Crime Scene Investigation

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.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Robert Merkel
2024 years ago

I’d love to know the statistics on the number of fictional serial killers compared to actual ones…

And while we’re dealing with misconceptions, has anybody in Australia studied the effectiveness of the CCTV cameras in public places councils seem to like so much? IIRC British evidence suggests that while they don’t actually reduce crime, they reduce people’s fears of crime.

David Tiley
2024 years ago

Since the fear of crime is what makes people persecute rather than reform criminals, maybe that is a useful thing to do.

The fictional serial killers is a great question, because it is a sub-genre all its own, which reflects the reader’s psychological needs.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2024 years ago

Robert, I can’t recall the source or the exact ratio but I remember hearing it was in the order of 1000:1.

On CCTV, yes, and yes, the picture here is the same as in the UK. A lot of them aren’t even monitored.

2024 years ago


Yet another thought provoking post. How do you blog all of this and write a Ph.D? Positively, “Trollopian” or even “Quigginesque”! Much appreciated though.

And Robert Merkel, yes! LOL! I’m bored rigid with the serial killer genre. Have been after “Henry”. “Se7en” was a nasty, derivative film.

A contributing factor must be the relatively recent increase in the “liquidity” of consumer durables via places like Cash Converters. Conversion of stolen property in a pub or off the back of the proverbial truck is largely a thing of the past.

And certainly, here in S.A. there has been no shortage of whipping up fear of crime, especially in relation to so called “home invasions”, the activities of bikie gangs, recreational drugs etc. Concomitantly with the now expected “remedies” of tougher penalties, longer sentences, increased policing and police rights.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2024 years ago

Thanks, Gaby. John Quiggin and I share a love for Trollope!

As to blogging/thesising, I wrote this in an email today:

“I really like the instant feedback I get on my writing – not something that’s too common in academia (often conference sessions can be too agenda/ego driven).

As to the thesis, blogging is part a distraction/form of procrastination and part a technique to keep me in sharp writing form. Occasionally I try out some ideas too.”

But I’m wondering as Chris did at BackPages when he pulled the plug in order to concentrate on pulling together his book, whether I might need to take a break or at least slow the pace.

At this stage, 22 January is the big date for finishing – and I plan not to do anything much between Xmas and New Years. So I’m keeping the time commitment to blogging under review.

On Cash Converters etc, when I was living in West End about 10 years ago, people’s homes used to be regularly burgled for cds, which would land the next day in this local record store. The proprietor seemed to have cut out the middle man. I was really pleased to see rising rents forced him out of business – needless to say he didn’t generate much local goodwill.

Nic White
2024 years ago

Another excellent post Mark.

I think youre right in saying that the fear of crime is just as much a problem as the actual prevelance of crime. If people are living in fear of crime it leaves them open to exploitation from corporations with the latest security grills and so forth. If you scare people, they will do whatever you want. Id say it also contributed to child obesity and so forth as parents are too afriad to let their kids out of the house for fear they might be abducted.

I also agree on the point that we need more community crime prevention programs. If everyone looked out for everyone else, there simply would not be as much crime as there is.

David Tiley
2024 years ago

That, Mark, is the beauty of a group blog.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2024 years ago

True, David.

Agreed, Nic – but one of the biggest challenges in designing community crime prevention programmes is actually involving the community as well as vested interests.