Revisiting ‘Policing the Crisis’

On the 17th of August 1972, a British newspaper reported on a violent robbery as ‘a mugging gone wrong’. The article was accompanied by the following headline: ‘As crimes of violence escalate, a word common in the United States enters the British headlines: mugging. To our police, it’s a frightening new strain of crime.’

At this point, the study ‘Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order’, begins its ever-widening exploration: from crime statistics to the police, from the media to the courts, from the state and the core beliefs of British society to the advent of Thatcherism. The kaleidoscopic nature of the book evokes associations with the HBO television series The Wire, where each season navigates a different institutional aspect of Baltimore’s social troubles: the black ghetto drugs economy, the dwindling labour market, the police and city politics, the school system and the media. In so doing, The Wire acts out a core insight of Policing the Crisis, namely that crime cannot be seen independently from the institutions that aim to control it and report on it. Agencies such as the police, the courts and the media do not passively react to a given crime situation, they “are actively and continuously part of the whole process”. The book and the television series also share an ability to explain these complex matters in clear and accessible language. Even though a lot has changed in criminology since the book was first published a little more than 35 years ago – consider contemporary trends such as target culture and risk management – there is still much in this book that is relevant in understanding current developments. At the end of this review, I will shortly illustrate that by looking at the uproar concerning Moroccan immigrant youth in the Netherlands.

A moral panic

The first step taken in the book is to statistically dismantle the newspaper headline: mugging at the time is shown to be not in any way new, the major part of the escalation of crime took place in the decade before. Similar things can be said about the appeals to tougher sentencing and the media reports blaming the soft policy of judges for the alleged crime wave. In fact, longer sentences are passed and more offenders are being sentenced in Great Britain at the time. What’s more, tougher sentencing is shown to have had no measurable deterring effect. What to do when the official reaction to a series of events is out of all proportion to the actual threat offered, when media representations stress the novel character and the sudden and dramatic increase of the threat, and when this is clearly unfounded? Then, the authors state, the public outcry should be defined as a moral panic:

‘Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereo-typical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible.’ (Cohen cited in Hall et al. 1978, p16-17)

The anxiety in the UK surrounding mugging in the early seventies, the authors argue, should be seen as a moral panic. While mugging is in no way a ‘new strain of crime’, the label mugging with its American provenance, imposes a new meaning on events. The term mugging was first used in the British press to describe street crime as part of the growing social tensions in the US. Mugging mobilised a series of linked frames: the race conflict in the U.S., the urban crisis, rising crime rates, the breakdown of law and order, the liberal conspiracy, the white backlash. It formed a significant aspect of the Republican appeal to the ‘silent majority’ in the run up to the presidential victory of Nixon in 1968. When the term was transplanted to the UK context, it allowed violent robbery to be seen through the prism of the urban and political crisis in the United States.

Policing the crisis is careful to highlight the multifaceted and interdependent nature of the institutional response to crime. Some months before the first ‘mugging’ cases were dealt with in court and the issue of mugging came to be defined by judges and the media as a pressing social issue, already a ‘major mobilisation of police resources, attention and energies had taken place’. The confrontation between police and black youth in British urban neighborhoods predated the mugging panic, and formed its precondition. The police, the courts and the media do not simply respond to crime and moral panics, the authors show them to be an integral part of the construction process. These institutions get to decide which issues are highlighted, how crime statistics are interpreted, where police resources are allocated, and how they are given meaning in relation to the wider societal context. Which is not to say that institutions are completely in control of the dynamic, as in the end all of them are “acting out a script they do not write”. The remainder of the book is devoted to the exploration of the connection between the moral panic and the crisis in British politics, which led to the emergence of the British New Right. As crime is in effect a ‘dramatised symbolic reassertion of the values of society’, it tends to lend itself to a conservative politics of restoration of authority.

Moroccan youth: a Dutch moral panic

The majority of the arguments developed in Policing the Crisis could easily be transposed to the current Dutch context. Since the emergence of a right wing backlash in 2002, crime and safety issues have become one of the principle fault lines of Dutch politics. Problems with criminal Moroccan youth have developed into what can properly be called a moral panic: they are seen as a ‘threat to societal values and interests’; and the issue is certainly presented in ‘a stylized and stereo-typical fashion by the mass media’. In April 2013, Dutch parliament officially held a Marokkanendebat (the Moroccans-debate) and things still haven’t quieted down.

In Policing the Crisis, crime statistics are said to appear as hard fact, but to factually serve an ideological function: ‘they appear to ground free floating and controversial impressions in the hard incontrovertible soil of numbers.’ The political nature of crime statistics, it is argued, is due to the relative status of the numbers: these refer only to reported crime, police sensitisation and mobilisation increase the numbers that both police and the public report and public anxiety leads to over-reporting. This is particularly apt for the Netherlands, where overrepresentation of Moroccan youth in crime statistics has led to a public appeal for “less Moroccans” by the rightwing populist PVV party this year. In ways similar to the British moral panic around mugging, crime and safety have become central political issues in the Netherlands at a time when crime was actually decreasing palpably, according to official statistics.

The reference point for mugging was the urban crisis in the US. In the case of Moroccan youth, a different and more complex series of frames have been mobilised. There is the frame of 9/11 and political Islam that has been constructed by Fortuyn, Wilders and Hirsi Ali. Moroccan youth have been branded ‘street terrorists’, their actions explained as part of the alleged aggressive takeover of Europe by Muslim immigrants. There is the frame of ‘culturalism’ popularized by Paul Scheffer and a wide range of intellectuals. According to this view, the problems of Moroccan youth are seen as originating from their cultural background, and their difficulty in dealing with Western modernity. The conclusion is that problems with Moroccan youth should primarily be solved within the Moroccan community itself, which is still seen as a traditional village community: the degree of consistency and organisation of that community is highly overstated. And finally there is a broader frame of the failure of multiculturalism and progressive values leading to the need for a reassertion of core Dutch values, which are interpreted in a more conservative fashion than before.

Perhaps the most fundamental argument of Policing the Crisis is that crime is at the very centre of the politics of national identity: ‘It allows all good men and true to stand up and be counted – at least metaphorically – in the defence of normality, stability and “our way of life”‘. It is that very quality that lends crime as a topic its political appeal and mobilising force. In the UK, at the very core of the traditionalist view of crime, it is argued, lies a vision of Englishness, that binds together a particular set of images and themes that are deep-rooted in the everyday lives of ordinary people: respectability, work, (self-) discipline, authority, the neighborhood and the law. Crime is an experience that at the same time touches upon the material reality of everyday life, and plays a fundamental role in forming immaterial representations of how life ought to be lived.

Of course this is a classic sociological insight. Crime, Emile Durkheim argued in 1893, serves a vital social function. Crime ‘brings together upright consciences and concentrates them.’ Through the punishment of deviants and offenders, the moral boundaries of a community are established and reaffirmed.

The methodical, accessible and penetrating way Policing the Crisis has sought to modernize that insight rightfully makes it a modern classic.