After concerns raised about the racist connotation of ‘Traveller crime’ – in reference to the recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme discussed in this blog – the following revisions have been made for clarity purposes (indicated in green) and uploaded on 1 July 2020:
In the leafy corner of my Outer London borough, multiple Facebook groups have emerged to co-ordinate shopping assistance for vulnerable members who have been shielding from Covid-19. There have also been collections for patients in hospital without toiletries, cakes for local NHS hospital staff, and face masks sewn for key workers. There has been an outpouring of human kindness that has been impressive and inspiring.
Such local residents’ groups also act as a kind of virtual Neighbourhood Watch. They regularly offer an early warning system for sightings of dodgy goings-on — strangers offering lifts to children, a suspicious individual hovering at someone’s side gate, or loitering near a work van’s back door. On occasion there are inquisitive threads wondering about a new household of ‘Muslim-looking’ men. Women rarely feature but sometimes appear in presumed charity scams. Grainy images from residential CCTV or Video Doorbell systems provide screenshots so we know who to target in our surveillance.
The title of this blog — ‘Watch the crime rate go up over the weekend!! Keep your doors and windows shut people’ — appeared first as a Facebook group post following reports of Travellers settling on ground in my local neighbourhood park. It fits with the narrative of a recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme which promised to tell The Truth About Traveller Crime. The presenter interviews white majority residents who vividly describe frightening encounters with local Travellers, detailing their experiences as victims of anti-social behaviour, vandalism, burglary, extortion, and violence. The programme also examines recorded crime within a one-mile radius of 30 Travellers’ sites, and finds crime rates above the national average.
But some caution is in order when interpreting those findings. In 56% of 237 sites, crime rates were in fact below the national average. The programme presented no local or regional comparisons. And measured statements— like when criminologist Professor Yardley noted that poverty, deprivation, population composition, and population stability were ’driving the crime rate much more significantly than any particular ethnic group or their cultural practices’ – were downplayed. Instead, the programme’s overriding message was that lawlessness, violence, and anti-social behaviour are the norm among Travellers. Yet systematic data to make such an assertion simply does not exist. Ofcom will be investigating potential breaches of content standards for television following multiple complaints and petitions from Gypsies and Travellers and their representatives in third sector organisations.
What, then, is ‘The Truth’ about ‘Traveller Crime’? The first point to make here is just as I have argued for more than 20 years it is problematic to speak about ‘black criminality’, so too is it problematic to talk about ‘Traveller crime’ that is inherent to black or Traveller cultures in any preordained sense. This is not to say that we shouldn’t consider the possibility that certain groups may be more involved or more frequently detected than others of certain offence types — corporate crime and football spectator violence, for example, are more commonly perpetrated by the white majority group because of access and opportunity. But neither should we ignore the fact that the vast majority (three-quarters or more) of those arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for criminal offending are from the white majority group.
The second point is that Travellers, along with Gypsies, are a group traditionally ignored by criminologists, including those like myself who work in the subfield of race and crime (but see Zoë James’ excellent work). Gypsies and Travellers’ exposure to risk factors commonly associated with criminal offending put them at higher risk of engaging in crime but also being the victim of it. However, there are no reliable estimates of Gypsies and Travellers’ criminal victimisation from property crime, violence, or hate crimes.
The annual household Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) includes tiny numbers of Gypsies and Travellers, as evident in the Cabinet Office’s 2017 Race Audit, and the CSEW excludes the at least 24% of Gypsies and Travellers estimated to live on sites or to be mobile (ONS 2014). In neither my local Facebook post nor in the Dispatches programme was there any consideration of this group’s heightened vulnerability to victimisation, both ordinary and that specifically motivated by ethnic hatred. And yet, Abrams et al. (2018) have shown in research for the Equalities and Human Rights Commission that 44% of survey respondents expressed openly negative feelings towards Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. This compared to 27% towards immigrants and 22% towards Muslims, whose vilification has seen them disproportionately the victims of hate crimes. This is not to say that we shouldn’t consider the possibility that certain groups may be more involved than others in certain offence types — corporate crime, for example, may be more common among the white majority group because of access and opportunity.
The ESRC-funded research project, Gypsy and Traveller Experiences of Crime and Justice Since the 1960s: A Mixed Methods Study, (https://www.realities-checked.org) will see whether these kinds of thinly veiled racist assumptions bear any resemblance to the ‘reality’ of crime in four areas in England. I, along with colleagues at the University of Plymouth (Zoë James) and UEA (Becky Taylor), aim to produce a quantitative, qualitative and historical response to popular yet flattened and stigmatised representations of Gypsies and Travellers. The study will comprise a crime victimisation and self-report offending survey; oral histories with Gypsies and Travellers in the community and serving prison sentences; archival analysis of council committee minutes, county surveys of policing, and local petitions against official sites (1960s-); and finally, interviews with professionals who have strategic and operational responsibilities for policies and practices affecting these communities.
Who could deny the value of the acts of human kindness depicted locally in response to Covid-19 (although less clear is whether such acts have been extended to Gypsies and Travellers whose vulnerability to Covid-19 is marked)? More problematic is the racialized surveillance that assumes minority ethnic individuals are criminal by virtue of their race, ethnicity, religion or nationality. Those assumptions present a subtle means by which the harms of racism are propagated. Recently, visibly shaken, my (typically friendly and generous) neighbour said he had seen two men apparently ‘casing his joint’, perhaps attracted by his high-performance cars or the prospect of rich pickings in his detached house. His wry comment, ‘The only surprise was that they were white’, revealed his mistaken stereotypical belief that all burglars are black. This reminds us that active citizenship should be admired but also feared. It can be heartening but also heartless.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.