I vividly remember pitching my doctoral research idea to senior police officers. It was an usually warm Spring afternoon in Northern Ireland. Armed with my handouts, the aim was to talk in police parlance, emphasising the practical benefits of the project and outlining the ‘police product.’ The senior officers, though, were equally as keen to quiz me on the size and representativeness of my sample, the theory I’d would be testing, and how the data would help answer my research questions. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised though; in the run up to the meeting, the officer had already sent me their master’s thesis, based on a survey they had designed.
My experience can perhaps be partly explained by the coincidence of modern, professional police organisations and their desire to adopt more ‘evidence-based practices,’ with academia’s emphasis on collaborative partnerships, which increasingly invites outside organisations, such as the police, into our ivory towers in the spirit of ‘knowledge exchange.’The Thames Valley Police Seminar, hosted each year by the Centre for Criminology, is an excellent example of how institutions and university departments can develop and foster mutually beneficial relationships. Over the years the event has reflected the broad range of research conducted at the Centre, highlighting a range of contemporary criminal justice issues. With input from Thames Valley Police, the six sessions that comprised this year’s seminar―held on Wednesday, 23 September in the Manor Road Building―focused particularly on issues of policing.
The event began with a unique and quite controversial project introduced by Professor Seena Fazel, which seeks to better understand the genetic risk factors that may predispose some people to commit crime. Acknowledging the importance of genes―alongside other environmental factors―in explaining our behaviour, Professor Fazel’s ambition is to advance the current research in this area by drawing on offenders’ DNA samples collected by police, to adopt a genome-wide association study exploring where there are associations between genes and the behaviours we label criminal. Such information could allow for the development of treatments that could use biological markers as measures of their efficacy, and also assist in the assessments of offenders already convicted of offences.
As outlined by Professor Illina Singh, co-researcher on the project, and picked up on by the audience in the question and answer session, this proposal poses obvious ethical issues; in particular, the classification of groups based on their genetic profiles, the ability of suspects to truly consent to their DNA being used for the project, and the currently unknown practices that might be applied to their DNA in the future.
Connecting some of these issues of police power with his ongoing research on police legitimacy, Dr Ben Bradford, also involved in the project, asked, ‘Why does anyone think this okay? …Why do people support giving the police more powers, especially potentially problematic powers?’ The answers to these questions, he suggested, may depend in large part on the extent to which we perceive the police to be legitimate. Legitimacy, understood as a moral obligation to obey―driven by procedural fairness and social identity―serves to ‘crowd out’ sceptical views of police powers or positively ‘fill in’ any uncertainties they might have.
In the two sessions that followed, attention turned to the movement of people across national borders and how this is policed. On the topic of policing human trafficking, Dr Paolo Campana described the trafficking of prostitutes from Nigeria to Europe. Adopting a network analysis of the gangs involved in this criminal enterprise and drawing on unique access to data obtained through phone taps conducted with the Italian police, Dr Campana was able to lift the bonnet on the structures and activities of a large-scale human trafficking ring.
Speaking more generally, though, Professor Mary Bosworth outlined how, in an age of mobility, the academic literature continues to play catch up with policing as it’s happening ‘on the ground.’ Using a range of images that captured policing operations involving migrants and refugees over recent months, Professor Bosworth suggested that police are increasingly being asked to perform a variety of functions, some of which sit uncomfortably alongside other, more traditional understandings of police work. Reflecting on police operations like ‘Safer Communities’ in the US and ‘Nexus’ in the UK, Professor Bosworth promoted policing and migration research as an opportunity to not only better understand these new developments, but also to shine an important light on questions of state’s authority, desire for security, and their relationship with Europe.
After an opportunity to discuss the morning’s presentations over lunch, Dr Alpa Parmar returned with another topical issue: child sexual exploitation. This topic has garnered considerable attention in the media, revealing high-profile cases of systemic abuse in institutions like the BBC. Dr Parmar exposed the paucity of existing research, leaving it hard for criminologists to explain why many crimes of sexual abuse against children remain unreported and undetected for so long. Inspired by her research on Asian communities, gender and crime, and drawing on an ethnographic methodology she has used successfully in the past, Dr Parmar made a strong argument for adopting a community-level analysis to critically examine and respond appropriately to child sexual exploitation across communities.
Turning to the politics of policing, Professor Ian Loader provided an overview of law and order politics from 1979 to 2008. Throughout this period, crime and our response to it was central to successive governments and wider political debates, producing a ‘hot’ and volatile criminal justice policy environment. Professor Loader explained that we no longer live in that world. Crime doesn’t dominate social and police life the same way it did fifteen years ago, just look at its absence from the last two general elections. He suggested this could perhaps be explained by the crime drop, austerity, and the triumph of neo- (and social) liberalism. Professor Loader explained how this change required ‘re-alignments’ for actors and institutions which formerly acted through, and drew upon, law and order politics, including police organisations.The day concluded with three brief presentations by the Centre’s DPhil students, who enjoyed helpful comments and suggestions from an audience that remained lively after a long day! Roxana Willis discussed findings from the attempts in Northamptonshire to move towards evidence-based restorative justice, which applies the practice to ‘deep-end’ cases, such as homicide and violent crimes. This is based on Roxana’s broader ethnographic project exploring the role of community in restorative justice. Shona Minson, whose research assesses the impact of maternal imprisonment on children, spoke of children’s experiences of the police arrest of their mothers, as described to her during her fieldwork. Shona offered helpful advice on how to minimise the fear and anxiety that children often feel during this time. As Shona made clear, from a child’s perspective, no arrest is ever peaceful. Finally, I gave a brief outline of my project exploring the role that human rights play in policing and police legitimacy in the context of Northern Ireland.
The Centre looks forward to welcoming back Thames Valley Police next year, for more discussions, exchange of ideas, and feedback on the Centre’s latest research.