In 1992, after the acquittal of LAPD officers following the beating of Rodney King, Los Angeles burned for six days as criminal gangs looted and pillaged. The forces of law and order stood by, largely unable to cope. A week ago we saw an uncanny echo of these events in England, where after the fatal shooting of a black suspect by police, parts of London and a number of provincial cities including Manchester, Birmingham and even Oxford were trashed by criminal gangs. TV shots showed buildings aflame while looters ransacked electrical goods and sports shops. People defending their properties were killed.
Most citizens are naturally horrified. Were the perpetrators ‘scum’ or was this some kind of protest at a lack of jobs and opportunities? Should we bear down on the looters with retribution or was this a wake-up call that they need more help? Opinions are cheap and varied, but can science say anything useful.
Who are the looters?
In Los Angeles most of the trouble was caused by ethnic minority gangs. In the UK the media has tip-toed around the ethnic issue but inner-city gangs do appear to be the driving force, coordinated by the Blackberry Messaging System and Twitter. Commentators agree that we’re dealing with the urban criminal underclass, what some people called the bottom 5%.
Many studies have been carried out on criminal intelligence and personality. Low level gang crime is carried out be people who are the inverse of the white-collar professionals who form society’s elites. What are their relevant psychological characteristics?
As outlined previously, psychologists define personality along the five OCEAN dimensions: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.
The kinds of traits which get you a high-status and well-paid job include being hardworking, diligent, honest, polite, cooperative and kind - and having a higher-than-average IQ. These traits correlate closely with high-scores on two of the above personality dimensions: Conscientiousness and Agreeableness; Intelligence also tends to correlate somewhat with Openness (to new thinking and experiences).
By contrast, gang members tend to have low IQ, be low on conscientiousness (i.e. impulsive) and low on agreeableness (they’re aggressive and lack empathy). Think of the riots as the revenge of the extreme left of the bell-curve.
These psychological characteristics of gang members tend to undermine the most straightforward solution to breaking up gang culture, namely getting them into employment. It’s a fixture of the TV studios to see leftish politicians stating that if only ‘the Government provided jobs’ then the problem would be solved. However, the stereotypical gang-member is the last person any rational employer would wish to hire – he (and it’s usually a ‘he’) is the employee from hell. Conversely, if crime does provide a pay-off, then it’s much more suited to the gang-member’s natural affinities than the discipline and structure of low-skilled work.
The inhabitants of the extreme left-hand side of the bell curve are a problem for every advanced society. The options are only cooption or containment. Since cooption, in the form of low-skilled jobs, is expensive, time-consuming and has diminishing marginal returns the default for most societies is containment. Low-levels of ongoing crime in the gang ghettos are tolerated and contained by specialist police units, while the rest of society keeps well away and gets on with its business. When the ghettos explode out, as they did last week, it forces everyone to rethink.
An Engagement Model
The British Government is taking the lessons of Los Angeles very seriously: ’Communities cannot "arrest their way out" of gang crime, the prime minister's new crime adviser, US "supercop" Bill Bratton, has warned.’ Bratton was formerly head of the LAPD, charged with putting it all back together again after the riots. He then achieved success in New York and is now advising David Cameron.
The carrot and stick approach will see Government agencies investing to create opportunities for ghetto children who are amenable to cooption, giving them access to training and jobs, and mentoring take-up. Those harder types who are essentially unemployable will be monitored much more closely and if they have to be locked away, so be it.
These steps will diminish the number of gang members and their social power but the gangs will not go away. The final step will be improved technology for identification of rioters and countermeasures. The already massive deployment of CCTV will be stepped up and if you have cash to invest in automation systems for incident analysis and facial recognition, now is a good time to buy.