Crime Stoppers: A Study in the Organization of Community Policing (Research Report No.24)

Kevin Carriere

Richard V. Ericson

Crime Stoppers and the attendant Crime of the Week media items have become part and parcel of the Law and Order campaigns that characterized the 1980s throughout North America. The first such program was implemented in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1976. By 1989, there were over 700 such programs operating, including 29 in Canada.

The ideological premise and purpose of such organizations is to have the public participate in policing by sending in anonymous tips to the police. The media play their role by printing and broadcasting so-called "crimes of the week," either as news or as community features. These items dramatize particularly heinous and villainous and cowardly crimes. They conclude with exhortations to listeners, viewers and readers to report any information to the police with possibility of rewards if arrests are made.

The authors chose to examine a Crime Stoppers program in a large Canadian city in order to determine the effectiveness and the "affectiveness" of such programs.

Carriere and Ericson have discovered that there is very little about "Crime Stoppers" that is genuinely community based. In fact, it is clear that there is cooperation amongst the local corporate elite, the police establishment and certain segments of the media for purposes that separately serve the interests of each and collectively ensure the hegemony of a particular ideological approach to crime. This approach excludes any consideration of the social and economic context in which crime takes place. The public at large has no input in the organization of the program, the definition of its aims, nor in the evaluation of its success.

What happens is that police officials adopt the "Crime of the Week" approach because it enhances their ability to project: (a) an image of a society at the mercy of random crime, and (b) the effective role of the police in cooperation with a thankful and vigilant public in dealing with violent crime.

Corporate leaders help finance the program because: (a) it's good business to be publicly associated with crime control, and (b) the image of crime that is presented in Crime of the Week articles and items on TV and radio is primarily that of offences against business, both violent and non-violent, and of physical and sexual assault. An observer of these programs would never see corporate crime, nor real estate corruption of local town councils, nor the looting of the U.S. treasury in the Savings and Loan scandal, nor the multi-billion dollar illegal manipulations of the Milkens and Boeskys. Thus the Carrier/Ericson survey indicate that 50 per cent of the Crimes of the Week reported in their research were property crimes against business, 30 percent were physical assaults and the remainder were scattered amongst property crimes against citizens, child abductions, hit and run, etc. Not one instance of corporate crime. The authors quite appropriately quote Goff and Reasons' seminal Corporate Crime in Canada,

"Suite crime" may victimize the public more than street crime....Such crimes [suite crimes] may be more destructive to the members of society, economically and physically, than all the "common crimes" and "common criminals" which we daily pursue through the criminal justice system.

The media participate in Crime Stoppers: (a) to improve journalists' relations with the police, (b) to get juicy stories to spice up the news, (c) for the contacts with corporate leaders which can result in more advertising dollars, and (d) to enhance the media's image with the public as a responsible community citizen.

There are several important problems with the Crime Stoppers program. For one thing, Carriere and Ericson have found no hard evidence that it contributes anything toward curbing crime; indeed they suggest that the program's offering of rewards may be acting as a crime starter with anonymous tipsters entrapping people to commit crimes so that the tipster can collect the reward. For another, it seems that some newspapers, radio stations and television outlets have played the Crime of the Week as if it were indeed "news," that is, part of the regular news package even though in most cases the crime in question could have been committed as far back as three months previously and even though the item is not dealt with by reporters with the critical rules of journalistic integrity that normally apply.

This is a good book, important to journalists and to citizens concerned about the course of the so-called "war against crime." If I have one quibble with the authors, it is their reluctance to name names. As a journalist, I want to know the name of the newspaper studied, the radio station, the television station, the cops, reporters and corporate leaders interviewed. Here's a typical quote with from an interview with a journalist:

[Name of area] police are real bastards to deal with. They don't give you any information...[name of area] regional police, naturally they want to jump on the...bandwagon...(p. 33)

Surely, the journalist in question is not so craven toward the police that she/he would not want anyone to know which police force she/he is talking about.

But this is a petty objection. This small monograph is useful and important if only for the illustration it provides of the hegemonic role played by Crime Stoppers in supporting corporate and police agendas with the willing cooperation of some media agencies.

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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.