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.

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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. Read the rest