Home » Zemiology
Category Archives: Zemiology
On recently seeing a news story is about a police officer being diagnosed with PTSD, I wanted to reflect on the broader contexts which led to this. The officer was assaulted during a single crew shift, and inevitably, found himself dealing with a dangerous situation, with no back up, leading to being injured. It struck me that this impact on physical and mental health is a form of social harm, which can all to easily be disregarded as ‘part of the job’, and a risk all police officers must expect, as action-oriented risk-takers, keen to do what is necessary to protect and serve. The link to social harm came to me from having recently taught students about this in relation to gambling as a form of deviant leisure (see Smith and Raymen, 2017), who cited the impact of gambling addiction affecting personal relationships, physical and mental health. We discussed the wider implications of this, and the need to acknowledge social harms which cause injury, violate rights and lead to ill health, but which stem from accepted behaviours and working conditions. There is also a wide body of literature which analyses structural harms resulting in discrimination, poverty and neglect of considerations for citizens’ safety (Pemberton, 2016). The perpetrators of such harms are not criminals as many people understand them, but corporations, states and politicians who could act to prevent harm and choose not to, or act with the full knowledge of the risks they are creating.
The study of social harm, zemiology, has much more to say on this perspective than this blog allows, but PC Johnson’s story, to me, reflected a society and a government who are implementing policies they know will cause harm, neglecting their responsibilities when downplaying the harms caused and who insist on placing blame on individuals or other organisations when incidences occur. It is clear there are there are various factors which created this situation for this officer, including the reduction of police officer numbers in the name of austerity. We do not know the details behind the perpetrator’s behaviour enough to attribute causes or contributory factors, but from this short story we can easily see the harms being caused, to those who wish to protect and serve citizens, resulting from an officer being out on a single crew shift. PC Mick Johnson is very clear that staff shortages led to him operating on his own on the day he was stabbed, a problem echoed by 90% of 18,000 officers of all ranks who reported to a Police Federation of England and Wales survey that they are understaffed. The health impact of this understaffing was also reported, in that 79% reported feelings of stress and anxiety in the past 12 months and 61.7% reported suffering at least one traumatic experience in the past 12 months.
A key rationale behind double crewing is to avoid having officers alone in vulnerable situations with no back up, a situation which single crewing creates, and which is described by the Police Federation as ‘unacceptable’, in a service feeling the ‘brunt of issues around resilience’ (Police Federation, 2017). Work pattern analysis shows many having to work overtime, routinely on 10 hour shifts and having rest days cancelled, and being unable to take break entitlements. The survey also shows a 14% fall in police officer numbers from 2009 to 2016, and is described as having ‘significant repercussions’. This is manifest in officers mental and physical well-being and it is having an impact on family life, childcare and officers’ skills development as they cannot spare the time for additional training. PC Johnson’s story clearly reflects these issues, as he reported that his assault led to symptoms of mood swings, lack of sleep and reported that the incident ‘utterly changed him as a person’. His unit has shrunk from 20 officers in 2009, to 10, and he expressed the frustration at not being able to do the job he once loved; that the conditions of his employment now meant he was counting down the days until retirement.
The motivation for becoming a police officer and staying in the job has been widely attributed to police culture characteristics which attract and are reinforced through a process of socialisation and acceptance of this culture; key characteristics which represent positive aspects of this are being action oriented, risk takers and pragmatic (Reiner, 1992). While there are negative connotations associated with police culture as impediments to reform and change (Loftus, 2009), it is difficult to imagine how cutting numbers will help with this in anyway, and in fact, to add to the stress on officers, could arguably bring out the worse aspects of police culture in the form of prejudices and discrimination, borne out of frustrations with the job and every day stress. The demonstration of personal and social harms caused by austerity cuts, stagnating wages and fewer staff are clearly demonstrated by PC Johnson’s final quote, and raise some serious questions for those responsible for keeping communities and citizens safe, and for those tasked with managing this service:
“We are all devastated, as we joined to protect our communities and to serve the public, we didn’t expect to have to sacrifice our families and our physical and mental health.” (PC Mick Johnson, BBC News, 2019).
BBC News (2019) Police shortages: ‘Working alone left me with PTSD, Ian Westbrook, available from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47212662.
Loftus, B. (2009) Police Culture in a Changing World, Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Pemberton, S. (2016) Harmful Societies: Understanding social harm, Policy Press: Bristol.
Police Federation (2017) Three quarters of officers ‘often or always’ single-crewed, available from http://www.polfed.org/newsroom/4094.aspx
Reiner, R. (1992) The Politics of the Police, Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Smith, O. and Raymen, T. (2017) Lifestyle gambling, indebtedness and
anxiety: A deviant leisure perspective, Journal of Consumer Culture, 0(0) 1–19.
Over the last two weeks, twitter was littered with Conservative MPs posing at foodbanks, thanking the public for donations and showing their support for this vital service. On seeing the first one I thought this was a strange way to show compassion for those in need, given how the increased use of foodbanks is directly linked to austerity policies, the rollout of universal credit and is one of the issues raised by a recent report on the impact of poverty in the UK (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2018). The report states that spending cuts from austerity led policies have put Britain in breach of its human rights obligations and highlights discriminatory issues, as these cuts have adversely affected low income and lone parent families, ethnic minorities and the disabled. It recommends more investment in health, social care, education and housing, and a rethink of Universal Credit. In addition, a report by the United Nations has described current government policies as ‘punitive, mean-spirited and often callous’ in their impact on the most vulnerable, more alarming given we are still one of the richest countries in the world (UN, 2018).
The responses on twitter articulated what I was feeling, ranging from incredulity, to anger and shock. It is a strange state of affairs when politicians see this as a cause for celebration, but then, there is little else to choose from, in relation to policies introduced in the last two years. The cognitive dissonance between thinking this presents them as compassionate and caring about problems they have created is quite an achievement. But then, I also know I really should not be surprised – I never believed Conservatives could be considered compassionate and anything but concerned with their own interests and dismissive of those in need. When Conservative MPs received the memo to pose at foodbanks, I wonder how many refused? Or how many believed this would be accepted as an example of celebrating charity, because even at Christmas, we all too easily normalise this level of deprivation, and rationalise it as due to individual circumstances, and not structural inequalities.
The wording of the UN report is clear in its condemnation and recognition that in Britain, the government lack the political will to help those most in need, given that tax cuts signalling the ‘end of austerity’ have once again benefitted the rich, under the auspices of this wealth trickling down in the form of jobs and increased wages. However, the EHRC and UN reports have emphasised how these policies are disproportionately affecting those who cannot work, or can only do part time work, or who face discrimination and disadvantage, including employment opportunities and prospects. When foodbanks were first set up, I honestly believed this was a temporary fix, never did I think still in 2018 they would be still be needed and indeed, be increasingly used. I also never would have imagined they would be held up as an example of the good work of charities adopted as a PR stunt by the very people who have created the inequalities and harm we see today.
The small glimmer of hope is the protest in one of these pictures, and the responses via twitter which reflected how I felt. There was a clear backlash in Scotland, where it was reported that a record number of supplies were needed as Universal Credit was rolled out, and where there were calls to foodbanks and supermarkets to refuse to pose with Conservative MPs. Alas, my fear is beyond the twittersphere, most people can rationalise this as acceptable. After all, should we not celebrate charity and helping those in need at this time of year? Is this just an example of good will and thinking of others? Well, yes of course, and if these photos were simply asking people to donate without the MPs responsible being there, I would think most of us would perhaps be reminded we can do our bit to help, and we should. The presence of the MPs and acceptance of this as good PR is what really worries me, that people will still vote for a party which has been described as cruel and punitive and believes this sort of promotion makes them look good. The irony that our current Prime Minister once herself warned that the Conservatives were becoming the ‘nasty party’ is staggering. For what she now resides over are policies which are internationally condemned as harmful, discriminatory and callous.
The other slight glimmer of hope is some commentators suggest this stunt reflects rumours of a general election on the horizon, as while Theresa May celebrated the ‘success’ of negotiating a deal with the European Union, it seems this was short-lived once parliament began to debate the deal and may trigger an election. The UN report suggested that Brexit has been so much of a distraction for MPs and the public that we are not seeing domestic problems as a priority. I think for many there is a sense that once this deal is done, we can get on with resolving other issues. But for this government, I don’t think that is the case. I think for Conservatives, these negotiations and now parliamentary debates are a welcome distraction and a narrative which fits their lack of will to actually address the harms caused by austerity. A general election may bring about change and force MPs to confront where we are today as a result of political choices, but this depends on how we all really feel about poverty, homelessness, discrimination and disadvantage. I wonder if too many feel these are insurmountable problems, inevitable and therefore, beyond the abilities of government to address. But the UN and EHRC reports clearly tell us this is not the case. I hope we do get an opportunity to hold this government to account sooner rather than later. But most of all, I hope that more of us actually take up this opportunity and not allow what we see today to continue.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
Equality and Human Rights Commission (2018) The cumulative impact on living standards of public spending changes, available from https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/cumulative-impact-living-standards-public-spending-changes
United Nations (2018) Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, see https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23881&LangID=E
Haley Read is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first and third years.
Yes, that spooky time of the year is upon us! Excited at the prospect of being free to do something at Halloween but deterred by the considerable amount of effort required to create an average-looking carved pumpkin face, I Google, ‘Things to do for Halloween in the Midlands’.
I find that ‘prison (and cell) ghost tours’ are being advertised for tourists who can spend the night where (in)famous offenders once resided and the ‘condemned souls’ of unusual and dangerous inmates still ‘haunt’ the prison walls today. I do a bit more searching and find that more reputable prison museums are also advertising similar events, which promise a ‘fun’ and ‘action packed’ family days out where gift shops and restaurants are available for all to enjoy.
Of course, the lives of inmates who suffered from harsh and brutal prison regimes are commodified in all prison museums, and not just at Halloween related events. What appears concerning is that these commercial and profit-based events seem to attract visitors through promotional techniques which promise to entertain, reinforce common sensical, and at times fabricated (see Barton and Brown, 2015 for examples) understandings of history, crime and punishment. These also present sensationalistic a-political accounts of the past in order to appeal to popular fascinations with prison-related gore and horror; all of which aim to attract customers.
The fascination with attending places of punishment is nothing new. Barton and Brown (2015) illustrates this with historical accounts of visitors engaging in the theatrics of public executions and of others who would visit punishment-based institutions out of curiosity or to amuse themselves. And I suppose modern commercial prison tourism could be viewed as an updated way to satisfy morbid curiosities surrounding punishment and the prison.
The reason that this concerns me is that despite having the potential to educate others and challenge prison stereotypes that are reinforced through the media and True Crime books, commercialised prison events aim to entertain as well as inform. This then has the danger of cementing popular and at times fictional views on the prison that could be seen as being historically inaccurate. Barton and Brown (2015) exemplify this idea by noting that prison museums present inmates as being unusual, harsh historical punishments as being necessary and the contemporary prison system as being progressive and less punitive. However, opposing views suggest that offenders are more ordinary than unusual, that historical punishments are brutal rather than necessary and that many contemporary prisons are viewed as being newer versions of punitive discipline rather than progressive.
Perhaps it could be that presenting a simplified, uncritical and stereotyped version of the past as entertainment prevents prison tourists from understanding the true pains experienced by those who have been incarcerated within the prison (see Barton and Brown, 2015, Sim, 2009). Truer prison museum promotions could inform visitors of staff corruption, the detrimental social and psychological effects of the prison, and that inmates (throughout history) are more likely to be those who are poor, disempowered, previously victimised and at risk of violence and self-harm upon entering prison. But perhaps this would attract less visitors/profit…And so for another year I will stick to carving pumpkins.
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com
Barton, A and Brown, A. (2015) Show me the Prison! The Development of Prison Tourism in the UK. Crime Media and Culture. 11(3), pp.237-258. Doi: 10.1177/1741659015592455.
Sim, J. (2009) Punishment and Prisons: Power and the Carceral State. London: Sage.