Three men murdered by a car being driven at them in Birmingham. Nationwide, riots and looting in England for the past 4 days.
Five police stations fire bombed in my own city of Nottingham alone over the past two nights. I have never heard of a police station being fire bombed in England before; it's something I associated in the past with Rio, Derry or the movie Assault on Precinct 13. This is a dramatically different kind of disorder to anything in living memory for mainland British citizens.
We heard the emergency sirens deep into the night. Just as criminologists had cottoned on to the fact that they never saw the 15-year crime drop coming and were subsequently dealing with their resulting cognitive dissonance by settling down to happily explaining it, after the event, with their own pet theories. We now have an unpredicted nationwide outbreak of wild copy-cat rioting and looting in England.
With regard to that crime drop, we currently have “the security hypothesis” as the favourite Tamagotchi theory of Crime Science, Situational Crime Prevention and Routine Activities adherents. So what now for the security hypothesis? Does lack of security explain the mass nationwide looting and riots and an increase in security explain the crime drop of the past 15 years?
Meanwhile, Critical Criminologists, suffering from their own cognitive dissonance and unique strain of demon in the window pareidolia (Sutton 2011), see only cultural patterns that totally explain for them what is happening amongst the seemingly random crime figures, and are focusing in on it to keep their own blinkered post-Tamagotchi post-modern and post-Marxist current concerns with consumerism alive.
Just like children obsessively playing with those little Japanese Tamagotchi electronic pets, opposing international academic criminological camps have to keep feeding their personal, irrationally inductive, Tamagotchis simply to keep them alive on the carrion of past crime trends.
Critical Criminologist, Jock Young, in his latest book The Criminological Imagination comes up with a multitude of his own post-hoc explanations for the crime drop – ranging from a staple critical diet of wise after the event rhetorical stories about “big brother effects” – where invisible little brothers are imagined to have seen the problem of crime that visited itself upon their decade and a half older siblings and want none of it – to the civilising effect of the decline of manufacturing as more young males are being better socialised by working in the service sector.
Professor Young failed to imagine the impact of 15 years of social networking on the Internet as a facilitator of wild copycat rioting and looting as well as something that may also have been keeping potential victims and offenders off the streets for several hours a day.
Internet networking has played a large part in how these riots and associated mass looting has been organised and copied nationwide – as explained yesterday by anonymous criminologists manning the Bent Society Blog (Bent Society 2011).
No one, me included, seems to have considered the mobile criminal cell disorder facilitating capabilities of smart cell phones linked to the internet. This technology allows offenders to fragment, organise and re group in ways never before imagined.
Many years ago I was one of the first criminologists to study how young people exploited the internet to network together in order to commit crimes (Mann and Sutton (1998). In that article we wrote:
“The Internet is a particularly effective medium for criminal recruitment and the dissemination of criminal techniques. Whilst it is possible that it will bring an increase in crime and create new problems for those concerned with crime control and criminality prevention, it is too early to tell whether the Internet or high technology crime will cause major problems for law and order in the future. However, with the expansion of the Net, various Net Crimes may become high volume crimes. If this happens, existing approaches for dealing with and seeking to understand the reasons for high volume crime will have to be widened and new ones developed to meet the challenge of crimes facilitated by, or taking place in, a radically different environment.”
When we conducted that research many people had no idea what the internet was. David Mann and I worked for the Home Office at the time and within those so called corridors of power we were told by our civil service policy oriented research superiors that our research was a waste of time because the Internet was most likely going to be a passing fad like CB radio. That inductive argument did not convince us and we went ahead and did the research in our own time. Our subsequent article won the 1998/99 British Journal of criminology Prize for making the most significant contribution to academic knowledge. And today everyone knows that the internet is a significant site for criminological research into the huge problem of online crime.
Back on the streets, the riots and looting currently sweeping England began in London but soon spread like wildfire as copycat offenders from age 9 to their late 30’s (perhaps some older) grabbed a piece of the action and anything else they could lay their hands on.
I think that we need to explore further this Popperian Black Swan event of the effect of the Communications Revolution on street level crime. We need to try to establish with sceptically informed research whether we can really safely say, and if so to what degree and with what degree of confidence, the internet and other communications and entertainment media is or is not responsible for the overall 15 year crime drop in the western industrialised world. As I wrote in a blog post earlier this year (Sutton, 2011a), so many young people are spending many hours online and gaming that it might well have led to significantly less potential offenders on the street and less potential victims in any 24 hour period.
We also need to examine the current wild copycat crime riot and looting situation to try to predict whether or not this is a new phenomenon that we might expect to see re-occurring each summer. I think that there is a possibility that while the communications revolution may have just possibly played some significant role in reducing street crime overall, we might now expect to see a new pattern whereby crimes come in wild copycat strikes that are most likely to be committed by young people - perhaps during their summer vacations from school and college, when their numbers will be swelled by disaffected 20 year old offenders. If so, then forewarned is forearmed – at least until the next Popperian black swan event (Sutton 2011b)
To put my head over the prediction parapet here, as I did with my Home Office colleague David Mann some 13 years ago, I think that if my Game Substitution hypothesis (Sutton 2011a) is right (and it might well not be) then we might expect to see a continuing decline and eventual levelling off of crime across the board that will be regularly interrupted by ‘wild copycat crimes’ of various types (not just riots). The summer holidays are likely to be a particularly risky period for such crime outbreaks as older offenders blend in with children to smash those windows they usually have their noses pressed up against to steal the stuff they want but can’t much afford.
Since the communications technology that is facilitating this social network crime facilitation can be used to pinpoint where offenders live (through police access to service provider account information) in the same way it can be used to catch paedophiles, I predict that next year we will experience a similar rash of looting and rioting – this time facilitated via anonymous cyber café’s. The Police and potential offenders will then engage in a communications arms race as new ways of thwarting and detecting crime facilitation compete, adapt and evolve. This is one Popperian black swan that, unlike the economic crash, we did at least partly see coming. We just chose to bury our heads in the sand like apocryphal ostriches. That’s what Taleb (2007) calls a grey swan because it’s a known unknown, rather than an unimagined unknown. We would be wise not to keep our eyes off those grey swan’s in the future.
What’s the answer for now?
As a short-term solution, one drastic but possibly effective measure would be to declare a curfew on smart phones and use current technology to home in on those turned on after dark and zap their electronics. That’s surely more palatable than baton rounds fired at schoolchildren? And it works because it’s what they currently do to stolen phones. In the long term? We ignore addressing the disjunction between goals and means of our discontented and marginalized citizens, with their noses pressed up against the shop windows, at our peril and theirs. And by that I mean our bent citizens and our currently unbroken windows.