The Johnson Government: Working for the Brexit Clampdown

Joe Sim, Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University and Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology, The Open University

As the country teeters on the brink of the chaos of an impending no-deal Brexit, Boris Johnson’s administration has entered electioneering mode. The administration is following a familiar path that has a history of at least 40 years in the Tory party: first, that attitudes and actions towards the EU are not at all about any ‘national’ interest but are about party interests and, specifically, keeping a Tory Government in power at all and any costs; and, second, invoking a tough on crime, law and order discourse to capitalise on popular anxieties to offer false certainties around security and a sense of protection.

Mobilising Fear

On the latter – the subject of this short piece – virtually the first act of the incoming Prime Minister Johnson was to announce the recruitment of 20,000 police officers in order “to make our streets safer”. This was followed by a concerted set of announcements by the Prime Minister and his capital-punishment flirting Home Secretary Priti Patel; their Government would, they trumpeted, “shift the balance of fear” and fill criminals with terror, as they announced alongside the increase in police numbers a ramping up in sentences, stopping early release, and extending the right to stop and search – no doubt, Johnson added, prompting the “Left-wing criminologists” to “howl”. Priti Patel used the Sun on Sunday, the newspaper that emerged phoenix-like from the ashes of the crime-ridden News of The World, to cynically exploit the “attack on brave police officer Stuart Outten” which had taken place in London days earlier, an attack which she claimed “was a reminder that the police put their lives on the line to keep us safe”. Clearly, police officers are injured and killed during the course of their work, as the most recent death of PC Andrew Harper has shown, and their victimisation should not be denied. However, Patel’s comments somewhat obscure the fact that, compared with other occupations, policing is a relatively safe occupation. Deaths in these other occupations deserve to be treated with the same respect and consideration when lives are lost and families are irreparably damaged.

These are well-trodden, and therefore highly cynically chosen, paths. In 1979, the Thatcher government’s first major policy initiative was to implement the Edmund-Davies pay review leading to a spike in police numbers. The result?  A spike in the recorded crime rate. Home Office research concluded at the time that ‘whatever the benefits in terms of public reassurance or confidence, increasing visible police presence through extra foot or car patrols is by itself unlikely to reduce crime; nor does there seem much scope for a general improvement in detection rates’. Sir Robert Mark, the Met’s Commissioner, noted that police numbers had little effect on crime rates and ‘seen objectively against the background and problems of 50 million people it [crime] is not even amongst the more serious of our difficulties’. The idea that the present government’s prison building programme and tougher sentencing will reduce victimisation and increase public protection is also a fallacy.  In 1983, Leon Brittan instigated the biggest prison building programme of the twentieth century, alongside a tougher sentencing regime. It failed. In 1995, Michael Howard declared that ‘prison works’. He was wrong. There are no demonstrable relationships between prison numbers and recorded crime rates.

Cutting Social Support

By contrast, and to take the example of the offence category exploited by Priti Patel as she lauded the bravery of the police, knife crime may be a significant social problem but neither it, nor the conventional crime problem in general, will be solved by the blitzkrieg of criminalisation, punishment and pain rolled out in recent weeks. It is widely accepted that funding for early intervention services can prevent the numbers of young people finding themselves at risk of victimisation and offending. However, as Action for Children, the Children’s Society and National Children’s Bureau recently revealed, “between 2010-11 and 2015-16, spending on early intervention fell in real terms by 40%”, while Sure Start centres had their budgets halved in the 8 years to 2016. Meanwhile, Tim Bateman has highlighted “a massive contraction in youth service provision, leading to a sharp decline in the availability of constructive activities for young people, resulting in many of them spending more time on the street where risks may be higher”. Johnson and Patel have said nothing about reversing any of these spending cuts.

Crimes of the Rich and Powerful

Nor will the blitz on crime deal with rampant state-corporate criminality. It will not address income tax avoidance and evasion, which even on the Government’s own “laughable” estimate now stands at a record £35 billion per annum, nor the 36,000 deaths each year which the Government links to air pollution in the UK in its recently revised downwards estimate, nor the 50,000 work related deaths which occur year in, year in out in one of the wealthiest economies in the world. The cultures of immunity and impunity which allows the rich and powerful to engage in routine criminal activity will continue to be encouraged: programmes of deregulation and non-enforcement of law against businesses have been institutionalised since 2010 to the point where, for example, there are no officers to enforce law in some local authority areas, where some regulation has been privatised, and where prosecution in some areas are now non-existent. The changes will do little, if anything, to reduce the rampant levels of domestic and sexual violence against women, nor far-right extremism and racist attacks, nor homophobic violence, nor will they introduce desperately needed structures of democratic accountability into the criminal justice system.

What they will do, if these policy turns really do end up meeting the stated aim of putting 10,000 more people in prison, is exacerbate the dramatic levels of violence in British prisons. Therein, as the charity INQUEST recently noted on the basis of the Ministry of Justice’s own data, the 12 months to July 2019 showed: 86 self-inflicted deaths, up 6% from 81 in the previous year – that is, one every four days – of 309 deaths in prison in total. This is not to mention, in a 12 month period, that self-harm levels had “increased by 24% from the previous year, once again reaching record highs … In the child and youth prison estate, there was a 30% increase in self-harm incidents.”

Labour’s Political Opportunism

And what has the Labour Party had to say about this law and order noise, and the grim threat it poses to the already-restricted rights and liberties of those powerless communities and groups it purports to represent? Not surprisingly, the answer is very little.  Labour’s response has been based on political opportunism.  And so while Diane Abbott has pointed to some of the problems in the “Draconian approach” to the use of stop and search, Labour has failed to seriously contest the government’s announcements. There has been no informed critique of the prison building programme or of tougher sentencing or of the increase in police numbers. There has been no obvious strategy to curtail the brutal exercise of state power and to hold to account those state servants who routinely abuse this power through the capricious discretion they have on the streets and behind prison walls.  In fact, Labour’s policy has been to restore police numbers to their pre-cuts level, ignoring the criminological research which, as noted above, shows the negligible impact the police have on conventional crime.  What the party has demanded is an inquiry into the welfare and morale of police officers despite the fact that, compared with other jobs, policing is a relatively safe occupation. Again, as noted above, the systemic lack of health and safety is a key factor in the shameful levels of self-harm and deaths in custody. On this, there is silence.  Labour has allowed the government to articulate, effectively unchallenged, its toxic, punitive agenda. Such timidity should not be surprising; Labour has an abysmal track record on law and order when in government, reproducing the Tories’  relentless focus on working class crime and turning a blind eye to the systemic abuses of the state and the institutionalised criminality of the rich and powerful. 


In the world-view of Johnson and his media and political acolytes, ramping up the crime, law and order rhetoric is a vote-winner, a distraction from the Tories’ disastrous handling of Brexit, and the tooling-up of the state for post-Brexit disorder. In general terms, the Johnson government’s strategy can be understood as consolidating still further, in Stuart Hall’s words, the ‘[p]hilisitne barbarism’ begun under the first Thatcher government. It is an ideological strategy, a form of ‘regressive modernisation’, designed to ‘”educate” and discipline the society into a particularly regressive form of modernity, by paradoxically, dragging it backwards through an equally regressive version of the past‘. This regression will have dire consequences for communities and groups already stricken by the pitiless social and economic policies pursued in the last decade, and indeed, before. In 1972, the great American writer James Baldwin pointed out that ‘ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have’. Fifty years on, Baldwin’s eloquent statement provides a fitting testimony to the cynicism, hypocrisy and naked self-interest inexorably driving the government’s law and order bandwagon. Inevitably, this will be followed by the ruthless rolling out of state power in order to maximise and maintain the corrosively exploitative, immoral and amoral neoliberal social order. However, for all its material and ideological power, it is contradictory and, just like the Prime Minister and his government, remains open to contestation and resistance. In these bleakest of times, it is important to remember and reflect on this point.

This article has been simultaneously published by the Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion at Liverpool John Moores University, see 

Part of the title of this article is from the title of the track by The Clash, ‘Clampdown’, on their 1979 London Calling album.


A sinister plan….

Are we being manipulated by a shady, secret enemy who is planning world domination? Or not? In this video, Dr Jovan Byford from the School of Psychology and Counselling introduces his research on conspiracy theories.

You can also read about the research in module DD210 Living Psychology and in Dr Byford’s 2011 book Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction, published by Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN : 9780230272798

Forensics: fact or fiction?

In this film, Dr Jim Turner, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology, looks at ‘the CSI effect’ and explains why forensic science doesn’t always provide the answers.

Telling Tales: what is happening on police Facebook sites?

Zoe Walkington and Graham Pike, The Open University

Despite the huge increase in social media use by police forces since the late noughties, there hasn’t been a great deal of published research into these online interactions. There are some obvious positives for the police arising from communicating with communities via social media, including that it allows them to directly post a story which bypasses the ‘frame’ it might be given by traditional news media. However, this raises the interesting question of whether by bypassing the potential frame of old media, the story might get reframed or ‘re-positioned’ by new media on social networking sites?

In our research we explored organisational police Facebook sites and have noticed that the communication on these sites is dynamic, energetic and (to us at least) really fascinating! In our observations the way stories get told on police Facebook sites can be likened to an ambitious community film project, where a story is scripted by multiple authors, at multiple points in time, and is produced and directed by a staff of extremely motivated ‘crew’ in the form of the local community members.

Firstly, the stories told on these sites show that the police make choices about what to “tell” but they are not the only script writers. When the police post a story, or part of a story, they normally post a short and fairly neutral snippet that informs the community about what has happened. These posts often resemble a press release. Let’s take, for example, a story about a missing person that starts with a police post stating, fairly neutrally, that someone has gone missing and where and when they were last seen. Very quickly that story can start to be ‘co-created’ by the community members whose comments on the story add to the narrative, often inserting background information, recasting characters involved (e.g. the missing person, their parents) in various different lights, and expanding the cast to include wider family and friends. As well as this expansion of cast, the community can also contribute additional elements or fragments of the story.  

This fragmented approach to co-creation means that the stories on Facebook sites do not unfold in a linear fashion. Because some people are adding backstory, others are “thickening” the script about more central events, and yet others are hypothesising potential endings, the story unfolds online in a way that jumps about in time from past, to future, to present day, multiple times in the telling.

Another interesting aspect is the level of engagement of community members. In some cases the “effort” expended is fairly minimal, a supportive “well done” or a ‘like’ about a story. However in a lot of cases community members are taking the time to add a lot of information in the comments, telling of similar stories that happened to them – perhaps to create a position of authority to hold a particular view on the police story, or to develop counter-narratives to the discourses developed by the police.

As well as all this activity involved in the creation, and altering of, a particular story, there are also significant editorial comments posted by members of the public. Whilst community members can’t remove a story the police have posted, they can, and frequently do, challenge editorial decisions. They can resist particular discourses by challenging why particular stories have been told, and also why other stories have not been told.

So why does any of this matter? We believe it is important for a couple of reasons. Firstly we are living in a world where feedback matters, and whilst the ‘chat’ under a police story in no way comprises formal feedback, it does provide an informal way of capturing community feeling and sentiment regarding police activity. It also does this in a way that is naturally occurring, and away from organisational or research agendas. Secondly, the effort that people are prepared to invest in this informal feedback is significant, and while much negativity can be found on these sites, there is also the potential to harness and capture the voices of those who engage digitally, even if they may not chose to engage face to face. Working with this online engagement may turn out to be a productive use of time for police forces in trying to involve citizens in policing, both informally and more formally.   

Austerity has been a major reason why police forces have not been able to invest more fully in resources to help them turn their Facebook sites into spaces where there is more truly dyadic interaction. While there are a few trailblazers, many police forces are in a position where new media are still being used like old media (e.g. press release formats, and no “interaction” beyond the initial police posting). However the potential for more investment in this resource may mean that in the future Facebook sites may become an important site which allows both citizens and police to operate more effectively.

If you would like to see Zoe talking about this research you can find it here:

Links to the research papers can be found here:
Walkington, Zoe; Pike, Graham; Strathie, Ailsa; Havard, Catriona; Ness, Hayley and Harrison, Virginia (2018). Are you talking to me? How identity is constructed on police-owned Facebook sites. Narrative Inquiry, 28(2) pp. 280–300.

Walkington, Zoe; Pike, Graham; Strathie, Ailsa; Havard, Catriona; Harrison, Virginia and Ness, Hayley (2019). Entitlement to Tell on Police Facebook Sites. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 22(5) pp. 355–357.

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: