The unease that stalks us all

Crime - Policing and the Condition of England
November 7, 2003

If crime inspires fear and fascination in us all, it is perhaps because it affects everyone in society, the victims as well as the perpetrators, along with those who contribute to its amplification, creation and, ultimately, consumption. This book, edited by Anne Boran, is made up of a collection of conference papers dealing with a variety of related topics, including the role of the media in the construction of crime, criminals and fear; fear and reality of domestic violence; fear of crime in the community; and institutional responses to such fear.

The chapters mostly centre on public perceptions and attempt to explain the reasons why certain types of crime cause more concern than others. They also ask why there is such a disparity sometimes between people's perception of risk and its reality. Part of the answer is found in the role played by the media in shaping public perception and in identifying what fascinates the public and, simultaneously, inspires them with fear. Crime might not pay, at least for some, but it certainly sells.

Choice in reporting may be crucial: the sheer volume of coverage conveys the notion that certain crimes are frequent, while they may in fact be episodic or extremely rare. The association of certain criminal conducts with specific individual, social or ethnic traits may hide the fact that those conducts are widespread in society at large. Finally, obsessive focus on spectacular crimes taking place in the streets may divert attention from more discreet white-collar crimes.

Abnormal fear may keep specific groups away from public spaces, thus lowering informal social control and, ironically, creating more criminal opportunities. A spiral is formed then: empty common spaces signalling dangerousness, more vulnerable people hiding in their fortified houses, environments favouring impunity and communities becoming synonymous with criminality. Some cities are doomed by, and end up adopting, the media representation they are given: "Despite a decline in recent years in crime and gang-related violence, the crime series Mersey Blues persisted in peddling the traditional stereotype of Liverpool as a violent and dangerous place."

In an emblematic chapter, the process leading to the demonisation of children is described. The horrific murder of two-year-old James Bulger by two ten-year-old boys is taken as a case in which the amplification and consumption of crime find ideal grounds. The images of the two boys, who in all European countries would have been deemed below the age of criminal responsibility, were projected internationally, media messages heralded the disturbing end of innocence and discussed childish viciousness. The killing of children by children is, in fact, rare, as is the killing of children by strangers - the majority of murdered under-fives are killed by parents or adults known to them. And yet, "a rare and exceptional event gave rise to a prolonged and generalised condemnation of children, families and communities".

But are we to conclude that perceptions of crime are exclusively forged by omnipotent media deceiving the gullible public? Fear of crime is based not only on misrepresentations and moral panics, but on experience and on self-perceived vulnerability. Each crime is experienced differently by each victim and the impact of each offence is determined by the degree of social, economic and physical power of each victim.

Crime: Fear or Fascination? includes chapters that provide balance to the collection. These focus on domestic violence and on women's fear of violent crime. It is argued, for example, that fear can be linked to the numerous incidents of harassment, abuse and threats that women experience on a daily basis outside and inside the home. Their fear, in other words, is not so irrational but based on a mixture of perceived and actual risk.

The concluding chapter is based on research in middle England. Here, anxieties produced by affluence seem to prevail, while the idea that the locality must be defended from outside threats is widespread. And crime itself appears to be out of place there - "you just don't think that things like that could happen in such a lovely place". One senses that the solution rests with increased property fortification or the return of the "bobby on the beat".

Policing and the Condition of England is an assessment of "the cultural and political significance of English policing, and its place within contemporary English social relations and public life". The authors claim that investigating the meanings of policing systems can reveal crucial aspects of the ideals of a nation, and that the self-understanding of a society is enhanced by "elucidating the anxieties, values, conflicts and aspirations implicit and explicit in the stories people tell about policing".

The book is well researched and clearly structured and opens with a critical examination of the "desacralization thesis". This states that since 1945, citizens' confidence in the police force has increasingly declined. While this is supported and extended through an array of empirical material, it is also said to exhibit some significant lacunae.

The authors try to refine our understanding of the perception of police work by proposing an alternative framework in which "decline of confidence" is distinguished into nuances of different sensibilities, respectively termed dominant, residual and emergent. This distinction refers to co-presence of ideas and practices that are taken for granted (dominant) with those constituted in the past, which persist though their prevalence cannot be verified (residual), and new cultural forms, ideas and practices (emergent). With this framework, changes in the contours of policing are detected and documented, while competing narratives are interpreted. The authors access a collection of official documentary representations of policing since 1945, which they complement with oral history discussions, biographical interviews and "18 group discussions and 23 extended biographical interviews with generally middle-aged and senior citizens living in Cheshire and Greater Manchester".

The imagery of the English bobby is explored, and its powerful underlying meanings are associated with a fond collective memory of the social order of the past as opposed to the threatening disorder of the present. This imagery is said to coexist with emerging dispositions towards policing, in which scepticism, optimism, disenchantment and animosity constantly fight and blend. This ambiguous coexistence clearly emerges when the relationship between policing, race and the nation is analysed. The Stephen Lawrence case, for example, shows how disrespect for the police coexists with respect for their vital job. Some express a feeling that in the wake of the Lawrence affair "the police have been kicked around too much". Others display embedded sentiments about policing and "Englishness", of which the nation should still be proud. Finally, others claim that "black kids haven't got a chance around here. The police are racist". Locating racism in the beliefs and actions of officers is a response to this, while in self-defence the police may well argue that theirs reflects the racism one finds in society. "I think there are racists, because the police are a cross-section of the public at large, and among the public at large there are people who dislike coloured people, for one reason or another."

The remaining chapters are concerned with official views on policing, as expressed by serving or retired officers, and with the role of senior constables in identifying and classifying social problems. The authors describe how chief officers, initially holding a position of local prominence, slowly turned into national political commentators, and how a corporate police voice emerged. This cultural history closes with the identification by the authors of some necessary ingredients that would allow the growth of a cosmopolitan policing culture, "one in which the institutional resources for policing make a modest material and symbolic contribution to the recognition of cultural diversity and to forging the social bonds of a common political community". How much "fear and fascination" crime is still destined to generate, before such a culture is constructed, is anybody's guess.

Vincenzo Ruggiero is professor of sociology, Middlesex University.

Crime: Fear or Fascination?

Editor - Anne Boran
Publisher - Chester Academic Press
Pages - 176
Price - £7.99
ISBN - 1 9025 16 0

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