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Empathy Amid the “Fake Tales of San Francisco”*

This time last week, @manosdaskalou and I were in San Francisco at the American Society of Criminology’s conference. This four-day meeting takes place once a year and encompasses a huge range of talkers and subjects, demonstrating the diversity of the discipline. Each day there are multiple sessions scheduled, making it incredibly difficult to choose which ones you want to attend.

Fortunately, this year both of our two papers were presented on the first day of the conference, which took some of the pressure off. We were then able to concentrate on other presenters’ work. Throughout discussions around teaching in prison, gun violence and many other matters of criminological importance, there was a sense of camaraderie, a shared passion to understand and in turn, change the world for the better. All of these discussions took place in a grand hotel, with cafes, bars and restaurants, to enable the conversation to continue long after the scheduled sessions had finished.

Outside of the hotel, there is plenty to see. San Francisco is an interesting city, famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars which run up and down extraordinarily steep roads and of course, criminologically speaking, Alcatraz prison. In addition, it is renowned for its expensive designer shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. But as @haleysread has noted before, this is a city where you do not have to look far to find real deprivation.

I was last in San Francisco in 2014. At that point cannabis had been declassified from a misdemeanour to an infraction, making the use of the drug similar to a traffic offence. In 2016, cannabis was completely decriminalised for recreational use. For many criminologists, such decriminalisation is a positive step, marking a change from viewing drug use as a criminal justice problem, to one of public health. Certainly, it’s a position that I would generally subscribe to, not least as part of a process necessary to prison abolition. However, what do we really know about the effects of cannabis? I am sure my colleague @michellejolleynorthamptonacuk could offer some insight into the latest research around cannabis use.

When a substance is illegal, it is exceedingly challenging to research either its harms or its benefits. What we know, in the main, is based upon problematic drug use, those individuals who come to the attention of either the CJS or the NHS. Those with the means to sustain a drug habit need not buy their supplies openly on the street, where the risk of being caught is far higher. Thus our research population are selected by bad luck, either they are caught or they suffer ill-effects either with their physical or mental health.

The smell of cannabis in San Francisco is a constant, but there is also another aroma, which wasn’t present five years ago. That smell is urine. Furthermore, it has been well documented, that not only are the streets and highways of San Francisco becoming public urinals, there are also many reports that public defecation is an increasing issue for the city. Now I don’t want to be so bold as to say that the decriminalisation of cannabis is the cause of this public effluence, however, San Francisco does raise some questions.

  1. Does cannabis cause or exacerbate mental health problems?
  2. Does cannabis lead to a loss of inhibition, so much so that the social conventions around urination and defecation are abandoned?
  3. Does cannabis lead to an increase in homelessness?
  4. Does cannabis increase the likelihood of social problems?
  5. Does the decriminalisation of cannabis, lead to less tolerance of social problems?

I don’t have any of the answers, but it is extremely difficult to ignore these problems. The juxtaposition of expensive shops such as Rolex and Tiffany just round the corner from large groups of confused, homeless people, make it impossible to avoid seeing the social problems confronted by this city. Of course, poor mental health and homelessness are not unique to San Francisco or even the USA, we have similar issues in our own town, regardless of the legal status of cannabis. Certainly the issue of access to bathroom facilities is pressing; should access to public toilets be a right or a privilege? This, also appears to be a public health, rather than CJS problem, although those observing or policing such behaviour, may argue differently.

Ultimately, as @haleysread found, San Francisco remains a City of Contrast, where the very rich and the very poor rub shoulders. Unless, society begins to think a little more about people and a little less about business, it seems inevitable that individuals will continue to live, eat, urinate and defection and ultimately, die upon the streets. It is not enough to discuss empathy in a conference, no matter how important that might be, if we don’t also empathise with people whose lives are in tatters.

*Turner, Alex, (2006), Fake Tales of San Francisco, [CD]. Recorded by Arctic Monkeys in Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, The Chapel: Domino Records

A Love Letter: in praise of art

Some time ago, I wrote ‘A Love Letter: in praise of poetry‘, making the case as to why this literary form is important to understanding the lived experience. This time, I intend to do similar in relation to visual art.

Tomorrow, I’m plan to make my annual visit to the Koestler Arts’ Exhibition on show at London’s Southbank Centre. This year’s exhibition is entitled Another Me and is curated by the musician, Soweto Kinch. Previous exhibitions have been curated by Benjamin Zephaniah, Antony Gormley and prisoners’ families. Each of the exhibitions contain a diverse range of unique pieces, displaying the sheer range of artistic endeavours from sculpture, to pastels and from music to embroidery. This annual exhibition has an obvious link to criminology, all submissions are from incarcerated people. However, art, regardless of medium, has lots of interest to criminologists and many other scholars.

I have never formally studied art, my reactions and interpretations are entirely personal. I reason that the skills inherent in criminological critique and analysis are applicable, whatever the context or medium. The picture above shows 4 of my favourite pieces of art (there are many others). Each of these, in their own unique way, allow me to explore the world in which we all live. For me, each illustrate aspects of social (in)justice, social harms, institutional violence and the fight for human rights. You may dislike my choices. arguing that graffiti (Banksy) and photography (Mona Hatoum) have no place within art proper. You may disagree with my interpretation of these pieces, dismissing them as pure ephemera, forgotten as quickly as they are seen and that is the beauty of discourse.

Nonetheless, for me they capture the quintessential essence of criminology. It is a positive discipline, focused on what “ought” to be, rather than what is. To stand small, in front of Picasso’s (1937) enormous canvas Guernica allows for consideration of the sheer scale of destruction, inherent in mechanised warfare. Likewise, Banksy’s (2005) The Kissing Coppers provides an interesting juxtaposition of the upholders of the law behaving in such a way that their predecessors would have persecuted them. Each of the art pieces I have selected show that over time and space, the behaviours remain the same, the only change, the level of approbation applied from without.

Art galleries and museums can appear terrifying places, open only to a select few. Those that understand the rules of art, those who make the right noises, those that have the language to describe what they see. This is a fallacy, art belongs to all of us. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to the Southbank Centre very soon. It’s not scary, nobody will ask you questions, everyone is just there to see the art. Who knows you might just find something that calls out to you and helps to spark your criminological imagination. You’ll have to hurry though…closes 3 November, don’t miss out!

Are we facing an ‘arms race’ on the streets of the UK?

HP guns

Dr Helen Poole is Deputy Dean in the Faculty of Health and Society and Lead for University of Northampton’s Research Centre for the Reduction of Gun Crime, Trafficking and Terrorism

As the Government’s Violent Crimes Bill passes through its second hearing, the emphasis is clearly on controlling corrosive substances and knives. This is entirely appropriate since the vast majority of armed crime resulting in death or injury in the UK currently involves one or the other. Other than proposing tighter controls on 0.5 calibre rifles and bump-stock devices, the Bill is virtually silent on firearms, although it is surprising that either of these devices are not more tightly regulated already.

However, what is of greater concern is that the UK and other EU jurisdictions are not taking stronger heed of the findings of the EU funded Project SAFTE, published by the Flemish Peace Institute in April 2018. SAFTE alludes to what it calls an ‘arms race’ based on the fact that there are more weapons entering the illicit market than are being seized. Thus, according to basic economic principles of supply and demand, firearms, and particularly military grade firearms, will become cheaper on the illicit market. Furthermore, as organised crime groups and gangs weaponise, there will be a greater need for their foes to be equally equipped.

The question of where these firearms and small arms and light weapons emanate from is key to understanding the potential problem this poses on the streets of the UK. The vast majority of firearms are produced legally, by states such as the UK and USA. However, the reason that there are so many illicit weapons in circulation, is that these firearms are often diverted into illicit hands, either through corruption or criminal activity. This diversion into what is commonly referred to as the ‘grey market’, contributes to more than 200,000 global firearms deaths every year, excluding conflict zones.

The firearms black-market, whereby weapons and ammunition are produced illegally, is of relative insignificance in the overall global picture of firearms related harm. Therefore, tackling the diversion of firearms from lawful production is more likely to have a positive impact on firearms related harm, and also combat the emerging arms race identified through Project SAFTE. Considering the scale of the grey market problem, it would appear that this is where resources should be directed if states and international organisations are serious about reducing the harm caused to societies by firearms. Indeed, the United Nations regard firearms as one of the obstacles to obtaining Sustainable Development Goal 16 on Peace Justice and Strong Institutions, particularly 16.4 which aims to ‘significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets and combat all forms of organized crime’ by 2030.

The international arms trade and its subsequent implications for state sponsored and criminal diversion it clearly a politically sensitive topic. However, it is at the core of addressing the tens of thousands of lives that are lost to firearms annually.

 

Tackling Firearms Trafficking: Follow the Gun!

 

Helen Poole

Dr Helen Poole is Deputy Dean in the Faculty of Health and Society and Lead for University of Northampton’s Research Centre for the Reduction of Gun Crime, Trafficking and Terrorism

Last week I attended the 4th Interpol Firearms Forensics Symposium in Dubrovnik, Croatia. This was the second I have attended, having presented the interim findings of the EU Project EFFECT in Singapore in 2015. EFFECT, which I co-lead with Professor Erica Bowen, looked at many aspects of gun crime, but the focus on trafficking became the predominant area of interest from our findings and recommendations following the Paris attacks, and was a strong focus of this year’s event. In particular, the links between organised firearms trafficking and terrorism were a key focus.

The UK is landlocked and has some of the most rigorous firearms licensing regulations and criminal legislation in the World which helps to keep us relatively safe from this threat, but still we are seeing rising rates of gun related crime in the UK, and some of the guns in use are moving from post-conflict areas such as the Balkan region. In 2015 The Shilling Gang were intercepted smuggling a large haul of military grade firearms into the UK via boat, a number of which emanated from Eastern Europe, and we know that firearms, their parts and accessories, are being imported from the US and Africa via both the dark web and the open net. The threat from junk, antique, converted and 3D printed weapons also present a threat.

Approximately 200 law enforcement officers, forensics experts and academics were present at the event, which highlighted two issues above all else: the importance of investigating officers to ‘follow the gun’; and the need for international cooperation to reduce the threat posed by small arms and light weapons. All too often officers will seize a firearm and identify the suspect, and close the case as detected. However, such an approach risks losing valuable intelligence in terms of where the gun came from, where else it might have been used, and the identification of trafficking routes. By using ballistics comparison technology, such as the International Ballistics Intelligence Network (IBIN), it is possible to compare ballistics intelligence to match crime scenes and, when combined with other forms of evidence and intelligence, identify the individuals or organised groups behind the supply of weapons. This may also lead to the detection of more crimes. However, this requires cooperation between nations to share information in a timely way, facilitated in many cases by Interpol, as well as a change in the mindset of detectives. Following the gun may be regarded as merely creating more work for the individual officer or department, and the detection of the individual crime may be required as the only positive outcome required. However, in terms of harm reduction, following the gun is more likely to reduce the number of future victims, and the serious harm caused to families and communities as a result of the number of crime guns in circulation.

 


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