Archive July 2014
|The High Cost of Badly Paid Cops
To understand in any
meaningful way a police force requires information about the culture in which
the police are recruited, educated, paid, promoted, and disciplined. In a recent
Bangkok Post article highlighting the
suicide statistics among Thai police officers, it was noted:
“At present, the force is
divided into two distinct classes — the bosses who graduated from the Police
Cadet Academy and junior officers from schools for corporals. The classes
operate in an oppressively feudal and closed society where subordinates have no
say whatsoever. Due to their low pay, the police tend to get involved in all
sorts of underground businesses.”
There are the bosses and
then there is the vast underclass that carries out their commands. The division
is officially designated as between commissioned and non-commissioned officers.
Source: http://www.aseanapol.org/information/royal-thai-police The national police force is
a quasi-military organization that comes under the Ministry of Interior. Source:
Wiki Senior appointments by the
government have been routinely been controversial. For years there have been
many studies, commissions and reports delegated with a mandate to recommend
reforms. The members of these study groups and commissions have recommended a
variety of reforms to the structure and culture of the Thai police force. But no
substantial reform program has been implemented from these
The size of the police in
Thailand exceeds more than 230,000 officers according to Wiki. By comparison with countries
with the same or larger populations: the UK has 167,318; The Philippines has
149,535; Myanmar has 93,000; and France has 220,000. In other words, in
Thailand, there are by international standards, a relatively large number of
police to the size of its population. In 1987, Thailand had 110,000 members in
the Royal Thai Police Force. It would be interesting to analyze the political
processes that resulted in more than a doubling of the police force over a
quarter of a century.
The statistics and brief
background fail to convey the day-to-day reality of the non-commissioned
rank-and-file police officer. Who is this man or woman behind the uniform in
Thailand? What story can we tell about the ‘self’ behind the uniform?
“We are also the story we
construct about ourselves, our personal narrative that interprets and assigns
meaning to the things we do remember and the things other people tell us about
ourselves. Research by the Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams,
author of The Redemptive Self (2005), suggests that these narratives
guide our behaviour and help chart our path into the future.” Source: http://aeon.co/magazine/being-human/where-do-childrens-earliest-memories-go/
The police training and
culture are material out of which that self is constructed. Another block of
‘self-worth’ and ‘self-image’ is the economic conditions in which a person
lives, works, and interacts with others. The sense of self also takes a
battering in Thailand where many people view the police with a sense of mistrust
and suspicion. This likely causes the police to withdraw further into their own
sub-culture for emotional and psychological support further increasing the
feeling of ‘us and them.’”
The inequalities of wealth
are experienced by police officers like anyone else. Unlike the rest of us, the
police are authorized to carry guns and to use them inside such societies. And
where there are businesses that operate at the margins of the law and those
outside the law that are hugely profitable, policing by cops who don’t have a
living wage can be compromised with cash payments.
This chart shows the pay scale for
police. The first three columns are the salaries of non-commissioned officers
and the other columns for commissioned officers, with the last two columns
reserved for those with the highest-ranking officers.
Unless you are a
non-commissioned, column 1, Thai cop who entered the police department with a
high school education you are paid after four years on the job
(assuming no additional step increase beyond the usual annual increase). a
salary of Baht 5,580 per month or US$177.42 a month. That works out to be 183
baht or just under $6 bucks a day. I don’t know about you, but I’d pay for a
book that promised: accommodation, food, transport, sidearm, uniform, haircuts,
food and entertainment in Thailand on a budget of $6.00 a day. The minimum wage
in Thailand is 300 baht a day, which is closer to $10.00 a day. While there are
possibilities to supplement the meager pay packet with per diems and overtime,
the overall monthly amounts paid to police are, as the chart demonstrates,
If officers are appointed
to a position, such as inspector, chief inspector in suppression or forensic
units they receive an additional 3,000 to 5,700 baht, or if they are
investigation officers (regular to expert) they receive an additional
12,000-30,000 baht, in executive positions (5,600 – 21,000 baht) or special
expert/teaching positions (3,500 – 15,000 baht), increasing with rank. As is
evident, the chance for supplemental pay is limited to the higher ranks with
officers who’ve received specialized education or training. Typically a
university graduate would start as an officer with a higher pay.
How could there not be
corruption in a police force when the pay scale for non-commissioned officers
condemns them to poverty? A man or a woman faced with a spouse and children
waiting food on the table and doesn’t have the money to feed them can easily
cross ethical and legal lines on a routine basis. If you were in that position,
what would your consciousness tell you to do: feed your family or ask for a 100
baht from a driver who made a turn out of the wrong lane? It might be assumed
(and it is impossible to prove with solid evidence) that the division of spoils
falls mainly to the benefit of the high-ranked officers. Such a lopsided
division would be consistent with how money flows between the ranks inside any
feudal based organization. No one has ever suggested that egalitarian principles
feature large in such a mindset. In a feudal structure, like the police, most of
the workforce can be thought of as extras in the larger drama and there is only
room for a few of the big names on the marquee. The rank, status and money is,
in the main, set aside for the stars.
There are also
psychological and social consequences arising from a police force modeled on a
feudal structure. Most of these issues have not received serious attention by
any of the many recent governments. One is the suicide rate among the rank and
file police. The Bangkok Post reported a story about such
“On Wednesday, 24-year-old
Police Lance Corporal Nitikorn Kulawilas shot himself in the head with a pistol
and died at the Phaya Thai police station. The young traffic policeman was the
fifth officer to take his own life since January.
“If the average police
suicide rate per year is anything to go by, 25 more families may lose their
beloved son or daughter this year.
“According to the Police
Department, the number of officers taking their own life is steadily on the
rise. The annual average number of suicides over the past five years is 29.17.
Last year, it rose to 31.”
Suicide rates have been in
decline in Thailand since the peak of 8.4 per 100,000 in 1999. Source: Hanging is the most common method
to end one’s life, and is ten times more prevalent than a handgun. The police
officers rate of suicide works out to be about double that of the suicide rate
for the population as a whole.
What is it about being a
cop that increases the odds of suicide? The dead officers superiors explained
the suicide as caused by work stress and family problems. In other words, the
suicide had nothing to do with the culture and the low pay environment in which
he worked. This is the kind of denial that isn’t restricted to the attitude of
his superiors. The explanation is based on a widespread perception that when an
officer is caught stealing or aiding and abetting a crime, or kills himself,
that is wholly the individual responsibility of the officer.
It is this consensus that
explains that despite all of the recommendations for reform, the continuation of
a current system that hugely benefits a select few should consider the
collateral damage that drives officers to crime and suicide as incidental,
personal, and individual to the man or woman who felt they had no other
What mental health
screening and counseling is done for police officers? I can’t find any answer to
that question. I suspect that silence is significant. Suicide rates are only one
small sampling of those with mental health problems. Rates of depression should
be examined and the results made public. The rate of divorce, domestic violence,
alcoholism, or drug abuse is additional indicators of personal stability problem
Suicide rates of police
officers compared to the rate for the general population have been analyzed in
the States. The American police officer is statistically more likely to kill
himself (or herself) than a Thai police officer. (Source) There is, and likely
never will be, any clear, unbiased or unambiguous set of statistics to support
the premise that low pay is the cause of suicide amongst police
officers in Thailand. One needs to accept that some of these suicides may have
occurred no matter what job the person worked at, and needs to be viewed along
with mental problems such as depression, assignment to high anxiety areas such
as the South of Thailand, family or domestic violence, separation and
The Bangkok Post hammered a point that has
been over the years but the political will to change the culture of the police
has failed. “But an honest and efficient arm of the law is not possible if low
pay, poor welfare, and a lack of unaccountability and meritocracy remain the
The correlation between
low pay and the hidden economy is difficult to establish as the data is largely
inaccessible and must be drawn from stories in the press. All that can be said
from a common sense point of view with no set of viable statistics to back it
up, is the low salaries paid to a number of police (certainly there are honest,
not corruptible Thai police as I’ve met some of them) are likely subsidized by
other opportunities that are only available to a man or woman in a uniform and
carrying a gun. The question is whether there is the political will to change
the salary and policing culture in Thailand.
|Taser-cuffs for the 21st Century
From pre-historic times, we have been slapping handcuffs on an intruder, stranger, criminal suspect, violent lunatic or someone you simply don’t like. The idea of handcuffs is not to kill, but to restrain a person by limiting the movement of their arms and hands. From the beginning of our kind, we’ve used vines, reeds and animal hide as handcuffs. As our technology in the Iron and Bronze ages evolved through Greek and Roman times, our handcuffs also improved allowing us to securely bind felons and prisoners of war with fetters, chains and irons.
The big technological breakthrough came in the nineteenth century with W.V. Adams’ invention of the ratcheting mechanism. The Adams designed handcuff became the staple of handcuffs used by police forces around the world. Since the nineteenth century, we’ve witnessed incremental changes to the technology, including plastic disposal cuffs.
The images below will help you visualize the traditional handcuffs. Wikipedia along with a useful article on handcuffs displays three of the most widely used handcuffs.
Handcuffs used by law enforcement officers and soldiers, have until recently, been distinguished primarily by whether the dual wrist enveloping feature: 1) is secured by a chain, 2) is fixed, or 3) is a solid bar.
Hiatt type 2010 handcuffs
Dutch police handcuffs
Solid bar handcuffs
The handcuffs have been standard issue for police and soldiers for many years and used to restrain and limit the movement of arrested demonstrators or protesters, or suspected criminals. They also have been used on prisoners of war or those captured in a civil conflict.
High-tech has caught up with the world of handcuffs. Here’s the latest invention to scale up an arresting officer’s ability to restrain and control a prisoner.
The Scottsdale cuffs
Take a close look at The Scottsdale cuffs. What does the state of art bring to the world of handcuffs? Built into these handcuffs are wireless controls and sensors. The theory draws from those dog collars where you want to train a dog not to chew on your new shoes. Each time the dog puts his snout on a shoe, you give him a mild shock through his collar until the dog is able to register that getting close to your shoe will cause him pain. The dog learns to avoid your shoes.
Our history as species demonstrates that we are inclined to use violence against our own who put their nose anywhere near what we define as the ‘shoe zone’. The new cuffs have the capacity to deliver a high-voltage Taser-like charge. Not only is the person handcuffed, by the touch of a remote control, the authorities can disrupt his or her nervous system.
The implications for freedom and abuse of liberty are enormous. If you don’t follow an instruction, the shock runs through your body. You don’t walk fast enough, more shock; or too fast, here it comes again. The cuffs can be programmed so that they shock at five-minute intervals. Of course, the program can be overwritten if only you will co-operate. The cuffs have sensors that restrict the prisoner to a certain pre-determined area, and move from that area, and a large electric jolt runs through the body. The restricted area might be the back of a police van, or a room, or a house.
If that isn’t enough to give you nightmares, here is what the hi-tech handcuffs already patented have in store for your encounter with the police. Future handcuffs will come with built-in timers, needles, gas dispensing capability, gauging of vital signs, emotions, and movements. They will be used for arrest, court appearance of suspects, certain classes of prisoners, in mental wards, and perhaps to adjust the attitude of political detainees.
“In addition to radio proximity sensors, the cuffs could include an accelerometer, inclinometer, potentiometer, location sensing device, microphone, camera, a biometric sensor or a combination of devices. These could not only allow guards to keep track of prisoners, but also allow the cuffs to automatically deliver a shock if they detect violent or aggressive movements or even if the detainee shouts.
Aside from their deterrent functions, the Scottsdale cuffs could also keep track of prisoner movements, behavior and number of shocks administered, plus they include safety cutouts to prevent administration of an injurious or fatal jolt. In a truly Orwellian twist, the cuffs could also release gases, liquids, dyes and even inject the prisoner with sedative drugs.”
Think of the countries on the list of the eight least-free places. These are countries where exercising near complete control over their citizens actions, opinions, and attitudes is viewed as a paramount goal of maintaining the power of the authorities. The list includes: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. The local franchise owner of The Scottsdale cuffs stands to make a small fortune. There might be a viable market for such handcuffs in Thailand to deal with unhappy critics of the military government who are viewed as threatening the goal of universal harmony and unity.
Our hi-tech future promises many exciting innovations to improve our lives, environment, health, education and workplace. It also has the capacity to erode our freedom and dignity, and to transfer more power over our lives to those in authority. When the future of the handcuff is to require total submission to a police officer or a soldier, whatever convenience and comfort hi-tech innovation has provided us won’t be sufficient to compensate for the loss of the most basic human rights.
Not even Orwell could have imagined a world of the handcuffed underclass whose members obey like well-trained dogs. Those holding the remote control to the taser-cuffs will follow the orders of the elite few who decide whose shoes are protected. They say you should walk a mile in another’s shoes before you can judge a person. In a world where most will be barefoot, that old rule of thumb may no longer apply. It’s more likely that you won’t ever get a chance to put on such shoes, or if you did, you wouldn’t have to walk far to know that in the not too distant future those with the shoes will have created a world where there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
Two unrelated Thailand
crime stories shared a common theme this week—impulsive, violent behavior. In
sixty-two year old mother confessed to the police that she had shot he daughter
dead with a .38cal handgun. The killing occurred in the bedroom of the family
house, and was, according to the mother, caused by her sudden anger over her
daughter’s outstanding debts totaling a million and a half baht. According to
the Thai press reports, after killing her daughter, the mother said that she
turned the gun on herself, fired but missed.
In the second
case, a 26
year-old katoey had gone on a surprise visit to her lover but he wasn’t at home.
Frustrated on her return, at 5.30 a.m. she came across a paralyzed 72 year-old
grannie. The katoey told police she felt an irresistible urge to have sex and
was also drunk at the time. The katoey’s attempted rape of the grannie was
interrupted when the grannie involuntarily evacuated her bowels.
The sudden impulse of the
killer mother and drunk rapist katoey propelled them to commit violent criminal
acts. The killer mother told the police that she’d been overcome by a-rom
chua-woop or a sudden impulse to explain her action. My Thai sources tell
me this phrase is commonly found in local crime reports.
To what degree are
cultural issues useful to understand psychological conditions?
The criminal justice
system, whether in the West or the East, often faces offenders who claim a
mental disorder. The way we process reality and control our impulses, at least
in part, have a cultural foundation. How the Chinese and Thais view of gambling
as part of their culture, will translate into the attitudes that people and
authorities have towards casinos, lotteries, and slot-machines. There are two
related issues: mental disorders such as impulse control and cognitive traps or
illusions which handicap rational choices. In other words, we can be irrational
over a range of activities; some of those activities involve crimes.
Starting with the
cognitive process, Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow divides
our thinking self, the one that reacts, contemplates, considers what someone has
said or done, an event caused by man or by nature, or the thousand and one small
decisions we make everyday such as where to have lunch, hitting the ‘like’
option on FaceBook, choosing a movie to watch or book to read. This is fast
thinking for many. This is representative of System 1 thinking that happens in
System 1 is our automatic,
auto-pilot decision-making process which requires little or no deliberation such
as when we see 2 + 2 = ( ). Leaving aside the political implication of
Orwell’s 1984, we don’t have to think; we ‘know’ the answer is 4.
System 2 is a deliberative, slowed down decision-making; it is hard, takes up
time and mental resources and most people avoid it in favor of the easy-rider
feeling of System 1. A System 2 example is 29 x 347 = ( ). There are
people for whom this is a System 1 equation but for most of us, we have to do
sums and make a calculation. Or open the calculator app on our computer or
cellphone to come up with the answer: 10063.
Both System 1 and System 2
are normal tools we apply throughout our day. The first is unconsciously
decision-making, and the second is conscious, calibrated decision-making. There
is another system that is pathological, and considered a psychological
disorder—Impulse Control Disorder. It is a psychological disorder listed in the
4th Edition of
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
The lack of impulse
control unleashes aggressive conduct that features in many areas of criminal
behavior. The offender either easily loses control or lacks control over his
emotions. Law enforcement officers are called to the scene of a crime to
confront someone who has destroyed property, physically assaulted or killed
another whose resorted to violence or aggression. Other criminal areas where
this type of offender turns up is theft, gambling and arson.
A person with such a
personality is often called, in the West, a ‘hot-head’ or in Thai jai
rong (‘hot heart’). Though the mental condition may be something a person
chooses. Some scientists have traced the disorder to neurological and
environmental causes. Others are more skeptical as to the underlying cause found
in mood disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse and
personality disorders. “It can become clinically difficult
to disentangle them from one another, with the result that the impulsivity at
the core of the disorders is obscured.”
A person with this
disorder usually blames the victim for doing something to cause the act of
violence. It is rare such a person would accept responsibility. They believe
they were right in their response and feel no guilt for the suffering or harm
they’ve caused. People with this disorder are disproportionally
represented in domestic violence and rape cases. They lose control and in an
irrational mental state harm others.
Criminal charges and
penalties often are determined by whether the crime was ‘planned’ or
‘premeditated’ as opposed to impulsive or spontaneous. The difference between a
hit man and a wife killer often turns on judging whether the offender had
planned the murder or it was an explosive, irrational act.
We hold people who plan
and use logic to commit a crime more blame worthy. These are the System 2
deliberate thinking criminals who calculate the odds of the crime, weigh the
risk against the benefits, and contemplate the optimal time to strike. Our
criminal laws reflect an assumption that people who are planners are more easily
deterred by a heavy penalty. Conversely, as manslaughter counts indicate, there
is an assumption that someone with an impulse control disorder, wasn’t in full
control of himself and wouldn’t have been deterred.
While the death penalty
might deter the planners it will be useless to stop those with a personality
disorder, where logical, rational thinking is disabled. These assumptions take
us into the realm of ‘free will’, ‘self-control’ and ‘personality disorders.’
The authorities select out those whose crimes are the of ‘unplanned’ and
‘spontaneous’ behavior as suffering from decreased responsibility for their
There are limitations on
this analysis in Asia where culture is a factor in assessing what in the West is
viewed as a personality disorder. For example, there was a 2008
Thai lottery gamblers. One group was guided by superstitious methods such as
obtaining a ‘lucky’ number from a temple or divining a number by dripping candle
wax into water. The other group didn’t report using superstitious methods. The
use of superstition was found to increase the probability of the ‘gambler’s
fallacy’, creating an illusion of predictability and control. The study
indicates that one shouldn’t assume that cognitive problems and psychological
disorders, as defined in the West, are applicable in places like
The System 2 type of
thinking also has a large cultural component reflected in the educational
system. Hard or difficult thinking is nurtured in schools and universities where
critical thinking is valued and promoted. Rote learning is a way to reinforce
System 1 automatic thinking. This isn’t to suggest that System 1 translates into
impulse control disorder. They are different concepts and involved different
mental processes as well as different underlying causes. Where a culture
promotes superstition, magical-thinking, and prophecy, people educated in that
culture will have an increased probability of failing to recognize circumstances
where their beliefs have created cognitive illusions. That way of thinking
colors the approach to impulsive control disorders. The way of dealing with the
disorder is less based on science than on the belief that non-scientific
exorcism will solve the problem.
The next time you read one
of the ‘strange’ crime stories from another country, you may have stumbled upon
an example of why it is strange to you. The way thinking is taught, rewarded,
honored is different, and the way of dealing with mental disorders reflects a
different way of thinking. In Thailand, should you encounter someone in the
throes of a-rom chua-woop, clear away the knives and guns, hide your
daughters and grannies, and quickly run for the exit. You won’t have much
|Reflections on 5 years of Blogging
In July 2009 I posted my
first essay on International Crime Authors Reality Check. In the last five
years, I have posted 260 essays. (Note to self: buy a lottery ticket with 260.)
To have written that number of weekly essays requires a certain kind of
personality—one predisposed to an internalized tyranny. It is not unlike
going to the gym. After a few weeks, the urge to put off working out or writing
an essay grows. I haven’t figured out whether such discipline is a good or bad
thing. All I can say is that truly surprises myself—looking back and finding
that I managed each week to overcome the terror of not knowing what to write
next. Yet each week, I discovered a subject, an idea, a pattern or trend worth
My style is to write an
essay as if I am talking out loud to an old friend. Someone I urgently want to
communicate information to about what I’ve stumbled over, whether it is a
cultural artifact, a technological development, a scientific study, crime
investigations and stories, or a new book that opens a door to new ideas. The
large range reflects my eclectic interest in law, politics, economics, science,
history, psychology, and sociology. I think of these categories as layers of
analysis that focus on a specialized aspect of our world. To understand
reality means overcoming illusions and biases, and judgments in favor of
examining different perspective on hard questions that life raises.
An unexamined life is not
a life worth living. I have that taped to my computer.
The purpose of an essay is
a kind of personal pattern making from a noisy information charged environment,
one that is constantly changing, spinning a litany of contradictions, paradoxes,
and uncertainties. The best essay raises the hard questions that lie submerged
below the surface of our consumer society with its slogans, headlines, and sound
bytes. The best essay refrains from the temptation to give a facile answer.
The shadows of doubt can never be eliminated. And that is precisely why
there isn’t an Essay Channel on TV.
It is normal to want
resolution. Even if that requires distortion, illusions and lies the comfort of
believing that the author has solved a problem is irresistible. If you’ve
followed my essays over the past five years, you have likely witnessed an
evolution in my own thinking and writing. While, I may offer my own meaning of
events, I’ve tried to understand that context and multi-perspective giving is a
better approach. I’d rather a reader draw his or her own meaning. Events and
forces are a roll of the dice. There is never any certainty what numbers will
come up next.
I am a searcher and essays
and novels are my tools. Like most tools they have their limitations. The way we
use words and the situations in which we employ them is a confession of our
bias. Each week I roll the dice. What caused those numbers to come up? One
valuable lesson that comes from this kind of writing is to understand how much
we take causation and agency for granted. And for that reason, most of our
analytical tools fail the task of extracting the truth. We find it exceptionally
difficult to accept that very small causes can have outsized effects. A nineteen
year old shoot and kills an archduke in 1914 and ignites World War I leading to
the death of millions of people. Any nobody who rolls the dice has the potential
to bankrupt the casino. We look for meaning in a chain of causes even though the
best minds such as Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking Fast and
Slow”), tell us that all the evidence is that such a chain is an
illusion. Causation and agency are our shields against the forces of randomness
and chance. We don’t leave home without that shield.
Essays are either shield
building or shield destroying. I tend to write the latter. That is likely a huge
career mistake if I want to be popular.
We are hungry for
narratives that give us plausible alternatives to explain life in the face of
doubt and chance. Storytellers who create the simple, complete and
satisfying story as a guide have our admiration and loyalty. There is a kind of
cruelty that comes from the truth that there is no escape from the uncertainties
of life. It makes readers uncomfortable. They look for the exit. Who can blame
them? No one wishes to give up on the hope of meaning that transcends pure
chance. Our modern life is based on the promise of that transcendence and pushes
back on a destiny shaped by the outcome of events and forces beyond our ability
to control—boundaries, culture, violence, and power.
When I reflect back over
five years of essay writing and a quarter of a century of novel writing, I feel
that I’ve been on a grand journey. I had to let go of a lot to take that
journey. But I am glad that I made that choice. I am frankly not certain if I’d
have the courage to have left a tenured university position should a time
machine take me back to Vancouver in 1984.
I’ve recorded the
experiences, people, events and ideas I’ve discovered along the way in words.
I’ve described what I’ve experienced, felt, seen, touched, loved, hated, and
wished for—and when you expose yourself in this very public way, the question is
why bother, was it really worth the effort? Wouldn’t it have been better if I’d
kept my thoughts to myself, taken a vow of silence, been still, and sought an
inner peace beyond which words can describe?
I rolled the dice. What
you read is the numbers that came up. Rather than looking back, I am looking
ahead and asking what I’ve learnt over this time. About writing, life in
Thailand, human nature, politics, the book and film business, relationships and
I feel less certain of
what I know and what I can know than when I started this journey. At the same
time, I’ve become more comfortable with discontinuity and disruptions. I fear
them less, and see such events as a natural part of what life delivers. I try to
spend more time in the present than dwelling in memories of the past or in
possible future realities.
We are in the midst of an
information revolution. Whether essays and blogs such as mine continue to exist
in this form five years from now is anyone’s guess. Will I finally run out of
steam and say enough is enough? I don’t know. I use the metaphor of ‘out of
steam’ with intent. Human beings are weak; they run down, break down after a
relatively short period of time compared to the longevity of machines in the
Storytellers thrived in a
world of incomplete knowledge. A world where evidence, facts, data played a
different, smaller roll. Storytellers have had an audience because an ability to
detect and explain patterns and weave them into compelling narratives that
deliver a whole, complete and universal feeling to the reader. I fear our
position won’t last. The best of algorithms to mine metadata for patterns will
likely report correlations—depending us on our cause and agency fix—and deprive
us of the cozy completeness of a unified, coherent, and plausible story that
endures. In the world of big data and algorithms nothing endures as every
nanosecond the patterns are adjusted as new data is accessed, analyzed and
evaluated. And not just the data patterns, but the networks and connections
shift and move.
But for now, I’d like to
invite you to climb aboard a weekly train of thought, buckle up, and take a ride
into the unknown with a driver who from week to week has no particular
destination in mind. If I can challenge you to rethink something you’ve felt was
settled long ago, or point toward ideas that you may not have discovered, then
writing this blog will have been worth the effort. Sharing ideas is like sharing
food; it something you do with friends. Online has in some ways changed how we
view friendship, but I’d like to think that anyone who has read this far, is a
fellow journey taker, who is ready to take the cup and roll ‘em.
|The Online Sleuths and the Cold Case
Mostly criminal justice
has been assigned to law enforcement authorities. There has always been some
exceptions, where outsiders supplement the public officials’ task in
apprehending law breakers.
Three such private actors
come to mind: Vigilantes, bounty-hunters, and sleuths.
For centuries, members of
these three groups have patrolled the darker paths that remain largely invisible
to the ordinary, law abiding citizen. From Jack the Ripper to the Boston Bomber,
private citizens have sought to assist in uncovering the killer. Traditionally,
in the old analogue world, the private actors put time on the street, using up
shoe leather talking to people in neighbor haunts, taking in oral information,
following up until they had enough information to establish a probable location
where the offender could be found. While their working methods were roughly
similar, their motives differed. And revealing a person’s motives is usually a
good way to tell a story that people can understand and relate to.
Vigilantes are motivated
by personal or ideological reasons to bring a criminal to justice. A vigilante
is emotionally driven. He or she is more likely to go along with street justice
and dispense with due process.
A bounty-hunter, in
contrast, has a more straightforward reason—his or her motive is money. They
deliver a criminal to law enforcement officers in return for receiving a cash
reward and what the authorities do with the criminal is up to them as the
bounty-hunter walks away counting his cash.
Professional or licensed
private investigators or sleuths undertake cases on behalf of clients who might
wish a wayward bank teller is caught with their hand in the till. They aren’t
motivated to go after a wrong-doer in their capacity as sleuth. It involves
work, it can involve danger, and most people seek to minimize the risk of harm
unless they can see the cash up front.
Amateur digital sleuths
who work online to solve crimes that law enforcement officials have let fall
between the cracks. This is a new category, and appears to fall somewhere
between gaming and support groups. It is hard to peg all of the sleuths in this
category as it is still evolving and taking in members from the traditional
brigade of privateers who work the edges of the criminal justice
Vigilantes, for the most
part, tend to be amateurs fired up by anger and hated. That fuels the emotional
rocket for awhile. Though true-believers can burn up a lot of nuclear fuel
before exploding into a white dwarf. Bounty-hunters and sleuths have the appeal
of being cool, rationale, Sherlock Holmes cerebral types who through
deliberative, clever, deductive reasoning solve the mystery that leads to the
wrong doer. From online feuds and flame wars, the amateur digital sleuths have
their irrational, emotional side, as well as their Dr. Spock,
never-understood-emotional-response types. A CBC News report titled Madeleine
McCann to Jeffery Boucher: Web sleuths quest for the missing
Private citizens spend
untold hours online trying to solve crimes — does it help police? about online
sleuthing, mentions that empathy for the families of the victim is another
Laura Miller, who writes
for Salon, reviewed Deborah Halber’s The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur
Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases. The book comes out 1st July 2014.
The Skeleton Crew goes into the online sleuthing community to report on how the
Miller writes about The
Skeleton Crew and the personal drama that arises from online sleuthing. There
is, in Miller’s words, “a methodological schism over how to interact with
law enforcement and the families of the lost. Halber divides the two groups into
the ‘mavericks,’ who prefer to proceed swiftly and as they deem fit, and the
‘trust builders,’ who insist on deliberating as a group before approaching
officials or the bereaved.”
This is an interesting
premise but I am not certain The Skeleton Crew is for me. The book is a series
of anecdotes that illustrate the lives, ordeals, successes and drama of online
investigators. In other words, as told from the lives of actual investigation as
opposed to analysis of big data to see what patterns emerge from the activities
of this community. Anecdotes, no matter how entertaining, revealing, and
persuasive are not evidence. They are a story about a story. The end.
Miller’s review got me
started thinking about the implications of three traditional categories being
ultimately disrupted by a digital community that wouldn’t have existed 10 years
ago. Halber’s book is coming at a very good time. Others are discussing the
growth, meaning and use of the online sleuthing community. If Wikipedia can
bring in hundreds of experts to work for free to patrol the factual accuracy of
information, there must be thousands of people who a lifetime of movies, TV, and
novels behind them to give them a sense that: a) they can have fun; b) they can
meet other people who share their interests; c) they can benefit the public; d)
they can obtain status in the eyes of others by solving cases that have stumped
A cup of coffee in hand,
and a burning to desire to find a murderer or kidnapper without leaving the
comfort of one’s home was sufficient to attract the attention of the BBC. If you
want to become a digital sleuth, where should you start? At the start, you are
likely going to be looking to solve a ‘cold’ case. That’s an old, unsolved case
that just won’t go away and the police, at least from the public’s perception,
have put it in the unsolved file.
There are a number of
sleuthing websites like Websleuths.com DoeNetwork Reddit’s Bureau of
Investigations, NamUs.gov and Unsolved Mysteries. Inside of these websites,
you’ll discover digital communities of people who devote time and effort,
sharing information to solve kidnappings and murders. The BBC also know the
danger of vigilante justice, and sites the Boston Bomber case, where the wrong
person was accused of involvement.
What do the professionals
say about this development?
Professor David Wall of
Durham University, is quoted as saying that he “believes online communities can
be hugely beneficial in some cases, but the temptation to get involved in more
serious crimes is a recipe for disaster.” Joe Giacalone, a NYPD retired
Detective Sergeant, with many years of experience, worried about the public
getting involved in old, unsolved cases. “‘As an investigator, where you’re
dealing with evidentiary issues and things, you don’t want to have people poking
into the case,’” he says, adding, ‘You gotta remember, you have anonymous people
sitting behind keyboards, you don’t know exactly – you could have somebody with
an axe to grind.’” He’d never seen a case solved by someone working through one
of the online sleuthing communities.
Professor Wall is joined
by Nic Groombridge, a senior sociology lecturer at St. Mary’s University in
London, England, who told CBC News, “During the Jack the Ripper case, one
of the problems the police had wasn’t a lack of leads — it was too many
The British, through their
Association of Chief Police Officers take a slightly different view from
Giacalone, saying, “” [Wrong quote repeated from above, you should have the Brit
one handy.] There are a fair number of lawyer’s demarcations as to the
boundaries that private sleuths must recognize. It is a rather nice touch to use
property law concepts to define the police as the owners of a criminal case. As
former property law professor, the police are alerting outsiders that trespass
is something to avoid. The case belongs to them. Be careful or you might be in
trouble with the police and saying you were only trying to help won’t likely be
Where there is a niches
that appear to welcome these outside communities it is with medical examiners
who have skeletal remains and no clue as to the identity of the person. There
have been some breakthroughs in identifying skeletal remains. There are a couple
of larger questions looming in the near future—is online sleuthing a passing
fashion at this stage of development? Big Data is developing at a speed that is
difficult to assess (without metadata to help assess big data—you start to see a
pattern not unlike one Escher’s recursive birds or frogs). My best guess is
solving crimes turns on the amount, quality, provenance of data, and it is only
a matter of time before the amateurs will be way outside the information silos
where it is stored and analyzed.
Will the idea of police
ownership of criminal cases gain more support as police forces hire experts and
development specialized algorithms to search through vast amounts of data
looking for clues? The probable answer is the police monopoly over cases will
increase over time. And a monopoly is a property owners best friend.
Meanwhile, there are
online scheduled meet ups and book clubs for online amateur sleuths. You’ll need
to do a bit of sleuthing to find a meet up near where you live.