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Mapping fear and loathing

2011 February 1
by Paul Vallely

Here’s one law the police may not have expected they would have to uphold: the law of unintended consequences. Politicians, on the other hand, ought to be better acquainted with the notion, and better prepared for it.

What could be wrong – on the face of it – with the Government’s scheme to put on the internet a map of every street in England and Wales along with the statistics on how much anti-social crime, mugging, violence and burglary goes on there? Quite a lot actually.

Ministers’ official line, delivered without apparent irony, is that it will give “power to the people”. The scheme will be a keystone in the architecture of Big Society accountability. The new website will make us feel safer because – information being power – we will all be able to monitor local crime trends and do something about it.

But how? It’s “about fighting crime together,” the Government says. The intention is not that local residents should erect roadblocks at the end of their street, Cairo vigilante style; rather we should all contact our local beat officer or attend a public meeting. In this way we will “drive the priorities” of the elected police commissioners who will be the Government’s next wheeze. Public meetings. That should drive fear into the hearts of local hoodlums.

The Coalition’s plan is worse than useless. It will cause additional problems. Fear of crime will almost certainly rise among the vulnerable or elderly; knowing the statistics for crime in the neighbourhood, without a proper understanding of the statistical context, is likely to prove that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. It is a recipe for impotence and fear.

Areas will become stereotyped and stigmatised so that insurance premiums rise, house prices fall, and pizza takeaways refuse to deliver or taxi drivers to pick up. The maps will also tell burglars where the crime hot spots – and police patrol cars – are to be found, allowing them to go about their breaking-and-entering undisturbed. The distortion of police priorities that will follow, at a time when force budgets are being cut, make this political gimmick risible.

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