I have found a miraculous cure for my bloggers-block! Robynn Collins asked me if she could be a “guest blogger” and I gratefully accepted. Robynn has been working on United Neighbours, a CPO-funded initiative in the west end. I hope you find her thoughts on crime reporting as intriguing as I do.
Pushing my Buttons: A Few Theories for Explaining the Underreporting of Crime in Ottawa
In working on crime prevention through community development one of the tools I use to get a pulse on crime and safety issues is to host “Coffee Houses.” Tremendous effort goes into getting community members, the Ottawa Police Service, OC Transpo Security, Neighbourhood Watch, Ottawa Community Housing Security, and Crimestoppers to come together and discuss emerging issues in a casual format, usually at a Community House or Recreation Centre. Having worked in community development for a few years, there is one thing I know for sure: People do not like to report crime, and more often than not, don’t. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a range of explanations as to why people don’t report crime as much as they could, or should. I have a few theories of my own.
Fear of retaliation
The topic of reporting crime dominates discussions at our Coffee Houses. Residents say they don’t report crime because of their fear of retribution from neighbours, or that someone will “know” they reported a crime, and/or that they do not want police showing up at their door. Despite reassurance from OPS that reporting is kept confidential, people still think they will get marked as being a “rat.” In other words, some people feel that reporting crime may put them at risk of being a victim of crime. This is their reality.
While the neighbourhoods I work in are brimming with diversity, creativity, and immeasurable assets, so too are these neighbourhoods peppered with individuals who are marginalized by race, class, language, and lack of opportunities. Residents may not report crime as they feel disenfranchised, don’t want to attract “trouble,” don’t want to reinforce stereotypes, or do not feel anyone will listen anyways. Many residents emigrate from countries where authorities are untrustworthy and corrupt and don’t yet believe they can trust authorities. When it comes to strategizing how we can encourage more reporting, I think there are deeper layers that haven’t yet been broached, solutions to which must burrow into the veneer of trust building, cultural readiness, language barriers, and a feeling of responsibility to build a safe community.
Power & Being in the “Know”
Another theory I propose revolves around power, with a capital “P.” There’s no other way to say this than just as it is: Many people like gossip, secrets, and being in the know. As Michel Foucault once said “knowledge is power” and in my experience in trying to collect taboo information, I would agree to the extent of tattooing this proverb on my forearm. If you’re living in a rougher neighbourhood and you know that your neighbour is running a drug house and he knows that you know…your conscious choice not to report this can actually provide you with a (false or real) sense of safety under someone’s protective wing…an “I’ll scratch your back if your scratch mine” scenario.
Another root cause for underreporting can be attributed to living in very closer quarters- this mass of vertical neighbourhoods that scatter the topography of Ottawa. Living in social housing buildings brings the benefit of connectedness and tight-knit community, yet it can also be a tumultuous relationship with living space stacked upon living space. We can appreciate why criminal activity is underreported if we understand these living conditions as vertical neighbourhoods and gain an appreciation of the stressors that come part and parcel with this.
How timely, that as I write this a brand new iPhone & Android App is launched by Push.com which creates a virtual safe space for people to report crime at the push of a button (as reported by the Ottawa Citizen, Feb.1st, 2012 http://blogs.ottawacitizen.com/2012/02/01/new-app-to-report-crime-anonymously) with the view to empower residents to report crime through photos and video and have authorities respond immediately. But can all of the above-mentioned problems be solved with the simple tap of a button? I’ll hope that this will increase reporting; however the problem runs deeper than convenience. There’s no ‘genie’ app yet. But I remain optimistic.