Down with ‘call-centre justice’

One writer explains why he thinks mechanised law enforcement is bad for justice - and bad for law and order.

William Melotti

Topics Politics

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Speed cameras have been the scourge of British motorists for some time now. In London, detecting whether someone has avoided the congestion charge is automatic, and checking that everyone has a TV licence is almost automatic. Do we like these new forms of mechanised law enforcement? Not really; they make most of us feel a little uncomfortable.

Imagine the scenario a few years from now: ID cards are compulsory, all of them tagged with RFID; face-recognition CCTV is everywhere. Every possible crime or misdemeanour might be instantly detected and traced back to the culprit. Courts, meanwhile, will no longer be necessary for many smaller crimes such as dropping litter and motoring offences, since computer networks will simply roll out the fixed penalty.

You could go to court to defend yourself if you wanted to, but it will cost an arm and a leg. It might be better just to pay up and get it over with.

Now, although I am opposed to ID cards, I’m not trying to suck you into a paranoid’s Orwellian vision of a future where your every thought will be a crime. Rather, I am asking you to consider what happens when we use technology to detect and punish offences. What will be the consequences of having a mechanised approach to apprehending culprits who, under the current system, sometimes escape punishment because there isn’t enough evidence, or it’s impractical to charge them, or too expensive?

Some might consider it a good thing to have a mechanised but more effective form of law enforcement. It certainly seems to have been effective in slapping the wrists of motorists in recent years. And if Richard Brunstrom, chief constable of North Wales Police, had his way, there would be loads more of it; he regards the roads as a ‘pretty lawless environment’.

The article from which that quotation is taken – published in the News Review of the UK Sunday Times in October – kicks off by referring to Brunstrom as Britain’s Head Traffic Rozzer and Head of Filth for the North Wales Pedestrian Republic. You are left in no doubt as to what the author thinks of him. But would it have been more acceptable if Brunstrom had promised to use technology to crack down on burglars or violent crime rather than motorists? Would that make mechanisation okay – if it was being put to good use?

In the push to automation and mechanisation in law enforcement, the call-centre mentality threatens to impede ever further into our legal system. Such ‘call-centre justice’, as we might call it, involves turning the whole process of law – its definition, interpretation and enforcement – into a numbers game, where the public and their daily aberrations are commoditised as part of a programme to ‘clean up’.

This kind of development is common in many aspects of public life today. From education to crime to health, officials seem to be obsessed with setting targets and defining their ambitions in easily measured numerical terms. For our media- and focus group-obsessed government, service delivery excellence has taken the place of ideology or principle as a measure of its mission.

Perhaps government is taking its cue from industry. Over the years, industry has been mechanising the ‘customer service problem’, in an attempt to reduce costs and apparently make the service more efficient for you and I. In reality, of course, the proliferation of irritating menus and hollow messages of ‘understanding’ simply make us angry. A recorded American voice telling you that your call is ‘really important to us’ just makes you realise how…unimportant you really are. This means that, recently, there has been a shift in the more enlightened sections of the business world away from such commoditisation and back to the personal touch.

But not in law enforcement. Here, we are likely to continue down the mechanisation path for the foreseeable future. And this is likely to have the strange side-effect of making us less respectful of the law. Given the literally inhuman nature of this kind of law enforcement – where detection approaches 100 per cent as the numbers crunchers look to optimise the enforcement machine on their recalcitrant citizens – the public will no longer have ownership of, or a moral buy-in to, the law of the land, which is essential in a law-abiding and free society.

However, it will work for the authorities, which are increasingly keen to take a more hands-off approach to deal with crime and misdemeanours – it will be more enforcement and intervention, but in a sanitised and risk-assessed fashion. The courts and police are willing to fine and bang up more people, but they want to do it without getting their hands dirty – hence the use of CCTV, the risk assessments before entering an armed situation, and the Tazer gun, capable of incapacitating a suspect without undue risk to the officer. The Long Arm of the Law has become the Virtual Arm of the Law.

Our society is what it is because most people are law-abiding and they know what is right and wrong. But take out the human interaction and push people into the numbers game and they will just play by those rules, more begrudgingly than from a position of solidarity or community interest. Most people already see speed cameras as a cash grab by the government, and simply slow down for the cameras before speeding up again; thus, the cameras have done little to improve road safety. People don’t really respect this form of law enforcement.

Some of the pillars of our free system are the elected law-making parliament, and the accountable law enforcement and jury-based court system. Our society will be greatly changed, for the worse in my view, if one of the pillars of our legal system is gradually mechanised, as much as if jury trial were abolished, or if law-making were to be closed to scrutiny…. Oh, I just remembered: they’re doing that as well.

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Topics Politics


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