Sink Estate Crime: towards some new answers

Crime affects us all.  Much of it is being passed over as antisocial behaviour, or hidden as ‘expense scandals’ and ‘economic bubbles’.  We have little grip on the true extent of it all.  The history of a can of tuna probably contains much that those of us privileged to live in the affluent ‘North’ would see as criminal.  I saw footage of a Chinese woman burning herself to death in protest at the demolition of her home, and of another buried alive trying to do the same thing.  As a kid, I imagined the Royal Navy sorting out the ‘Opium Wars’, not making the way clear for our traders to use the stuff as currency in criminal economics.  We are now in Afghanistan, allegedly supporting democracy, yet vast amounts more heroin is being produced there than under the vile Taliban and 30,000 Russians a year now dying as addicts.

In Britain, we generally see crime as the stuff our police occasionally catch people doing and sometimes prosecute them for.  We have no reliable figures even on this.  The British Crime Survey generally finds about twice as much crime as police report, but it seems an equal amount of ‘antisocial behaviour’ is going on, with police only recording about half of this too.  When I talk to people  who commit crime of this kind, they tell me they rarely get caught.  I don’t trust what they say much, but I’ve seen first-hand a couple committing crime on a daily basis, visited over 200 times in seven years barely prosecuted for what they really have done, and all relevant authorities engage in denial of the extent of the trouble they cause.  Responsible neighbours and informants have told me they have been doing this for more than 20 years, hiding behind their children in a wave of welfare-sponsored criminality and harassment.  I have been able to uncover this story over and over again talking to police, social and housing workers and pub-based ethnographies.  First-hand, my partner and I have found that all relevant authorities will engage in character assassination and lying against victims (bullying of a severe and cowardly nature) to conceal their bungling and the extent of the problem.  There is a fatal nexus of corrupt politicians, senior bureaucrats and inadequate street-level officers acting against the interests of crime victims to present a false public picture of the extent of the problems and what is really (not) being done about them.  This is reinforced by manipulating statistics that have no validity and a farrago of public relations initiatives presenting ‘success stories’ as though these are the general case, or about to become so.

The issue is not really one of policing per se.  Cops are well aware of the problems and one can find the stories almost everyday in police blogs. Inspector Gadget is a good example and he has also published a book.  We  should be deeply concerned by this ‘Samizdat’ and Gadget’s own view that to come out in the open would mean he would be both unable to do what he can as a ‘common sense copper’ and be unable to pay his mortgage.  We should not see cowardice in his approach.  Given the treatment meted-out on myself and my partner by the authorities as simple victims of criminal harassment and violence, his approach is both brave and sensible.  We should look to the underlying censorship of honesty in our alleged, and once hard fought for democracy.  Many others, across the public sector, contribute through blogs of their own or by commenting on such.  Whistle-blowers still face almost certain injustice and cruel treatment and legislation to protect them is useless and was probably intended to be so.  Most of us believe Clive Ponting was right to break the law to tell us of the General Belgrano scandal and would congratulate the jury’s ‘perverse judgement’ to acquit him under pressure from the law and the trial judge.  We also know the authorities usually win and that we are powerless in the face of power.

Facts are very difficult to come by in this area.  This should surprise us given the number of people paid to produce them.  There are reams of alleged statistics, though as they hardly address the underlying reality at all, they are not valid statistics in the scientific sense, only in the much older sense of the term meaning ‘numbers of the State’.  They are as far from science as any Soviet production figures.  One blog, by Crime Analyst, seeks to make sense of the mess.  A heroic effort, but one I believe doomed by the faulty production techniques involved in the originals.  Nonetheless, his group have worthwhile messages, rather than the ‘massages’ we are routinely given.  We will be told in the forthcoming election that crime has been reduced.  This is very likely a lie.  The British Crime Survey does not report until the end of July and last year reported no real reductions against police recorded figures that did.  HMIC has just reported a massive likely amount of ‘antisocial behaviour’ which should really be treated as crime too.  Our trust in the ‘number of the State’ generally is at a new low in the polls.  We should have no trust in Nulabour hymn-sheet  singers reporting crime reduction with straight faces.  We know they are lying because their lips are moving, yet need to remember it won’t be long before the next lot are doing the same.  The police blogs are full of reports on the cuffing of crime to meet targets and ensure the bonuses and reputations of Senior Management.

I’m not being cynical, other than in telling the truth as I have found it.  This vile situation need not pertain.  There are valid ways to get at the facts, some of them involving genuine statistical practice.  Much current, corrupt practice needs to be swept away; but we should remember here that they can always find a carpet to sweep corruption under and very few seem to have been made accountable in the Parliamentary expenses scandal and more were caught out in a simple consultancy sting recently.  Various Iraq enquiries have left us with no real idea why we entered the illegal war, how many we have killed, or why our fate was left in the hands of a man so stupid he advocated the frog-marching of drunks to cash-machines to pay instant fines.  We do not know why David Kelly died, only that there has been no inquest, some pathologists think the investigation was very dodgy and much has been sealed by the Government chosen judge, a man we might have rejected on his previous ‘form’ if given the opportunity.  Analysis of many miscarriages of justice does not give us reason to trust to honest disclosure in our legal system, and each recent scandal in child non-protection has revealed cover-ups of inane, bungling practice, previously reported in performance management as good or satisfactory.  Many high profile police actions have also been disasters.  De Troux (Belgian), Guildford Four, Birmingham Six, Black Panther, Yorkshire Ripper, Ritual Abuse, Nico Bento, Soham and many others.  One might search for Mervin Punch and the term ‘rotten orchard’ to get some academic perspective on this.  There are good examples, the Morecambe cockle-picker deaths being one.  The same detective involved in this seems to have taken over a complete mess in the Jersey children’s’ home affair.  It could well be that incompetence across our legal system is the norm.  Genuine statistical thinking and practice would at least factor this possibility in.  The ‘cure’ for incompetence comes in its recognition, the  Catch 22 being the incompetent won’t be capable of the recognition.  Public sector blogs are full of accusations of, usually, high-level incompetence and sheer self-interest.

The way into the facts requires people who are independent of the power-interests to do the investigations, and a form of public scrutiny that prevents cover-up in disclosure and decision-making.  To an academic these are routine points, as is the acceptance this is very difficult to achieve, though not impossible to approximate to.  We routinely screw up as academics on this.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962 is a classic on how even science is screwed by vested interests.  Two of my own areas, motivation to work and human resource management are chronically skewed to a management perspective at textbook level – nearly all management teaching is now, and just look at some of the donkeys it has been producing, typically claiming to learn only self-interested lessons.

Academic work sometimes needs to be complex and nit-picking in method and detail.  Some laboratory work is close to miraculous, as the actor-network theorists say.  We tend to write to exclude criticism, always failing because there is a ‘faster gun’ out there.  Too often though, we write bureaucratic prose, shit that just looks clever, or fits the rules of a journal, publisher or clique of self-interested twats running a  conference in an exotic or convenient location.  I’m no doubt supposed to be above words like ‘twat’,  but can easily demonstrate the language in which academics do slag each other off and exert their superiority over others.  It’s all about as cunning as a ‘new man’ trying to get his rocks off amongst feminists. The politically correct words change over time, but faking sincerity and the comedy of orgasm are always with us.  I can point to work by academics suggesting swearing can boost morale in organisations and might be justifiably encouraged.  What really concerns me is the way we exclude much that is important simply on the basis of manners we have soaked up.  These ‘manners’ allow the most dreadful insults and cruelty to be exerted by ostensibly very polite bureaucrats.

Much across the public sector blogs will be dismissed as ‘canteen gossip’, ‘axes being ground’, the ‘jealousy of failures’, ’emotive’, the ‘grumblings of malcontented employees’ and in many more ready-to-hand ways.  We will be merely anecdotal or just one opinion.  When confronted with a book of a hundred respected scientists stating ‘Why Einstein is Wrong’, the great man said one voice would have been enough, had it been right.  None of us are claiming to be right, perhaps just claiming a right to be heard in fair consideration.  This is well-known to be very difficult in practice.  We can, in fact, only approximate to this in the purest social research.   The excuses used to dismiss what anyone has to say are rarely justified, and often amount simply to the blatant use of power by those controlling resources, effectively telling those who cannot afford to do research to go and do the full Monty before they can say anything that will not be regarded as worthless.

One thing we  do know about evidence is that it does not come in the form of some kind of natural observation language.  It is spun in theory.  We also know language is very complex and one needs to know a lot about the generic frame of reference in which it is used, the practices in which it is understood.  Academic language on this includes phrases like ‘common assumption paradigms’ and the need to ‘deconstruct’ arguments apparently different to discover whether similar assumptions in them are being missed in the ostensible opposition.  If you don’t know what ‘paradigm’ or ‘deconstruct’ means in this sense, you might be tempted to go to a standard dictionary.  This won’t help.  You need to know more of the context of the words to understand them as meant here.  You could waste days and only bark up the gum tree.  The journey into research methods should challenge anyone’s most heartfelt assumptions, not just give you a set of tools and words to argue one side  of a case better like a lawyer.  Highly trained people can cock-up altogether, as an examination of the few miscarriages of justice mentioned above demonstrates.  Much journal published academic work is utter drivel, and utter drivel, in practised hands can pass as the real thing as Alan Sokal’s hoax showed in part. Meaningless tosh got me to many international venues, where I generally told the truth as I saw it, something that would not have got me on the plane.

What research should do is try to creatively ‘guess’ what the real problems are, through talking, listening, observation and taking account of what can be established in history.  Experiments are great of you can do any.  These are often inordinately difficult in science.  You only have to think of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, where billions have been spent and miles of territory consumed to build a device to tell us something about almost the smallest stuff we can imagine.  To get ‘smaller’ we might have to take over all of Jupiter to find a graviton, or build something of inter-galactic scale.  Science is often done on the cheap through thought experiments and we should see more of these in social research.  Wittgenstein did this in technical philosophy with his language games.  I used to create fictional alien races (no they didn’t do the anal probing thing now standard in highly unimaginative UFO tales) with manners and language very different from ours.  Once students got round to decrying such behaviour as impossible for human beings, I would reveal my ‘aliens’ were, in fact, human tribes well-known in anthropology.   The penny dropped for some; to others I remain an insufferable smart-arse.  In my Dad’s day it was worse.  He was branded a queer because he read books. He might have been the world’s first gay rugby league player, but he wasn’t.