‘Gangs’ and ‘crime’ are words we often hear discussed within the media. We spoke to Dr. Lambros Fatsis, Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton, to hear his insights on gang crime. 

Dr. Fatsis believes that gang crime is a result of political and social environments. This piece will give Dr. Fatsis’ critical criminological perspective on what ‘crime’ is, who is to blame, and what can be done. 

What is ‘crime’? 

Dr. Fatsis sees crime as a social problem, but also a problematic term. He describes how “it is typically understood as a type of human behaviour, a distinct social phenomenon and a threat to public safety”. However, the legal and criminological definitions pose a more complicated picture. 

Fatsis continues:  

“While crime is approached legally as an action or omission which constitutes an offence and is punishable by law, it is criminologically understood as ‘a product of perception and political process’ [1] which ‘deems a certain “occurrence” or “situation” as undesirable [and] attributes that undesirable occurrence to an individual’ [2].” 

In other words, ‘crime’ is not a standalone act but a reaction to human actions that we find immoral and socially harmful. If we understand ‘crime’ through Hulsman’s definition, a Dutch legal scientist and criminologist, then ‘crime’ is subjective, it is a process that turns certain objectionable actions into legally punishable offences. Therefore, we must break this connotation of crime and violence.  

Dr. Fatsis maintains that: 

“there are crimes that are not violent (e.g. parking violations, fly-tipping) and there are violent acts that are not crimes (e.g. wars, animal slaughter). Yet, we often think of violence when we think about crimes and make the two seem identical.” 

Recent discussions on knife crime are an example of this, as gang membership, drug use and violence against the person become merged into a single social scourge that obscures rather than sheds light on the problem. 

What is a ‘gang’? 

Another keyword to understand is ‘gang’. Section 34(5) of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 defines ‘the gang’ as a group which: ‘(a) consists of at least three people, and (b) has one or more characteristics that enable its members to be identified by others as a group’ [3]. This definition is too vague to be helpful and pliable enough to be applied to any group, conference attendees included!  

Dr. Fatsis argues that addressing these key terms is vital:  

“The terms we use to describe a problem ultimately determine how we understand, frame and respond to that problem. If our language is unclear, so is our response to it.”  

There is a huge risk of targeting, stigmatising, criminalising and prosecuting entire groups of people as a result of faulty terminology. In turn, Dr. Fatsis continues, “this leads to discriminatory action and unjust outcomes at the expense of legitimacy and fairness.” 

Dr. Fatsis argues that the Policing and Crime Act 2009 definition of ‘the gang’ is pliable enough to be applied to any group, conference attendees included!

Who is to blame? 

Crises do not develop from individual things, it is the combination of social forces that lead to an eruption of the crisis.  

Dr. Fatsis outlines: 

“Misleading media coverage, political (ir)responsibility, inadequate social welfare provision and over-policing — all conspire to create the conditions in which violence and harm flourish. Misrepresenting the problem through sensational headlines, outsourcing responsibility by blaming citizens for state failure and disinvesting in anything that resembles a long-term sustainable solution are all to blame.” 

Fatsis’ argument outlines that it is this shifting in blame, from socio-cultural and political issues to individuals that create harm.  Violence is attributed to individuals rather than states taking responsibility for creating violent social environments. 

What can be done? 

Dr. Fatsis believes that rethinking and redefining the language we use to make sense of problems is the first step in devising just policies. He argues that “not doing so risks creating more violence, more danger and more injustice.” Secondly, he believes that we must acknowledge the evidence that warns us against “addressing social problems through criminal justice solutions”.  

Policies that are based on political ideologies or socio-cultural prejudice don’t support the individuals that are confronting and reacting to the injustice. Dr Fatsis quotes the words of crime fiction writer Raymond Chandler, ‘crime isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom. Cops are like a doctor that gives you aspirin for a brain tumour, except that the cop would rather cure it with a blackjack’ [4]. 

Sources:

[1] Reiner, R. (2016) Crime. London: Polity. 

[2] Hulsman, L. (1986) ‘Critical criminology and the concept of crime’. Contemporary Crises, 10 (1):63-80 

[3] Section 34(5) of the Policing and Crime Act 2009. [Accessed 23 December 2020] 

[4] Chandler, R. (1977) The Long Goodbye. London: Hamish Hamilton 

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What do we mean when we talk of 'gangs' and 'gang crime'? Dr Lambros Fatsis of the University of Brighton spoke to us about what these terms mean in political and social contexts.

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