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In recent weeks a man serving in the military was arrested by the police accused of the murder of 5 women and 2 children. At this stage this is an open investigation and the police has left the possibility that there may be more victims added to the list.
So, what do we know so far? A man using dating apps approached women using the alias “Orestes” allegedly for a relationship or something serious. The alleged date was when they were murdered never to be seen or heard of. In two of the cases the women had children which he also murdered, in order as he testified to the police, to cover his tracks. It took the local community by storm and caused the usual true crimes sensation which in no doubt will continue as more of the story’s dimensions unfold.
The investigation will be followed by the media in order to explain the kind of mind that led a seemingly “normal functioning” individual to do such a thing. Murder is a crime committed with “malice aforethought”. For the purposes of an open investigation that is the correct procedure; we explore a murderer’s motives, whereabouts, social and personal habits until we find enough evidence that allow the investigative team to connect the dots and make a compelling case that will be sent to court.
Professionally however when we are asked to comment on cases such as this one, our perspective is quite different. In my case, I begin asking the question of harm caused and how this happened. Seven people went missing. How? All women involved so far worked as domestic help and all were migrants. At this point I shall refrain from offering more information or analysis on the women as that unfortunate psychologist who went on the media talking about the submissive nature of the Philippine women that made me sick! One of the victims so far is from Romania so what’s what happens when experts say whatever comes to mind!
In years to come other experts will interview the murderer and ask him all sorts and test him on everything possible to ascertain what made him do it. I shall stand on what we know. He was a soldier, ranked officer, trained in interrogation techniques. He was also an accomplished photographer who approached several women with the intent to photograph them for their portfolio, those who wanted a modelling career. A person of contradictions that will fill the true crime libraries with more gruesome tales. Of course, for one more time we shall wonder if it is necessary to train people to kill without considering the implication of such training may have in their welfare and interpersonal relations.
What about the wider picture? To put the whole case in some perspective. The volume of victims (still ongoing) some of the victims have been missing for over a year, indicates an impunity that only comes from a society that fails to register those people missing. In this case migrant women, working in low paid jobs, that the justice system failed because their disappearance did not raise any alarms. A collective failing to ask the most basic question; where this person gone? In previous similar cases, we have been confronted with the same issue. The biggest accomplisher to murder is social apathy. The murder is a crude reminder that there are groups of people in any society we care very little of. Whether those are hire help, homeless or streetworkers. The murderer usually produces a story that tries to justify why he chose his victims, but the painful reality is that his focus is on people or groups of people that have become invisible. In an interesting research Dr Lasana Harris, identified that we perceptually censor our perception of homeless to stop us empathising. In social sciences we have been aware of the social construction of dehumanising effects but now we can see that these processes can affect our own physiology. The murderer may be caught, and the details of his deeds may scandalize some as we have since Jack the Ripper, but his accomplishes are still out there and it is all of us who become incredibly tribal in an ever-expanding global society.
After all that talk of murder, I feel like having a cup of my favourite tea and a marron glace to take the bitterness away.
Fiske ST (2018), Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to
extreme out-groups, in Fiske S, Social Cognition; selected works of Susan
Fiske, London, Routledge.
 A cautionary tale…Orestes was the mythological character who murdered his mother and her lover; what’s in a name!
On recently seeing a news story is about a police officer being diagnosed with PTSD, I wanted to reflect on the broader contexts which led to this. The officer was assaulted during a single crew shift, and inevitably, found himself dealing with a dangerous situation, with no back up, leading to being injured. It struck me that this impact on physical and mental health is a form of social harm, which can all to easily be disregarded as ‘part of the job’, and a risk all police officers must expect, as action-oriented risk-takers, keen to do what is necessary to protect and serve. The link to social harm came to me from having recently taught students about this in relation to gambling as a form of deviant leisure (see Smith and Raymen, 2017), who cited the impact of gambling addiction affecting personal relationships, physical and mental health. We discussed the wider implications of this, and the need to acknowledge social harms which cause injury, violate rights and lead to ill health, but which stem from accepted behaviours and working conditions. There is also a wide body of literature which analyses structural harms resulting in discrimination, poverty and neglect of considerations for citizens’ safety (Pemberton, 2016). The perpetrators of such harms are not criminals as many people understand them, but corporations, states and politicians who could act to prevent harm and choose not to, or act with the full knowledge of the risks they are creating.
The study of social harm, zemiology, has much more to say on this perspective than this blog allows, but PC Johnson’s story, to me, reflected a society and a government who are implementing policies they know will cause harm, neglecting their responsibilities when downplaying the harms caused and who insist on placing blame on individuals or other organisations when incidences occur. It is clear there are there are various factors which created this situation for this officer, including the reduction of police officer numbers in the name of austerity. We do not know the details behind the perpetrator’s behaviour enough to attribute causes or contributory factors, but from this short story we can easily see the harms being caused, to those who wish to protect and serve citizens, resulting from an officer being out on a single crew shift. PC Mick Johnson is very clear that staff shortages led to him operating on his own on the day he was stabbed, a problem echoed by 90% of 18,000 officers of all ranks who reported to a Police Federation of England and Wales survey that they are understaffed. The health impact of this understaffing was also reported, in that 79% reported feelings of stress and anxiety in the past 12 months and 61.7% reported suffering at least one traumatic experience in the past 12 months.
A key rationale behind double crewing is to avoid having officers alone in vulnerable situations with no back up, a situation which single crewing creates, and which is described by the Police Federation as ‘unacceptable’, in a service feeling the ‘brunt of issues around resilience’ (Police Federation, 2017). Work pattern analysis shows many having to work overtime, routinely on 10 hour shifts and having rest days cancelled, and being unable to take break entitlements. The survey also shows a 14% fall in police officer numbers from 2009 to 2016, and is described as having ‘significant repercussions’. This is manifest in officers mental and physical well-being and it is having an impact on family life, childcare and officers’ skills development as they cannot spare the time for additional training. PC Johnson’s story clearly reflects these issues, as he reported that his assault led to symptoms of mood swings, lack of sleep and reported that the incident ‘utterly changed him as a person’. His unit has shrunk from 20 officers in 2009, to 10, and he expressed the frustration at not being able to do the job he once loved; that the conditions of his employment now meant he was counting down the days until retirement.
The motivation for becoming a police officer and staying in the job has been widely attributed to police culture characteristics which attract and are reinforced through a process of socialisation and acceptance of this culture; key characteristics which represent positive aspects of this are being action oriented, risk takers and pragmatic (Reiner, 1992). While there are negative connotations associated with police culture as impediments to reform and change (Loftus, 2009), it is difficult to imagine how cutting numbers will help with this in anyway, and in fact, to add to the stress on officers, could arguably bring out the worse aspects of police culture in the form of prejudices and discrimination, borne out of frustrations with the job and every day stress. The demonstration of personal and social harms caused by austerity cuts, stagnating wages and fewer staff are clearly demonstrated by PC Johnson’s final quote, and raise some serious questions for those responsible for keeping communities and citizens safe, and for those tasked with managing this service:
“We are all devastated, as we joined to protect our communities and to serve the public, we didn’t expect to have to sacrifice our families and our physical and mental health.” (PC Mick Johnson, BBC News, 2019).
BBC News (2019) Police shortages: ‘Working alone left me with PTSD, Ian Westbrook, available from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47212662.
Loftus, B. (2009) Police Culture in a Changing World, Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Pemberton, S. (2016) Harmful Societies: Understanding social harm, Policy Press: Bristol.
Police Federation (2017) Three quarters of officers ‘often or always’ single-crewed, available from http://www.polfed.org/newsroom/4094.aspx
Reiner, R. (1992) The Politics of the Police, Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Smith, O. and Raymen, T. (2017) Lifestyle gambling, indebtedness and
anxiety: A deviant leisure perspective, Journal of Consumer Culture, 0(0) 1–19.