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The same old rhetoric, just another place

2+2=5My sister phoned me the other day in great excitement.  She’d just met a former criminology student from the University of Northampton, and she had an awful lot to say about it.  She wasn’t in her hometown and had asked directions from a stranger to the river embankment.  Having visited the embankment, she returned to town only to bump into the stranger again who enquired whether she managed to find it. They ended up chatting, my sister can do a lot of that, and she found out that the stranger was a police officer.  My sister asked whether she knew me, why she would ask that I have no idea, it seems that she has formulated some notion in her head that all police officers must know each other or at least know of each other.  This is the bit that my sister got so animated about, yes, the stranger did know me, I’d taught her at the University, and she was now in a budding police career.  Apparently, I had done so much to help her.  Now I don’t know about being that helpful and I suspect that many of my colleagues played a part in her success story, but it reminded me about what it is that we do and aspire to do as lecturers.

Whilst waiting to play my part in talking to school children the other day I started to read a new edition of a seminal piece of work on policing, The Politics of the Police (Bowling et al., 2019).  The preface alone makes interesting reading and in ‘mentioning populist political reactions towards crime’, ‘zero tolerance of the marginalised and outsiders’ and ‘laissez-faire economics’ that promotes individual interests, my mind turned to the managerialist ideals that have dogged policing for over three decades.  Those ideals saw the introduction of performance indicators, targets and the inevitable policing by objectives (Hallam, 2000), that resulted in some quite appalling manipulation of data and a diminution of service rather than an improvement.  The problem was that the targets were never achievable and were simply put in place for managers to simplify the social world over which they had no control.  What didn’t get measured, because it never could be, were the myriad of tasks that police officers and staff undertake daily.  Dealing with people with mental illness, searching for missing persons and dealing with minor disturbances are an example of just a few such tasks.  Bowling et al. (op cit.) subscribe to the notion that the job of the police is to help maintain social order, an ideal that does not lend itself to measurement. Counting the number of crimes committed in an area or the number of detected crimes is only an indication of failure, not success.

How does that policing narrative fit in with my opening paragraph? The former student was not an ideal student from a managerialist viewpoint.  She didn’t attain so called ‘good grades’, I’m not even sure if she fully completed her studies.  In terms of performance measurement, she doesn’t even feature and yet she, like so many others we have seen in Criminology, has flourished.  Whilst concentrating on ‘retention and progression’ and ‘fails’ and ‘good grades’ we neglect the very reason we exist.  Just as in policing where the figures were pored over by managerialist who had not slightest notion of the reality of the social world, so too are we in danger of simply seeking pleasing statistics to keep the wolves from the door because explanations of real success and failure are too complex for managers to understand or manage.

Imagine a world where the police just helped maintain social order, where probation were not plagued by notions of payment by results, where patients were just seen in A&E in a reasonable time and where lecturers just opened the minds of students and allowed them to think for themselves.  Imagine the time and expense that could be saved and reinvested in providing real service and dare I say it ‘value for money’ if we stopped gathering meaningless data.  Imagine managers casting aside the shackles of neoliberalist ideals and managing people, not using numbers as an indication of failure and impending doom.  We can but dream, but my reality, as I’m sure is the reality of many of my colleagues, is the success stories that I occasionally hear and can reminisce about.  No amount of number crunching can take that away and nor will it ever provide evidence of success or failure.

Bowling, B. Reiner, R. and Sheptycki, J. (2019) The Politics of the Police. (5th ed.) Oxford: OUP.

Hallam, S. (2000) Effective and Efficient Policing: Some Problems with the Culture of Performance, in Marlow, A. and Loveday, B. (eds.) After MacPherson: Policing after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Lyme Regis: Russell House

Documenting inequality: how much evidence is needed to change things?

In our society, there is a focus on documenting inequality and injustice. In the discipline of criminology (as with other social sciences) we question and read and take notes and count and read and take more notes. We then come to an evidence based conclusion; yes, there is definite evidence of disproportionality and inequality within our society. Excellent, we have identified and quantified a social problem. We can talk and write, inside and outside of that social problem, exploring it from all possible angles. We can approach social problems from different viewpoints, different perspectives using a diverse range of theoretical standpoints and research methodologies. But what happens next? I would argue that in many cases, absolutely nothing! Or at least, nothing that changes these ingrained social problems and inequalities.

Even the most cursory examination reveals discrimination, inequality, injustice (often on the grounds of gender, race, disability, sexuality, belief, age, health…the list goes on), often articulated, the subject of heated debate and argument within all strata of society, but remaining resolutely insoluble. It is as if discrimination, inequality and injustice were part and parcel of living in the twenty-first century in a supposedly wealthy nation.  If you don’t agree with my claims, look at some specific examples; poverty, gender inequality in the workplace, disproportionality in police stop and search and the rise of hate crime.

  • Three years before the end of World War 2, Beveridge claimed that through a minor redistribution of wealth (through welfare schemes including child support) poverty ‘could have been abolished in Britain‘ prior to the war (Beveridge, 1942: 8, n. 14)
  • Yet here we are in 2019 talking about children growing up in poverty with claims indicating ‘4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK’. In addition, 1.6 million parcels have been distributed by food banks to individuals and families facing hunger
  • There is legal impetus for companies and organisations to publish data relating to their employees. From these reports, it appears that 8 out of 10 of these organisations pay women less than men. In addition, claims that 37% of female managers find their workplace to be sexist are noted
  • Disproportionality in stop and search has long been identified and quantified, particularly in relation to young black males. As David Lammy’s (2017) Review made clear this is a problem that is not going away, instead there is plenty of evidence to indicate that this inequality is expanding rather than contracting
  • Post-referendum, concerns were raised in many areas about an increase in hate crime. Most attention has focused on issues of race and religion but there are other targets of violence and intolerance

These are just some examples of inequality and injustice. Despite the ever-increasing data, where is the evidence to show that society is learning, is responding to these issues with more than just platitudes? Even when, as a society, we are faced with the horror of Grenfell Tower, exposing all manner of social inequalities and injustices no longer hidden but in plain sight, there is no meaningful response. Instead, there are arguments about who is to blame, who should pay, with the lives of those individuals and families (both living and dead) tossed around as if they were insignificant, in all of these discussions.

As the writer Pearl S. Buck made explicit

‘our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is in the way that it cares for its helpless members’ (1954: 337).

If society seriously wants to make a difference the evidence is all around us…stop counting and start doing. Start knocking down the barriers faced by so many and remove inequality and injustice from the world. Only then can we have a society which we all truly want to belong to.

Selected bibliography

Beveridge, William, (1942), Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, (HMSO: London)

Buck, Pearl S. (1954), My Several Worlds: A Personal Record, (London: Methuen)

Lammy, David, (2017), The Lammy Review: An Independent Review into the Treatment of, and Outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals in the Criminal Justice System, (London: Ministry of Justice)

Hello, I am over here! But did you already know that?

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Jessica is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.

If memory serves me right, fingerprint technology was first introduced to me in secondary school, where rather than paying with cash in the school dinner hall, you placed money on to your fingerprint and used this to purchase your food. To 15 year old me, I was very indifferent to this method of paying for school lunches as it wasn’t something I had to use: pack-lunches all the way! And at 15, my focus and interests here not on wider issues of human rights and the ‘all seeing eye’ but more on GSCE results, A-levels and badminton. How times have changed… or have they?

Recently I ventured to Tenerife for a holiday experiencing the usual ‘joys’ of going abroad: early flights, fears about missing flights or transfers, panic about forgetting something essential and that passport control will not let me in as I look nothing like my passport photo: just the average anxieties to cement the beginning of a holiday. But what I had not prepared myself for, and what ultimately caught me by surprise was the requirement for my fingerprints when we landed in Tenerife as part of passport control.

I looked around stunned: everyone seemed quite happy to go through the electronic system which required finger prints, a scan of your face and then the match to your passport photo. I was not so eager or happy to consent: but ultimately what choice did I have? Why do they need my fingerprints? Is it not enough that they have my electronic passport scanned? What happens to my scanned fingerprints? Are they deleted or stored? If so when, how and where? So many unanswered questions but ultimately I ‘consent’: I am not sure my travel insurance would reimburse my holiday cost and unscheduled return flight (that is if I was able to get one) simply because I didn’t want my fingerprints taken.

Bitter and weird start to the holiday; I know what to expect if I go abroad again, but the ‘madness’, because to me the reliance and over use of fingerprints as a form of casual identification is best described this way, did not stop there. I purchased tickets to a Zoo and a Water park whilst there (would highly recommend to anyone visiting Tenerife), but as this ticket was a ‘twin ticket’ I had to hand the ticket in on the first visit (the Zoo) and in order to receive the second ticket (Water Park) I had to give my right forefinger print over! WHY?! I have clearly purchased the twin ticket, as that is what it says on the ticket, so can’t I just hand over the new ticket without fingerprint confirmation to enter the next attraction? Apparently not.

Surveillance is not something I usually think about, however Foucault’s writing around discipline and power within the prison and our current over-reliance and use of fingerprints makes me shudder at what power is out there with this type of surveillance. Who has access to it and why do they need it? And what choice do we really have with regards to consent: I could have not given them at the airport: but would I been allowed in? I could have not given them over at the Zoo; but would I have lost the money I had paid? Maybe I am over-reacting, maybe I am not: but this casual usage of fingerprinting is not something I am comfortable with, and I don’t think we should be!

The Other Side of Intelligence

 

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After I graduated I had a bit of tunnel vision of what I wanted to do. I wanted to either work with young offenders or work with restorative justice. Many opportunities actually came up for me to do several different things, but nothing really worked out and nothing felt right.

I carried on working in retail till February 2018; I was honestly starting to lose hope that I would find something that I would enjoy. I started working for a security company that does many things; from employment vetting to gaining intelligence of various kinds. Although the role is not focused on the criminality side entirely, the theme is very much apparent. I find myself thinking about all the different concepts of criminology and how it ties in to what I am doing.

A big part of my role is intelligence and at first, I didn’t think I would enjoy it because I remember in third year in the module, Violence: Institutional Perspectives*; we looked at the inquiry Stockwell 1; an inquiry into the metropolitan police force following the death of Jean Charles de Menezes. Jean Charles was mistaken by intelligence officers for Hussain Osman, one of the terrorists responsible for the failed bomb attacks in London. This particular inquiry frustrated me a lot, because I just felt like, how is it possible for the police to mistake an individual for an innocent person. I just couldn’t accept when we were going through this case how trained officers were able to fail to identify the correct person, regardless of all the other factors that pointed to Jean Charles being the culprit. However, now being in a similar position I understand more how difficult it actually is to identify an individual and being 100% sure. There have been times in my line of work that I have had to question myself 2, 3, even 8 times if the person I found was really who I was looking for.

I do think I question it a lot more because I know how much my job can affect a person’s life and/or future. I do think criminology has been one of the best decisions I made. I know that I view things differently from other people I work with, even my family. Just little things that people tend not to notice I see myself. Thinking, but could it be because of this, or could it be because of that. Criminology really is part of everyday life, it is everywhere, and knowing everything I know today I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

*Now CRI3003 – Violence: From Domestic To Institutional

Anxious about being anxious

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The fact that the digital readout on my car tells me that it is a due a service and that it needs to be looked at because something is very wrong does not provide comfort, just a nagging concern that it might break down soon, but how soon? On my way to work I left a message on my wife’s mobile phone, ‘it’s only me, just calling to say on my way to work’.  She didn’t answer the phone, she’s out riding the horse, has something happened? Mid conversation with a work colleague, my phone’s just pinged, I must check it, it’s only my mate asking me out for a drink… ‘Nice one, next Thursday?’… What was that you were saying Susie?  It’s not that the conversation is unimportant it’s just that I might miss something important on the phone.  Checking emails, that email I sent an hour ago still hasn’t been responded to… back to Susie.

An hour later… must check my emails.  What’s on Facebook, another notification has come through… must respond … ‘like’, there done.  Better check I haven’t missed anything.  Ebay… I’m still the highest bidder… should I increase my bid… just in case, Ebay says it would be a good idea.  Google the item… what’s it worth… back to Ebay… Increase bid.  Must check it again soon.  Text from wife, all is good.  Check emails… check phone … check Ebay… Check Facebook… all quiet, are they working..? Is it a network problem?  Thank goodness I haven’t got a Twitter account to worry about. Now I have to write a blog entry… what to write about, will anyone read it let alone like it? Off to my seminar, I wonder if the laptop will work, will it connect to that new screen and stay connected, last week it kept disconnecting… will the technology work… busy, worry…

Before the days of connectivity and the great digital advancement, I didn’t worry about such things.  But then I wouldn’t have phoned my wife on the way to work, in fact I wouldn’t have spoken to or heard from her for the whole day until I got home.  I wouldn’t be worrying about the car because it would either be working or have broken down.  Any correspondence I received would be in my in tray on a desk and would be dealt with and put into an out tray, the pending tray, or the bin.  The pending tray was usually just waiting for the bin. Nothing to ping and rudely distract me from my conversation with a colleague. No need to worry about whether I was the highest bidder, I would be at the auction bidding, it would be happening there and then.  I wouldn’t have been connected to a world of ‘friends’ producing meaningless drivel about where they were having their cup of coffee or the fact they liked some article in a paper about mass rape or murder.  As for the laptop and the screen, paper never let me down.

We live in a digital age and everything is at your fingertips and it’s available right now.  But what does that do?  It may give you an edge in some respects but it also makes you edgy.  I look around and see and hear about so many people suffering from anxiety, old and young alike. Perhaps the cause is not technology alone but it certainly doesn’t help.  Maybe I worry too much, maybe I’m just becoming anxious about being anxious.

A help or a hindrance: The Crime Survey of England and Wales

MJ BLOG

I recently took part in the Crime Survey for England and Wales and, in the absence of something more interesting to talk about, I thought I would share with you how exchanging my interviewer hat for an interviewee one gave me cause to consider the potential impact that I could have on the data and the validity of the data itself. My reflections start with the ‘incentive’ used to encourage participation, which took the shape of a book of 6 first class stamps accompanying the initial selection letter.  This is not uncommon and on the surface, is a fair way of encouraging or saying thank you to participants. Let’s face it, who doesn’t like a freebie especially a useful one such as stamps which are now stupidly expensive. The problem comes when you consider the implications of the gesture and the extent to which this really is a ‘freebie’, for instance in accepting the stamps was I then morally obliged to participate? There was nothing in the letter to suggest that if you didn’t want to take part you needed to return the stamps, so in theory at least I was under no obligation to participate when the researcher knocked on the door but in practice refusing to take part while accepting the stamps, would have made me feel uncomfortable. While the question of whether a book of first class stamps costing £3.90 (Royal Mail, 2018) truly equates to 50 minutes of my time is a moot point, the practice of offering incentives to participate in research raises a moral and/or ethical question of whether or not participation remains uncoerced and voluntary.

My next reflection is slightly more complex because it relates to the interconnected issues associated with the nature and construction of the questions themselves. Take for example the multitude of questions relating to sexual offending and the way in which similar questions are asked with the alteration of just one or two words such as ‘in the last 12 months’ or ‘in your lifetime’. If you were to not read the questions carefully, or felt uncomfortable answering such questions in the presence of a stranger and thus rushed them, you could easily provide an inaccurate answer. Furthermore, asking individuals if they have ‘ever’ experiences sexual offending (all types) raises questions for me as a researcher regarding the socially constructed nature of the topic. While the law around sexual offending is black and white and thus you either have or haven’t experienced what is defined by law as a sexual offence, such questions fail to acknowledge the social aspect of this offence and the way in which our own understanding, or acceptance of certain behaviours has changed over time. For instance, as an 18 year old I may not have considered certain behaviours within a club environment to be sexual assault in the same way that I might do now. With maturity, education and life experience our perception of behaviour changes as do our acceptance levels of them. In a similar vein, society’s perception of such actions has changed over time, shifting from something that ‘just happens’ to something that is unacceptable and inappropriate. I’m not saying that the action itself was right back then and is now wrong, but that quantitative data collected hold little value without a greater understanding of the narrative surrounding it. Such questions are only ever going to demonstrate (quantitatively) that sexual offending is problematic, increasing, and widely experienced. If we are honest, we have always known this, so the publication of quantitative figures does little to further our understanding of the problem beyond being able to say ‘x number of people have experienced sexual offending in their lifetime’. Furthermore, the clumping together of all, or certain sexual offences muddies the water further and fails to acknowledge the varying degree of severity and impact of offences on individuals and groups within society.

Interconnected with this issue of question relevance, is the issue of question construction. A number of questions ask you to reflect upon issues in your ‘local area’, with local being defined as being within a 10-15 minute walk of your home, which for me raised some challenges. Firstly, as I live in a village it was relatively easy for me to know where I could walk to in 10/15 minutes and thus the boundary associated with my responses but could the same be said for someone who 1) doesn’t walk anywhere or 2) lives in an urban environment? This issue is made more complex when it comes to knowing what crimes are happening in the ‘local’ area, firstly because not everyone is an active community member (as I am) therefore making any response speculative unless they have themselves been a victim of crime – which is not what these questions are asking. Secondly, most people spend a considerable amount of time away from home because of work, so can we really provide useful information on crime happening in an area that we spend little time in? In short, while the number of responses to these questions may alleviate some of these issues the credibility, and in turn usefulness of this data is questionable.

I encountered similar problems when asked about the presence and effectiveness of the local police. While I occasionally see a PCSO I have no real experience or accurate knowledge of their ‘local’ efficiency or effectiveness, not because they are not doing a good job but because I work away from home during the day, austerity measures impact on police performance and thus police visibility, and I have no reason to be actively aware of them. Once again, these questions will rely on speculative responses or those based on experiences of victimisation which is not what the question is actually asking. All in all, it is highly unlikely that the police will come out favourable to such questions because they are not constructed to elicit a positive response and give no room for explanation of your answer.

In starting this discussion, I realise that there is so much more I could say, but as I’ve already exceeded my word limit I’ll leave it here and conclude by commenting that although I was initially pleased to be part of something that we as Criminologist use in our working lives, I was left questioning its true purpose and whether my knowledge of the field actually allowed me to be an impartial participant.

 

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