Let's get serious

Ex-policeman Graeme Pearson, head of a new centre to study serious crime, is keen to develop ways to curtail its global reach

May 22, 2008

Most heads of research institutes want to see their findings disseminated as widely as possible. Not so Graeme Pearson, who will run the UK's first Institute for the Study of Serious Crime, newly created by the University of Glasgow.

"I would want to think many of the reports we produce would not be in the public domain, because they would be so valuable that whatever agency (commissioned them) would want to receive them confidentially."

Professor Pearson, a police officer for almost 40 years, retired before Christmas as director-general of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency. The agency, he said, does not have the luxury of time to understand why serious crime operates in particular ways.

But the new institute will be able to carry out long-term studies, assessing the behaviour of criminals against the actions of law enforcement agencies. "We can say it looks as though these are the things that really worry organised crime, and here are things you do that they don't bother about."

Professor Pearson joined the police aged 19, having gone to a school with no tradition of higher education. But after he was promoted to inspector, he won a prestigious Scottish Office scholarship for a social science degree combining law and sociology: during the vacations, he returned to his police work.

"I wasn't looking on the degree as a stepping stone to do something else, but a leg-up to do things better," he said. "The university got my mind active in terms of the big picture. It gave me extra breadth in my experience and the confidence to know how far I could take things."

He won a Churchill Fellowship seconding him to the New York Police Department when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and businesses were leaving because of crime levels.

He likens organised crime to a multinational company, looking across the world for new locations to make money. But profit is not its sole aim. "I don't think it's driven by pounds, shillings and pence but by power, influence and control. One of the ways they do that is to subvert legitimate society and the legitimate authorities and corrupt them. Hopefully, the institute should be able to produce a toolkit that can be used to protect people."

Organised crime does not have the foothold in the UK that it does in places such as Colombia, the west coast of Africa and parts of the former Soviet Union, but the UK remains attractive because of its comparative wealth, he said. The institute aims to help convince organised crime that setting up here is more trouble than it is worth.

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com.

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