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Criminology First Week Activity (2021)

Winning posters 2021, from L to R: Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3

Before embarking on a new academic year, it is always worth reflecting on previous years. In 2020, the first year we ran this activity, it was a response to the challenges raised by the Covid-19 pandemic and was designed to serve two different aims. The first of these, was of course, academic, we wanted students to engage with a activity designed to explore real social problems through visual criminology, inspiring the criminological imagination for the year ahead. Second, we were operating in an environment that nobody was prepared for: online classes, limited physical contact, mask wearing, hand sanitising, socially distanced. All of these made it very difficult for staff and students to meet and to build professional relationships. The team needed to find a way for people to work together safely, within the constraints of the Covid legislation of the time and begin to build meaningful relationships with each other.

The start of the 2021/2022 academic year had its own pandemic challenges with many people still shielding, others awaiting covid vaccinations and the sheer uncertainty of going out and meeting people under threat of a deadly disease. After taking on board student feedback, we decided to run a similar activity during the first week of the new term. As before, students were placed into small groups, advised to take the default approach of online meetings (unless all members were happy to meet physically), provided with a very short prompt and limited guidance as to how best to tackle the project. The prompts were as follows:

Year 1: Femicide

Year 2: Mandatory covid vaccinations

Year 3: Revoking British citizenship

Many of the students had never physically met, yet managed to come together in the midst of a pandemic, negotiate a strategy, carry out the work and produce well designed and thoughtful, criminological posters.

As can be seen from the collage below, everyone involved embraced the challenge and created some remarkable posters. Some of these have been shared previously across social media but this is the first time they have all appeared together in one place.

I am sure everyone will agree our students demonstrated knowledge, understanding, resilience and stamina. We will be running a similar activity for the first week of the academic year 2022-2022, with different prompts to provoke thought and encourage dialogue and team work. We’ll also take on board student and staff feedback from the previous two activities. Plato once wrote that ‘our need will be the real creator’, put more colloquially, necessity is the mother of all invention, and that is certainly true of our first week activity.

Who knows what exciting ideas and posters will be demonstrated this time, but one thing is for sure Criminology students have the opportunity to flex their activism, prepare to campaign for social justice, in the process becoming real #Changemakers.

Stop strip searching children!

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

The Metropolitan Police are under constant criticism, more than any other police force, for at least as long as I have been a criminologist. Their latest scandal began with the case of Child Q, a 15 year old girl who was strip searched in school while she was menstruating after being suspected of carrying cannabis. No drugs were found and Child Q was extremely traumatised, resulting in self-harm and a suicide attempt. Tré Ventour recently wrote a blog about Child Q, race and policing in education here but following this week’s Children’s Commissioner report, there’s so much more to discuss.

The report focussed on the Metropolitan Police who strip searched 650 children in 2 years, many (23%) of whom were searched without the presence of an appropriate adult and as we criminologists would expect, the children were disproportionately Black boys. These findings were not surprising or shocking to me, and I also know that the Metropolitan Police force are not just one bad apple in this respect. The brutal search of Child Q occurred in 2020 but incidences such as these have been happening for years.

A teenage boy aged 17 was subject to an intimate search in 2019 where the police breached a number of clauses of PACE, ultimately resulting in the boy receiving an apology and £10,000 damages for the distress caused by the unlawful actions. These actions started with basic information being withheld such as the police officer failing to identify himself and informing the boy of his rights and ended with the strip search being undertaken without an appropriate adult present, in the presence of multiple officers, without authorisation from a senior officer and with no justification for the search recorded in the officer’s pocket book. Now I understand that things may be forgotten in the moment when a police officer is dealing with a suspect but the accumulation of breaches indicates a more serious problem and a disregard to the rights of suspects in general but children more specifically.

These two cases are the cases of children who were suspected of carrying cannabis, an offence likely to be dealt with via a warning or on the spot fine. Hardly the crime of the century warranting the traumatising strip searching of children. And besides, we criminologists know that the war on drugs is a failed project. Is it about time we submit and decriminalise cannabis, save police time and suspect trauma?

What happens next is a slightly different story. Strip searching in custody is different because as well as searching for contraband, it can also be justified as a protective measure where there is a risk of self-harm or suicide. Strip searching of children by the police has risen in a climate of fear surrounding deaths in custody, and it has been reported that there could be an overuse of the practice as a result of this. When I read the report, I recalled the many conversations I have had over the years with my friend Rosie Flatman who is a practitioner who specialises in working with victims of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and other forms of abuse. Rosie has worked with many girls who have been subject to strip searches when in custody. She told me how girls would often perceive the search as punishment for being what the police believed was disruptive. That is not to say that the police were using strip searches as punishment, but that is how girls would experience it.

Girls in custody are often particularly vulnerable. Like Rosie’s clients, many are victims and have a number of compounding vulnerabilities such as mental ill health or they may be looked after children. Perhaps then, we need to look at alternatives to strip searching but also custody for children, particularly for those who have suffered trauma. Rosie, who has delivered training to various agencies, suggests only undertaking strip searches where absolutely necessary and even then, using a trauma informed approach. She argues that even the way the procedure and justification is explained can make a big difference to the amount of harm caused to vulnerable children in police custody.

A Punky Reggae Party

A photo booth on Oxford Street, London (summer 1977)

In June 1977, 45 years ago, I saw the Queen, albeit fleetingly, being driven past Piccadilly Circus en-route to Buckingham Palace for the culmination of the Silver Jubilee celebrations. I wasn’t there for the party. I was making my way to Camden Town and the rehearsal studios used by the Punk-inspired band Subway Sect, who my friend from school had joined as their drummer. The studio, part of a crumbling yard of railway buildings, some still bombed out from the War, would soon begin its transformation into trendy Camden Market. 

Punk shared an interesting crossover with Black music culture, in particular reggae. As teenagers, most of us growing up in the 70s were familiar with Blues and Tamala Motown, but reggae was new to me, especially the Heavy Dub style popular in the Jamaican community. The man largely responsible for my education was Don Letts, the House DJ at The Roxy in Neil St, Covent Garden. Originally a fruit and veg warehouse, between 1976 and 1978 the Club shot to fame/notoriety as the top Punk venue in London. The problem for the promoters was that in 1977 the scene was so embryonic there were as yet no home-grown punk records to play.  So, in the gaps between live bands, Don played what he wanted, namely reggae, which went down well with the mostly white crowd. To quote from his website: “he came to notoriety in the late 70s as the DJ that single handedly turned a whole generation of punks onto reggae”. In fact, the combination became so popular that Bob Marley’s Punky-Reggae Party released in 1977 as a 12 inch (Jamaica only) and as the B-side to Jamming, reached number 9 in the UK singles charts. Don’s choice of tracks from his Roxy days are captured in the critically acclaimed compilation Dread Meets The Punk Rockers Uptown (Heavenly Records).

Scroll forward a couple of years and I’m working as assistant van driver to my boss Morris, a Jamaican-born reggae fan. He was involved in the local music scene and sometimes I would help him set up a Sound System for private house parties, in and around Brixton.  We would use the work van, a sackable offence given the prestige brand name of our West End employer, but worth the risk. Think Small Axe: Lovers Rock, but with more sound gear and ganja-smoking Rastas, and you’ve got the picture.  While sometimes out of my comfort zone, it was uplifting to witness first-hand a community at one with its own identity while lobbying for change in wider society that remained indifferent at best.

It was also a time in London when the Metropolitan Police stop and search “SUS” law reigned high. I witnessed several occasions where Morris was subject to blatant racial harassment.  Once I was on a delivery to an exclusive residential part of Town. On these visits we played a game, coined by Morris, as Dropsy or Tipsy – would we be offered a Dropsy (cup of tea/coffee) or a cash tip for the delivery, typically a sofa or expensive Persian rug? The winner was the one who made the right call in advance. We parked in the street and as we got out several police officers on foot suddenly approached Morris and demanded to know what he was doing, despite the rather obvious fact he was at work. When they saw me, the situation cooled off, but the aggressive tone of the questioning was clear and present intimidation of a black man, whose only ‘offence’, while going about his legitimate business, was to be in a white, rich area. I wish I could say this was a one-off. Unfortunately, we all know that’s not the case. Another time relates to the shocking mistreatment he got crossing a picket line. The work van was kept in a British Road Services Depot at Elephant and Castle. We both turned up on the day a lightning strike had been called by the Transport and General Workers Union. I understand emotions can run high in these situations, but there was no excuse for the barrage of racial abuse he took from sections of the crowd. He brushed it off with characteristic good humour, but the episode tainted my view of trade unions ever since.

As this is a criminology blog I should probably throw in an example of real-life criminality. It happened mid-morning one Friday following a drop-off in busy Bishopsgate. Returning to the van I noticed a castor wheel on the pavement. “Looks like it’s come from one of our sofas” I remarked. It had. When we pulled back the shutter, the van was empty. Everything we’d loaded up an hour ago was gone. Sofas, walnut dressers, rugs, porcelain table lamps, all cleaned out. The castor was all that was left! Robbed in broad daylight, next to a bus stop. In panicked disbelief we asked those in the queue if they’d seen anything but we were wasting our breath. It was left to Mr Farooqui, the long-suffering Despatch floor manager, to take the heat from angry customers as he rang round to tell them the good news. Needless to say, management weren’t impressed and dished out first and final written warnings. Soon after we went our separate ways.

Meanwhile, the overlap between black and white youth culture in London was being fostered in creative ways. Rock Against Racism (RAR), founded in 1976 along with the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), a year later, were both set up to combat a surge in far-right extremism. Music, especially the cross-over between various genres including punk and reggae, was an important enabler in that it found common ground from which more overtly political discussions could take place.  I was one of the many thousands who, in April 1978, joined The Clash, Steele Pulse and others at Victoria Park, Hackney, in what was RAR’s finest hour. Also in the audience that day was Gerry Gable, the veteran anti-fascist campaigner and founder of Searchlight magazine, whose archive is hosted here at the University. I spoke to Gerry about this and he has very fond memories of the day and his role in helping it come about through his associations with both RAR and the ANL.

So, in the year of the Platinum Jubilee, has popular music culture continued as a positive force for race integration since the punky-reggae days of 77?  It’s probably a PhD project or two (dozen), but Bob Marley sums it up for me nicely:

What did you say?
Rejected by society
Treated with impunity
Protected by my dignity
I search for reality

If by the search for reality we mean certainty, then how certain are we things have changed for the better? My experience is that, on average, they have, and that music has played its precious role in bring people closer together. The key here is “on average”. If by reality we mean a search for legitimacy, there is evidence to the contrary. Differences of course remain, and there is no room for complacency. The one pledge we must agree on though is to never stop searching – for melody, for rhythm, for harmony.

Policy, procedures, processes, and failure

Examine any organisation and you will find a myriad of policy and procedures that are designed to inform its processes and guide employees.  On paper, these formalised ideals and directions make absolute sense but frequently they bear no relationship to reality and rather than empowering, they constrain and often demoralise.  These idealistic notions of how an organisation should function facilitate the dehumanising effects of managerial diktat and engender an internalisation of failure amongst employees.

By way of an example, in the 1990s police forces began to consider notions of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in respect of crime investigation.  These SOPs seemed on the face of it to be a good idea.  The police service, driven by government notions of New Public Management, were being measured on crime reduction and crime detection.  Performance indicators were propped up by idealistic notions coming out of government supported by HMIC and the now defunct Audit Commission that catching more criminals would engender a virtuous circle resulting in crime reduction.  Nothing of course, was further from the truth. But the introduction of SOPs was meant to attempt to address police failings. These, certainly in one force, were at the outset seen as a guide, a minimum standard required in an investigation.  They weren’t intended to constrain.

A small department was set up in this force to measure adherence to these SOPs and to report back where there were inherent failures.  For example, on attending a house burglary, the attendant officers were required to take a statement from the householder, and they were required to carry out house to house enquiries in the vicinity.  At the very least, they needed to knock on doors either side of the house that had been burgled and a couple of houses across the road.  Frequently the statement wasn’t taken, or the house-to-house enquiries hadn’t been completed.  It became clear that the officers were failing to carry out simple procedures.  Measuring adherence to SOPs and providing feedback to promote improvement soon resulted in measuring adherence in order to enforce compliance.

In hindsight, there should have been a realisation that the SOPs, far from being helpful were in fact having a detrimental effect.  Where officers could have carried out further investigations based on their professional judgement, they adhered to the minimum required in the SOPs or simply failed to comply with them fully.   This was partially resultant of a notion amongst officers that discretion was being curtailed, but more notably it was driven by other processes and organisational priorities.  These other processes were to do with attendance at other incidents.  Graded as a priority by the control room, officers were being pulled off the burglary investigation and therefore couldn’t comply with the burglary investigation SOPs. Police forces were also being measured on how quickly they responded to and arrived at various calls for service.  There was clearly a direct conflict between management ideals and reality with the officers being set up to fail in one aspect or another.  There were simply not enough staff to do all the work and to manage the overwhelming demands at certain times.

One way of dealing with the failures was to link these to the performance and development review (PDR) process.  The development aspect was a somewhat redundant term as the PDR was all about performance.  Of course, each time the PDR came around the officers had failed to achieve their objectives.  This provided lots of evidence of people not doing their job properly.  In the wider gamut of crime figures officers at various levels began to realise that the only way to avoid accusations of poor performance was to manipulate the crime figures.  In the meantime, those driving the behaviours, washed their hands of them whenever someone was found out, often hiding behind the SOPs and policy.  The misuse of the PDR process and the consistent scrutiny of performance metrics resulted in the internalising of failure by staff.  Whole systems and processes had been set up to measure failure, after all how could success be measured if it could never be achieved.  Of course, it could never be achieved because the ambition and driving force behind this, government’s notions of crime control, were based on ideals and rhetoric not science.  But the overriding fact was that it could never be achieved because there were never enough resources to achieve it. 

The failure of course wasn’t in the officers that didn’t adhere to the SOPs or those that manipulated crime figures to try to avoid overbearing scrutiny, it was the failure of managers to provide adequate resources.  It was a failure of managers to try to understand what reality looked like and it was a failure of managers to deal with the dehumanising effects of policy, procedure and processes.  

Having left the police, I thought higher education would somehow be different.  I don’t think I need to say anymore.

DIE in Solidarity with Diversity-Inclusion-Equality

As an associate lecturer on a casual contract, I was glad to stand in solidarity with my friends and colleagues also striking as part of UCU Industrial Action. Concurrently, I was also glad to stand in solidarity with students (as a recent former undergrad and masters student … I get it), students who simply want a better education, including having a curriculum that represents them (not a privileged minority). I wrote this poem for the students and staff taking part in strike action, and it comes inspired from the lip service universities give to doing equality while undermining those that actually do it (meanwhile universities refuse to put in the investment required). This piece also comes inspired by ‘This is Not a Humanising Poem’ by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, a British author-educator from Bradford in Yorkshire.


Some issues force you to protest

the way oppression knocks on your front door

and you can’t block out the noise

“protest peacefully, non-violently”

I have heard people say

show ‘the undecided’, passive respectability

be quiet, leave parts of yourself at home

show them you’re just as capable of being liked

enough for promotion into the canteen,

protest with kindness and humour

make allusions to smiling resisters in literature

they’d rather passive images of Rosa Parks all honestly

but not her politics against racism, patriarchy, and misogyny

Photo by Sushil Nash on Unsplash

but I wanna tell them about British histories of dissent

the good and the bad – 1919 Race Riots

the 1926 general strikes, and the not so quiet

interwar years of Caribbean resistance to military conscription

I wanna talk about how Pride was originally a protest

I wanna talk about the Grunwick Strike and Jayaben Desai

and the Yorkshire miners that came to London in solidarity

with South Asian migrant women in what was 1980s austerity

I want to rant about Thatcherism as the base

for the neoliberal university culture we work in today

I want to talk about the Poll Tax Riots of 1990

and the current whitewashing of the climate emergency

they want protesters to be frugal in activism,

don’t decolonise the curriculum

they say decolonise

they mean monetise, let’s diversify …

but not that sort of diversity

nothing too political, critical, intellectual

transform lives, inspire change?

But no,

they will make problems out of people who complain

it’s your fault, for not being able to concentrate

in workplaces that separate the work you do

from the effects of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo

they make you the problem

they make you want to leave

unwilling to acknowledge that universities

discriminate against staff and students systemically

POCs, working-class, international, disabled, LGBT

but let’s show the eligibility of staff networks

while senior leaders disproportionately hire TERFs

Universities are gaslighting their staff and students, enough is enough (Getty Images)

staff and students chequered with severe floggings

body maps of indenture and slavery

like hieroglyphics made of flesh

but good degrees, are not the only thing that hold meaning

workers rights, students’ rights to education

so this will not be a ‘people are human’ poem

we are beyond respectability now

however, you know universities will DIE on that hill

instead,

treat us well when we’re tired

productive, upset, frustrated

when we’re in back-to-back global crises

COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, femicide,

failing in class, time wasting, without the right visas,

the right accents; Black, white, homeless, in poverty,

women, trans, when we’re not A-Grade students, when we don’t

have the right last name; when we’re suicidal

when people are anxious, depressed, autistic

tick-box statistics within unprotected characteristics

all permeates through workers’ and student rights

When you see staff on strike now,

we’re protesting things related to jobs yes,

but also, the after-effects

as institutions always protect themselves

so sometimes I think about

when senior management vote on policies…

if there’s a difference between the nice ones ticking boxes

and the other ones that scatter white supremacy?

I wonder if it’s about diversity, inclusion, and equality [DIE],

how come they discriminate in the name of transforming lives

how come Black students are questioned (under caution) in disciplinaries

like this is the London Met maintaining law and order …

upholding canteen cultures of policing

Black and Brown bodies. Decolonisation is more

than the curriculum; Tuck and Yang

tell us decolonisation is not a metaphor,

so why is it used in meetings as lip service –

Photo by Kevin Olson on Unsplash

why aren’t staff hired in

in critical race studies, whiteness studies, decolonial studies

why is liberation politics and anti-racism not at the heart of this

why are mediocre white men failing upwards,

they tell me we have misunderstood

but promotion based on merit doesn’t exist

bell hooks called this

imperialist heteropatriarchal white supremacy

you know Free Palestine, Black Lives Matter, and the rest

we must protest how we want to protest

we must never be silenced; is this being me radical, am I radical 

Cos I’m tired of being called a “millennial lefty snowflake”, when I’m just trying not to DIE?! 


Further Reading

Ahmed, Sara (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. London: Duke.

Ahmed, Sara (2021) Complaint. London: Duke.

Bhanot, Kavita (2015) Decolonise, Not Diversify. Media Diversified [online].

Double Down News (2021) This Is England: Ash Sakar’s Alternative Race Report. YouTube.

Chen, Sophia (2020) The Equity-Diversity-Inclusion Industrial Complex Gets a Makeover. Wired [online].

Puwar, Nirmal (2004) Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg.

Read, Bridget (2021) Doing the Work at Work What are companies desperate for diversity consultants actually buying? The Cut [online].

Ventour, Tré (2021) Telling it Like it is: Decolonisation is Not Diversity. Diverse Educators [online].

A microcosm of deviancy

A little over a week ago our university introduced the compulsory wearing of face masks indoors.  This included wearing of masks in classrooms as well as common areas and offices.  Some may argue that the new rules were introduced a little too late in the day, whilst I’m sure others will point to the fact that government guidance is that the wearing of face masks is advisory and therefore the introduction of the new rules was unwarranted. Let’s be honest the government and their political party haven’t set much of an example regarding the basic safety ideas, let alone rules, as evidenced by the recent Conservative party conference.  The new rules at the university, however, are not enforced, instead there is a reliance that students and staff will comply.  This of course creates several dilemmas for students and staff where there is a failure to comply and it makes for some interesting observations about general human behaviour and deviance. To that extent, university life might be viewed as a microcosm of life in the general population and this lends itself quite nicely to the analogy of behaviours whilst driving on a road.

Driving behaviours vary, from those drivers that consistently and diligently stick to the speed limit despite what others may be doing, to those that have complete disregard for limits or indeed others including those that police the roads.  Let us be quite clear at this stage, speed limits are nearly always there for a reason. There is ample research that speed kills and that reductions in speed limits injuries and saves life. Whilst those drivers that drive over the speed limit will not always be involved in a collision and that a collision will not always result in serious injury or death, there is a much greater potential for this. The risks of course are spread across the population in the locality, the impact is not just felt by the speeding driver but other drivers and pedestrians as well. To some extent we can make the comparison to the risks associated with catching Covid and the wearing of masks and social distancing, failure to comply increases risks to all. As a quick reminder, the wearing of masks is to protect others more so than it is to protect the individual mask wearer.

Observations of behaviours regarding staff and students wearing masks at the university are interesting.  There are those that comply, regardless of what others are doing, some of these will have been wearing masks indoors before the new rules came in.  Not dissimilar to the careful driver, sticking to the speed limit but also prepared to drive slower where they perceive there is a greater risk.   Then there is the well-intentioned mask wearer, the one that knows the rules and will stick to them but through absent mindedness or through some of life’s many distractions, they fail to wear their masks at various points of the day.  As with the well-meaning driver, they are easily reminded and often apologetic, even if it is only to themselves. Of course, there is the ‘follow the flock’ wearer, the person that could quite easily be persuaded to not wear their mask by the rest of the flock as they fail to wear theirs. The driver that joins the rest and drives at 40mph in a 30mph limit because the rest of the traffic is doing so.  Next is the deviant that has disregard for the rules as long as no one in authority is looking.  The person that keeps their mask handy, probably under their chin and then when challenged in some way, perhaps by a disapproving look from a member of staff or by a direct challenge, puts their mask on but only for the duration they are under observation. Not dissimilar to the speedster that slows down when they see a police vehicle or a static speed camera only to speed up again when the danger of being caught and sanctioned has passed. Finally, there is the person that has complete disregard for any rules, they will blatantly fail to wear a mask and wave away with complete disdain any attempt by student ambassadors positioned at the door to offer them a mask. They like the speeding driver that fails to obey any of the rules of the road have complete disregard for the rules or indeed any rules.

Whilst we may lament the fact that some people forget, are distracted but are generally well meaning, we probably wouldn’t want to impose any sanction for their deviance. But what of those that have complete disregard for the rules? It is worth returning here to the general ethos of wearing masks; to protect others. The disregard for the rules is inter alia a disregard for the safety of others. Whilst we might observe that the deviancy is apparent amongst several students (a problem that might be generalised to society), it is somewhat disconcerting that there are a significant number of staff who clearly do not think the rules apply to them. They seem to neither care about their colleagues nor the students and it would seem consider themselves above the rules. Another comparable trait in general society where those in positions of power seem to have a disregard for rules and others. Finally, we might consider how we could police these new rules as clearly our university society of students and staff are unable to do so. I can hear the cries now, haven’t you got anything better to do, this is a sledgehammer to crack a nut and all the usual rhetoric endured by the police across the land. If you make a rule, you must be prepared to enforce it otherwise there’s no point in having it. Imposing an unenforceable rule is simply playing politics and attempting to appease those that question the conditions in which students and staff work. Imagine speed limits on the road but no enforcement cameras, no police and no sanctions for breaches. It will be interesting to see how long the general population at the university follow the new rules, recent observations are that the flock of sheep mentality is starting to come to the fore. As a parting thought, isn’t it amazing how easy it is to study crime and deviance.

“Sheep” by James Good is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Looking in all the wrong places and finding no answers

Recently we saw the killer of Sarah Everard receive a whole life sentence for her murder and with the sentence came the usual rhetoric from the politicians and media alike.  I could tell you how I feel as a former police officer, but I just don’t think that really matters, others have said it but what they say, undoubtedly with conviction, seems rather hollow.  What matters is that another life has been taken as a result of male violence, not just violence, male violence.  I don’t disagree with those that want to make the streets safe for women, reclaim the streets, I don’t disagree with the ‘me too movement’, but somehow, I feel that the fundamental issue is being missed.  Somehow, I think that all the rhetoric and calls for action concentrate too much on women as victims and looking for someone or some organisation to blame.  There seems to be a sense created that this is a problem for women and in doing so concentrates on the symptoms rather than the cause.  This is a problem for men and our society.  Let’s not dress it up, pretend it could be something else, use terms like ‘not all men’, it is a fact nearly all violence, whether that be against women or men is perpetrated by … you guessed it, men.

I was watching a tv programme the other day about migraines and as it transpires there are millions of migraine sufferers around the world, most are women.  It seems as a man I’m in the minority.  One of the interviewees, a professor was asked why so little had been done in terms of research and finding a cure.  He was frank, if it had been a male problem then there would have been more done.  I’m not sure I totally subscribe to that because there are lots of other factors, after all prostate cancer a major cause of male deaths seems to have received comparatively little coverage until recently.  But he made me think, if men, particularly those of influence accepted there was a problem would they be inclined to act? We call for more females in policing, we call for more females in the boardroom, predominately because we want to make things look a little fairer, a bit more even. We still have a massive gender pay gap in so many businesses and the public sector, we still have accusations and proven cases of sexual harassment.  We still have archaic attitudes to women in so many walks of life, including religion.  Words are great, useless but great. If you own the problem, you find solutions, men don’t own the problem and that is a problem.

So, it seems to me, that we are looking in the wrong place.  Removing Cressida Dick as the head of the Metropolitan Police service isn’t going to change things. Blaming the police as an organisation isn’t going to change things.  Look around you, look at all the scandals, all the sexual offences against women, against children.  Look at where the perpetrators are placed in society, in positions of trust, as members of a variety of organisations, organisations that traditionally we thought we could turn to in our need. And look at the gender of those that commit those crimes, almost always men.

The solution to all of this is beyond me.  As a criminologist I know of so many theories about why people commit crime or are victims of crime.  Some are a little ridiculous but are a product of their time, others fit quite nicely into different circumstances, but none fully explain why.  There are no real certainties and predicting who and where is almost impossible.  Somehow, we need our leaders, predominately men, to grasp the mettle, to accept this a problem for men.  If we owned the problem, we might start to tackle the causes of male violence, whatever they might be. Maybe then we might start to address the symptoms, society will be a safer place, and nobody will need to reclaim the streets.

Criminology First Week Activity (2020)

Winning posters 2020, from L to R: Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3

As we prepare to start the new academic year, it is worth reflecting on the beginning of the last one. In 2020 we began the academic year with a whole cohort activity designed to explore visual criminology and inspire the criminological imagination. Students were placed into small (socially distanced) groups, provided with a very short prompt and limited guidance as to how best to tackle the project. The prompts were as follows:

Year 1: Knife Crime

Year 2: Policing Protest (e.g. Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and so on)

Year 3: Creating Criminals: the CJS during the Covid-19 pandemic

Many of the students had never physically met, yet managed to come together in the midst of a pandemic, negotiate a strategy, carry out the work and produce well designed and thoughtful, criminological posters.

As can be seen from the collage below, everyone involved embraced the challenge and created some remarkable posters. Some of these have been shared previously across social media but this is the first time they have all appeared together in one place.

I am sure everyone will agree our students demonstrated knowledge, understanding, resilience and stamina. We will be running a similar activity for the first week of the academic year 2021-2022, with different prompts to provoke thought and encourage dialogue and team work. Who knows what exciting ideas and posters will be demonstrated this time, but one thing is for sure Criminology students have the opportunity to campaign for social justice becoming real #Changemakers.

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. 

Do we have to care?

In recently published The end-to-end rape review report on findings and actions the responsible minister admitted that “victims of rape [are] being failed”.  This stark admission is based on data that indicates that the current situation on dealing with rape is far worst than 5 years ago.  The ministers are “ashamed” of the data but luckily in their report they offer some suggestions on how to improve things; what to do to bring the conviction rates to the 2016 level and to move more cases forward for trial, leading to successful convictions.  At that point, the report presents the Criminal Justice System [CJS] as a singular entity that needs to address the issue collectively.  This, in part, is a fair assessment although it ignores the cultural differences of the constituent parts of the system.  Nonetheless, the government has identified a problem, commissioned a report and has a clear “ambitious” plan of how to address it.     

The report indeed presents some interesting findings and I urge people to review it whenever they can (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/end-to-end-rape-review-report-on-findings-and-actions).  We know for example already that the number of cases that went into prosecution were low; in the last years this has become even lower.  That despite the prevalence rate remaining more or less the same.  Victims report that they are treated poorly, not believed arguing that the investigative model needs changing.  No wonder the ministers appear apologetic of the situation.  A headline crime category that is likely to cause an uproar and whilst thinking of the political fallout they come out in support of the victims!  Who wouldn’t?  Supporting a victim of crime, any crime is one of the main objectives of the CJS; once they have handed out retribution and prioritised on making an example of specific crimes and focusing on particular criminals, then their focus is on the victims!  The findings were expected, but even so when reading about the higher vulnerability of disabled women to rape and sexual abuse, underscores the systemic failure to deal with this crime.  It does not read like care!             

If I was an agitator, I would say that a criminal committing rape has less chance (statistically) to be convicted than someone who commits theft; but then I will be making a criminological cardinal sin; conflating criminalities and confusing the data.  In our profession we deal with data all the time.  Many of them come in the form of metrics looking at the way different crimes are reported, recorded etc.  We also know that context gives a perspective to these data.  Numbers may look the same, but that is arguably part of the problem.  It does not take into account the source of the data and their circumstances.  Not all numbers are the same and most importantly they do not measure similar trends.  The way the success rates are to be measured is not dissimilar from before and without owning a magic ball, it can be foreseen that rape will remain as is.  Of course, the metrics may change colour to signal improvement, but that will not alter the fundamental issues.    

On the day, one may have their car broken into, to report the incident can be a requirement from their insurance if they are to cover the cost.  On the day, the said person got raped by a current/former partner the matter is not about insurance.  These acts are not similar and to treat criminality as a singularity draws up uneven comparisons.  In this case we have a list of recommendations trying to ameliorate the bad metrics.  What are the recommendations?  The focus is again on the police and the Crime Prosecution Service [CPS] and the court experience the victims will have.  Again, indicates that these institutions have been criticised before for similar failings.  The change of practices in the police does not go as far as exploring the institutional culture.  The CPS’s requirement to do more is tied with the successful cases they will prosecute.  The need for the two organisations to work together more closely has been a discussion point for the last 20 years; as for the better experience in courts, it is definitely welcomed but in recent years, Victim Support as an organisation was stripped bare, the additional services cut and the domestic violence shelters disappearing.  The call for more services was continuously met with the offer of voluntary organisations stepping in, into such a complex area to provide help and support.  One may think that if we are to prioritise on victim experience these services may need to become professional and even expand the current ones. 

Lastly in this document the tone is clear; the focus yet again is reactionary.  We have some bad data that we need to change somehow; we have got some clear action plans and we can measure them (as the report intimates) at regular times.  This approach is the main problem on dealing with rape!  It does not offer any interventions prior to the crime.  There is nothing to deal say with rape culture, the degradation of women, the inequality and the rape myths that women are still subjected to.  Interestingly there are mention of empathy toward the rape victim but there is not a plan to instil empathy for people more widely.  No plan to engage the educational system with respect for the other (whoever the other is; a woman, a person of colour, disability, different origin) regarding sexual behaviours.  The report tenuously mentions consent (or lack of understanding it) instead of making plans how it can be understood across.  Unfortunately, this crime reveals the challenges we face in the discipline but also the challenges we face as a society that has traded care for metrics and the tyranny of managerialism.    

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