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”. 

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

Saturday, November 5, 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.