Trying to understand riots isn't the same as excusing riots


Writing in the New Scientist, Prof. Stephen Reicher, a specialist in crowd psychology at the University of St Andrews, takes aim at the posturing and macho rhetoric after the UK riots that dismissed anyone who sought a sociological expanation for criminal behavior as "excusing crime."
Another way in which politicians have restricted explanation is by intimating that any reaction other than condemnation is tantamount to condoning violence. The UK's education secretary Michael Gove reacted furiously to the suggestion by Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour party, that government policies limiting youth opportunities might have had some relevance, castigating her for "making excuses for what has gone on here". In this context, whole academic disciplines become suspect: in political vocabulary, "sociologist" and "jihadi" have acquired a kind of moral equivalence...

Those politicians and pundits who have tried to outlaw societal explanations of the English riots have advanced alternative theories, largely blaming the violence on the pathology of the rioters. Cameron's declaration that they are inherently criminal and lack moral standards is one variant of this. Another is the common suggestion that the rioters lost their moral standards in the crowd; that they were mindless, swept up by the contagion of the moment or perhaps preyed upon by unscrupulous agitators.

These theories translate into convenient solutions. In the short term, don't try to reason with rioters but use a big stick to repress them; in the longer term, look at the sickness within their communities that has turned them into amoral beasts. That only leaves the question of which communities are dysfunctional and in what ways. Thus Cameron locked horns with former prime minister Tony Blair over whether we should be talking about a broken society or a narrow but recalcitrant underclass.

Trying to understand the English riots is not a crime

(Image: London riot police, November 2010, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from hozinja's photostream)

CCTV deterrence and the London riots


My latest Guardian column, "Why CCTV has failed to deter criminals," looks at the London riots and the way that rioters were willing to commit their crimes in full view of CCTV cameras, and what that says about CCTVs as deterrence. I think that we need to draw a distinction between having cameras on all the time in case someone commits a crime, and using cameras at the time that crimes are being committed -- for example, hooking up a CCTV to a glass-break sensor (possibly configured so the CCTV buffers and discards video continuously, but only saves the few seconds before the breakage).

There's a tiny one-way street on the way to my daughter's daycare that parallels an often crowded main road, and from time to time, local drivers will get the idea of using it as a high-speed shortcut. There are two schools in this street, and a lot of bicycle traffic, and I've lost track of the number of times that I've seen near accidents as impatient drivers roared down the street.

But the local council haven't installed a CCTV camera there full time. Instead, when the problem flares up, they stick one of those creepy CCTV cars at the top of the street and hand out gigantic speeding tickets for a day or two, until everyone gets the message and the street falls quiet again. That is, they locate a camera where there is a problem, use it until the problem is over, and relocate it. They don't watch everyone all the time in case someone does the wrong thing.

After all, that's how we were sold on CCTV – not mere forensics after the fact, but deterrence. And although study after study has concluded that CCTVs don't deter most crime (a famous San Francisco study showed that, at best, street crime shifted a few metres down the pavement when the CCTV went up), we've been told for years that we must all submit to being photographed all the time because it would keep the people around us from beating us, robbing us, burning our buildings and burglarising our homes.

A year before the Vancouver Winter Olympics, a reporter from a one of the local papers called me to ask whether I thought an aggressive plan to use CCTVs in the Gastown neighbourhood would help pacify the notorious high-crime heroin district. I said that the deterrence theory of CCTV relied on the idea that the deterred were making smart choices about their futures and would avoid crime if the consequences might catch up with them.

Then I recounted my last trip through Gastown, where the pavements were thronged with groaning and unconscious emaciated addicts, filthy and covered in weeping sores, and asked if those people could be reasonably characterised as "making smart choices about their future."

Why CCTV has failed to deter criminals

(Image: Riots in Hackney, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from ssoosay's photostream and CCTV: Church Square, Bedford IMG_3569, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from fotdmike's photostream)