Understanding crime and violence | Daily News

Understanding crime and violence

STF raid.
STF raid.

We need to understand why people harm others as well as why they break the law. Crime involves rule breaking while violence involves intentional harm-doing using physical means. In the recent past the Ministry of Public Security has launched islandwide operations against organised crime and narcotics. This is highly commendable as every law abiding Sri Lankan has a right to live in safety. As a responsible nation we must analyze what are the core reasons that entice people to commit crimes, knowing that they will be punished under the law. One of the areas often overlooked by the police is the psychological and emotional aspects linked with criminals, especially repeat offenders. If these aspects are given due emphasis the police can engage in better preventive crime fighting and also to some extent identify would be criminals, who are displaying anti-social behaviour which must raise red flags.

Violent offending comprises a diverse range of behaviour from threats, to minor acts of physical intrusion to severely damaging and lethal behaviour. Psychologically, violent offending is mainly understood through the development of a social and social cognitive psychology of aggression.

Violent offending is a type of criminal behaviour: one that varies widely in severity from minor assaults to mass murder and terrorist attacks. Depending on the definition and the jurisdiction, it can include fighting between people, sexual assaults, physical violence with and without weapons causing minor to lethal injuries, certain accidental killings, kidnapping, robberies, damage to property, and other acts that threaten physical harm. The core components that are shared by all aggressive behaviour are that it is understood and intended by the actor to harm or injure, regardless of whether that intent is realized. The criminal understands and is responsible for their actions. Only in some special cases of serial murder (mainly in USA), the criminal (serial killer) was suffering from delusional psychotic conditions and their ‘mind’ was not in control of their ‘physical’ actions. Robbery and rape typically involve predatory violence. Robbers and rapists use violence to force the victim to comply because compliance will allow them to get something they want.

Aggression is most often defined as any behaviour whose intent is to harm another person. The actor deliberately does something to the target knowing that the target would prefer to avoid it. The focus on the actor’s perspective is central to the social psychological study of human behaviour. Children who are violent in school often come from a dysfunctional family. Either the father is an alcoholic or the mother engages in an illicit affair. At times the mother goes to work overseas. Such an isolated child does not have the emotional support to become a teenager and a responsible adult. Bullying and name calling at school can impact children. Readers will recall the shooting towards a prison bus transporting a high profile criminal, who supposedly took to crime because he was bullied at school and his father had abandoned him and his mother. In another case a criminal was shot adjacent to the courts years ago. Surprisingly his mother confessed on TV that her son once wanted to become a priest!! These two incidents prove that a safe, loving, religious home is needed for a child to grow. The influence of ‘bad’ friends is also a colossal influence in a teenager’s life leading to adulthood.

Aggression can be a method of getting retribution when one has a grievance, a method of impressing others, a method of getting others to comply, and a form of thrill-seeking. By forcing others to comply, the criminal can get money, sex, and other material rewards and human gratification. From a psychological angle aggressive behaviour has been defined as “any form of behaviour directed toward the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment” (Baron & Richardson, 1994). Perceived lack of respect is a common instigator of violent offending. A classic example of teenagers offending can be seen at college big matches. As thousands sit and enjoy cricket, why do a handful get into trouble with the police?. If you breakdown a criminals ‘psyche’ and profile them you will surely find- unstable high self-esteem and narcissism, aggressive self-image, long-term goals supportive of aggression, high self-efficacy for aggressive behaviour, normative acceptance of aggression, positive attitudes toward aggression, moral justification of violence, dehumanization, displacement of responsibility, high trait anger, personality disorders and low self- control.

Someone with a hostility bias is more likely to interpret the behaviour of others as aggressive and retaliate (Dodge and Somberg 1987). A hostility bias may help explain why mental illness has a stronger relationship to violence than to other crime. Some mentally ill people have paranoid beliefs and these beliefs have been shown to be related to extreme violence (example The Green River Killer – Gary Ridgeway convicted of 48 murders). Sri Lanka Police must realize the above conditions when investigating serious crimes.

Note that the definition of aggression (and violence) requires that we understand the criminals point of view, not the point of view of victims or observers. The focus on the criminal’s perspective is central to the social psychological study of human behaviour. On the other side of the coin sometimes people use violence instead of relying on the police to redress their grievances and issue punishment. They take the ‘law into their own hands.’ This is called vigilante justice. This is acting outside the law. The main reason for this is the lackadaisical attitude of certain police officers, and the lack of confidence the public have in the police. Political influence in diverting due justice is the gradual erosion of law and order in Sri Lanka since 1948.

Police officers engaging in Public Order Management (crowd control) must study the following. Participants in protest riots often have grievances with the Government or the police: a common precipitating event is some violent action by the police. Participants in communal riots have grievances against another group. On the other hand, some participants in riots have no grievance, but view the decline in responsible guardianship as an opportunity to loot for profit, or to destroy property for entertainment. The best example of this is the ethnic riots of July 1983 across Sri Lanka. Thrill-seeking is probably the motivation for participants in celebration riots (after European soccer matches).

Crime is a complicated issue, and variables like education, healthcare, and housing have to be taken into consideration. My personal research shows there is a relationship between crime and poverty, and that income inequality is significant to all types of crime. Education is an important variable in this equation as richer countries have much higher levels of human capital. Also measuring access to clean water is one of the best barometers for poverty. Poverty and population density were both positively correlated with violent crime. Income inequality and social stigma of criminals is positively related to crime. The discourse of crime cannot be constituted in separation from the discourse of access to education. Lack of education is a fundamental problem; it marginalizes people and forces them to live in depravity.

In communities, whether rural or urban, the problem of substance abuse is rampant. Mobilizing the community, creating awareness that addiction to substances is a disease, that it is treatable and that treatment is available are all essential. Youth groups and religious organisations in the community must be involved via awareness programmes on narcotics prevention. The Special Task Force (STF) boldly spearheads the fight against organised crime, illicit weapons and dangerous narcotics. Sri Lanka needs to prioritize its Community Policing policy to be more people centric and people-friendly. Likewise the public are duty bound to cooperate with the police to eradicate violent crime, to begin with. Crime fighting is a journey and never a destination.

(The writer is author of Target Secured - Police Special Task Force)


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