Crime prevention research

Published : Dec 17, 2004 00:00 IST

Academic research in the United States contributes in a big way to the formulation of strategies and tactics to prevent crime.

I HAVE always been fascinated by the immense variety and high quality of criminal justice research that takes place in universities and similar institutions in the United States. This has been possible mainly because of the labours of some outstanding professors and their dedicated students. Their work has no doubt been greatly facilitated by generous Federal government grants, especially from the Department of Justice. More than this, there is on that country's campuses an ambience that is conducive to serious research, one that promotes innovation and encourages honest debate. This is in total contrast to what prevails in India, a country where the criminal justice system is sufficiently visible and its dynamics are fiercely debated like nowhere else.

When this is the case, we should expect to come across some productive research. This is, however, not the case. Reasons? First, criminal justice studies have not attracted the kind of talent that it should have. Few universities have an exclusive department for this discipline. More important, funding by government and non-government agencies has been modest. Of late, the situation has shown some signs of change. The pace, however, is far from encouraging.

What is most distinctive about the U.S. campuses is that the issues that academics take up for investigation are not airy and diffused, something which criminal justice policymakers and practitioners would hardly look at. A majority of the studies is on down to earth matters that are built around problems, which governments and law enforcement agencies have to wrestle with each day. Some issues that have received academic attention are: the speed of police response to distress calls from the public; the biases in the system believed to be weighted against the minorities, especially African Americans, which lead to police brutality and disproportionate incarceration of the minorities; overcrowding of prisons; adequacy of criminal sentences, particularly capital punishment; and crime prevention strategies and tactics. Studies in these areas have undoubtedly yielded findings, which have triggered substantial executive action. I wish we had an equally vibrant band of researchers whose conclusions could throw up new ideas on how to administer justice in India. In view of the lack of in-depth research, we are naturally inclined to draw heavily from U.S studies.

THE world over there is a feeling that crime is going out of control, and that something needs to be done by governments and the community immediately to keep criminal deviance in check. It is not as if statistics confirm the pessimism that marks the average citizen in this regard. In a few parts of the world, especially in the affluent Scandinavian countries, crime is either increasing only marginally, or actually dropping. The same trend is reported from some cities in the U.S.

If Crime in India, the Home Ministry's authoritative publication is to be believed, the rise in the rates of different offences in India is nothing to feel alarmed about.

As I have often said in this column, crime, however, is something about which the citizen goes more by perceptions formed out of what the media dish out to him, rather than by his own concrete experience. I would like to repeat that the fear of crime is more real and debilitating to the community than the actual crime in a city. Right thinking policemen, therefore, address the state of mind of the citizenry, and do not rest content with merely taking firm action against offenders. This is why they are constantly exploring how best to reduce fear, within the constraints of existing resources - budgets and manpower - that forever are a problem of great proportions.

Criminology and Public Policy

The July 2004 issue carries an interesting essay "Surveillance for crime prevention in public place" by Professors Brandon C. Welsh of University of Massachusetts-Lowell and David P. Farrington of the University of Cambridge. This significant study is relevant to police officers as well as the community at large. Its focus is on how to make public places more secure against crime. Welsh and Farrington may be saying something that we are already aware of, but then, what they say is backed by credible figures and their analysis. This is what should make us sit up and listen to them.

Welsh and Farrington believe that by introducing a few environmental measures, which offer informal surveillance in crime-prone areas, it is possible to influence offender perceptions of "increased risks and decreased rewards" so that they either abstain from crime or move away elsewhere to indulge in their illegal activities, a phenomenon that criminologists would refer to as `displacement of crime'. Speaking specifically, two devices, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras and improved street-lighting, have been proved to impact incidence of crime in some urban centres in the United Kingdom and North America (U.S. and Canada).

Experiments in the U.K. are especially valuable because of the huge investment that has been made. According to one estimate, in the 1990s, three quarters of the crime prevention budget in Britain was on CCTV. The actual expenditure in 1999-2000 on this was above $300 million. From a modest beginning of about 100 cameras in public places in 1990, the number went up to a whopping 40,000 in 2002. Cameras have extensively covered London streets, and this has facilitated keeping crime under control in this megalopolis. The public here seems to be generally happy with the use of cameras, and this has strengthened government defence of the huge investment involved. In North America also the use of CCTV has increased, though not as much as in the U.K. Since 9/11, however, there is a perceptible change in American law-enforcement attitudes, and the use of cameras has gone up.

Improved street-lighting is another measure which, combined with CCTV cameras, has been found to be beneficial to the exercise to bring down crime. Common sense would have us believe that at night times, the two should go together for the cameras to be effective. This does not, however, take into account the fact that with the arrival of sophisticated night-vision cameras, crime intervention through CCTV does not always require improved lighting. However, it has been the experience that a well-lit area discourages criminal activity and encourages pedestrian traffic through enhanced public feeling of security.

Interestingly, there is also a contrary perception that bright lighting induces a false sense of security in the community and promotes a certain complacency and lack of care that invites upon them avoidable criminal assaults. As Professor Diane L. Zahm's reaction essay (that incidentally provides a historical perspective of how lighting was used from the days of ancient Rome till the present times as a crime prevention measure) would urge, a blind belief that enhanced lighting would automatically take care of or curtail high crime in a vulnerable area is to be eschewed. Also, `improved lighting' does not always have to be `better lighting'. Light installation will have to be scientific, taking into account the required height of lamp posts, tree canopy cover and fluctuations in weather, especially the arrival of snow in winter. Studies on the impact of lighting on crime will have to reckon with all these factors, as well as seasonal variations in the type of criminal activity.

Welsh and Farrington conducted 19 (14 in the U.K. and 5 from North America) CCTV and 13 (5 and 8) improved lighting evaluations. These were held in four types of settings: city centre, residential areas, car parks and public transportation. Except in the case of residential setting, all the others showed a drop in crime following the introduction of a CCTV or improvement of lighting. The desirable effect of the new measures was more evident in the U.K. than in North America. Researchers also found some displacement of crime, especially in the case of CCTV. Such displacement was minimal as a sequel to improved lighting. The results achieved in the U.K. were far more impressive than in America. This is possibly explained by greater public support in the U.K. Also, in America, unlike in the U.K., intervention was invariably single, namely either CCTV or improved lighting, and not always both. Yet another finding was that these environmental measures helped prevent property crime more than violent crime. The impact on car thefts was particularly noteworthy.

The Indian police has not shown any great enthusiasm for the use of CCTV in controlling crime. The device has been employed more to tackle law and order situations, especially in handling large crowds, and to a lesser extent in hauling up road traffic violators. I know of it being employed in major festivals such as the Kumbh Mela. My enquiries reveal that the Delhi Police is seriously thinking of it in heavily congested commercial areas such as Karol Bagh. There is a definite case for all major Indian cities to explore the use of CCTV. There is one argument against installing cameras in public thoroughfares and commercial centres. The fear is that it constitutes a serious invasion of privacy. Is this fear valid, if a citizen chooses to transact business in a public place out of his own volition? Is not the loss of a right to anonymity compensated by a greater assurance of protection from anti-social elements? When there is an indiscriminate sale and misuse of mobile phones, can we object to cameras in public places installed by law enforcement agencies solely to curb crime? (The shocking incident in an elite Delhi school a few days ago when a student captured his own sexual act with a schoolmate on his cell phone camera is relevant here.) There are plausible questions here that need to be considered with a sense of balance.

It is not anybody's case - certainly not that of Welsh and Farrington - that CCTV cameras and improved light either singly or in combination will definitely bring down crime. Their studies do, however, point to a distinct possibility. Before launching a major programme in this direction, a cost-benefit analysis is definitely called for. This is because of the huge costs involved. Further research will have to convince us that the benefits of the two devices will outweigh the expenditure from the public exchequer. Also required are research findings that offences other than car theft and minor assault can also be tackled by their use.

Ultimately, crime prevention will depend a lot on the informal social controls that are in place in any community, which is plagued by high crime. First comes the invaluable role of the family, which has to instil abiding values in the children. Next in place is the influence that the community can wield on an individual citizen or groups of citizens. For this to happen, residents need to display a sense of belonging and pride in their neighbourhood, which alone will make them positive and proactive with regard to a crime reduction programme. Their attitudes on the subject will, however, be influenced by their own view of the local police and the quality of the latter's response to community initiatives. This calls for a strong neighbourhood association and its ability to attract a wide membership. Professors Eric Silver and Lisa Miller who studied the problem in Chicago neighbourhood believe (Criminology, August 2004) that informal social controls can flourish mainly with the help of police and their community policing endeavours.

In all this, the role of the family can hardly be exaggerated. Where both parents are busy with their professional commitments, they can give very little time to their children. Deviance of the Delhi school variety is a natural outcome of this unfortunate aspect of the modern family. The vacuum arising from parental neglect can possibly be filled to an extent only by systemic and structured attention at schools. I see no other way juvenile delinquency can ever be checked.

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