Ross Gittins asks:
Which do you think is more common: murder or suicide? If you think it’s murder, congratulations – most people agree with you. But you – and they – are quite mistaken. Suicide outnumbers murder by far. That question is a cognitive psychologists’ party trick. They use it to demonstrate how heavily our perceptions of the world around us are influenced by superficialities – by what we hear about most often, or what we’ve heard about most recently. Most people believe murder to be more common than suicide because murders get far more publicity in the media. To be blunt, they’re more interesting. Many suicides go unreported because the person involved isn’t well-known, to protect the family’s privacy or to avoid encouraging copy-cats.
Gittins uses his column this week to publicise the work of Dr Don Weatherburn, Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research. Weatherburn, a very careful social scientist and one of Australia’s leading authorities on criminology, has just published a book with Federation Press, Law and Order in Australia: Rhetoric and Reality.
Weatherburn isn’t afraid of getting into a stoush over the facts. He recently clashed with Bob Carr and NSW Police Commissioner Ken Moroney over whether a recent drop in crime in NSW was down to “good policing” or the state of the economy and higher employment outcomes among young men (always the biggest perpetrators of crime). Weatherburn suspects the latter, but is going to wait til all the evidence is in before making a call.
Similarly, speaking on ABC radio recently, Weatherburn made a point I’d endorse:
TANYA NOLAN: With crimes like violent assault increasing by as much as 380 per cent over the last two decades, Dr Weatherburn describes law and order in Australia as a serious problem and he says it’s time to get serious about addressing it but Dr Weatherburn says that doesn’t mean pursuing the populist approach to law and order with policies such as zero tolerance.
DON WEATHERBURN: Some of the best ways of dealing with it don’t actually involve raising penalties or appointing more police, they involve simple things like when a mobile phone is stolen, switch it off so it’s of no value to the person who stole it. Or when you sell a wrecked vehicle, don’t leave the compliance plate on because someone who’s stolen a car will get that compliance plate and use it to rebirth a stolen vehicle. If you want to get the assault rate down, stop licensed premises continuing to serve alcohol to intoxicated people. They’re the sort of things we should be discussing as solutions, not this old appoint more police, raise more penalties, this sort of thing, that gets far too much airplay.
Crime trends in English speaking developed countries have had a big secular rise since the 1960s, though things have been more stable or heading in the right direction since the early 1990s. But what hasn’t changed is that the fear of crime remains ever present. The British sociologist, David Garland, describes our society as having an entrenched “culture of high crime”.
In other words, we have increasingly grown to accept crime and its risk as an everyday social fact, and management of this risk is part of our everyday lives and our calculations. Garland’s ideas on causality are interesting. For instance, the entry of large numbers of women into the labour market means that many suburban streets are empty during the day. Combined with an increase in the consumption of easily knicked consumables such as computers, VCRs, DVD players and a high rate of drug use, property theft becomes much more common. Since the pathbreaking research of Jane Jacobs in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, we’ve known that “eyes on the street”, everyday patterns of civility, and a rich social capital in residential districts are among the most powerful forms of crime prevention.
In first semester this year, I co-ordinated a course at UQ’s Ipswich Campus, which sought to impart to students the skills and theory necessary to design and evaluate crime prevention programmes, a burgeoning area of employment. Two messages were designed to stick in their heads. The first is that, as acknowledged in all work that’s been done on crime prevention in Australia, fear of crime is as big a problem as crime, and strategies are designed explicitly to decrease this. The second was that two few crime prevention programmes (often community based) are designed with a rigorous methodology and/or evaluated properly.
One problem is that politicians and the media like to stir up the fear of crime. As Gittins indicates, crime sells papers, and advertising space on tv schedules. Weatherburn is calling for an evidence-based policy regime in the area of crime. I couldn’t agree more.