Thursday, November 24, 2016

Ethics in criminology - avoiding Frankenstein

Frankenstein - a story about over-extended science 

by Mateja Mihinjac

The story of Frankenstein, when a scientist’s experiment runs amok, is a fictional account of science gone wrong. A few weeks ago I attended a criminology conference about crime prevention and communities. The conference targeted academics, police, local councils and groups like Neighbourhood Watch and Police-Citizens Youth Clubs.

The take-home message as it turned out, however, was not an appreciation for cooperative community-driven crime prevention. Instead, the delegates were fascinated by presentations on evidence-based criminal justice showcased through the technical whizz of some presenters and the call for a scientific response to crime.


The evidence-based mantra is the latest trend in criminal justice and policing, often called the evidence-based approach (EBA) in crime prevention and evidence-based policing.

These academics (they call themselves “scientists”) maintain that criminal justice policies should be driven by scientifically evaluated strategies that have been proven to work, a laudable goal to be sure. But to support these arguments, EBA proponents like to compare the evolution of criminal justice to medical science.

The biological and physical sciences use experiments in controlled labs
They maintain that by applying scientific techniques that allow for objective, comprehensive and rigorous assessments, they will be able to guide public safety professionals with approved solutions and thus eliminate guesswork that had guided their work in the past. It is a proposition long criticized as unrealistic by social research experts like National Academy of Science member Stanley Lieberson, former chair of the Sociological Research Association.


Crime is a social problem characterized by complicated causes and interconnected underlying factors. The science that the EBA crowd follows is based on quantitative number crunching and the kind of controlled experiments that are simple to control in the chemistry lab, but far less so on the street where crime occurs.

How likely is it that the same methods in physical science are ideal methods for truly understanding the complexities of crime? How realistic is it to think the multifaceted social factors of social disorder and crime can be extracted, reduced to small components and then tested in experimental designs?

Harvard’s Malcolm Sparrow also warns that relying too much on evidence-based practice is a risky proposition; it risks dependence on a limited pool of validated solutions and dependence on quickly outdated solutions in today’s rapidly changing society. Further, Sparrow says that the excessive time needed to establish a knowledge-base to satisfy evidence-based policing proponents means that results may take too long to be operationally relevant.

Data-driven, computational experiments can take years to complete
One argument for establishing evidence-based practice is to eliminate the disconnect between academics and practitioners. But escalating the evidence-based rhetoric does not help narrow this gap; in fact, it only perpetuates the division between the two.

This is especially true when EBA academics consider themselves as governors of the research that judges policies rather than establishing a mutually beneficial collaborative relationship. There is no worse way to create top-down solutions that exclude those who are affected by these policy decisions — the public.


This does not mean, as the saying goes, that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Evidence-based practice has an important role to play, particularly in crime prevention and policing. Evidence-based research provides directional patterns that might support the effectiveness of certain measures.

However, decision makers should not rely solely upon today’s trending EBA promises especially when solutions may infringe upon social equality. Ethics cannot be pushed aside from decisions made too quickly from a complete lack of evidence, or too slowly from a plodding EBA platform in which “scientists” take months or years to conclude little of value.

Sparrow partially attributes the overwhelming focus of the evidence-based policing movement on place-based interventions such as situational crime prevention, CPTED or hotspot policing. In these cases, ethical questions seem very distant when researchers use secondary data, such as crime statistics collected by police, and their computational calculations do not directly involve people.

It is ultimately still people who will experience the effects of place-based interventions.

"Big Data" does not solve our problems if we have weak connection to
those under study
One example of this vulnerability is evidence-based solutions such as target hardening in situational prevention or CPTED that minimize criminal opportunities (when crimes may not have actually occurred) but may also reduce opportunities for liveability, walkability or socializing. This is why we need to engage communities each step of the way during evidence-based research and practice. Other professions do it — why can’t we?

Schram neatly summarizes the evidence-based versus ethics-based debate:
“we need less top-down research which focuses on a ‘what works’ agenda that serves the management of subordinate populations and more research that provides bottom-up understandings of a ‘what’s right’ agenda tailored to empowering people in particular settings”. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Shining light onto LEDs - disturbing findings

Fly into any major city at night and you’ll notice vast swaths of bright white lights replacing the yellow hue from high-pressure sodiums, once the preeminent lord of night lighting across the urban fabric.

The white light is from LEDs - light emitting diodes - and cities are installing them in an implementation tsunami. They are cheaper and they are brighter, but I have been bothered by their excessive glare and, during our night site visits, I always warn students about the lack of research on LED and human behavior. Over the years I’ve blogged about sodiums and Randy Atlas has guest blogged here on LEDs. But research has been scant.

Until now! And the early results are worrying.


The American Medical Association has released a statement condemning the health effects of LED street lighting.

The AMA identifies two concerns:

  • First, the bright glare is caused from the wavelength and color rendition from LEDs. Apparently the high intensity of LEDs emit large amounts of blue light that appears white. This causes a glare problem worse than conventional street lights and it’s why the light dispersion from LEDs is so difficult to control, even with cutoff shields. Says the AMA: “Discomfort and disability from intense, blue-rich LED lighting can decrease visual acuity and safety…creating a road hazard.”

Engineers use a color rendition index to assess light sources impacts 
- photo by Adoniscik 

  • Second, it also turns out that the blue-rich LED streetlights suppress melatonin levels and people end up with disturbed sleep cycles. Says the AMA: “It is estimated that white LED lamps have five times greater impact on circadian sleep rhythms than conventional street lamps.” In large studies the AMA says this causes “reduced sleep times and impaired daytime functioning”. Not good.

Obviously, the AMA studies are not the final word. For example, the blue from LEDs can be controlled.


The lighting industry, understandably, is not happy with the AMA conclusions. One source says “As with any new technology, there are a lot of unknowns that only time will be able to tell what the results/answers will be.”

That is the same thing we have been saying about LED lights from the beginning. In the budget-saving rush to install LEDs we know very little about the behavioral, social and medical consequences from these new light technologies.

Students of CPTED know that lighting research regarding safety is based on quantity, not quality. I have yet to read a single study on light source quality and crime related behavior. This knowledge gap isn't limited to LEDs, we also have inadequate qualitative information on halide or sodium light sources.

Until we do, it’s probably best to look for successful cities with exceptional lighting, such as Melbourne, Australia, and see what they do right.

Melbourne, Australia has award-winning, city-wide lighting designs - photo by
the extraordinary lighting engineer Ian Dryden

Friday, November 4, 2016

Storytelling - A narrative for change

Storyteller Katrice Horsley performing at the New Orleans SafeGrowth Summit
Guest Blog: MATEJA MIHINJAC is a criminologist completing a PhD in CPTED at Griffith University, Australia. She is a SafeGrowth Advocate, a member of the International CPTED Association and the American Society of Criminology.

At our New Orleans SafeGrowth Summit four weeks ago we had the pleasure of hosting a National Storytelling Laureate for the United Kingdom and a storyteller of 30 years, Katrice Horsley. Katrice injected us with warmth, energy, and passion for creating social change through what she refers to as “narrative for change”.

We learned how storytelling can serve as a powerful transformational method for achieving social change to promote empowerment and social justice. Several organizations such as Transformative Storytelling for Social Change use storytelling to form meaning and experience through narrative and do so in a fun and non-threatening way. As Katrice also explains:
“Storytelling is the main way that we make sense of ourselves and of the world around us, both through the stories we choose to hear and the stories we choose to tell. New findings in neuroscience now show us how important narrative is in creating an identity for ourselves and also in experiencing and understanding how others make sense of their worlds.” 
Katrice uses imagery and tools to envision narratives 
Katrice challenged some of our narratives that become beliefs, not only about us as individuals, but also about our neighborhoods. We learned how to express our own stories, and our neighborhood stories, in creative ways that included props like textiles, cards, and threads.

These are powerful methods for creating change through narrative and they equipped us with new skills for neighborhood development. Katrice showed how storytelling can deliver outcomes such as:

  • Building networks 
  • Enabling a just process for all voices
  • Raising political awareness about common problems
  • Serving as a catalyst for change

One of Katrice's sketches for our SafeGrowth narrative
Katrice’s powerful performances during the Summit echoed the SafeGrowth message that, just as we can envision multiple futures for change, there are many narratives for our neighborhoods. Narrative induces particular emotions and attitudes and, if we confront those honestly in stories, we can challenge ingrained beliefs that block progress. That allows us to better tap into new ideas towards some desired future. In Katrice’s words: “If you want to effect a change then narrative is the way forward”.

Katrice helped us see the great potential that transformational storytelling has within SafeGrowth programs for planning vibrant and safe 21st Century neighborhoods.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

SafeGrowth Summit in New Orleans

Search Conference participants enjoyed the French Quarter after sessions
Tarah is a senior researcher in the Integrated Risk Assessment Instrument Research Group in Vancouver, Canada. She is a certified SafeGrowth Advocate and is completing her PhD in criminology at Simon Fraser University. 

Two weeks ago, the ever expanding SafeGrowth program, in partnership with Louisiana AARP, held our third SafeGrowth Summit. Six teams from across the country joined us in New Orleans, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Baton Rouge, Los Angeles and of course New Orleans.

Our week included a very special visit from Nobel Laureate for Storytelling, Katrice Horsley from the UK, who was an incredible addition to our team (this will be the focus of an upcoming blog). Suffice to say, many of us walked away with a plethora of new skills for neighbourhood development.

One conference participant presenting preliminary SafeGrowth plans 
As always, the search conference involves a stage of visioning. Sometimes this part is as important as the action plan. Participants envisioned a future where people could work, live and play in their neighbourhoods. They envisioned places that were no longer car dependent. They envisioned extensive public transit networks, renewable energies, and neighbourhoods full of festivals, diversity and acceptance.

The results of this session were inspiring and resembled similar results from other search conferences. We realize that today, when groups are asked to envision a desirable future, what emerges are ideas for walkable, diverse, multi-use, and sustainable neighbourhoods.  The results of the planning stages of the search conference included numerous plans for changing each of the neighbourhoods represented at our event.

Additional work occurred throughout to refine plans
In one city, discussions focused around expanding community engagement strategies on a new metro transit system. In another, engagement included safety on possible shuttle service and a Rails-To-Trails project. On yet another, sidewalk and intersection safety initiatives are leading to the possible development of a cross-city neighborhood exchange program to help build social cohesion between different neighborhoods in the city.


By the end of the event the teams began to incorporate tactics to work with neighborhoods, residents, and stakeholders early in the planning stages. They saw the value in directly involving neighbourhood organizations before moving forward with any changes.

The concept small is beautiful resonated throughout. Finally, the conference highlighted the storytelling skills of Katrice who entertained with her unique way to share lessons of change and hope. We agreed that this will definitely become an important feature of SafeGrowth in the future.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Street tunes vs the IPNAS genie

Street musician amazes and entertains in New Orleans
Traveling across the country in recent weeks I enjoyed street musicians from one coast to the other. They came in the form of brass jazz bands in New Orleans to piano players on the Venice Beach Boardwalk in Los Angeles.

Every urban center in the world features street musicians - also called buskers - those performers who provide entertainment for handouts.  In France, they are Troubadours and in Mexico Mariachi bands wander the streets and beaches.

Buskers have been part of city life for centuries, probably dating back to antiquity. England’s Henry VIII first licensed them as minstrels. And among their numbers, you can count Benjamin Franklin, Josephine Baker, Tracy Chapman, Rod Stewart and Guy Laliberte, the founder of Cirque du Soleil.

Many cities license buskers, such as Toronto and London where they must audition to play on subway platforms. Most cities regulate them to ensure they are not a nuisance or hazard.

Venice Beach Boardwalk street entertainers - a top tourist destination in LA
From a street safety point of view, they offer the opportunity to bring some legitimate eyes onto isolated areas and activate dull spaces with interesting life. A few years ago Steve Woolrich blogged here about the successful Red Deer, Alberta street piano.

Little attention is paid to busking in the crime prevention literature. But our experience suggests that properly applied to key areas, street musicians can activate public places and make them safer. If anything it is usually the buskers who are victims of theft, not the other way around.


My concern in recent years has been the over-regulation of buskers like street musicians, especially considering the UK’s newest law, the Anti-Social Behavior Crime and Policing Bill.

Under the oddball acronym IPNAS - Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance - the new law heaps a cornucopia of rules on everything from irresponsible dog ownership to border security and terrorism. And like all omnibus bills, they are a Genie out of the bottle once they get into the hands of local authorities with bizarre predispositions (aka Ferguson).

New Orleans brass jazz band - a beloved local tradition 
I understand attempts to cast a wide net of hyper-regulation over the streets of UK cities, especially when threatened by street thugs, drunks, and hooligans.

But for every action, there is a reaction. This action could also limit the ability to activate streets with human entertainment and instead replace it with cold, mechanical CCTV eyes with the promise of a safe viewshed on downtown streets, a strategy with mixed empirical results in the UK and even more questions in the US.

Then I found a review of the IPNAS laws in The Guardian. It brought to mind the stories of some of our greatest cultural contributors, Benjamin Franklin, Rod Stewart, Tracey Chapman and Guy Laliberte:
These laws will be used to stamp out plurality and difference, to douse the exuberance of youth, to pursue children for the crime of being young and together in a public place, to help turn this nation into a money-making monoculture, controlled, homogenised, lifeless, strifeless and bland. For a government which represents the old and the rich, that must sound like paradise.


Friday, September 30, 2016

New Orelans SafeGrowth Summit

Twenty eight years ago a group assembled on the shores of Lake Couchiching, Ontario, 150 kilometers north of Toronto. They met to brainstorm new ways to prevent and analyze crime, deploy community police officers, and build safer cities.

The event was summarized in a book I authored, Crime Problems, Community Solutions - Environmental Criminology as a Developing Prevention Strategy. It was the beginning of SafeGrowth.

Next week a group of AARP representatives, community members, criminologists, planners, and others interested in crime, safety, and vital neighborhoods will gather in New Orleans to continue a journey started long ago. The New Orleans Summit and Search Conference is the first in the south/eastern U.S.


The Lake Couchiching event was the first-ever search conference in criminology, a method of community visioning and planning developed shortly after WW2. It set the stage for a different style of crime prevention based on the place and time of crime events - today called situational crime prevention.

The community and police representatives at the event thought cohesive neighborhoods also mattered a great deal. Thus was born the SafeGrowth philosophy of neighborhood planning.

Today SafeGrowth theory is a formal method of crime prevention. In the past few years we've had  more Search Conference events, one in Canmore, Alberta and another in Sacramento, California, to expand the concept. The New Orleans conference is the latest.

Watch our SafeGrowth website for our latest ideas to more forward.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Crime and trees? The horror!

Oddly, the past few weeks I have received emails regarding press stories about trees and crime. Trees so seldom show up in stories on crime unless there are efforts to trim them up or down.

This time some local residents (well, one or two) complained that trees cause crime. Local reporters - perhaps hungry for news copy on a slow day - eagerly hyped the horror-in-the-park story because trees are, apparently, crime causing according to some residents.

True, untrimmed trees that obstruct overhead lights or block sight-lines into risky areas might be a problem, but so are parked cars, dumpsters, large hills and great big heaps of smelly, putrid trash (ok, my polemics got the best of me on that last one). And all that is a problem of maintenance, not trees.

Obstructed sight-lines versus aesthetics
In fact trees cause no more crime than anything else, except they are beautiful, they clean the air of pollutants, control stormwater, provide shade on sunny days, add a green and textured aesthetic to barren parks and they increase property values.

I have blogged before on trees-and-crime and the fact is the overall impact from trees is positive. And data support that contention.


Research by the Illinois Human-Environment Research Laboratory on the Robert Taylor Homes public housing project in Chicago shows treed areas had up to 58% fewer violent crimes. In 2011 the U.S. Forest Service did a similar study in Baltimore and discovered tree canopy’s over roadways corresponded with a 12% reduction in crime.

Yet another study in Portland, Oregon revealed similar tree crime-reducing effects.

It’s not uncommon that myths about crime show up in public debate, but it’s a tragedy when fears based on made-up theories shape public policy.