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The beguiling mirage of quick fixes on crime

Mark Easton | 15:40 UK time, Thursday, 15 April 2010

One of the weaknesses of democracy is that it may reflect not only the will of the people, but also the people's prejudices and innocence.

The principle that says "because an idea is widely held to be true, it should inform policy" would have had the world governed on the basis that it was flat long after science had demonstrated it was a sphere.

Those who write the parties' manifestos know they must appeal to "public opinion" while not locking themselves into actions which prove to be based on ignorance.

Nowhere is this balancing act more apparent than with the rhetoric on crime.

The Labour manifesto [1.37Mb] includes a section entitled 'Using Technology to Cut Crime' in which they promise to "make full use of CCTV... to strengthen our fight against crime". The document then goes on to make this assertion:

CCTV reduces the fear of crime and anti-social behaviour

But does it?

Well, according to a survey in a 2005 Home Office study [753Kb PDF] called Assessing the Impact of CCTV:

respondents who were aware of the cameras actually worried more often about becoming a victim of crime than those who were unaware of them

This may be because people who worry about crime notice cameras more, but it is an interesting hypothesis that a neighbourhood studded with intimidating cameras might make people feel more fearful rather than less.

The key question, of course, is: does CCTV actually reduce crime? Again, the Home Office's own data is hardly encouraging:

Out of the 13 systems evaluated six showed a relatively substantial reduction in crime in the target area compared with the control area, but only two showed a statistically significant reduction relative to the control, and in one of these cases the change could be explained by the presence of confounding variables. Crime increased in seven areas but this could not be attributed to CCTV.

Thirteen CCTV systems; in only one might the technology have cut crime. Cameras worked best in car parks and hospitals. In town centres and residential areas, the results were mixed "with crime going down in some areas and up in others".

A Labour party adviser stresses to me that "our current policy position, as the manifesto makes clear, is not to expand CCTV in a blanket way, but to give people the right to ask for more - or less - if they want it".

Meanwhile, the crime section of the Conservative manifesto [7.7Mb PDF] begins with this claim:

New York shows that it is possible to get a grip and cut crime.  Over the past twenty years, serious crime in New York has fallen by 80 per cent, thanks to proactive community-based policing and the intelligent use of new technologies and crime data.

The "zero-tolerance miracle" of New York policing is often cited by politicians who want to suggest a simple and popular fix for cutting serious crime. Just before being elected in 1997, Tony Blair was asked whether he agreed with the Big Apple's approach, to which he replied "yes, I do".

Jack Straw, the incoming Home Secretary, had visited New York to look at the scheme and said "I support zero tolerance not because it's trendy, but because I know that all over the country people are crying out for it".

More than a decade later and the Conservatives are now using New York as shorthand for being tough on petty offences and anti-social behaviour. But in that time, the claim that clamping down hard on minor crimes reduces serious crimes has become hotly disputed.

Research published in the University of Chicago Law Review in 2005 compared US cities which had introduced the so-called "broken-windows hypothesis" with those that had not. They found:

no support for a simple first-order disorder-crime relationship... nor that broken windows policing is the optimal use of scarce law enforcement resources

Supporters of the New York model point to dramatic falls in the murder rate in the city. That homicides fell dramatically during the 1990s is indisputable - from a peak of 2,262 in 1990 to 767 in 1997. But a closer look at the data reveals that murder cases were plummeting before the architect of zero-tolerance, William Bratton, became Commissioner in 1994.

The explanations for the fall suggested by the criminologist Professor Benjamin Bowling in his paper The Rise and Fall of New York Murder [165Kb PDF] are more to do with the contraction of crack-cocaine markets than they are to do with broken windows.

Both "zero-tolerance" and visible anti-crime measures like CCTV appeal to politicians because they go down well with voters and, initially at least, had some sort of evidence base. But as time has gone by, the science has become distinctly less enthusiastic in linking cause and effect, even if public support remains high.

According to David Thacher, Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, this is problematic [1.98Mb PDF].

He argues that:

"the objectivity of social science makes it very attractive in policy arguments because it holds out the hope of resolving intractable controversies through neutral methods of rational inquiry. But if we use causal analyses to bypass those controversies and the causal analyses come undone, we end up in a difficult position."

The danger is that we continue to expend money and resources on what we imagine are quick and easy fixes to cut crime when the evidence would suggest they may be the opposite.

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