Grenfell Tower and Social Murder

David Scott [i] and Sian Hamlett [ii]

Source: Grenfell Tower Photograph © ChiralJon

“What are we going to do afterwards with the tower …
 Is this tower in the sky going to be a constant reminder of man’s inhumanity against man?”
Clarrie Mendy (cousin of Khadija Saye and Mary Mendy who were both victims of the Grenfell Tower fire)

How did the commissioning of the film come about?[iii]

Grenfell Tower and Social Murder was commissioned for The Open University degree module DD105 “Introduction to Criminology’.  Each Open University module has audio-visual content to bring alive the teaching and underline the most important educational points. We needed four films to generate questions for students about ‘what is crime’ and ‘who are the criminals’. Hamlett Films was commissioned to make four films for DD105 (another one of the other films for this module made by David Scott and Hamlett Films, Advertising, Brandalism and Subvertising, was also nominated for a Learning on Screen Award in April 2019).

What is the connection between the horrific tragedy and an undergraduate criminology module?

There is, of course, widespread understanding linking criminal harm and criminal blame with property offences and interpersonal violence. However, the DD105 module looks to question such assumptions and open up space for alternative ways of thinking about ‘which harms are criminal’ and ‘who is responsible’ for such harms and how we should most effectively respond. Central to DD105 is the definition of crime, and one of the key illustrations around illegal and legal harms in the module is avoidable and premature deaths. The module considers intentional homicide (murder); deaths in the workplace through health and safety harms; deaths in warzones; capital punishment; deaths in state custody; and premature deaths which arise due to social inequalities.

Within only a few weeks of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, it became obvious to us that the fire touched upon an enormous number of contemporary social issues, from austerity, to social housing, to the shaming of poverty, to the cutting of corners in the building industry following large scale de-regulation of previous safeguards, to the systemic failure to hear or act upon the voice of the residents who gave warning after warning about the safety of those living in the tower block. As educators, sadly we immediately recognised that the Grenfell Tower fire raised many key issues present within the DD105 teaching materials.

What were the particular challenges of making this film?

First, we noted that this was a profoundly traumatic issue and was a high-risk project that could backfire. This wasn’t an easy film to make. We always approach films we make with scholarship and sensitivity, but the subject matter here required an exceptional level of expertise and effort. We decided to proceed because we felt it that such a film could be hugely valuable on the grounds of critical pedagogy.

The creation of the film involved a very close working relationship between commissioning academic and filmmaker. The development of the film arose out of this collaboration.

The role of Hamlett Films was to help find contributors for the film, work with the commissioning academic on the narrative, set up logistical planning for filming, and, most importantly, to build trust with community organisations supporting Grenfell residents. However, we knew that the organisations that represented the victims and their families were inundated with the media calls. We would only have 30 seconds on the phone to convince them of our ethical intentions. We were delighted when Justice4Grenfell supported the purpose of the film wholeheartedly and put us in touch with many of the film contributors. Justice4Grenfell was a massive support in making the film possible.

Source: Gerry Popplestone/Creative Commons

How did you choose the interviewees?

We worked closely with Justice4Grenfell and who advised us as to who they felt were ready to talk to camera and were at a point to ‘tell their story’. In the making of the film our relationship to the interviewees was something that was considered very carefully.

Time was taken to build trust with the interviewees, so they felt relaxed and prepared for the interviews. Many conversations were had in advance about what they might be asked to discuss on the day so a strong element of certainty and shared mission was established ahead of filming. The interviewees were clear that there was no hidden agenda.

As scholarly filmmakers we were very aware of our ethics of responsibility and care. The interviewees were never asked leading questions, but were given a platform for their opinions. By doing this, interviewees shared more than we thought possible.

A careful and trusting collaboration led to extremely powerful testimony from many. They included Antonio Roncolato who was trapped in the tower for many hours and Joe Delaney from Grenfell Tower Action Group who was a resident in the adjoining ‘finger of flats’ connected to the tower at ground level. The film gave voice to these powerful testimonies regarding first-hand accounts of the fire, the on-going neglect that lead to the fire and how again and again the warnings of the tenants were continuously ignored. We were both united in the belief that the film must show things from the tenants’ perspective – the people closest to the situation.

Clarrie Mendy, who lost her first and second cousins in the tower, provides a powerful interview and talks about the loss and how, in her opinion, the cause of the fire was down to neglect by the local authority and how this neglect continues in the way the survivors are being housed in substandard conditions, months after the fire took place.

We felt honoured that people who are in many ways so vulnerable, suffering, lost and traumatised, opened themselves up to camera, agreed to be interviewed and share their pain. They trusted that we would tell their story truthfully and that their story could reach and help influence the ideas and thinking of Open University students over a 10 year period.

How did you manage to ensure the learning outcomes were covered?

Hand in hand with the accounts we needed to cover fully the academic issues of why the disaster was indeed an act of social murder and who might be held accountable. We chose Steve Tombs as the expert interviewee for his ability to handle the material sensitively and forthrightly. Professor of Criminology at the Open University, Steve discusses social murder as well as the on-going harms that will arise from trauma in long-term mental health problems. In addition, he covers the cancers related to breathing in toxic fumes on the night of the fire and also living in the area that is still suffering high levels of air-borne toxic pollution and in the soil.

We further decided to include an interview with John Grindrod, an expert in the rebuilding of post-war Britain in terms of social housing. John draws very powerful comparisons between the fire at Lakanal House (clad in very similar materials) in 2009 and how historically the lessons have not been learnt.

What is the outcome, in terms of film?

Most importantly the film conveys the importance of listening to the voices of those who are least likely to be heard. The challenge to us was to focus on creating an informed ‘good sense’ understanding of the tragedy that is accessible and understandable to all who watch the film.

The film provides an important asset to the undergraduate course DD105 Introduction to Criminology. It goes beyond that. It also provides an important interpretation of the disaster regarding both the context leading up to the fire, where 72 people lost their lives, and what needs to change in terms of policy in its aftermath.   For the film’s creators Sian Hamlett and David Scott, the tragedy can be best understood as a form of social murder – that is, that the disaster arose due to negligence; the placing of profit over the well-being of people, long term national policy decisions on the deregulation of building regulations and social housing; and acts of omission on the part of the local authorities charged with the care of those living within Grenfell Tower.  

The film has garnered widespread critical acclaim (it has received 6 national nominations at film Awards in the UK and Ireland, including a nomination for best educational film at the Learning on Screen Awards in 2018, shortlisted for AHRC Research Film of the Year 2018 and was also awarded the ‘Life Changing Award’ at the British Documentary Film Festival in November 2018).

Source: Justice4Grenfell

Does the film conclude that the fire was, in fact, social murder?

A key principle of critical pedagogy is to help students to think through difficult and controversial issues in ways that they can gain an understanding of the complexity and difficulties involved.  It is a way of preparing people for wider engagement in the democratic process and the importance of looking at all sides in a debate and ensuring that engagement on a given topics has been fully deliberated upon.  Therefore, whilst Grenfell Tower and Social Murder was initially made for DD105, once the film had been completed it became clear that the evidence and interpretation were valuable contributions for a wider public audience.  In a time when still a number of former residents have yet to find suitable accommodation; when there is substantial scientific evidence of the toxicity following the fire in the local area; where many of the bereaved and survivors are facing up to the trauma and loss of the fire; and where the public inquiry into the disaster has been paused until 2020; there remains an important moral case for highlighting the social, emotional, physical and psychological harms generated by the fire.  There is also a strong political case for highlighting the interpretation that the fire should be understood as a form of ‘social murder’.  The evidence and interpretation with Grenfell Tower and Social Murder raise questions and stimulate democratic debate on what happened and what should be done to ensure that this tragedy is never repeated.

Did the residents see the film? If so, what was their reaction?

The film initially had screenings at The Open University and at film festivals around the country. We, as discussed below, recognise that the film itself is something which also belongs to the people who supported its making and contributed their voice or advice when it was being made. We note that the health of at least one of the main contributors had deteriorated significantly since filming and that the film now provides one of the stronger testimonies they had delivered on the fire.

A special screening was then arranged at the Electric Cinema in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in February 2019. 65 local residents attended the screening and following the screening there was a 72 second silence in memory of the 72 people who died. There was an open discussion with Q&A with Steve Tombs from The Open University and Sian Hamlett.

Source: Hamlett Films Flyer from the Community Screening

The special screening was significant because it provided an opportunity for The Open University and Hamlett Films to show their appreciation of the local community for their support in the making the film. It also provided a conduit for the local community to come together, offer mutual support, express their grief, and at times, their anger at the way the government and local authorities responded to and subsequently investigated the disaster. Justice4Grenfell noted that they appreciated that the film has led to a wider recognition in society.

After making the film, what reflections do you have about representing trauma and harm?

This brings us to further consideration of the ethics involved in the making of a film like Grenfell Tower and Social Murder.  The loss of 72 lives and life changing harm and damage to many others set the stage for the ethics and politics of making a film like this.  We knew that there were only certain things that could be done with a film – it would not bring back those who had died; it could not address the trauma that affected so many people; it cannot fix the years of hurt and abandonment that the residents of the tower had experienced in the years leading up to the fire.  Also, at only 15 minutes in length, the film could not fully represent what had happened in all its nuances nor fully reflect the feelings of the local community.  What the film could do however, was that it could highlight the concerns of local people; provide a record of their recollections; it could give an account which reflected their understanding of the causes of the tragedy; and it could give some of the people most badly damaged by the disaster a voice they may not have otherwise had.  Whilst trauma recovery requires the love and support of others, one step on the way to this is providing a clear account of what the trauma entailed.  Speaking to scholarly documentary makers may then be a way of clarifying what happened, and whilst alone is insufficient, may be a small step towards moving forward. 

Source: Antonio Roncolato from The Open University Film ‘Grenfell Tower and Social Murder’

At the same time, there will also been concerns that a film like Grenfell Tower and Social Murder will be exploitative and potentially traumatising for those who participate (or indeed watch the film). We recognised that emotional nature of the situation and the emotional power of the testimonies of the people interviewed. We also recognised the competing interpretations of the disaster. This was very important in terms of the focus of the film, and through the interpretive lens of ‘social murder’ the film attempted to change the focus onto the harms of the powerful and broader social divisions that harms the local residents. In short, we felt that the death, injury and hurt of Grenfell Tower Fire was so terrible that we needed to find a way of a giving a platform for the voice of the bereaved and abandoned. In so doing this would highlight the broader failings around accountability to the local community. Our ethics, then, were one of responsibility – a responsibility to the local people; a responsibility to provide a fair representation of what had happened; a responsibility to raise questions and help those who watched the film reflect on the nature and gravity of what happened and how it had been caused.

Finally, we hope that this film can be seen as a testimony of the great injustice the people of Grenfell have suffered and can in some way facilitate further discussion outside of but also within the community and help in bringing people together. What we must all be aware of is for people to in anyway start to move on from trauma that the truth needs to be recognised even in a small way by the making of this film and by changing views of future learners, their careers and ways of thinking is some good that can come from their brave testimonies that made the making of this film possible.

The article was originally published by Learning on Screen Awards in June 2019

[i] David Scott is The Open University academic who commissioned and participated in the making of the film
[ii] Sian Hamlett is the founder of Hamlett Films
[iii] This article was edited into a series of questions by Charles Lambert


Should members of the public report dangerous drivers…even if they’re celebrities?

Gemma Briggs, The Open University

In recent days several news outlets have been reporting on the story of David Beckham receiving a 6 month driving ban after having being convicted of committing a mobile phone offence. Beckham was photographed and reported to the police by a member of the public when they witnessed him holding his mobile phone while driving. Reports have been careful to comment that Beckham was in ‘slow moving traffic’ at the time of the offence, and that the resultant ban came about due to him already having 6 points on his licence from a previous driving offence.

While the judge in the case commented that there was ‘no excuse’ for Beckham’s behaviour as the law is clear in terms of hand-held phone use, others have questioned whether it is appropriate for members of the public to photograph and report driving offences such as Beckham’s. One radio station (LBC) had a phone in asking whether people would themselves report a driver using a hand-held phone. While there were some mixed views represented, many claimed that they would not photograph and report fellow road users for holding a phone. Those who said they had or would report such an offence were in the minority and were accused, by the presenter, of gaining pleasure in reporting such minor offences.

This discussion raises several important points about phone-use by drivers. While recent surveys of driver behaviour have suggested that many consider phone use to be dangerous, and report that they would not use their phone behind the wheel, it seems that many would still not consider reporting a driver who did. This suggests that although there may be a relatively widespread view that phone use is unsafe, in practice people don’t take it seriously enough to consider reporting the offence. For some this seemed to be down to lack of knowledge of the details of individual instances. Comments such as ‘what if he was just checking the time on his phone?’ or ‘what if he was just putting it back into the holder on the dash?’, point to the view that some people consider that there are degrees of danger associated with phone use while driving. This leads to the question of what ‘phone use’ actually means. When the original law came in, back in 2003, mobile phones were entirely different from the smartphones we have today. You could make calls and send text messages and that was about it. Today our phones have vast uses including the ability to search the Internet, live stream video, and update social media as well as making calls and sending text messages.

Credit: Science Photo Library

Nevertheless, the law states that a driver must not hold or touch their phone. There may be a distinction though between what the law says, and what is considered generally to be socially acceptable. This might explain why some people would report a distracted driver while others wouldn’t. Most people would argue that texting while driving represents a significant danger (and indeed research unequivocally supports this stance), but what about checking a Facebook status update while stuck in traffic, or cancelling an incoming call while driving through town? The fact that it has been reported that Beckham was in slow moving traffic at the time of the offence points to the suggestion that many people consider certain types of phone use to be less dangerous dependent on driving conditions. This argument may well have some merit if the only problem with phone use by drivers is the physical act of holding the phone. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. This is where the current law on mobile phone use behind the wheel lets us all down.

The problem is that we’re all so focused on the letter of the law in terms of phone use. We know it’s illegal to hold a phone, and we understand that looking away from the road is dangerous. We all have the message drummed into us that safe driving equates to having both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road. Years of research has shown that the act of physically holding a phone isn’t the major factor of distraction in drivers. The distraction is cognitive. Our brains can only process so much information at once, and phone use introduces competition for limited attentional resources in the brain. As with any competition, one side usually wins. In the context of dual tasking while driving, if the phone task wins the attentional resources, driving performance quickly deteriorates. This means, failure to react to hazards, longer reaction times for unexpected events, much longer stopping distances, and even failing to see things which appear right in front of you.

So, while we’re all focused on the issue of holding a phone, we’re actually ignoring the fact that hands-free phone use offers no safety benefit to drivers over hand-held use. This has been demonstrated by numerous researchers across the world over the last 30 years. Such research has shown that any type of phone use makes a driver four times more likely to crash; it can lead to them look at a hazard yet fail to see it, as their attention is elsewhere; it can affect where they look while driving, to the extent that they may fail entirely to look at some parts of the driving scene. These effects last for around 5 minutes after a driver has stopped using the phone. This is why texting at traffic lights is a problem, and why it really doesn’t matter whether Beckham was in slow moving traffic or not.

The current phone law lets us down because it focuses the danger on handheld devices and fails to acknowledge the real cognitive danger. It’s unsurprising then that people are focused on the issue of physically holding a phone as that’s what the law directs them to.  By failing to legislate against hands-free phone use, the law fails to highlight the real danger: cognitive distraction. So should the law treat hands-free phone users the same as people holding a phone to their ear? Yes. While only handheld use is currently illegal, phone using drivers are taking greater risks to their own and others’ safety than they are perhaps aware of. This means that law-abiding citizens, who are using their phones hands-free are actually in the same position in terms of safety as those breaking the law. Until policy acknowledges research we will remain in this uncomfortable position. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t enforce current law and attempt to educate drivers on the dangers of phone use. There are some great initiatives run by different police forces across the UK which aim to enforce the law and enable citizens to support the police. Operation Snap, in Wales, allows members of the public to upload footage of dangerous and distracted driving. Operation Top Deck, launched by West Midlands police, uses buses to enable photographing of driving offences. If we want to make our roads safer and reduce the number of needless deaths and serious injuries, supporting such initiatives is a great first step.

Police photo lineups: how background colours can skew eye witness identification

Catriona Havard, The Open University and Martin Thirkettle, Sheffield Hallam University

Identification parades can be powerful evidence in securing convictions in criminal cases. But eyewitness evidence is notoriously prone to errors – and organisations such as the Innocent Project have found out that 70% of wrongful convictions that were later exonerated had verdicts based on faulty eyewitness evidence which resulted in mistaken identity.

Now our new research shows that small variations in the background colour of photo lineups can increase errors in identification of innocent suspects. We also added to the mounting evidence that shows people are worse at correctly identifying individuals who are of a different race to them.

Traditionally in the UK, lineups were conducted “live”, using the suspect and then several volunteers that were found on the day that resembled the suspect. But live lineups were often cancelled due to logistical problems. In a bid to reduce cancellations and make lineups fairer for suspects by finding more suitable volunteer stand-ins, for the past few decades lineups in a number of countries in Europe, the UK and the US have used photo lineups or video parades.

Risk of bias

Photo or video lineups do have some benefits over live lineups. Identification can take place more quickly after the crime. The foils in the lineup – the other members of the lineup than the suspect – can also be selected from a large database of images, rather than requiring police to find members of the public who resemble the suspect. Yet, although research does seem to suggest photo or video lineups can be fairer and less likely to result in mis-identifications compared to live lineups, there are ways in which a lineup could still be biased.

The instructions given to the witness can make the witness more likely to choose someone from a lineup, even when the lineup contains an innocent suspect. As a result, in most lineups the witness is told “the person may or may not be there”. Lineups can also be biased in the way that they are constructed. For example, the suspect could stand out if their image differs from the other lineup members, such as the suspect’s image being at a different angle to the rest of the photos, or having a different facial expression.

Example of a biased lineup. Havard et al., Author provided

Another way the suspect may stand out from the other foils is if they are filmed on a different background from the other lineup members. Although lineup photographs are taken against a standard background, often a screen or a wall, natural variations in lighting or using different cameras can result in slight differences in the hues of background for different individuals. Our recent research looked at whether such variations in the background colours of police identity parades affect the accuracy of witness judgements.

We presented participants in our study with a target face for five seconds. A lineup of ten faces then appeared and individuals had to decide if one of the ten faces was the face they had previously seen – and, if so, which face it was – or if the target face was absent. Half of the faces presented in the lineups all had exactly the same backgrounds and half were on backgrounds of slightly different hues of green.

What participants were asked to do in our study. In this example, the ‘suspect’ is image number one. Havard et. al, Author provided

For some of the lineups, the target face or “guilty suspect” was present and in others, they were absent – representing the conditions of an innocent suspect in a criminal investigation. Previous work we conducted showed that witnesses are better at identifying a culprit who is of the same race as them and more likely to misidentify a culprit who is of a different race. This bias is referred to as the “own-race bias”, or “cross-race effect”. To investigate this, in our study we used some photos of people who were the same race as the participants – in our case Caucasian – as well as some photos of black people.

Background matters

We wanted to see whether the different backgrounds would influence how accurate people were at identifying people of the same race and of a different race. We found that, in cases where the lineup didn’t contain the target face, there were more false identifications when the lineup backgrounds varied, regardless of race.

When the lineups did contain the target face, overall there were no differences in correct identifications depending on whether the background varied or not. We also confirmed the persistence of own-race bias, meaning that our participants were more accurate at identifying suspects of their own race compared to other races.

Our research seems to suggest that variations in the backgrounds of photographs might not greatly influence identification when a guilty suspect is placed in a lineup. However, if a suspect who is innocent is placed in a linuep, and the backgrounds of the photos vary, there is a greater chance that an innocent suspect will be picked out.

Our findings could help reduce cases of mistaken identification that could lead to wrongful convictions. Although there are some factors, such as own-race bias, that can’t be controlled by the police, other factors such the backgrounds of photo lineups can be controlled. Ensuring witnesses choose a suspect because they recognise a suspect’s face, rather than disparities in the way the lineup photos are displayed, could help to reduce the false identification of innocent suspects.

This article was originally published on The Conversation at:

Crime, harm and the question of justice: an interview with Samantha Fletcher

Samantha Fletcher is a lecturer in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University. Much of her research focuses on ‘crime, harm, and global justice’, and she has a particular interest in ‘new social movements that seek to challenge global inequalities and injustice’.

Samantha is a former member of HERC and lecturer in criminology at the Open University. Commonweal is an education organisation that inspires, informs and connects nonviolence activists in the UK.

1) Please tell us, Sam, how you interpret the terms ‘crime’ and ‘harm’, with examples?

The discipline of criminology has a long history of overwhelmingly focusing on matters of crime, as defined by criminal law and the state.

In contrast, over the years, various scholars within criminology and beyond have sought to depart from this narrow conception of the ‘crime’ agenda.

They have instead sought to recognise that ‘crime’ as defined by laws and states severely limits the attempt to truly understand and adequately recognise all forms and wider conceptualisations of harms and violence.

One of the biggest developments in this line of thought was the arrival of zemiology.

At the annual conference for the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control in Spetses, Greece, in 1998, members of the group called for a new area of study that placed harm at the centre of their concerns (zemia is the Greek word for harm).

The basic premise of their argument was that there is no ontological reality to crime – what is meant by this is that there is nothing intrinsic to an act that makes it criminal. Instead, there are acts, and some are defined as criminal and others are not.

A publication by EG Press, the publisher of the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control

Therefore, the concept of ‘crime’ helps very little in adequately recognising the scale, form and extent of harms within society.

Thinking about harm more broadly – rather than as acts that have been assigned the ‘crime’ label by state institutions – allows us to expand our imaginations and recognise a whole range of additional harmful activities, often happening on a far greater scale.

Violence is subject to similar critique and concern. States, governments and their related criminal justice systems overwhelmingly focus on matters of interpersonal violence – actual or threatened violence that takes place in close proximity between a relatively small number of people.

Instead, we can and should think of violence as including structural violence – the everyday systems and structures in society that lead to grave harms through the denial of people’s basic needs (for more on this, see Johan Galtung’s 1969 article ‘Violence, Peace and Peace Research’).

Johan Galtung. Source

Without downgrading interpersonal violence, if it’s to be the only understanding of and framework for violence, this masks a whole host of everyday forms of structural and institutional violence that happen routinely and often go unchallenged.

Thinking critically, starting with the concept of harm and a wider understanding of violence, allows us to think beyond interpersonal interactions and recognise other harms to human (and non-human) life.

Harms to human life include

– to highlight just a few examples.

2) Your work also examines harms caused by ‘powerful persons’. Who are they, and what are these harms?

‘Crimes of the powerful’, a term coined by Frank Pearce in 1976, refers to a number of types of harmful activity committed by persons with significant economic, political and/or social power – I say and/or, but the three of these often go hand in hand and are in many ways inextricably related.

Those studying the crimes of the powerful seek to turn the analytical lens towards harmful activities and actions by states and corporations, many of which are rarely labelled as criminal.

Or if they are defined as subject to criminal law, they receive comparatively lenient sanctions.

Various scholars have also drawn attention to the relationship between the state and the corporation, examining how they act in mutually reinforcing ways (see for example Tombs and Whyte), as opposed to one dominating the other at different times, as many people expect.

Within the remit of highlighting the crimes of the powerful, it is also vital to recognise that the harms caused by powerful persons and institutions have varying impacts on different social groups.

For example, a vast range of scholars have sought to unpack the continuing harms caused by colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism in order to recognise the impacts of different structural relations within society.

I am particularly drawn to the words of Marcia Rice (2008), who speaks of the importance of recognising ‘qualitatively different’ experiences across gender, ‘race’ and class lines (the full chapter by Marcia Rice is available within the book Gender and Crime: A Reader).

3) What can activists do to tackle harms and crimes by powerful people?

I’m very cautious about speculating or prescribing specific courses of action on these issues.

However, what can and should be recognised is the role of grass-roots movements in challenging the dominant narratives masking the true extent and variety of harms and violence within society.

Going further back, these groups range from the various protests of 1968 and the civil rights movement to the movements of 2011 onwards, such as the Occupy/Decolonise movement and Black Lives Matter – to name just a few!

These movements emerging ‘from the ground up’, rather than ‘from the top down’, have played and continue to play a vital role in highlighting the harms and violence committed by the ‘few’ at the expense of the ‘many’.

Most recently, we have seen a growth in grass-roots movements calling attention to the ever-pressing matter of climate change and environmental harms, including various anti-fracking campaigns and Extinction Rebellion.

As has always been the case (even if hasn’t always been well documented), young people are playing a vital role in these movements. In recent times, the Climate Strike and related movements, inspired by Greta Thunberg’s extraordinary initial strike action outside the Swedish Parliament in August 2018, have been making great strides towards greater recognition and the action needed for positive change.

If I were intrepid enough to foresee anything, it would be the key role young people will play in forging a less harmful and less violent future.

4) Can you recommend any books or other sources to deepen understanding of these topics for a general readership?

Although there is less research on harms and violence in the wider context than on mainstream criminological concerns, there is still a plethora of literature and resources available.

There are many free online resources that give further insight into these issues. Readers may wish to check out two of the free short courses available on OpenLearn:

  • Crimes of the powerful, which provides an introduction to examining the harmful activities of powerful people in society, and
  • Criminology beyond crime, which includes an introduction to Green Criminology and the vast range of eco or environmental harms involving humans, non-humans and the environment.

In addition, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies hosts Criminal Obsessions: Why Harm Matters More than Crime, a key publication covering a lot of ground on all the matters discussed in this post.

For anyone inspired by these free resources to go even further, I would recommend these books:

I would also recommend the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control as a great starting point for connecting with active scholars in this field (Twitter handle: @european_group).

Thank you, Sam!

This blog was originally posted at Commonweal on 26 February 2019.

Hearing voice and recognising privilege: Engaging in non-reciprocal dialogue

David Scott, The Open University

Voice entails the act of speaking and the art of listening. As an expression of our distinctive place in the world, the acknowledgement of voice is essential for human well-being. One of the key principles of ‘penal abolitionism’ is that we listen to the voices of others, recognising their diversity and facilitating their right to define their own reality.  To speak is to have an opinion heard, to count as a fellow but unique human being.

Through harnessing the principles of mutual respect and cooperation, the approach to hearing voice known as ‘discourse ethics’ attempts to arrive at a valid, mutually recognised consensus based on speech acts from debating partners. Discourse ethics is a centrally important process for hearing the voices of others. It is rightly promoted in the academy and aspired to in public debate. Yet its predication on equal co-responsibility for dialogue means that discourse ethics collapses without reciprocation.  Discourse ethics also restricts the hearing of voices to those based on mutual reciprocation alone. As Peter Kropotkin argued in the early 1920s, whilst a political system based upon reciprocation may be the preferred option, it is the non-reciprocated act of self-sacrifice for another person that signifies true ethics. Our responsibilities for hearing the voices of others emerge through asymmetrical relationships – that is, encounters with someone who is less powerful than us. The ethics of hearing voice, by necessity, are an ethics of responsibility that go beyond the rules of discourse. The limitations of discourse ethics for penal abolitionists – and I am thinking in particular here of those who are activist scholar – can be highlighted in two specific situational contexts: first in terms of hearing the voices of prisoners and second in terms of hearing the voices of abolitionist activists in the community. 

Let us first briefly note the difficulties of hearing the voices of prisoners through an exclusive commitment to discourse ethics. Discourse ethics face particular problems in the prison place because prisoners may be physically and / or structurally prevented from participation in conversations with the wider public. There may be no, or only limited, access to spaces for dialogue with debating partners within the prison place.  Further, given their socially excluded backgrounds, many of those behind bars have found it difficult in the past to perform the ‘language games’ or follow the rules of discourse ethics. Prisoner protests and small acts of disobedience, and perhaps sometimes even acts of self-harm, are forms of communication that should be listened to but do not conform to the rules of discourse ethics. Abolitionists have recognised that our ethical responsibility exists irrespective of the question of reciprocation or the following of rules of discourse. In other words, even if the prisoner is disrespectful and fails to engage with us in ways we would like, we should still patiently, respectfully and openly listen and respond when they speak. It means being prepared to be persuaded through the dialogical process.  Reciprocation can result in unjust compromises where the interests of the powerless are erased in appeasement of the claims of the powerful. For abolitionists it is important to be prepared to surpass reciprocity and discourse ethics in the pursuit of hearing prisoner voices.

Discourse ethics can also have limitations if exclusively adopted for engagement between abolitionists in privileged positions, like academics / activist scholars and community activists. There are clear power differentials at play here and there needs to be full acknowledgement of privilege. Privilege reflects life course, historical and current access to resources, and wider societal structures and divisions, and it is incumbent on those who hold privilege to not only recognise this, but also to give their time generously and be guided by the principles of kindness, care, compassion, love, friendship and the spirit of solidarity when engaging in dialogue with those who do not share their privileged position. Abolitionists in privileged positions, like academics / activist scholars, should be accountable to local communities, grass roots activism and struggles for social justice. This entails working towards collective knowledge and the building of trust.  It is essential for this that all abolitionists are prepared to listen and learn from others, especially those directly engaged in abolitionist struggles in the community. None of us are ‘soloists’ playing their own tune, but rather perform a role in a wider abolitionist ‘orchestra’. It is the liberation of the oppressed and the reduction of violence, harm and death that are of paramount importance, and those in privileged positions should attempt to infuse the local community activists with confidence, renewed belief, pride and dignity. 

Those abolitionists, such as those activist-scholars working in the academy, who are in a more privileged position should engage in non-reciprocal dialogue, always looking at the world sensitively from the perspectives of others, adopting or translating their language, meanings and understandings and trying to read unexpected forms of communication. This means at times going beyond reciprocal dialogue so voices can be heard and concerns addressed. It means reaching out and listening. Learning to learn from the voices of others requires service, apprenticeship and a constant willingness to try and understand their point of view. This is not easy, but hearing voice should always be aspirational and unfinished because it demands the continual search for new inclusionary visions of social reality; the acknowledgement of difference and diversity; and the desire for a new broad-based consensus or at least agreement to disagree.

I think it is important for all penal abolitionists to continually search out and acknowledge voices that are denied, silenced or ignored and to engage fully with divergent perspectives amongst those voices. Ultimately this means listening and hearing without assuming respectful reciprocation from debating partners or maintaining a rigid adherence to the principles of discourse ethics. They may be our aspiration, but sometimes we have to go beyond them to effectively hear and listen and to respect the starting points of those we are listening to. So I, and others, may sometimes disagree with the views expressed by prisoners, activists, academics or other activist scholars, or I may disagree or dislike how they perform their speech act, but it still seems essential that everything is done so that their voices are heard irrespective of how that voice is expressed. Perhaps the best we can hope for in this is that we are all a little more sensitive when appreciating differences of opinion; that we maybe become a little more skilled at seeing things from the opposing point of view; and that it reinforces our recognition of and sympathy for the inherent vulnerability of all people, including our debating partners. In the end, abolitionists may simply have to agree to disagree on certain issues, but perhaps we can emerge with a better understanding of where and why we see things differently.  The abolitionist struggle is against the violence, suffering and death that is insipid in the daily workings of the penal apparatus of the State. Even in disagreement we must stand against imprisonment in a way that is united.

Crime at the Car Wash? Serious Organised Crime and a View from Inside the NCA

A report on a lively discussion about the nature of modern slavery

Louise Westmarland, Professor of Criminology and Steve Conway, Lecturer, PuLSE at the Open University, organised a conference in November 2018 bringing together police practitioners and academics working in the field of organised crime. This was held with thanks to funding from HERC and the BSC.

What is the National Crime Agency (NCA) and how does it deal with organised crime?

On 2 November 2018, the BSC’s Policing Network, in collaboration with the Open University’s Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC) held a conference on Serious Organised Crime and a View from Inside the NCA at the Open University in Milton Keynes. Details of the event and the speakers are available on the HERC website.

The event gathered a mix of academics and practitioners to consider recent developments in organised crime, its impact and responses.  In recent years, there has been an increasing recognition from both researchers and CJS professionals that a range of organised crimes and social harms can occur in the most mundane of contexts.  Attendees heard about illegal deer hunting in sparsely populated rural areas; exploitation of young people by drug dealers in residential housing estates; and the use of modern slave labour at the local car wash.  The very banality of these settings can further hide and obscure these issues.

Mr Rob Jones, Director at the National Crime Agency (NCA), provided the keynote speech Serious Organised Crime: A view from inside the NCA in which he set out the challenges facing his organisation in relation to cybercrime and county lines. His paper explained the national and international challenges of organised crime. These themes were expanded on by DCI Darran Hill of Thames Valley Police in his paper on The Stronghold Campaign: Fighting Organised Crime in Partnership. Providing a local context, DCI Hill explained the importance of partnership working in combating organised crime, illustrated by the case studies of county lines drug trafficking and successful efforts to close illegal carwashes in Thames Valley.

These papers gave way to a lively discussion about the nature of modern slavery and contributors from the audience included senior officers from the local area. Is it unethical to use a hand car wash as it is possible that the workers are being exploited? If you have used a hand car wash were the workers wearing wellingtons and proper waterproof gloves? After Rob and Darran had given us the police ‘inside view’ on these issues, we enjoyed papers by Dr Anna Sergi from Essex University called From mafia to Organised Crime: A comparative analysis of policing models and then a paper by recent Open University PhD graduate, Dr Sarah Hutton Disrupting Organised Crime?

One of the surprising aspects of the morning conference was the frankness and candour of the talks. Rob Jones’ paper on the NCA was definitely an insider’s view, and the talk about Thames Valley’s efforts related to turning young people away from drug crime certainly raised eyebrows. One of the most unexpected contributions was that Darran contradicted a conventional police view – that all drug crime can be solved and that the war on drugs is being ‘won’.

It was good to obtain the current police and NCA view on organised crime and the response to it from Rob Jones and DCI Darran Hill. It became apparent that their organisations are looking to academia to answer a number of questions in respect of debriefing, evaluating operations and securing expertise to deal with organised crime i.e.

  • What difference police organised crime operations have made (what is the legacy)?
  • How organised is modern slavery and human trafficking?
  • What are the offender pathways into organised crime?
  • How to retain the expertise needed to deal with cybercrime?
  • How to re-balance proactive/reactive policing (especially in respect of policing organised crime) after the balance has been tipped firmly towards reactive policing by government cuts?

From Milton Keynes to mafia?

After a coffee break, Anna Sergi treated us all to an entertaining high-speed ride around the organisation of mafia-type organisations; followed by Sarah Hutton’s ‘insider out’ view (as a cop turned academic), detailing her work with organised criminals, whom, she argued, are actually pretty disorganised. Dr Adam Edwards offered some sage observations, including organised crime policy trends and their analytical focus. As he pointed out in his paper:

The way organised crime is addressed in the UK has undergone a major overhaul in the last few years with the creation of the National Crime Agency. The first strategic assessment provides a good snapshot of the current state of organised crime. However, it points to a lack of knowledge about organised crime and its drivers–some of which could be addressed through research and deeper analysis. If the NCA is going to have a better record than its predecessors, it must work on getting the basics right. Knowing your enemy would be a good start.  (RUSI 2014, cited in Edwards, 2016: 987, emphasis added)

These papers all ended up asking a fairly basic question for a conference on organised crime, namely:

So, what exactly is organised crime?

In fact, Dr Sarah Hutton and Dr Anna Sergi highlighted the difficulties and differences that still exist in establishing a definition of organised crime. This is the starting point for any research into the subject. A good solution was put forward by Dr Adam Edwards, Orlando Goodall and Mark Berry in their explanation of the way that organised specific crimes are being analysed using crime script analysis. Orlando and Mark followed a thought provoking talk by Adam Edwards, who gave us the benefit of his experience and unparalleled knowledge of the field. He talked about Sayer’s (2000) realist social relations approach, from threat indication…and its related problems such as privileging enforcement over prevention, to (realist) causal explanation.

Then the afternoon kicked off into a lively no holds barred discussion, with nearly everyone in the audience taking part. This numbered around 30 by now, having reduced from 50 in the morning (well, it was a Friday). All of the papers throughout the day, whilst from contrasting standpoints, had highlighted an interesting range of largely unexplored areas of organised crime. Until recently who would have thought that the local car wash was a site of organised crime? Or a nail bar?  By providing a detailed analysis of the organisation of different crime types, as diverse as the illegal taking of deer, the speakers stimulated so many questions that the session overran, we went straight to tea break and home.

Louise Westmarland and Steve Conway with thanks to Dick Severns and all the conference speakers, convenors and helpers.


This blog post has also been published on the British Society of Criminology blog, at: /2019/02/25/crime-at-the-car-wash-serious-organised-crime-and-a-view-from-inside-the-nca/

When does sleeping rough not count as sleeping rough?

Daniel McCulloch, The Open University

Rough Sleeping Statistics are produced annually by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

When does someone who is ‘sleeping rough’ not count as ‘sleeping rough’? This might seem a ridiculous question to ask – surely, it’s obvious, people who are sleeping rough (or street homeless, as it’s also called) count. However, this isn’t always the case, and who counts can have big implications for our understanding of the extent of ‘rough sleeping’, as well as the political claims and policy decisions that are made about ‘rough sleeping’.

Official definitions of rough sleeping in England define this as: “People sleeping, about to bed down (sitting on/in or standing next to their bedding) or actually bedded down in the open air (such as on the streets, in tents, doorways, parks, bus shelters or encampments). People in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as stairwells, barns, sheds, car parks, cars, derelict boats, stations, or “bashes” which are makeshift shelters, often comprised of cardboard boxes).”

To provide an estimate of the extent of rough sleeping in England, each local authority is asked to provide a count or estimate of the number of people sleeping rough in their area on a single night, providing a ‘snapshot’ figure. To aid this process, guidance is offered by the organisation Homeless Link on how local authorities should undertake counts or estimates. However, although this guidance exists, there is no guarantee that local authorities will adhere to this, and there is considerable discretion afforded to local authorities in how they arrive at their figures.

So local authorities can, to some extent, in their methods of counting and estimating, effectively decide who counts as sleeping rough and who does not. To give an idea of the impact of this level of discretion, one local authority, Northampton, provided an official count of 26 people sleeping rough for 2018. However, this figure excludes many people that the local authority know to be sleeping rough.

This was highlighted in a local BBC radio programme, in which a reporter stated that in a briefing before the very same count, the local authority’s ‘intelligence’ indicated there to be at least 46 people sleeping rough, but also claimed that 25 people were in camps which couldn’t be included in the figures due to safety issues. Yet, with such safety issues unspecified, it’s impossible to know whether another local authority might have included these people in their count. Indeed, the Homeless Link guidance itself suggests that “If you know that sleep sites are occupied but inaccessible or unsafe, consider using the estimate process (which can include a count) to achieve greater accuracy.” So it’s likely that another local authority might have done things differently. As such, it’s easy to see how discrepancies in the approach to who counts as sleeping rough can emerge.

Furthermore, because the official definition states that someone must be bedded down or about to bed down to be counted as sleeping rough, if they aren’t seen to be in either of these situations, then for the purposes of this these snapshot figures, they are unlikely to count as sleeping rough – even if there is ample evidence that they are doing so.

It should be said that issues with the methods of counting and estimating these figures are nothing new, and have been written about previously. But why does this matter now? In my view, there’s an enduring importance about recognising that behind each of these numbers is the life of another human being. However, these issues also take on a particular importance when rough sleeping statistics are produced and used as political tools.

The Westminster government recently released official statistics on the number of people estimated to be sleeping rough in England for 2018, based on these snapshot figures. This showed a 2% reduction in the number of people sleeping rough in 2018 compared with 2017, equating to 74 fewer people sleeping rough. It was the first time since 2010 that the official figure showed a reduction in the number of people sleeping rough. In media reports, this new figure was referred to as “a step in the right direction” by communities secretary, James Brokenshire.

But a reduction of 74 people is relatively a marginal change, and a few scenarios can help to give an idea of just how marginal a change this is. For example, if half of the local authorities in England estimated there to be just one more person sleeping rough, this would represent an increase in the number of people sleeping rough compared with the previous year, rather than a decrease. Or going back to the example of Northampton – if just four other local authorities had a similar discrepancy between the number of people they knew to be sleeping rough, and the number they reported, this would produce an overall rise across England too.

And such margins can make a big difference to the claims that can be made about policy. If this year’s figures had shown an eighth consecutive annual rise, rather than a fall, this almost certainly would put pressure on the Westminster government to do more (for example, by providing greater levels of funding for homelessness services and local authorities than have been offered thus far), rather than to suggest this was “a step in the right direction”.

So the question of when sleeping rough is not counted as sleeping rough is an important one, and is one that has significant implications for the political claims and policy decisions that are made about rough sleeping.