then? In my case, I had to face an uncomfortable truth. Despite years of fieldwork and a decent moral compass (I hope), my perception was not as sharp as I’d thought. My observations were often clouded by preconceived notions and stereotypes, rather than being based on the subtle behavioral cues the detectives sought to teach me. They sometimes joked that I did more racial profiling than they ever did, underpinning the degree to which my academic training fell short in this real-life context.

This realization was an embarrassment, yet it was also a valuable lesson. More than once, I ruined detective stakeouts as groups of thieves outed me. I was the proverbial elephant in this cat-and-mouse game of policing and crime. I found it hard to fake it and fall into the rhythm of a train station, a square, or a shopping mall. I stared at suspects rather than just glancing their way. I might be proficient in writing about these themes, even bringing seemingly scholarly elegance to the narrative. But when it came to practicing this kind of clandestine anthropology of the streets, I was at a loss.

It’s policing. It’s crime. It’s deception. And often a matter of darkness. Yes. But what continues to fascinate me is the way that both crime and policing also necessitate a kind of street-smart anthropological ability that shares some unsettling qualities with the level of ethnographic detail that many anthropologists often aspire to.


David Sausdal

David Sausdal is an associate professor at Lund University and a jack-of-all-trades. As an ethnographer with a background in anthropology, criminology as well as sociology, Sausdal studies issues of policing, surveillance, and crime in different countries and context across Europe.

Cite as

Sausdal, David. 2024. “On Police, Criminals, and the Anthropological Games They Play.” Anthropology News website, April 30, 2024.