Crime Stoppers and the cost of community vigilantism

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(Image via Julian Carvajal / Flickr)

Crime Stoppers boasts its success in helping make more than 18,000 arrests in Victoria alone — but at what cost? Dr Binoy Kampmark reports.

IT IS POSITIONED at the Victoria Market tram stop to move commuters and passers-by into reflection and action: grainy images of a trio of individuals walking, smiling, even grinning, are splashed across a large poster.

Instead of the standard logos and promotional fluff that accompanies such advertising, we see something different. It is accusing. Even more pointedly, it is actually sitting in judgement.

It suggests these people are the guilty ones who got away and we need to find them.

The closed-circuit television pictures supply the viewpoints of accuser and judge. Context is concocted if, indeed, there is anything to make out of it at all. We are told that the individuals in question are responsible for theft. There are no details, no particulars, merely a feeling that someone is getting away from the decency of the thin blue line. The call to action is unmistakable.

This is the propaganda remit of Crime Stoppers Victoria (CSV), which commenced in 1987 as:

'... a community-based initiative which encourages members of the public to provide information on unsolved crimes, wanted people and people they know are involved in criminal activity.'

The website features enthusiastic, reassuring prompts to the visitor and it's also an exhortation to discharge a civic duty: 'Reporting is confidential, we only need your information to solve crime, not your name'. This marks a neat demarcation between the credibility of the source – not to mention motivation – and the sacred information itself.

Crime Stoppers also offers a classic false impression: by doing the work of the police, you are empowered, ensuring the protection of the community, driving a security effort that is encompassing and broad. The opposite is the case: by becoming a potentially false accuser, you are disempowering yourself and discouraging the police from vigilance while distorting the line between informed policing and vigilantism.

'Reporting is confidential, we only need your information to solve crime, not your name'

Such programs – as is much in the world of law enforcement – are bedevilled by inaccuracy and fiction. They are also distinctly devoid of effectiveness. In 2011, by way of example, Crime Stoppers NSW paid out only one paltry reward of $100. Meanwhile, the NSW police had advertised 22 separate rewards, all coming to a total of $21,000, for phone calls made to the line.

The public relations department was obviously working the appropriate channels to come up with an appropriate explanation at the time. NSW police, along with Crime Stoppers, suggested that the 'low reward figure merely demonstrates citizens who call the 1800 hotline are motivated by goodwill rather than money'. Virtue trumps cash.

Crime Stoppers NSW’s chief executive Peter Price had his own set of contradictory figures. His records for the 2010-11 financial year had reported that a total of $1,400 in rewards had been paid out. Lax bookkeeping, perhaps, or a touch of inventiveness at work?

CSV trumpets a differently coloured story – though it's unclear how best that data can be interpreted – its website currently claiming: 'Since 1987 Crime Stoppers has helped make more than 18,000 arrests'. Whether these arrests resulted in convictions or were the stuff of gratuitous fancy, malevolence or false information, is not touched upon.

The Crime Stopper concern is also tapped into a broader populist strategy designed to link community outlets with wider policing. In the organisation’s own words, it's 'a unique program that is based on a joint effort between the community, police and the media'. But not only this is cheap policing – enforcement by rumour – it also commercialises the venture while proudly boasts of being a not-for-profit organisation.

That the CSV website lists partnerships media such as 3AW News Talk, Channel 9 and the Herald Sun suggests that this venture is less a matter of apprehending criminals than identifying subjects of newsworthy policing. Righteous prosecutorial bias reigns as the presumptively guilty are hunted. 

Those tasked with evaluating programs like these do not give much reassurance as to how useful these programs actually are. A Canadian study by Kevin D. Carriere and Richard Victor Ericson suggested that:

'it is impossible to determine whether Crime Stoppers is actually solving crimes that would have otherwise remained a mystery, or if the organisation is simply diverting calls from traditional channels of communication that exist between the public and the police.'

Despite that deflating observation, Dennis Challinger in his 2003 evaluative study enthused over the value of CSV and plucked figures out with a magician's ease:

'Overall ... the cost of running CSV amounts to about $1 million and the benefits ... amount to almost $5 million. This indicates that CSV achieves value for money for the community.'

The costs in terms of delivering justice – as opposed to simply seeking convictions – are omitted. Accusations can linger on the reporting system and remain there without rebuttal or challenge. It is, for instance, extremely difficult to correct the material in the report. Essentially, the result is unilateral assumptions, digital dirt.

Crime Stoppers supposedly pricks the conscience of law abiders and harnesses goodwill.

That citizens prefer to be anonymous in disclosing information hardly mars their case, according to Price:

“They don’t want their identity disclosed but they’re doing it out of their own social conscience. They’re not doing it for the money.”

This is not a view shared by critics such as Peter Van Onselen, who writes that the system is both an incubator and propagator that leads to 

'... hundreds of thousands of potentially false accusations, wastes police resources and causes innocent people to be treated like criminals.' 

An empowering experience, indeed.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Binoy on Twitter @bkampmark.

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