Safety through surveillance? The possibilities of ‘looking out for each other’

Carl William’s death in custody made me think of the relationship between safety and surveillance. The panopticon often contains negative connotations and is used to talk about state power, but someone who works in juvenile justice made the comment recently that the young people in their units need to know that someone is watching them (and watching what happens to them) in order to feel safe.

Yesterday I was reading some old minutes from a meeting of a public reserve planning group. These minutes made mention of seeking to employ ‘crime prevention through environmental design’ . This is a topic I hope to read more about, but it seems to be a way of planning urban spaces to make it possible for the community to see most of what is happening. This of course assumes that people seeing what is happening can result in them taking action in the event of ‘anti-social behaviour’ or that people who could be potential perpetrators would make the decision not to offend based on the belief that they will be observed and action taken against them. I noticed there had also been discussion of how video cameras, if not monitored and not maintained, could lead to decreased safety. The point was that while people would feel more safe this would not translate into an actual increase in safety and so, I suppose it can be assumed, people (who are potential victims) would take less precautions in using the area.

Of course, this just begs mentioned of the high profile bashing of a girl at a train station overseas where everybody, including security, seemly looked on . I remember interviews that appeared on the news around the time with people who thought that they did not need to do anything because security was there and security did not directly intervene because it was against their orders. I think one of the issues with ‘the risk society’ times in which we live is that you cannot do anything outside your assigned task and assigned tasks need to be narrowly defined so the associated risks can be addressed.

Surveillance within the community is seen as a good thing especially when it is put in the terms of ‘everybody knows everybody else’. Woodcock, Dovey and Wollan’s article on Brunswick suggests that it is a site of loose bonds, but that people like it being that way. I can certainly see how loose bonds could increase enjoyment and prevent encroachment on freedom. I am certainly a ‘loose bonds’ sort of person in my street. I know who lives in which house immediately around me, we say ‘hi’ when gardening and if anything unusual has happened in the street someone will catch you as you are coming home in the evening to let you know. However, it is nothing like when I lived in what could be described as a ‘poor area’ and you would get invited along to things if you were walking down the street and somebody would send their kids up to your place to ask a question.

Still, cultivation of bonds and perceptions of safety, rather than actually safety, seem to be more commonly taken as an aim of community development programs. Port Phillip’s ‘Report non-criminal behaviour now’ project as part of the ‘Sustainable Community Progress Indicators Project in partnership with Victoria Police Port Phillip Region’ seems like a novel project. On the promotional (black and green print on white, postcode sized) card it says:

“Introducing the non-crime hotline, celebrating our falling crime rates and collecting stories of Non-Criminal, socially beneficial acts in the Port Phillip community. Call the Non-Crime Hotline and leave your reports of the great everyday things that make our neighbourhoods happier, safer places to live.”

(Unfortunately the URL printed on the card does not work)

The other day I was crossing the road at the corners of Gertrude and Nicholson Streets in Fitzroy. There is a hospital in that area and one of the exits from the Mental Health Unit can be accessed via Nicholson Street. There were two people talking behind me with a tone of righteous rage about somebody they had seen picking up cigarette buts.

They seemed to think this person was an inpatient in the Mental Health Unit, which I will assume they judged based on the person’s appearance. Just as the lights changed one of the speakers behind me actually said something about how those people should not be left to roam. I do not think that people should be left unsupported, and clearly picking up cigarette buts appears to be an act of desperation whether it is driven by a lack of money, addiction to cigarettes or not having something else to do. However, the person they were talking about is a human being and if such inequalities exist I think we do deserve to be confronted by them. (It is interesting that the activity this person was engaging in is not illegal and probably has benefits for the environment. I wonder what they would say if they had walked past a group of school children, wearing disposable gloves, picking up litter.) Clearly the speaker thought that this person needed to be supervised, but to be supervised by ‘professionals’, not looked out for by the wider community.

The de-institutionalisation movement did have some noble and some economic motivations. I think my argument is quite a fine line, but I think that in order to be able to provide ‘care in the community’ we need to be willing to look out for people without institutionalising the community as a whole. While previous contact with mental health services may be a risk factor in suicide, it is certainly not a necessary condition. Recovery from various mental health diagnoses can take a long time, but it does happen. I think the figure is something like eight years for eating disorders. While there are not enough longitudinal studies across the population, there is even evidence of quite significant rates of recovery from schizophrenia without ongoing medication. Clearly people need more ‘looking out for’ at some times in their lives than others, and we cannot predict who will need this in the future. I do believe that misuse of the rights agenda have made us too hands off at times with how we look out for people in our community. I think ‘looking out for’ needs to be based on genuine relationships and care. I do not think that ‘looking out for each other’ can be captured in government policy. After all, if a child is abused or somebody suicides who would we be able to blame?

I have covered a lot more ground than I intended to do in this post, and there is a lot more that can (and should) be unpacked. Note to self: come back to this post and rework the ideas.


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