On the Stoppage of Crime

A modest proposal: that crime is not stopped by terrorizing a city with a guerilla marketing campaign aimed at encouraging people to snitch on the poor.

It’s ironic that while CrimeStoppers plotted to bedazzle downtown with ads warning about hooded crooks and vandals in white high tops, we have near-daily evidence of crooked behaviour on our nightly news from the ongoing Muskrat Falls Inquiry. The fashionably-suited contractors and consultants being grilled by the inquiry may not wear high-tops and black hoodies, but their crookedness is going to cost our province a whole lot more than some graffiti tagging on downtown walls.

Thing is, there are plenty of crimes taking place in this province. They’re just not concentrated in the dark alleyways of downtown streets. They’re taking place in oak-paneled rooms and marble corridors. The Muskrat Falls Inquiry has offered no shortage of misdeeds: shoddy practices, missing notebooks, doctored reports, incompetent oversight. The list goes on. The impact of these misdeeds will span billions of dollars from our collective public purse, and will have a debilitating impact on the future of who knows how many generations. It will hobble who knows how many rural communities under the weight of a broken economy. And yet we do not see ads warning us about these real dangers. We don’t see ads reminding us to act as whistleblowers when our supervisors alter or toss out reports they don’t like. We don’t see ads reminding us to report employers who bend workplace health and safety rules, or pressure migrant workers to work overtime. We don’t see ads asking us to call in downtown landlords for not keeping buildings accessible and up to code. Instead we see the grotesque array of scare tactic ads focusing on the poor, the mentally ill, and the alienated who have the audacity to appear in public.

Who is Being Watched?

What exactly were these ads supposed to convey? Fear of young people who wear hoodies? Fear of people who look, let alone act, like characters in TV crime dramas—with all their racialized stereotypes? The recent “Under Suspicion” report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission on racial profiling in the province specifically warns against the tendency to profile people based on clothing (i.e. “wearing a hijab, dressing in hip hop pants, wearing a hoodie, having dreadlocks”). It also cited the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres on the prevalence of anti-Indigenous profiling and discrimination happening on the basis of clothing in that province.

Whether or not CrimeStoppers intended it, their ads lean into deeply racialized stereotypes and risk fueling further discrimination against people for no other reason than how they look or dress. That is deeply irresponsible, and in fact puts many of those youths at increased risk of experiencing criminal activity themselves (i.e. harassment, discrimination, and racial profiling).

Not to mention the fact, as so many small business owners downtown pointed out, that it conveys an entirely inaccurate and damaging impression of what downtown St. John’s is like.

But it’s not just about the image of downtown. The problem with the CrimeStoppers ads is they locate criminality in the wrong place. It’s not to be found in the kids wearing hoodies and the poor folks lurking in alleyways because they have nowhere else to call home. Criminality in this province is prevalent among the white-collar class—among those with the money to burn and the craving to do whatever it takes to get more. It’s prevalent in a persistent rape culture which lurks in schools and offices, not just downtown streets.

Take this CrimeStoppers ad: “The time was 1:33am. He was holding a can of spray paint and wearing white high top sneakers. He tagged the building.”

Seriously? This is the sort of thing we’re supposed to be worried about?

Let’s take a look at some of the more serious crimes the campaign references:

“The time was 8:22pm. He was hanging around the stairwell wearing a jean jacket. He assaulted that woman.”

“The time was 11:56pm. He was walking down the street with his hood up. I saw him rob someone.”

“The time was 2:07am. He was standing next to a row of parking meters in a black t-shirt. He was holding a hammer.”

What do these all have in common? They’re all designed around making people draw inferences between how people look, and the crimes they commit or might commit. White high top sneakers = graffiti artist. Jean jacket = rapist. Guy in a hoodie = mugger. Black-shirted man = vandal. They also tap into prevalent prejudices and stereotypes. Jean jackets = poor, working class men. Hoodies = urban youth (with further criminal stereotyping piled on Black or Indigenous youth). Black clothing = creepy weirdo.

“The time was 7:30pm. I saw them in the alleyway with a crackpipe.”

Of course, the ads couldn’t resist villainizing drug addicts and homeless people. Imagine if we tweaked these a bit.

“The time was 8:10pm. I saw them in Howley Estates sniffing cocaine.”

“The time was 11:20pm. He was wearing a Growlers jersey and picking fights on George Street.”

“The time was 12:10pm. They were repairing the roof without being tied on, in violation of health and safety laws.”

“The time was 4:10pm. He was wearing a golf shirt monogrammed with the name of his law firm as he sexually harassed his intern.”

“The time was 5:12pm. He was talking on his cellphone while driving his Porsche through Galway.”

Of course, none of these theoretical crimes caught the imagination of the CrimeStoppers campaign. Instead they concentrate on stereotypes associated with working class people, racialized folk, drug users, urban youth.

Indeed, the organization has been criticized—by this Osgoode Law School professor, for example—for its very tendency to concentrate attention and resources on petty crimes committed by poor people or those with mental health issues.

What’s even more appalling is the manner in which CrimeStoppers capitalizes on poor communities and economic downturns. “Some people have made a cottage industry of calling in tips,” reports one American administrator with the group. It’s a nice way to make some cash, perhaps, until you realize the impact false or inaccurate tips can have on people’s lives, and the impact false or mistaken tips can have in producing bias in police investigations, or impacting the employability of poor folk. Is this why CrimeStoppers NL has chosen now to ramp up its campaign in this province? Who in their right mind would donate to a charity that pays off police informants given the overwhelming need faced by health care charities, mental health charities, food banks, homeless shelters, and other charities that actually help people instead of working to put them behind bars?

Authoritarian Chic

It’s important to bear in mind, too, that many of our residents these days have experienced life in countries suffering under dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. The campaign must be a horrific deja vu for them. The number one friend of any dictatorship is informers. Snitches. People who phone in warnings about neighbours who act in deviant ways. Snitches who inform out of fear that someone else might inform on them first, or out of greed for the reward they might get.

Urging people to snitch anonymously on others is not a healthy impulse for a democratic society. A properly run democratic society is one where people have no need to break the law to get by. It’s one where the justice system is adequately funded so that any crimes which do occur are hastily stopped and resolved in a timely fashion. It’s one where accusations of law-breaking are made in the open and based on evidence, where people are not afraid to stand behind their allegations, and where people can defend themselves against their accusers according to a system of law.

A society that relies on snitches and informers, and casually veiled informer schemes like CrimeStoppers, is not a healthy society. CrimeStoppers is a symptom of a sick society; one that is more prepared to reward snitches than to fund the institutions and services necessary to keep people away from crime in the first place.

Yes, there is a place for anonymous tips. Yes, it is important to report crimes. And yes, there are crimes happening in this province. But we do not need an intensified approach to crime-fighting based on encouraging people to monitor and inform on each other. We don’t need one that spreads fear, suspicion and mistrust. We don’t need one that encourages people to snitch on their neighbours to police because they are acting in ways that we fear or don’t like.

As American sociologist Gary T. Marx wrote nearly thirty years ago in the journal Crime and Delinquency, in response to the nearly one hundred percent growth of CrimeStoppers programs in the U.S. in the preceding decade:

“Informing in a democratic society offers us a queasy moral paradox, and this paradox is likely to become more prominent as current efforts to engage the public in antidrug and other moral crusades continue to gain momentum. Family relations may be harmed as children turn in parents or the reverse (Marx, 1987c). Neighborhoods may be divided (Klein and Luxenburg, 1987). Unscrupulous persons may use the anonymity of the system of malevolent and frivolous ends. Innocent persons may be wrongly identified as criminals. Societal trust may decline and suspicion increase. There may be escalation of conflict and the appearance of new crimes, as those informed against seek retaliation.”

Arms-length informant agencies represent the privatization of law and order, whereby residents are paid by a private charity to surveille each other and rat each other out, instead of using public monies to adequately fund policing, mental health and addiction treatment programs, improvements in our basic education system, and all the other things which actually help to reduce crime.

A public-spirited community will not come about in a city that relies on informant schemes like CrimeStoppers. Fortunately, most of the posters have been torn down. That is the sort of public spirit which will build a strong community—one where residents take it into their own hands to improve their neighbourhood and tackle threats to their well-being, rather than taking the silver coins offered to rat each other out.

It seems appropriate to close by quoting from one of my favourite poems by local poet David L. Benson. His 2002 collection And We Were Sailors… (Killick Press) includes the piece “On Being Solicited By ‘Crime-Stoppers’.” It’s an apt closing:

They called one evening.
Not for me –
just riding down the phone book.
Had I heard of them?
Who hadn’t.
They were looking for supporters:
Would I get involved
They reward those whose information
proves useful to the authorities –
Anonymously. Payment in cash.
I had heard of them.
Who hadn’t.
I had thought myself safe.
Now they were in my home,
slithering in over telephone lines.
I could hear my own heartbeat.
My hand on the receiver was shaking,
but my voice was not.
Wrong time to call. Wrong person.
Reaching into the bilges
of my seagoing vernacular,
I think I made them understand
that I was not interested.
Oh, I had heard of them.
I had heard they were beaten in ’45.

Photo by Jon Keefe.

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