Crime View: thou shalt fear thy neighbour
The crime-mapping website launched by the police and lauded by the media doesn’t empower us - it turns us into panicked netizens.
It’s fair to say that Tuesday’s launch of the British ‘crime mapping’ website was not a great success.
There the Great British public was, braced in front of monitors across the country, fingers at the ready, just waiting for a chance to type in a postcode or a street name and get an online map indicating crime levels in their chosen area. And what an exciting prospect it was. Not only was the Home Office kindly providing you with an interactive map telling you how many crimes had been committed on, for example, a given street – it would also tell you to which one of the six categories the crime belonged. This was better than Google Street View. This was Crime View.
Unfortunately for the Home Office and the police, but not unsurprisingly given the publicity, the crime-mapping website couldn’t cope with ‘the level of demand’. So, within a few hours of its much-heralded launch, it crashed. The problems didn’t stop there. Those who had managed to access the site quickly spotted statistical absurdities. For instance, two quiet streets in Sussex had an unusually high crime rate, a phenomenon explained by the fact that police were attributing a number of hoax mobile calls to the streets in want of any knowledge about where the calls were actually being made.
Elsewhere, a burglary hotspot was pinned down to a cul de sac in Oldham. This came as news to its distinctly unburgled residents. ‘The most exciting thing to happen around here recently was when high winds snapped a neighbour’s palm tree’, explained 36-year-old Simon Jones. ‘They had to cut it down. You can still see it sticking out of their rubbish bin.’ Again, the labelling of a quiet cul de sac as a crime hotspot was down to a reporting error: all the crimes for a beat-wide area had, via the mapping service, been dumped on this one street.
Alongside the technical problems, there were problems of classification, too. The six categories – burglary, robbery, vehicle crime, violence, other crime and anti-social behaviour – are just too vague to be useful, some have complained. Sex crimes become ‘other crime’; grievous bodily harm is conflated with actual bodily harm. In the words of The Times (London), this bundling up of crimes makes ‘it hard to distinguish the truly threatening from the merely annoying’.
Yet despite the complaints and criticism, despite the worries about house prices and the concern about a crime-obsessed public, there has been a general consensus, certainly among the political and media classes, that the crime-mapping website is essentially a Really Good Thing. The execution might have been a bit shoddy to start off with, so the commentary choruses, but it is definitely a great idea.
The Guardian’s editorial argued that crime mapping will help to ‘inform the public, to facilitate better local decision-making and to engage citizens in more rational strategies for dealing with important problems that can arouse strong emotions’. A leader in The Times (London) concurred, pleased that citizens will be able to have a debate about crime and police resources ‘out in the open’. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail was just happy that so many seemed to want to have a go on Home Office Crime View: ‘This is a service the public most definitely wants. And which they are too aware they have not been getting.’
What seems to appeal to this cross-section of the British media elite is the very same rationale that the state has used to justify the crime maps. It will empower us; it will provide us with the information necessary to intervene in and improve our local communities. Little wonder that the man heading up the scheme, Avon & Somerset Assistant Chief Constable Steve Mortimore, explained that crime-mapping was part of the Lib-Con government’s Big Society aspiration. As the home secretary, Theresa May, pointed out, ‘We want people to be able to see what crime is happening on their street and to be able to tell their local police if they have concerns, and challenge them about how issues are being dealt with.’
In truth, far from empowering us, it’s far more likely that an initiative like Crime View will do the exact opposite. This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, what could possibly be wrong with allowing us to view the area where we live in terms of crimes committed? But that is precisely the problem. It actively encourages us, as isolated netizens, to view our environs in terms of crime. Nothing else matters, so abstracted and barren is the landscape of the crime map. And as such, it estranges us. It estranges us from those we live among, and it estranges us from our own experience.
We are no longer to feel secure in an area because we know the streets, know the people. Quite the contrary: we are to feel insecure in an area because we don’t really know the streets, because we don’t really know the people. You may think you feel safe walking down your road in the evening. But a quick perusal of your road on the crime-maps website, complete with a yellow blob with ‘4’ written inside it, will tell you that four violent crimes were committed just over there. If you weren’t already worried, having been made complacent by your experience of the area, then you will be now.
In the threat-riddled world of Crime View, we are not simply being given information – we are having our everyday perceptions challenged. A particular view of society as an agglomerate of potential threats is given official form. Far from assuaging fears, the website can only exacerbate them. After all, how are you meant to respond to contextless icons indicating the bad things that happen all around you?
And there’s the disempowering nub of the matter. Given that problems in society are reduced to errant individuals doing bad things, and posing the only solution in terms of law and order, the state wants us to respond by ‘calling the police to account’. What this actually involves, apparently, is worried individuals holding meetings with neighbourhood police teams, the names and ranks of whom are given out on the website. If this is the Big Society, it is one managed by a heavily involved state. Anything approaching neighbourly solidarity must now be state-mediated. Just about the only thing being empowered here is a fear-laden view of the world, starting from one’s own doorstep.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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