Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Crime mapping : revealing problem people and problem places?

Home Secretary, Theresa May
(c) UK Home Office

Criminal activity in the Whitehall area outstripped that of the riot centres of Tottenham and Hackney in December 2011. Over twice as many violent crimes took place in Whitehall, and possession, supply and production of drugs was approximately 5 times higher there, than in either Tottenham or Hackney.

Time to get more police out to regain control of the streets of Whitehall? Will residents, institutions and businesses in the area move out? Will parents choose to move in order to send their children to school elsewhere? Will it affect property prices? Will the area become disenfranchised and run down?

Of course not. Exclusion and marginalisation is not for those who live, work and do business in this area.

Therein lies the problem with ideas of crime mapping; spatially, it relies on normative assumptions of crime to reaffirm 'problem people' and 'problem places'.

Described as “a feminist in kitten heels” by Amber Elliott, Theresa May launched the new version of the UK's crime map. According to the BBC, the Home Secretary revealed that the new website would make the police more accountable:
"Since October, the public have been able to use the police.uk website to see how their force performs in a range of areas like crime rates, quality of service and victim satisfaction," ...

"[On Tuesday] we'll launch the next stage of crime mapping, in which we'll start to map crimes to or near a range of public places. 
"By May, crime maps will show the public what happens after a crime has occurred - what action the police took and what the criminal justice outcome was." 
"Armed with the information from those crime maps, people can attend their local neighbourhood beat meeting and hold their local police to account for their performance," ... 
"That will help drive up local policing standards and help drive down local crime."
The map will now cover 'crimes' committed in public places, such as nightclubs, subways, and parks.

As the statement above illustrates, the assumption is that people will view this map as a means to ascertain what crime is like in their (prospective) neighbourhood. Therefore, people will not be using this map to assess the likelihood of 'crimes' close to where they work, thereby hiding other 'problem areas' and 'problem people'.

It also fails to address who victims might be and what recourse to help they have.

I do not know who the victims of the crimes in Whitehall are. However, in amongst their number, I am presuming that some will have been tourists, as this area contains a number of well-known tourist sites.

Tourists consulting City of London map (c) David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA3.0
If this is a reasonable assumption to make, then it seems that crime mapping has not been produced with the millions of tourist that visit our shores in mind, despite the financial benefits that they bring. How might they attend future meetings? Who are their local police force? How might they understand what is happening with their case?

Whilst Theresa May asserts that crime mapping will drive up local policing standards and that local crimes will be driven down, it is already being used, but it does not appear to have dramatically reduced the numbers of 'crimes' committed in Whitehall between December 2010-December 2011.

Perhaps more pertinently, given that this is a critical criminology blog, is the fact that crime mapping uses normative, state-defined notions of 'crime'. There are a whole host of crimes that are not included on this map. State, corporate and environmental crimes are most obvious in their absence.

Crime mapping does not include deaths in police custody, as internal inquiries reveal that no criminal action need take place. It would not include the rendition of Libyan dissidents, because it is a civil case. Nor would it include this fraud, as it too has been investigated internally, rather than criminally. Let alone state environmental contamination.

Although these 'crimes' took places in what might also considered public places, the latest crime mapping website will exclude them as 'problem places'. In other words, we will not see local police stations or financial institutions identified as 'criminal' on this map.

Moreover, normative, state-defined 'crimes' include those UK rioters who have been criminalised following their involvement in the UK riots; ordinarily, would they have been punished (think Bullingdon club exploits)?

Some 'crimes' have dubious origins. For example, the construction of anti-social behaviour orders, and their expansion from their original, intended use, have led to the prosecution of thousands of young people.

The above demonstrates how the state, through its institutions such as the criminal justice system, has the power to define and reconstruct what 'crime' is. By mapping the city through these definitions, certain places become identified as more of a 'problem'.

Stigmatisation follows, as people and businesses move out, leading to a downturn in private investment in the area, whilst government cuts hit welfare services that the more socially and economically disadvantaged need. This is the real 'crime'.

As my Whitehall example demonstrates, crime mapping in its present form is a nonsense. 


  1. As a radical criminologists, I find that crime mapping has a LOT of uses with respect to examining social justice issues. You are throwing out the baby with the bath water, so to speak. Instead of complaining about the absence of environmental crime maps, go get the data and make one -- publish it, bring some data to the table that can help change the situation. Examine the link between pollution and injustice with those maps. Its all possible, and its a very useful way to make a point about the importance of radical analysis. We need more than critique.

    Mike Lynch
    Tampa, Florida

    1. Dear Mike

      Thanks for your comment.

      I wrote this article with specific reference to the way that our government produces crime maps as evidence for the public to discern areas that are considered 'risky'. My critique is designed to point out what is currently wrong with producing crime 'hotspots', and the implications that it has for normative ideas of crime and justice.

      I am not throwing out the idea of crime maps per se, but in this particular instance, they are a nonsense. More so, when governments wilfully trot out statistics, often manipulated, as evidence for their policy.

      My use of Whitehall is just such an example of how meaningless statistics can be, and how crime maps portray a world that fits in with a narrative of "who criminals are" and "where they live", and equally, whose interests they protect.

      This article points out a number of concerns that I have with crime mapping. Any realistic crime map needs to include a whole range of crimes not presently included, and should attend to the needs of all within its territory.

      Just as with any other faulty design that is made for public consumption (e.g. cars), the problems should be addressed by the designer(s), not the consumer.

      You say that we need more than critique. Agreed. But I hope this article can be used as a means of improving on its current use.