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Crimeing people

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“Crime” is a verb, as well as a noun, some say. It’s what people -- usually police officers -- do when they make immediate, informal, judgments on the front line. Most of us believe that crime is just a noun, defined by legislation and interpreted by judges in court.  Crime, we might think, is an action which constitutes an offence and is punishable by law; and criminalization is the word for applying the criminal law to a specific action or offender. So what is the difference between informal “crimeing” and formal criminalization? Why does it occur? Is it acceptable?

Take an example: a police officer is called to the scene of some teenagers loudly congregating on a street corner. She arrives to find no obvious major transgressions of the law. Maybe there’s some littering or low-level anti-social behaviour, but no drug-use, violence or criminal damage. In that moment, she must make a decision: should she “turn a blind eye” (i.e., let the incident pass with noaction), “cuff it” (i.e., send the kids on their way with a good old fashioned cuff round the ear or, more likely in today’s age of child protection, children’s rights, political correctness and teenage violence, an informal caution), or “crime it” (i.e., decide, taking into account all the circumstances, to pursue the matter further with full recourse to the law)?

Crimeing then depends on an active, personal, immediate “snap” judgment, and later collective reflection on the matter in ‘the nick’ [police station]. It has formal components of course but depends on many informal assumptions, organizational imperatives and good old ‘street wisdom’. The main thing is that this is ‘action’, not a passive, automatic, application of the law. But can she and her colleagues really make that judgment in a responsible way? Why are such judgments needed? And are “crimeing” and its consequences acceptable?

In its practical application, the law is not straightforward and transgressions must be interpreted by a whole system of courts, judges, lawyers and juries. Crimeing reflects the fact that the act of judgment -- whther on guilt versus innocence, or simply whether  there is a case to be pursued -- is  often a front line question. But whereas the formal legal apparatus is (at least in principle) overseen in such a way as to ensure due process, crimeing depends on a personal judgment so that accountability is much less obvious. There are no norms or rules for crimeing; the act of crimeing sets its own norm, yet  simultaneously judges that the norm has been transgressed. Thus, it presents a situation where it is much harder to ask -- and answer transparently -- important questions concerning whose interests are being served and why.

Why is crimeing necessary? There are at least three reasons that immediately spring to mind. First, police officers have to make front-line snap judgments, as a form of triage. There is risk: it may be safer for an officer’s career if she does nothing rather than risk pursuing a potentially unfruitful case, or worse, a case that results in a wrongful arrest.  Further, the current obsession with widely published crime figures and statistics means that a police officer must judge whether crimeing is likely to have a positive impact on the spreadsheet. Will we get a conviction? Will we hit our targets? Will we spend scarce time and human resources in pursuing a case that may not ultimately “deliver”?

Second, and related, given the current mantra of austerity being chanted around the world, police forces are faced with the twin problems of increased workload and decreased budgets. Not crimeing a particular situation has the effect of pre-emptively abandoning uncertain or borderline cases, thereby saving scarce financial resources for where a result is (judged to be) more likely.

Thirdly, crimeing contributes to a more widespread (but suppressed) function of the criminal justice system. The system is in place to create the sense that the state is doing something to deal with society’s problems. Since the state -- and the police force as an instrument of the state -- is incapable of dealing with the deeper problems (like poverty, alienation and oppression) that are the causes of crime, it simply deals with the effects; we can all sleep safely at night because the state seems to be on the case. Crimeing perpetuates the myth of state effectiveness, since it provides a mechanism where we can quickly identify and catch the bad guys without too much fuss.

It is obvious to us that too great a reliance on “crimeing” is unacceptable. Crimeing judgments, and the intuition, experience, discretion and organizational pressures behind them, are not transparent and cannot be held accountable precisely because they are informal and subjective. A police force -- and thereby a state -- that employs such strategies has taken a dangerously authoritarian turn, in our view. We imply that all authority is potentially corruptible and that no criminalization is possible without informal assumptions and interpretations; not that there should be legal control by automaton. In short, informal practices need to be more transparent, public and accountable.

Perhaps -- at least in theory -- there could be something like “responsible crimeing” which is governed by its own code of conduct to ensure some kind of accountability. But such a thing would, in effect, be a formalisation of what is, by definition, an informal practice; rules to regulate crimeing would undermine its usefulness as a quick and practical approach to making immediate judgments.

More importantly, trying to fix up crimeing to render it acceptable is too much like wallpapering over the cracks in the wall; instead we should be trying to change the things -- poverty, austerity policies, and the nature of state authority -- that simultaneously fail to deal with society’s real problems and make “crimeing” necessary.

This piece is a product of an experimental collective writing session on 31 May 2013 as part of the week-long Theory and Philosophy Summer School (TAPSS) hosted by University College Cork at Blackwater Castle, County Cork. The session was steered by, and the product edited by, Colin Sumner, sociology professor at UCC and editor of CrimeTalk.


Muzaffar Ali, grad student, Centre for Philosophy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Shuo Liu, LLB (Beijing Technology & Business University), LLM (UCD). Reading for a PhD at UCD on the evolution of refugee law and protection in the PRC.

Irena Loveikaite, doing a PhD in Applied Arts, Waterford Institute of Technology

Amin Sharifi, doctoral student in Sociology at UCC working on democracy and Islam in Persia [Iran].

Mark Timoney, postgrad researcher, Social Sciences, Sligo IT.

Aisling Tuite, AIB Centre for Finance and Business Research, Waterford Institute of Technology.

Joel Walmsley, Lecturer, Dept. of Philosophy, University College Cork.

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