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The pathology of performance management: obscuration, manipulation and power

My colleague @manosdaskalou’s recent blog Do we have to care prompted me to think about how data is used to inform government, its agencies and other organisations.  This in turn led me back to the ideas of New Public Management (NPM), later to morph into what some authors called Administrative Management.  For some of you that have read about NPM and its various iterations and for those of you that have lived through it, you will know that the success or failure of organisations was seen through a lens of objectives, targets and performance indicators or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).  In the early 1980s and for a decade or so thereafter, Vision statements, Mission statements, objectives, targets, KPI’s and league tables, both formal and informal became the new lingua franca for public sector bodies, alongside terms such as ‘thinking outside the box’ or ‘blue sky thinking’.  Added to this was the media frenzy when data was released showing how organisations were somehow failing.

Policing was a little late joining the party, predominately as many an author has suggested, for political reasons which had something to do with neutering the unions; considered a threat to right wing capitalist ideologies.  But policing could not avoid the evidence provided by the data.  In the late 1980s and beyond, crime was inexorably on the rise and significant increases in police funding didn’t seem to stem the tide.  Any self-respecting criminologist will tell you that the link between crime and policing is tenuous at best. But when politicians decide that there is a link and the police state there definitely is, demonstrated by the misleading and at best naïve mantra, give us more resources and we will control crime, then it is little wonder that the police were made to fall in line with every other public sector body, adopting NPM as the nirvana.  

Since crime is so vaguely linked to policing, it was little wonder that the police managed to fail to meet targets on almost every level. At one stage there were over 400 KPIs from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, let alone the rest imposed by government and the now defunct Audit Commission.  This resulted in what was described as an audit explosion, a whole industry around collecting, manipulating and publishing data.  Chief Constables were held to account for the poor performance and in some cases chief officers started to adopt styles of management akin to COMPSTAT, a tactic born in the New York police department, alongside the much vaunted ‘zero tolerance policing’ style.  At first both were seen as progressive.  Later, it became clear that COMPSTAT was just another way of bullying in the workplace and zero tolerance policing was totally out of kilter with the ethos of policing in England and Wales, but it certainly left an indelible mark.

As chief officers pushed the responsibility for meeting targets downwards through so called Performance and Development Reviews (PDRs), managers at all levels became somewhat creative with the crime figures and manipulating the rules around how crime is both recorded and detected. This working practice was pushed further down the line so that officers on the front line failed to record crime and became more interested in how to increase their own detection rates by choosing to pick what became known in academic circles as’ low hanging fruit’.  Easy detections, usually associated with minor crime such as possession of cannabis, and inevitably to the detriment of young people and minority ethnic groups.  How else do you produce what is required when you have so little impact on the real problem?  Nobody, perhaps save for some enlightened academics, could see what the problem was.  If you aren’t too sure let me spell it out, the police were never going to produce pleasing statistics because there was too much about the crime phenomenon that was outside of their control. The only way to do so was to cheat.  To borrow a phrase from a recent Inquiry into policing, this was quite simply ‘institutional corruption’.

In the late 1990s the bubble began to burst to some extent. A series of inquiries and inspections showed that the police were manipulating data; queue another media frenzy.  The National Crime Recording Standard came to fruition and with it another audit explosion.  The auditing stopped and the manipulation increased, old habits die hard, so the auditing started again.  In the meantime, the media and politicians and all those that mattered (at least that’s what they think) used crime data and criminal justice statistics as if they were somehow a spotlight on what was really happening.  So, accurate when you want to show that the criminal justice system is failing but grossly inaccurate when you can show the data is being manipulated.  For the media, they got their cake and were scoffing on it.   

But it isn’t just about the data being accurate, it is also about it being politically acceptable at both the macro and micro level.  The data at the macro level is very often somehow divorced from the micro.  For example, in order for the police to record and carry out enquiries to detect a crime there needs to be sufficient resources to enable officers to attend a reported crime incident in a timely manner.  In one police force, previous work around how many officers were required to respond to incidents in any given 24-hour period was carefully researched, triangulating various sources of data.  This resulted in a formula that provided the optimum number of officers required, taking into account officers training, days off, sickness, briefings, paperwork and enquiries.  It considered volumes and seriousness of incidents at various periods of time and the number of officers required for each incident. It also considered redundant time, that is time that officers are engaged in activities that are not directly related to attending incidents. For example, time to load up and get the patrol car ready for patrol, time to go to the toilet, time to get a drink, time to answer emails and a myriad of other necessary human activities.  The end result was that the formula indicated that nearly double the number of officers were required than were available.  It really couldn’t have come as any surprise to senior management as the force struggled to attend incidents in a timely fashion on a daily basis.  The dilemma though was there was no funding for those additional officers, so the solution, change the formula and obscure and manipulate the data.

With data, it seems, comes power.  It doesn’t matter how good the data is, all that matters is that it can be used pejoratively.  Politicians can hold organisations to account through the use of data.  Managers in organisations can hold their employees to account through the use of data.  And those of us that are being held to account, are either told we are failing or made to feel like we are.  I think a colleague of mine would call this ‘institutional violence’.  How accurate the data is, or what it tells you, or more to the point doesn’t, is irrelevant, it is the power that is derived from the data that matters.  The underlying issues and problems that have a significant contribution to the so called ‘poor performance’ are obscured by manipulation of data and facts.  How else would managers hold you to account without that data?  And whilst you may point to so many other factors that contribute to the data, it is after all just seen as an excuse.  Such is the power of the data that if you are not performing badly, you still feel like you are.

The above account is predominantly about policing because that is my background. I was fortunate that I became far more informed about NPM and the unintended consequences of the performance culture and over reliance on data due to my academic endeavours in the latter part of my policing career.  Academia it seemed to me, had seen through this nonsense and academics were writing about it.  But it seems, somewhat disappointingly, that the very same managerialist ideals and practices pervade academia.  You really would have thought they’d know better. 

Making a Criminal: A game on criminology

Summer is here and as we try to destress from another annus horribilis …let us play a game.  This is one of the mental games we play in a way to understand a discipline shrouded in mystery and speculation.  You will need no pen, nor paper, just your imagination and a few minutes. 

Clear you mind, isolate your thoughts and give yourself 5 minutes of time to complete. It is all about your imagination. 

Think of a criminal.  Try to think of their face first.  What do they look like?  Imagine their face, their eyes, the nose and the cheekbones.  Hair colour and style.  How’s the neck, the body type, the hands, the legs.  Can you tell their gender, age and their race?  Any other features?  What are they wearing? 

Now try to keep that image in your mind.  You have conjured your criminal and you ought to give them a crime.  What crime has this person committed?  Was it their first crime or have they done the same crime before?  What made them do the crime(s) they did?   

How do you feel about them?  What do you wish to be done about them?  What is your solution to your imaginary villain?  Do you think there are others like them, or was this the one that once removed from your imagination will become unable to generate more images? 

Our mind is truly wonderous.  It can conjure all sorts of images and for those of you, who, managed to engage and to get through the questions and to develop your criminal, well done. 

This approach was used when investigators tried to help people to recall events following a crime, usually involving violence.  The questions are reasonable, and it allowed you, at least those who tried, to form an image and a backstory.  This approach was later discredited, purely because it allowed our stereotypes and prejudices to come to the surface.  You see this game is not about crime; it is about your perception of crime.  It is not about those who do crime, it is simply about you. 

Bring back to mind your criminal.  Your details and characteristics are the projections that you make on what you think about the other, the criminal.  For example, did you think of yourself when asked to imagine a criminal?  What you don’t think you are a criminal?  Ah, you are one of those who think they have never committed a crime.  Ever!  Are you sure?  Not even drinking in the park in your teen years, or a little bit of speeding away from speed cameras? 

Still you do not consider yourself as a criminal, but as a person.  Which is why criminality takes such a hold of people’s imagination.  Criminals are always other people.  Crime is something unthinkable.  Our representation of crime is to evoke our fears and insecurities, as when we were kids entering a dark room.  The mind is truly wonderous, but it can also make us imagine the most horrible things.  Not that horrible things do not happen, but the mind reinforces what it hears, what is sees and what it experiences.  If any of you have experienced crime before, the face of the person who victimised you may become traumatically etched in your consciousness.  Part of that trauma will become fear; it is interesting to note that similar fear is experienced from those who have never been victims of crime. 

Previously, I mentioned investigative processes.  Our fear of crime and our desire to control crime has generated a number of approaches in crime investigation that have tried to unmask the criminal.  Unfortunately, many of those were based on imagination rather than fact.  Why?  Because of how we feel about crime.  Crime causes harm and pain and invokes a lot of our emotions.  Those emotions when tapped by investigators blind us and release our darker stereotypes about the others!                        

#ReadingForCriminologists: The End Of Policing- Alex S.Vitale

During the past year, like many, I have certainly had more time on my hands, I’ve started a plethora of hobbies (some more successful than others) but a constant past time for me has been reading. In the past I’ve sporadically read a few classic fiction books but this year that I’ve been focusing on nonfiction literature.

This book focuses mainly on the American police force in a historical and contemporary context. The book tackles some of the big topics in current policing such as the school to prison pipeline, the war on drugs, prostitution and mental health. In each chapter, the author critiques current policing strategy and gives recommendations towards effective reform.

My Thoughts

Of course, it is important to note that this book comments on American policing strategies and discusses social issues from a western, North American perspective. However, the book at times, does become relevant to UK topics. Comments about the war on drugs, the criminalisation of the homeless, immigrants and prostitutes and political policing are some examples.

“Tactical equipment with semi-automatic weapons”

Vitale, A., 2018. The end of policing. Verso Books, p.65.

There was one main part in the book that stuck out to me. In the School to Prison Pipeline chapter, the author gives a quote from an annual convention held for police officers based on school sites (known as Resource Officers). The book says it mainly consists of military contractors selling security systems to schools, a keynote speaker, specialising in anti-terrorism describes American schools as all containing ‘the next Columbine’, that every officer must be a ‘one-man fighting force’ and that police officers in schools must always wear full ‘tactical equipment with semi-automatic weapons’.

The author used this example in an extremely effective way, commenting on how the very nature of policing must change. It was written that currently, the police force is inherently a force and that the ethos of policing along with the ‘warrior mentality’ is part of the reason that policing in America is not as effective and beneficial as it could be to its citizens and communities.

With the continuation of social and racial unrest in America, the topics raised in the book could not be more relevant. The most interesting thing about this book was that it presented concepts and opinions I had never thought of before, and whether or not I was in agreement with the points raised, it became an extremely thought provoking read.

I guess that if escapism is more of your reasoning for reading this, perhaps, isn’t the book for you. The author speaks about the harsh reality that certain communities face when it comes to American policing and society.

Some Main Takeaways

Since beginning to take a greater interest in nonfiction books, I’ve realised how beneficial it is to to take note of differing opinions. The beauty in any social science is that one topic can have many opinions attached to it and often, opinions that differ from your own can be the most interesting and thought provoking ones. On the whole, the author presented quite a lot of concepts that I agree with, which made for a passionate read and the opinions I did not agree with, opened up opportunity to research and further understand.

This book has called into question some of my own opinions and thoughts around police reform. Perhaps more police training, more funding and education within the police force cannot fix an institution that was formed to essentially supress and control some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups of people.

Alex park: a space of criminological interest?

Almost every day I walk my puppy in the local park. Most days I go around 6-7am when there’s barely anyone around. He’s made a couple of dog friends and we often stop for a chat. It’s tranquil and calm. I’ll listen to an audio book or the birds. The dog mother of Hazel the Italian greyhound tells me which birds are calling.

Prince

Usually in the evening we go to a huge field so he can quite literally run rings around me. A few weeks ago, we broke tradition and went to the local park in the late afternoon. I had spent the entire day in front of a screen and needed a break. We got to the park and it was different – it looked different, sounded different, and felt different. The sun was out so of course it was busier, and as you’d expect after school there were children playing on the skate park and the playground. There were about a dozen dogs in the dog park (it’s not as fancy as it sounds – just a patch of grass where the dogs dig holes and fetch sticks). Prince was a bit overwhelmed and so was I – at this point I hadn’t seen so many people in one place since pre-covid!

Sunrise in the park

I soon learned that I couldn’t let Prince off his lead on a Monday because the mess from the weekend (even before the outdoor rule of six) would not yet be cleaned and he would eat everything. One Monday he walked an entire lap of the park with a croissant in his mouth that was bigger than his head. Another day he picked up half a joint of cooked meat. I noticed the signs of people having good (and not so good) times, particularly after sunny weekends. Sometimes when it’s warm there’s groups of men fishing, pulling all-nighters, smoking cannabis and drinking. Once, we followed a trail of blood around the path and although it could just as easily come from a child after a fall, the empty, broken alcohol bottles led me to imagine scenarios of violence.

Dog munching on the litter

During my visits to the park over the last few months I have seen evidence of alcohol and drug use, and possible violence. In May last year, there were reports of gunshots fired, leading to a man being arrested on suspicion of possessing a firearm. Quite worrying considering I live only a couple of hundred metres away. There have also been incidents involving youths wielding baseball bats and setting fires before attacking firefighters.  I had a look at the crime data for the area but Greater Manchester Police have had some IT issues affecting data from 2019 onwards (that’s another story…), however older data showed a pattern of anti-social behavior, arson and a few violent offences as well. This is all very different to the place of tranquility I visit daily with the puppy.

Someone had a good night last night

The next day we returned for our early morning walk and I reflected upon the changes in the character of the park and the actors and events that create this. I started thinking about criminology and the environment around us, about how places can change so much throughout the day and across the seasons. I thought about situational crime prevention. My work brain truly switched on and I stopped hearing the birds and started seeing the CCTV and the lighting. I thought to myself that I would not go to the park when it gets dark but if I did, I would stay in the lit areas where the cameras could see me. I would stay away from the groups of fishermen because they were sure to be drunk and stoned by nightfall. I haven’t seen them behave in a threatening manner although I have overheard verbal threats. They are usually asleep when I walk by but as a single woman I’d think twice about walking past a group of lively, drunk men at night.

Fishermen are behind me in their tents. Sometimes the dog wakes them up.

This local park is just one example based on my observations, but the question is, is it a criminogenic space? Or am I criminologist who sees things of criminological interest in everything, everywhere? Or a woman who constantly assesses personal safety? Luckily I haven’t had enough thinking time and space to ponder these questions otherwise this would have been a long read.

The 7 shots of Isaiah Brown (April, post-George Floyd murder case) #BlackenAsiaWithLove

Isaiah Brown was shot by the policeman who’d given him a ride home less than an hour earlier, after his car had broken down at a gas station. He was shot 3 minutes into his 9-1-1 call. The cop mistook the cordless phone Isaiah was holding for a gun. This was the very phone he’d mentioned to the 9-11 dispatcher, using the very same cordless phone from his home. On the 9-1-1 call, Isaiah is explicitly asked, and confirms that he is unarmed, also that he was walking down the street on the phone, escaping a volatile situation. 

On the call, it’s clear that Isaiah was reaching out for a lifeline – calling out from hell in sheer crisis. It wasn’t that he was in danger, he had the emotional maturity to call for help when he felt himself at risk of endangering another. “I’m about to kill my brother,” he calmly tells the dispatcher, who by now can start to hear him panting from walking. 

“Do you understand that you just threatened to kill your brother on a recorded line on 9-1-1,” she asks calmly. “Mmm Hmm,” he confirms casually. He was calling her for help, and by now it’s clear that she’s attempting to keep him talking, i.e. redirect his attention from his crisis by having him describe the crisis.  She’s helping Isaiah to look at his situation objectively, and it’s working. This is a classic de-escalation tool that anyone who has ever taken care of a toddler knows. Isaiah calmly and rationally confirmed that he knew the implications of his words, and he kept pleading for help. 

This was a call about a domestic dispute and there was talk of a gun, which never materialized, neither did the caller nor his brother in the background suggest the actual presence of a gun. Isaiah can be heard twice ushering someone out with him, and by his tone it seemed that he was speaking to a child, using a Black girl’s name. None of Isaiah’s ushering is noted in the transcript. In hearing so many keystrokes, one wonders which parts of this is being taken down. Again, she asked him to confirm that he was unarmed. In fact, she seemed bewildered that he was using a house phone, yet still able to walk down the street, again, evidently attempting to de-escalate the situation. How many times have you told some to “take a walk!”

“How are you walking down the road with the house phone,” she asks. “because I can,” he says, and leaves it at that. 

In the background of the call, we hear police sirens approaching. “You need to hold your hands up,” she says. “Huh,” he asks. “Hold your hands up,” she says sharply, as if anticipating the coming agitation. It’s interesting to note here that we, too, know that despite the casual nature of this distress call, despite all clear and explicit confirmation that the gentleman was unarmed, and regardless of the fact that the dispatcher knew that Isaiah would be in the street when officers approached, the raising in alarm in her voice betrayed the fact that she knew the officer would escalate the situation. 

“Why would you want to do something like that,” she calmly asks, he calmly answers. She engages him in this topic for a while, and we can hear the background become quieter. His explanations are patchy and make little sense, yet he remains calm. By now, it’s clear that the caller is of danger to no one else but his brother, and that he’d managed to create some physical distance between the two. So far, nothing suggests anyone is about to die. Yet, the officer arrives, and within 30 seconds, 7 shots are fired, Isaiah is down.

After the 7 shots are fired, you can hear someone moaning in pain, and you can’t exactly tell if it’s Isaiah or the dispatcher; the dispatcher’s recording continues.  After the shots are fired, and it’s clear from the audio that the victim is moaning in pain, the cop continues to bark out orders: “Drop the gun” and so forth. He’s just 7 times, we hear a fallen man, and the cop is still barking in anger and anguish. Is he saying “drop the gun” to Isaiah, or performing for the record, as Black twitter has suggested? Confusingly, moments later the officer is heard playing Florence Nightingale, complete with gentle bedside manner. We hope Isaiah survives; issuing aid at this moment is life-saving.

“He just shot ‘em, the dispatcher says to someone off call, who can now be heard on another dispatch call regarding the incident.  “I got you man” the policeman says to Isaiah moments after shooting him, then mercifully: “I’m here for you, ok.”

Now, in the distance, we hear the familiar voice of Isaiah’s brother calling out, “Hey, what’s going on, bro?” “It’s ok” the officer calls out quickly. He never says what’s just happened. Then, “Go to my car, grab the medical kit,” he calls out to the brother.  “You shot ‘em,” the brother asks.  The cop says nothing.

The previous news report on the network nightly news was about Merrick Garland launching a civil rights investigation into my hometown’s police force, just over a year after the police murdered Breonna Taylor on my mother’s birthday. “It’s necessary because, police reform quite honestly, is needed, in nearly every agency across the country” says Louisville Metro Police Chief, Erika Shields. On that area’s local news website reporting this story, the next news story bleeds reads: “ Black gun ownership on the rise,” on no one should wonder why. But, this is America, so the headline finishes with: “But Black gun store owners are rare.” The all-American solution – more peace-makers!

Please stop ignoring our distress, or minimizing our pain with your calls to “go slow.” How slow did Isaiah have to move to avoid getting shot 7 times by a cop who’d just shown him an act of kindness and mercy!?! #BLM #BlackLivesMatter #Seriously #Nokidding

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