The iceberg of street crimes in urban areas

According to London's Metropolitan Police Force, "Robbery, often called 'mugging', and thefts from victims in the street where their property is snatched and the victim is not assaulted is also considered 'street crime'."


By Masud Khabeki

The recent increases in street crime have introduced a new type of criminals to the law enforcement agencies. This has brought a new face of criminals in the criminal justice system as a large number of young people than ever before have begun to come to the attention of the law enforcement agencies because of their involvement in street crimes. Concern has frequently been expressed that such a large number of young people were never previously known to the system. Furthermore, adding considerably to this general concern is the fact that robbery is a serious offence and is a main component of street crimes. Robbery covered a very wide range of activity — from the theft of cash or items of considerable value by use of serious violence to take even a small amount of money from someone in circumstances where they feel intimidated into parting with it even if no threat has explicitly been made. However, robbery (including assault with an intent to rob) is an indictable-only offence and, though theft from the person is triable-either-way, the immediate consequences of being charged and found guilty are potentially far more severe than for many other typical offences. In particular, it carries a much higher risk of custody and this of itself may have important long-term implications. It may further diminish chances of gaining legitimate employment which, for many of the young people involved, are already lower than average and this may itself increase the likelihood of recidivism, setting in train a vicious circle. Obviously, the repercussions for youngsters involved in street crimes have lethal impact on their future life.

Generally, the type of offences committed by youngsters are described as street crimes. But, we have to understand that the term “street crime” is a loose term for any criminal offense in a public place. It is commonly violent in nature and occurs in a public area or a shared place. According to London’s Metropolitan Police Force, “Robbery, often called ‘mugging’, and thefts from victims in the street where their property is snatched and the victim is not assaulted is also considered ‘street crime’.” The most common examples of street crime include pickpocketing, the open illegal drugs trade, prostitution in the form of soliciting in public places, the creation of (Wall-chalking) graffiti and vandalism of public property and assaults. As a generic term, street crime may include all of these, as well as offenses against private properties such as the stealing of side-mirrors and hub caps of vehicles etc.

Furthermore, the majority of street crimes, as portrayed by various news media, are initiated by criminals seeking quick financial gains. However, they can also be carried out by organized individuals with a common goal of profiteering. On the other hand, not all of these instances are considered by the law enforcement agencies to be “organized crimes” due to the random nature of the crimes themselves. The term “organized crime” does not often include organized street crimes. An organized crime is often a major business, consisting of many individuals associated for the common goal of criminal profiteering. In contrast, street crimes are normally conducted by hastily and loosely formed groups of individuals with the common goal of gaining illicit money through immediate criminal acts.

The discussion in the preceding paras provide us a good insight of the nature of street crime. But a serious question remained untouched that why urban societies face considerable rise of street crimes comparing to the societies existed in our villages? Particularly in the urban slums and areas characterized by abandoned buildings, unkempt vacant lots, and buildings with broken windows experience more crime compared to the rest of the urban localities. Most of the time these areas start out with minor offenses grown to become major event. Why such neglected environment tends to attract the homeless and increased criminal activity? Whether urban communities failed to cope with deteriorating conditions and failed to improve these areas?

Another factor could be the increasing public concern about the safety of the streets that has generated a vigorous demandfor more police protection and a growing public recognition of the limited capacity of many police agencies to mount an effective program of crime control and prevention. Crime seems to be getting out of hand of urban communities, engulfing new neighborhoods and erupting in riotous assault, looting, and arson in the majority slum areas of the big cities. A statistical report that did not show more crime under such conditions would seem puzzling indeed to the ordinary citizen. As the iceberg of crime rises to the surface of public visibility the need to bring new crime prevention strategies and the demand for more sophisticated resources to equip the law enforcement agencies will become increasingly evident.

Understandably, the sociological impact of crime cause societies to feel unsafe and demand the government to protect its people from criminals thus fueling the mass incarceration policy by the criminal justice system. There has been a steady increase in individuals who have been incarcerated, ideally this benefits societies but crime has exponentially increased over the last decade. Other factors that lead to street crimes are poverty, unemployment, and parental neglect. Crime rates in areas that are characterized by higher rates of unemployment and poverty are estimated to be greater than other well-developed areas within the cities. There is a greater probability of unemployed adolescents not only being offenders, but also victims of violence and street crimes. Another underlying cause of street crime stems from parents who deal with more financial or social pressures as they are at a higher risk of practicing poor parental techniques such as insufficient disciplinary actions, neglect, and ineffective supervision. Such parental actions are likely to increase the likelihood of teenage participation in street crimes.

But the question remained unanswered that why urban societies are facing street crimes? and why street crimes are not happening or why people experiencing less street crime in small towns or villages across Pakistan? Could we justify ourselves to blame few reasons that encourage the young people to commit crime are the state of the urban environment, social norms and conformity, the lack of social control or lack of routine monitoring, and social signalling of crime prevailed in urban spaces?

Definitely, in an anonymous urban environment, with few or no other people around, social norms and monitoring are not clearly known as compared to the village settings. The deviant youth thus look for signals within the environment as to the social norms in the setting and the deviant group tend to evaluate the risk of getting caught for violating those norms. There could be another reason for committing crime is the area’s general appearance. While these settings are absolutely not available to the youngsters in villages and resultantly the very idea of getting into the state of criminality are diminished. An ordered and clean environment in villages, a set up effectively monitored and one that is maintained, sends the signal that the criminal would be identified quickly, and that criminal behaviour is not tolerated. Conversely, a disordered environment, one that is not maintained, sends the signal that the area is not monitored, and that criminal behaviour has little risk of detection.

This factor provides us an opportunity to assume that the landscape “communicates” to people. The disorderly urban environment and a community that displays a lack of informal social control transmit to criminals the message that it is unable or unwilling to defend itself against a criminal invasion. Such conditions symbolize the community’s defencelessness, vulnerability and represents the lack of cohesiveness of the people within. Neighbourhoods with a strong sense of cohesion existed in villages assert social responsibility on themselves, effectively giving themselves control over their space.

Under the impression that unguarded and a disorderly space leads to more serious problems, residents begin to change the way they see their community. In an attempt to stay safe, a cohesive community starts to fall apart, as individuals start to spend less time in communal space to avoid potential violent attacks by strangers. The slow deterioration of a community as a result of less social control modifies the way people behave when it comes to their communal space, which, in turn, breaks down community control. As rowdy teenagers, panhandlers, addicts, and prostitutes slowly make their way into a community, it signifies that the community cannot assert informal social control and citizens become afraid that worse things will happen. As a result, they spend less time in the streets to avoid these subjects and feel less and less connected from their community if the problems persist.

Problems, however, arise when outsiders begin to disrupt the community’s cultural fabric. That is the difference between “regulars” and “strangers” in a community. The way that “regulars” act represents the culture within, but strangers are “outsiders” who do not belong. Consequently, daily activities considered “normal” for residents now become uncomfortable, as the culture of the community carries a different feel from the way that it was once. The culture of a community can deteriorates and change over time with the influence of unwanted people and behaviours changing the landscape. The necessary social control can be seen as people shaping space as the civility and attitude of the community create spaces used for specific purposes by residents. On the other hand, it can also be seen as space shaping people with elements of the environment influencing and restricting day-to-day decision making.

However, with policing efforts to remove unwanted disorderly people that put fear in the public’s eyes, the argument would seem to be in favour of “people shaping space” as public policies are enacted and help to determine how one is supposed to behave. All spaces have their own codes of conduct, and what is considered to be right and normal will vary from place to place. If, however, a community is unable to ward off would-be criminals on their own, policing efforts help. By removing unwanted people from the streets, the residents would feel safer and would have a higher regard for those that protect them. People of less civility who try to make a mark in the community have to be removed as been done in villages. Excluding the unruly and people of certain social statuses is an attempt to keep the balance and cohesiveness of a community.


Masud Khabeki is an Adjunct Professor of Criminology at Arid Agriculture University, Rawalpindi