Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Scotland Yard Wants Your Stuff!

Recently, British police began combing an upscale London neighborhood. It was not to catch criminals though. It was to commit crimes themselves. They were in search of things to steal. They were checking for unlocked cars for items and taking them.

The rationale: to teach the owners a lesson to keep their doors locked, and their windows closed.

They were to “remove the property for safekeeping,” and a note would be left to explain what happened.

I guess that this type of thing could be referred to as the weird cousin of “focused deterrence.” Normally, the principle of this form of crime fighting is to force criminal activity to another jurisdiction. Criminologists refer to this as “displacement.” In Madison Wisconsin, campus police understand this fundament, and have been successful in deterring crime with their “bait bike” program. A GPS device is attached to such bikes. Since the program started, 18 people have taken the bait, ending in 16 arrests in two months. The police, in this situation, attempt to make the criminal evaluate the risk of apprehension; contemplate the seriousness of the expected punishment, along with their immediate need for criminal gain.

This has led to evidence of sizeable crime reduction on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Unfortunately, it did not shift crime to surrounding areas. But, it did put a dent in crime without putting a strain on police-community relations. I can only imagine the strain on police-community relations in London when the folks discovered that their valuables had actually been nicked by the police.

Perhaps the police in London have come to the conclusion that studies usually indicate that traditional crime deterrence programs, like that being employed in Madison, do not cause criminals to move to other areas. They resist movement to other sites, because of the natural tendency to stay with what is familiar. Movement would cause demand that they encounter new and less familiar conditions. Criminals simply change their methods in order to continue their activities without getting caught. So, instead the coppers focus their attention on the prospective victims by making them victims.

Yet, from where I come from, the state is responsible for maintaining order and preserving the common good through a system of laws—not the audacity to commit crimes in order to educate the populace about possible future crimes. The police in London need to achieve their objectives through policies that convince criminals (not victims) to desist from criminal activities, delay their actions, or simply avoid a particular target.

To do this, they must develop strategies which focus on future behaviors of criminals, and preventing them from engaging in such crimes by impacting rational decision making processes.

To put it another way—if criminals choose to continue their disruptive and threatening behavior, they deserve to be punished. The citizen, though, does not deserve to be punished (by having their property seized by the police) because of the activities of a few deviants.

As crime rates increase, police resources always are stretched and the certainty of apprehension decreases. Come on folks—let’s use our money more efficiently!

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