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.

Do techniques for generating suspects contaminate procedures for identifying perpetrators?

Graham Pike and Jim Turner, The Open University

Français : Gouvernement Fédéral des Etats-Unis English: U.S. Federal Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There is considerable evidence that mistaken identification by an eyewitness is the leading cause of miscarriages of justice. For example, research done by The Innocence Project, has found that eyewitness misidentification plays a role in more than 70% of overturned convictions and is the single greatest contributing factor in wrongful convictions. So, what should we do? Abandon eyewitness evidence because it is too unreliable? As tempting as that might be, think of all the victims who you then also abandon by refusing them access to justice. Rely solely on forensic evidence maybe? Nice idea, but in reality, forensic science is not like it is in CSI TV shows. For one thing, it is used in only a small percentage of cases and estimates suggest that in only about 2% of criminal cases does forensic science link a suspect to the crime scene or victim (Peterson, Sommers, Baskin & Johnson, 2010). For another thing, The Innocence Project estimates that the misapplication of forensic science is itself a major contributing factor to miscarriages of justice (indeed is second only to eyewitness misidentification), and features in about 45% of cases involving a later exoneration.

Some crimes are captured on camera, and in those cases investigators may have an accurate and reliable record of what happened (e.g. car dash-cams may show evidence of dangerous driving, public CCTV cameras may be used to track the movements of terrorist suspects when preparing for an attack). However, unless advances in technology bring us into a world of total surveillance (and assuming we, as citizens, would accept such a world), the criminal justice system will always need to make use of eyewitness evidence to provide access to justice for victims of crime. Obviously, we can try to improve the situation by making sure law enforcement agencies are aware of the risks involved in obtaining evidence from eyewitnesses and use the most appropriate, evidence-based techniques. For example, in the UK, Code D of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 sets out evidence-based practice guidance for identifying suspects, which is periodically updated in light of new research.

A key issue is that we know from psychological research that human memory is not like computer memory, which perfectly stores whatever is put into it until it is later needed. Instead, human memory is a dynamic and changeable construct that is based on extracting meaning from the world around us, which means our memories are subjective and dependent on who we are. Importantly, this means that our memory for an event (such as a crime) is likely to change if we are later exposed to information about that event (known as ‘post-event information’), which is why it is common practice to separate witnesses so that they cannot share accounts.

Post-event information can come in many forms, including the questions posed by law enforcement officials, who can change a witness’s memory by asking a leading question (for example, asking ‘what colour coat was he wearing?’ may cause a witness to form a false memory of the suspect wearing a coat when in fact they were not). Showing a witness images of possible suspects (in a mugshot album for instance) is a particularly problematic form of post-event information because it is possible that the witness will ‘unconsciously transfer’ one of the images into their memory of the perpetrator – meaning they may then pick that person out at a line-up. You can find out more about unconscious transference in week 6 of our free online forensic psychology course (or click here to access the whole course from the beginning and explore a wide range of issues in forensic psychology).

One solution to the problem of post-event information could be for law enforcement to limit exposure to it by limiting their interaction with the witness, perhaps only involving them in the investigation to provide key evidence such as a statement and to attend a line-up or other identification procedure. Although that might be feasible in some cases, what about if the police do not have a suspect? In some cases, it could be that the only way the investigation could progress would be to ask the witness to create a facial composite (e.g. Photofit or E-FIT) that can be used to seek help from the public. However, these techniques involve showing the witness faces or computerised face-images during the composite process. Could this introduce post-event information which might contaminate the memory of the witness and therefore the evidence they could provide (i.e. identifying the suspect later on, once an arrest is made)? In essence, the question is whether the methods used by law enforcement to generate a suspect might then contaminate the evidence needed to prove in court that the suspect is indeed the perpetrator of the offence.

This was a question we sought to answer using the ‘mock investigation’ paradigm, in which participant-witnesses are shown a staged crime and then asked to provide evidence by researchers (who take the place of law enforcement officers) in the form of statements and through identification procedures. We were particularly interested in whether creating a facial composite image would interfere with the witness’s memory and make their decision at a subsequent identification procedure less accurate. Previous research in this area had tended to produce equivocal results, with some studies showing a detrimental effect and some not. However, the prior research had typically used quite an artificial approach in which undergraduate students (often psychology students taking part in experiments for course credit) were first shown a video of a crime, created a facial composite either by themselves or with a researcher and then, often immediately or after a short delay, attempted to identify the perpetrator in a photo line-up. Although such procedures are very useful, as they explore the underlying human cognition and performance in a very controlled setting, there are some obvious differences with the experiences of a real witness. In other words, existing research largely lacked ecological validity.

Given how high the potential stakes are in evaluating criminal investigation procedures, our research attempted to be as ‘real’ as possible. To this end we (1) used ‘live’ staged crimes (not a video), which were (2) seen by witnesses from a much more diverse range of backgrounds than typical undergraduate students, who then (3) worked with a police officer (in our Experiment 1) or a researcher who was an experienced composite operator (in our Experiment 2) to create a facial composite using the software and procedures that would be used in a real case, before (4) being shown an identification procedure 4-6 weeks later (the average time taken in reality). We also employed both photo line-ups (as used in the USA) and video identification parades (as used in the UK). Our results showed that, compared to a control group that did not create facial composites, creating a facial composite did not appear to adversely affect the decision made at a subsequent identification procedure. If you would like to read the full details of our study, you can access a copy of the paper from the Open University’s Open Research Online repository here: Pike, Brace, Turner and Vredeveldt, 2018.

As noted earlier, the results of prior research were equivocal – although, anecdotally, many researchers and legal practitioners seem (perhaps understandably) inclined towards a principle of caution, favouring the research that there is a detrimental effect of composite construction on subsequent identification. Our results support the existing body of research that suggests composite creation does not necessarily contaminate the memory of a witness, though obviously given the high stakes here great care needs to be taken in applying research results to practice. It is also important to note that research tends to deal with trends and averages, which can be problematic for operational practice which has to make decisions about a single witness.

However, and in conclusion, we think there is a useful take home message here about the importance of balancing the needs of the victim and the needs of the suspect. We have to realise that a human criminal justice system will never be perfect and, as unpleasant as it sounds, that means balancing the need for access to justice for victims with the need to avoid wrongful convictions. Attempts to address one of these problems may concomitantly, albeit inadvertently, increase the other. We do not, of course, claim to have solved this problem. However, the potential risk that creating facial composites will contaminate the witness’s memory does not seem to be a concern under realistic experimental conditions. We therefore think that this is a risk it might be worth taking if there is no other way to progress the investigation.

What is Crime?

David Scott, The Open University

Crime is an essentially contested concept.  There is no universally agreed definition of what a crime is.  However, the most straightforward way of thinking about crime is to look at it in terms of a legalistic perspective – from this approach a crime is an act which is illegal.  It’s against the law.  Specifically it is against the criminal law.  In so doing the act will have certain aspects to it – it will have an aspect of criminal harm and it will have an aspect of criminal blame. 

 Interestingly though, many people have questioned this legalistic definition.  First of all this is because it’s always going to be partial and determined within a very specific and limited set of criteria about what is crime.  If a given act  isn’t illegal, then whilst we might see it as wrong, or problematic or harmful, it’s not going to be something which will be defined as a crime.  Many criminologists  have argued  that it is important to unpack the legal definition, and have questioned the very notions of what is and what isn’t criminal harm.  Criminologists have also questioned notions around criminal blame and both the strengths and weaknesses of a backward looking approach grounded in individual culpability.

Watch Dr. David Scott discussing the question, What Is Crime?

A number of criminologists have even gone as far to say that a crime is a statist category, i.e. that it’s defined by the state and it’s infused with certain interests, ideas and power relations which reflect the interests of the powerful.  For these critics, the state defined categories of crime reflects the interests of those who have something to lose in society, where as at the same time it does not necessarily reflect the interests of those who are powerless or those at the bottom end of society.

Hence, the crime logic is seen as imposed and perhaps even a reconstruction of reality in legalistic and statist classifications.  A crime something which is placed as a specific legal category, as a way of generating meanings and understandings and some criminologists (sometimes referred to as abolitionists)  have argued that this  is a problem in itself and that we shouldn’t necessarily even think about the logic of crime because using the language and logic of crime will lead those who are responding to it down certain pathways which may be considered solutions, such as punishment.

Where’s the harm in educating distracted drivers?

Gemma Briggs, The Open University


This week is Road Safety Week, organised by the charity, Brake. The week is aimed at raising awareness and educating all road users about aspects of road safety.  Across the UK, people will be raising awareness in a range of activities from school children wearing brightly coloured clothing to explain how cyclists can best be seen on the roads, to workplace training promoting safer driving practice. This annual event takes great, effective steps in making our roads safer and it does so largely through educating the general public.

It may appear obvious that teaching the public about specific road safety issues could save lives. Indeed, alongside Brake’s work, successful campaigns run by Think! have been used to educate the public on key road safety messages. These campaigns attempt to deter drivers from ignoring laws relating to driver safety, such as speeding, drink driving, or using a phone while driving. Campaigns are used to support and explain the legislation they apply to. For example, the recent Think! campaign on distracted driving implored the public to ‘make the glove compartment the phone compartment’, with the advert ending with a reminder that those caught using their phone while driving face a £200 fine and 6 penalty points.

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These kind of campaigns appear to be relatively successful in terms of changing public attitudes. In the latest British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS 35, 2017), 70% of drivers agreed that using a hand-held phone while driving was unacceptable, demonstrating a marked shift in attitudes compared with the previous 10 years. While this is a promising change, it is likely that recent increases to fines and penalty points of drivers caught using phones contributed to this shift. Nevertheless, there is of course a difference between what an individual says is unacceptable and what they actually choose to do while driving.

Statistics show that a high number of road accidents continue to be attributed to driver inattention (Atchley, Tran & Salehinejad, 2017). One research project (Dingus, Guo, Lee, Antin, Perez, Buchanan-King & Hankey, 2016) which recorded drivers’ behaviour over a three year period found that drivers were engaging in distracting activities for more than half of the time they were driving, which doubled their risk of crashing compared to when they were driving undistracted. The effect on driving varied as a result of the type of distracting behaviour engaged in, such that using a touchscreen, for example, increased the risk of a crash approximately five-fold, while using a hand-held mobile phone was associated with a four-fold increased crash risk.

It’s not just hand-held devices that are problematic though. Decades of research has demonstrated that hands-free phone use is as distracting as hand-held phone use, due to the demands it imposes on a driver’s attention. Phone-using drivers are more likely to miss hazards, even when they occur directly in front of them (Briggs, Hole & Land, 2016); will take significantly longer to react to any hazards they do see, leading to greatly increased stopping distances (Briggs, Hole & Turner, 2018); and are four times more likely to crash than undistracted drivers (Redelmeier & Tibshirani, 1997). While various theoretical explanations have been put forward to explain the cognitive distraction caused by phone use, the negative effects on driving performance have been widely replicated and verified. Why then do safety campaigns only focus on the dangers of hand-held phone use?

The answer is simple: hand-held phone use is illegal, and the Government therefore wish to deter people from this type of offending. Hands-free phone use is not directly legislated against and is, in many areas, promoted as the safe alternative to hand-held phones. Many car manufacturers promote the idea of ‘connected vehicles’ which allow drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road – a message which ignores research findings demonstrating that hands-free offers no safety benefit to drivers (Ishigami and Klein, 2009). Unless refuted by the advertising standards agency, no rules prevent car manufacturers making such ‘safety’ claims about the technology in their vehicles.

In 2017, when mobile phone legislation was updated, the Government chose to remove the option for first time offenders to attend an educational course aimed at changing behaviour. This was because they felt the option of a course diluted the severity of the offence and considered that increased fines and points would be more of a deterrent than education. This decision came after the tabloid media published articles claiming that the police favoured offering courses over increased fines, and that education courses allowed offenders to ‘dodge bans….rather than being hit with penalty points’. This move ignored the role that education can have in changing behaviour, and preventing further offending, as well as evidence highlighting the effectiveness of the courses that had been offered up to that point. Education courses are also commonly offered across the UK for drivers who have committed speeding offences, and research has shown them to be very effective in terms of altering driver behaviour in the long term, above and beyond penalty points and fines.

By removing the opportunity for educators to explain to offenders why their behaviour was unsafe, the Government has removed a crucial element in the drive to reduce re-offending. The RAC’s response supports this view, suggesting that ‘…concerted action by the Government, police forces, road safety groups and motoring organisations working together..’ is required to address the ‘…handheld phone epidemic that has gripped the UK’. Given the issues of enforcing the current laws, despite some promising technological advancements, it appears that education has a key role to play in changing behaviour. What seems to have been missed in this strategy is an understanding that a balance of approaches to tackle this problem is needed. Namely, campaigns can attempt to deter offending in the first place, the police can enforce the law when necessary, and education can be offered to both prevent re-offending (when offered after enforcement) and to deter others from offending (when proactively offered via campaigns).

Recently, a new Think! campaign – the very imaginative pink kittens film – went further than simply attempting to deter drivers from using their phones with the threat of fines and penalty points. Instead, the ad neatly demonstrated what a driver can miss when looking at their phone, providing a concrete example to the public of why laws are in place. While this campaign was clearly focused on hand-held phone use, it could have gone a lot further to act as a deterrent to all phone use while driving. Instead, while this campaign is a great deterrent for hand-held phone use, it implicitly suggests that the main danger of phone use is not having your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel (potentially advocating the use of hands-free systems). While these are of course dangers, research has shown that drivers using a hands-free phone can look directly at a hazard yet still fail to see it (Strayer, Drews and Johnston, 2003; Briggs et al. 2016). The key issue, which needs to be represented in safety campaigns, is that a phone-using driver does not have their mind on the road.

I’ve previously asked if the laws on mobile phone use while driving fully reflect scientific knowledge. Until there is a ban on all phone use while driving, the law will fail to adequately reflect research findings. However, that doesn’t negate the responsibility of the Government to make the public aware of this research, via safety campaigns which are informed by scientific findings. These need to be carefully crafted to ensure they reflect current law, to act as a deterrent, yet don’t by implication promote hands-free phone use as a safe activity.

A strategy of both educating offenders, as well as the wider public, could reduce offending and literally save lives. Our current project in collaboration with the Centre for Policing Research and Learning is aimed at addressing these issues, with a view to creating educational resources, informed by current research, which will be freely available to everyone.