Criminology and Policing – meeting in the middle

It was a great experience, and I would recommend that people apply for the bursary next year if they can.

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GarethStubbs

Gareth Stubbs is a PhD student at Canterbury Christ Church Police Research Centre and has an MSc in Leadership and Mgmt in Policing from Warwick Business School, and an MRes in PoIicing (also from Canterbury). He has also collected a Law degree and English Language Degree on his travels, and has now been a serving Police Officer for over 16 years at the time of writing. Gareth is passionate about using good research in Policing and believes that better partnerships between police and academia represents a good proportion of the future.

I’m writing this blog after being lucky enough to attend the British Society of Criminology (BSC) annual conference at Birmingham City University. Before the usual eye rolls about conference attendance, I shall hopefully address some of what they actually ‘do’ later, so please save your scepticism until after reading 🙂 I also need to clarify that I received a bursary (the Post-grad Bursary from the BSC itself) to attend the conference and apart from Conference food and drink, I paid for all my own and won’t be claiming any of it back – why is this important? Because for some reason, we shout ‘tax payers money‘ at officers who want to learn and develop. It’s a bit like members of the public shouting at officers who eat during their shift. Clearly it’s very positive that serving officers are trying to keep their blood sugar levels up whilst on duty, just as it’s positive that officers are trying to learn more about their job, so that they can make better decisions when actually doing it.

That aside, I’m hoping that this blog may create some debate – as they often do. Whilst the Academic Illuminati© seek to overthrow the police Resistance, I am reminded that in many, many cases, police officers have had no contact with what academia does, or how it does it, and subsequently what it may mean for practice. Policing is easy to criticise when you have no knowledge of doing it, as many police officers will be aware as they receive public complaints about how they do their jobs. It is therefore incredibly disappointing to see police officers decrying results of surveys/studies by attacking the survey questions or the method of investigation – all of which has been heavily considered by people who often have many years of experience compiling them. It’s totally fine to raise questions, of course, that’s part of what academia is all about. But as with many things, it’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it.

Bearing this in mind, let’s discuss some of what an academic conference ‘does‘ and ‘is‘.

Broadly speaking, groups of people involved in study within a particular area, come together to present ‘papers’ on what they are studying, or questions that they feel are important. This means that you can see presentations on many topics, that are often investigated in many different ways. There tends to be a main lecture theatre for what are called ‘Keynote’ speakers, and several break out rooms that then present in more niche areas. You get the program in advance, and are able to choose which break outs you attend, in addition to the main speakers that form what could be called the backbone of the conference. There are usually several speakers that speak in the area that you are interested in, so you get to tailor who you meet and learn from.

Warning: Long words ahead (sorry, not sorry :-D)

In the BSC, I got sample a really broad selection of what Criminology is/does/represents. It’s quite a strange discipline because it encompasses lots of different methods. What do I mean by this? To give an example, Psychology is dominated by statistical analysis of experimental outcomes. This means that there is a ‘way’ of conducting and learning about psychology that is broadly accepted as the norm. In criminology, this ‘way’ is disparate and some may say, fractured. There are functionalist approaches – these look at broad effects using statistical methods – think census data or similar, but equally there are symbolic interactional approaches (bear with me, please) that look at face-to-face communication and the meaning that we convey in inter-personal encounters. Similarly, there are action research projects ongoing within forces/prisons – these tend to involve practitioners and academics working together to design and conduct research, that would clash spectacularly with the experimental, randomised control trial led research championed by Prof. Larry Sherman at Cambridge. This last strata was largely absent at the BSC, but can be found going great guns at the Society of Evidence Based Policing (SEBP) conferences.

Above all of these, there is a strand of theoretical, philosophical research that looks at what we consider to be knowledge, and tracks/develops trends in thinking over time. This is the big stuff and I get lost in it. It’s nice to do the mental gymnastics around it if you are into that stuff, but from my perspective, the application to practice is remote. I appreciate this may be from a point of ignorance (mine of course), but for the bobby on the beat, or the investigator in the office, it is just too far removed to mean anything.

So what does this tell us about Criminology and how it can help us police? It actually tells us a lot. There are pockets of researchers and methods that we can take advantage of and use for every area of policing, we just have to be able to know how to use them, where to use them, and what they will give us at the end. Criminology presents us with a smorgasbord of options to choose from, we as a profession have to be careful not to limit them or shut them down.

So what does the products look like? What do the outcomes of using academia actually do?

This is a good question, and to properly understand it, we have to understand what science and the application of the scientific method actually is. Unfortunately it isn’t quite as simple as a single sentence, but I like to try and wrap it up as ‘a particular way of thinking about the world.’ This way encompasses lots of questions, tests, observations, reports and then usually re-testing to check that what you did the first time around actually works. People who don’t see this as valuable will denigrate it in the usual ways, by saying it takes too long, or that it’s biased, or that academia isn’t the ‘real world.’ Quite weird really, as all academia does is examine the ‘real world…’ using more rigorous thinking than would usually be the case?

Back to products. What does a conference actually produce? It’s quite weird for me as an officer to see researchers from different universities watch a ‘paper’ (presentation) and then say, ‘Your research is really interesting and I think we can work together‘ during the questions part, only to see them deep in conversation over coffee in the next ten minutes with contact details exchanged. You don’t see this in cop conferences really, they can get a bit ‘peacock-ey‘ where forces appear to be more in competition with each other than they do collaboration. The College has developed some Peer Review functions and started to gather a uniformed set of ‘evidence’ that seeks to combat the peacock stuff, but it’s refreshing to hear people at the conference speak about forging connections with people both inside and outside their area as a major motivator for attending. I get the impression that these groups of researchers working together to advance their understanding in their area is really rare in policing – I think forces tend to forge ahead with projects in isolation and only come together after everything has been delivered (and it’s always delivered – of course!).

Practical stuff? Well, I saw a whole bunch of presentations that would help me if I worked in Neighbourhood Policing (legitimacy research and community engagement), Response Policing (mainly body worn video and technology but also missing from homes), and Policing in general (diversity, Senior Women in Policing and others). I also attended one paper (really trying to use this word as it feels weird to me) where they discussed the legal frameworks around implementing decision making models based on algorithms in policing. These are landing in forces now, and I found the presentation fascinating. It was delivered by a Law Senior Lecturer (Dr. Jamie Grace), and discussed the real risks around bringing these models into the policing environment. I passed that straight back to senior officers in force who are discussing some of these models, and it may mean that we make far better decisions down the line. Ultimately, seeing that one presentation, may save tens of thousands of pounds of tax payer’s cash…

So, more generally, I think I was the only attending officer at the conference, although there were several that were retired or had left the service prior. I was welcomed by everyone (and this was a big conference). I felt a bit swamped by the theory stuff (and I do actually enjoy that stuff), and got lost in the odd question about particular scientific methods. I did take some tangible things away that will help with my job, and managed to spend the vast majority of it learning about research ongoing around the country in criminology that directly affects policing. It was a great experience, and I would recommend that people apply for the bursary next year if they can. To apply, you have to be a member of the BSC, and there’s an annual fee that is manageable if you are studying (yes, I pay for it myself).

Aside from the conference, the title of this blog professes to discuss how criminology and policing interacts. Although I haven’t addressed this directly, I think I have covered some of it, but will put it into more practical terms now: Applying science to policing changes the way that we think. This change is threatening. If I’ve spent my entire career gathering experience, and then someone with none of it comes along and tells me some of my fundamental beliefs are actually incorrect, how am I likely to react? We have seen it happen with ‘fake news,’ politics over the last few years, and more recently seen it analysed after the Brexit and Trump vote. The natural reaction is to double down into our established identity, and denigrate the ‘other’, no matter how much evidence is presented. This is happening now in policing, and it’s happening as the two identities of policing and academia become closer than just touching distance.

These conferences are a place of ‘between.’ What does this mean? It means that practitioners will never be truly comfortable in the academic environment, just as I suspect academics may not be comfortable at wholly practitioner based events. This merging will take many, many years, because you can’t just knock down a pillar of a profession overnight. In this case, the way that police idolise and fetishise experience as the only way of learning anything remains steadfast, and baulks at the encroachment of book learning or research. Mixed areas where experience ‘clashes’ with this different way of learning are places of friction, and anyone navigating this relationship has a challenge on their hands. Remaining ‘police’, whilst developing to think differently means treading a tightrope of identity, and falling off is a real possibility. These events are a way to practise, see both sides, and see those opportunities that allow both to be pulled together for the greater good. If you are one of these practitioners, be prepared to make sacrifices on both sides, as you lose your balance occasionally. At some point in the future, the tightrope will become a beam, and then finally a path, but the journey from here to there won’t be easy.

When we are seeking to place the academic ‘conference’ as thing into the realm of policing, we have to have a serious think about what it can ‘do.’ From this experience, making sure that people have an opportunity to network outside of their immediate police environment is very important – it drags their perceptions wider and can change decision making in their jobs on a daily basis. Gaining contacts in a specific field of research means that you can throw out questions that may be very difficult to answer in the police environment, to people who know the answer very quickly. The ability to do this can not be undervalued – it’s very important for operational policing. And finally, as a practitioner attempting to forge a path between the two – rather than skipping from one to the other – it’s important that academia acknowledges that the police aren’t just listening and conversing with research, they are doing it too. It’s an opportunity for both to learn from each other.

A final note for practitioners. If you are lucky enough to be asked to attend one of these events, or persistent enough to forge your own path into one, have a hard think about how the conference may create real difference in your work and design your program to get the best connections and learning that you can. Learning for learning’s sake is always a good thing, but it’s better when you are able to take real, tangible benefit in your day job from that learning.

Many thanks to the BSC for the opportunity to attend, and to all the awesome people who made me feel comfortable there.

Originally posted on thinkingblueline.com

Contact:

Gareth Stubbs

Email: Gareth.Stubbs@lancashire.pnn.police.uk

 

Image: courtesy of the author

Travelling without a map: conference drifting

Conferences like the BSC are more a circle than a straight line; they move ahead, certainly, but at their best they also circle back such that each generation benefits from the one before it and assists the one after.

Stefania Armasu,  Elaine de Vos,  Rhiannon Lovell, Liam Miles, and Jeff Ferrell

There are many things adrift about being a student at an academic conference. We exist centrally in an environment where PhD funding and jobs in academia are scarce but are marginal to mainstream academic activities. So, faced with the knowledge that the annual BSC conference was to be held at Birmingham City University, our current educational home, it was clear that by volunteering to assist, we would gain an opportunity to be in the company of leading academics in the field. As the saying goes, “fortune favours the bold” and some early doors, casual conversations led to the opportunity to write this blog, not as a disparate group of students who had drifted along to the conference, but as an interconnected (if liminal) group together with Jeff Ferrell, one of the keynote speakers. In keeping with Ferrell’s concept of intensities of ephemeral association (Ferrell, 2018: 18), the brevity of our student guide relationships was countered by the intensity of the immersive experience of spending 12+ hours a day together, connected by our yellow ‘student guide’ t-shirts, knowing that by the end of the week, we would once again drift apart.

The opportunity to conduct a mini ethnography of the inner sanctum of the BSC conference felt therefore like a major coup. With our own primary fields of interest including ethnography, cultural criminology and deviant leisure, to attend the keynotes of both Thomas Raymen and Jeff Ferrell was like turning up to the local pub for an open mike night and discovering Dave Grohl and David Bowie taking turns. It was fantastic to see that the conference theme of ‘Transforming Criminology’ not only encompassed a wave of ultra-realist speakers but also a predominance of female criminologists. Women won every prize awarded during the conference, so can we fully subscribe to the assertion that the world of criminology is still ‘too male’ or is the BSC an island of equality in what Frances Heidensohn (the BSC Outstanding Achievement Award winner) has described as ‘Lonely uncharted seas’? The conference did however seem ‘quite pale’. Was this due to lack of opportunity or a sense of exclusion? All we can offer as students, new to the discipline, is that we felt welcomed and embraced by all those who took the time to talk to the ‘yellow shirts’ and the experience was truly transformative.

Despite our previous engagement with academia (one of the authors of this blog had worked with David Wilson on the documentary ‘Voice of a serial killer’), it was at times overwhelming. We all experienced the feeling of imposter syndrome but it did not take too long for this feeling to wane. From the very beginning, delegates were friendly, open, and always up for a discussion regarding our interests, plans for the future, and experience of the conference, offering their own insights and advice. The conference allowed us to attend panels on subjects we already had interest in, and subjects we had not even considered. We realised while attending these panels that we were not imposters, and that is why we were not treated as such. The panels, the keynotes, and the conversations allowed us to see that criminology is a broad, far reaching discipline that is constantly transforming and evolving, and so therefore, should its criminologists. The warmth of the welcome received from other volunteers, delegates and lecturing staff at BCU, made us soon feel included and inspired to further develop skills and progress in criminology and academia.

This eagerness of the delegates to engage intellectually with the student volunteers can be traced to the delegates’ gratitude for the hard work and kind assistance of the volunteers, and to the pleasure delegates take in being able to have open-ended, informal discussions with aspiring criminologists outside the confines of the classroom. But it can be traced to something else as well: the fact that the delegates were once students themselves, equally overwhelmed by the conference experience and afflicted with the same sort of imposter syndrome. As difficult as it may be to imagine, even the most senior scholar was at some time in the past a young student of criminology, reliant on the guidance of older scholars, and inspired by their work and their careers. In that sense, disciplines like criminology and conferences like the BSC are more a circle than a straight line; they move ahead, certainly, but at their best they also circle back such that each generation benefits from the one before it and assists the one after.

The conference itself was well organised and it ran in a way which provided opportunities to meet with delegates, talk about their research and consider future applications of critical theory. After hearing talks given by Simon Winlow and Danielle Balach Warman based on their ethnographies and research, we were inspired even further. It seems that a new generation of academics, from 19 upwards, have all been truly inspired to take the baton of criminology and academia, and to meet the aims of this 2018 British Society of Criminology conference, to ‘transform criminology’.

We still cannot believe how much knowledge we have gained in such a short time and we now know such knowledge to be a fundamental part of a national conference such as the BSC. But most importantly, the conference ignited our passion and, if there was ever any doubt about whether this was the career we wanted to pursue, we are now more certain than ever that we want to be part of this. We want to conduct research, we want to teach, and we want to make a change through our work in the same way that most of the academics that took part in the event do.

To truly transform criminology, it is clear that there is a need to break free from the tethers created in part by the commodification of academia which has led to the constant regurgitation of theory, and to create new theoretical frameworks that are less bound to, and constrained by, the previous legal definitions of crime. By enabling the student helpers or ‘yellow shirts’ to jump on the metaphorical freight train with the ascendant greats and established legends of the discipline as equals, new possibilities never previously imagined, not bound by time or place have become apparent to all of us. By travelling for a while, without a map and not really knowing where we were going to end up, we all emerge from the conference as more enthused, more invigorated criminologists. In this sense, we’ve concluded that a conference like the BSC demands of its participants – and especially its student participants – a fine balance between respect and reinvention. Certainly mutual respect among all participants is essential, as is appreciation for the contributions made by established scholars. But equally important is reinvention; that is, a willingness on the part of students and young scholars to explore perspectives outside their immediate field of study, a dedication to critical engagement with existing ideas, and a passion for the development of new criminological models. The ongoing vitality of the discipline depends on it.

Reference

Ferrell, J. (2018). Drift. Oakland, Calif.: University of California Press.

Authors

Stefania Armasu is 21 and has just received a first class honours in her undergraduate degree at BCU and is hoping to continue with a Masters in September.

Elaine de Vos is 46 and nearing the completion of a Masters in Criminology at BCU.

Rhiannon Lovell is 22 and nearing the completion of a Masters in Criminology at BCU.

Liam Miles is 19 and has just completed his first year as an undergraduate in Criminology at BCU.

Jeff Ferrell is 64 and is a professor of sociology at TCU and a visiting professor of criminology at the University of Kent.

 

Image: courtesy of the authors – pictured Stefania Armasu, Liam Miles, Jeff Ferrell, Elaine de Vos.

 

Policing Black Culture One Beat at a Time

As debates on youth violence in London soar, emotions run high over a problem that is often blamed on Black music subcultures rather than on social and racial injustice, often perpetrated by the police. This article argues that Black British music genres are unfairly targeted as the prime suspects of youth violence, and discusses the role of the police in contributing to the violence it seeks to eradicate.

Dr. Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Southampton and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He previously taught at the University of Sussex and has received several awards and nominations for teaching excellence and academic support.

In an atmosphere of widespread alarm about the rise of youth violence in London, UK drill music has been identified as the prime suspect by the media and the police with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick and the Met’s gang-crime chief, Commander Jim Stokley ordering a clampdown on this new Black British music genre. Despite entirely legitimate concerns with public safety, however, is it at all reasonable to suggest that UK drill causes the violence it is accused of inspiring, or are drill artists cursed by forms of violence that are only scantily acknowledged, if at all, when the issue is discussed? Unsurprisingly, this question divides opinion and stirs up strong feelings on both sides of this never-ending chicken-and-egg conundrum, which also urges for an understanding of the problem as a political rather than a (purely) criminological one. Policing our way out of it, therefore, seems utterly misplaced when policing is part of the problem rather than its solution. Such a controversial claim invites skepticism, as it should, yet a cursory glance at the Met’s response to UK drill music reveals a host of hostile, unfair, illegitimate, and discriminatory tactics that have informed the policing of Black Britons and Black British music and culture in the post-war years.  For what it’s worth my own research illustrates this fairly clearly, but this blog posting will hopefully inspire more nuanced and considered responses than the ones to which we are currently exposed.

Denounced as ‘demonic’ and ‘nihilistic’, UK drill music came into the orbit of the London Metropolitan police after a series of violent incidents were linked to the content of drill music videos that circulated online: provoking rival drill collectives by describing the harm that awaits them, and keeping a tally of stabbings in YouTube “scoreboards”. In response to such fatalities, the Met took action by removing 30 YouTube videos and used a Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO) against the drill collective 1011,  building on the government’s Serious Violence Strategy whose aim is to target those who ‘glamorise gang or drug-selling life, taunt rivals and normalise weapons carrying’. In addition to such action against “gang-related” videos, the Terrorism Act 2000 has been revisited to bring convictions against individuals that are identified in those videos, without any proof that the targeted music videos were linked to specific acts of violence. The pursuit of drill artists as terror suspects has the potential to prevent targeted individuals from ‘associating with certain people, entering designated areas, wearing hoods, or using social media and unregistered mobile phones’. Given the seriousness of the offences with which drill artists are being charged, such responses might seem justifiable, albeit controversial, but only if they are divorced from the context in which (youth) violence emerges in the first place. Put simply, the reactive responses adopted by the government and the Met could be described as attempts to end an infection by simply arresting the virus, rather than treating the environment in which the disease is being hatched in the first place.

This might sound like a hopelessly radical assertion were it not defended by mainstream official bodies such as The Youth Violence Commission whose Interim Report confidently states that ‘debates around the potential impact of drill music on youth violence are, in the main, a populist distraction from understanding and tackling the real root causes’. Despite or rather because of the gravity of the problem, however, context and perspective are not a luxury but a necessity. Drill music is not made in a vacuum but in specific places (deprived social housing estates in London) informed by conditions of life where violence is a fact of life rather than a lifestyle. Blaming UK drill music for broadcasting violence, therefore, is to blame rappers for living a life where inequality, poverty, and social exclusion are not abstractions but a daily experience. Add to this the persistence of police racism as a crucial factor in the hostility, marginalisation and criminalisation that young Black Britons grow up with, and the policing of drill music can be seen as legitimating the very practices it hopes to eliminate. Increased support for stop and search operations, and other anti-gang initiatives such as Operation Trident and the Metropolitan Police Gang Matrix may seem rhetorically effective as “crime-fighting tools” to law enforcement agencies and political parties alike, but they are only marginally successful overall, while also leading to discriminatory outcomes that were described as ‘shocking’ by the UN Special Rapporteur on racism, E. Tendayi Achiume.

This of course is nothing new in the history of policing against Black Britons, as my work demonstrates, punctuated as it has been by a host of discriminatory practices that include: the ‘sus laws’ of the 1970s, the saturation policing tactics of Operation Swamp ‘81, or the Special Patrol Groups (SPGs) in the 1970s and the 1980s; only to be succeeded by Operation Trident in the 1990s, and Operation Shield, the Metropolitan Police Gang Matrix, and Operation Domain in the early to mid-noughties. What unites such policing initiatives is the suspicion of Black British forms of culture, mostly music, as seen in the police overstaffing of Black cultural events (e.g. Notting Hill Carnival) and the harassment of Black people in meeting places such as youth clubs, music venues and other semi-public venues; gradually paving the way for the only recent withdrawal of the Promotion Event Risk Assessment Form 696 which targeted grime music as a criminal subculture, in ways that are hardly dissimilar to the banning of drill music as grime MC Lethal Bizzle rightly tweeted.

Pronouncing such practices dead, when they recur so frequently, is to piously deny facts in favour of an uninformed, uncritical and misplaced view of the police as allies rather than as perpetrators of the burning injustices that “drillers” so fiercely express in their lyrics. This is not to deny or condone the violence that UK drill music broadcasts and even celebrates, but to accept it as a reality that is forged in the crucible of social and racial injustice for which we are all responsible if we do not hold Criminal Justice System professionals to account for the harm they inflict in our name. Discussing UK drill as criminogenic while excusing the harm that discriminatory policing inflicts on our fellow citizens amounts to little more than a cop out. As does the tendency to treat the issue as a public health emergency alone, rather than a racial and social justice priority. The challenge for (critical) criminologists, therefore, is clear leaving us no choice but to tackle violent crime boldly, making it difficult for our colleagues, our elected representatives or our law enforcement officials to dodge a bullet as far as London’s knife crime is concerned.

This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution he works for.

 

Contact

Lambros Fatsis, University of Southampton

Twitter: @lfatsis

 

Copyright free image courtsey of Pexels