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 anything 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”. 

3 Replies so far - Add your comment

Unknown said...

Thanks for this timely and powerful piece Mateja. You get to the heart of issues that I think many of us working as practitioners in crime prevention and policing grapple with on a daily basis.
We must practise from an evidence base, but to limit that evidence base to academically 'verified' evidence only misses much of the point. Sources of valid evidence are all around, from what we observe with our own senses, to talking with the people who use a place or are impacted by policies and decisions, to gathering an understanding of what motivates offending in specific places. Let alone empowering people who are, or may be, victims of crime to find their own solutions.
We will be more successful in addressing crime and sustaining safety by all interested actors working together, each bringing their strengths to the table, and as you so eloquently argue, collaborate within an ethical framework.
After all, why are we all working in the space? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata - it is the people, it is the people, it is the people.

Mateja Mihinjac said...

Thank you, Unknown, for your comment.

Absolutely, I am not suggesting that we should ignore research evidence--on the contrary, evidence (and as you well put it--from a variety of sources) should guide us but should not form the whole picture of our decision-making.

I do believe responsible and collaborative crime analysis is necessary for all crime prevention. But that is not at all the same as the formal hypotheses-testing, control group, experimental design demanded by the EBA advocates. The former helps practitioners improve the lives of people in real time. The latter can take forever, rarely results in new strategies, does not include community members from the place being studied as researchers, and seldom results in fundamental improvements to crime prevention strategies.

I therefore advocate for an evidence-informed approach within the ethical and professional realms.

Thank you again for your comment and please continue to advocate for the people--we are stronger together.

Anonymous said...

You folks at Safegrowth are the Bernie Sanders of criminology. Your approach goes the distance compared to self serving elitists who, sadly, seem to dominate current public discourse. I dread to think what is coming "down the turnpike."