A mobile sense of law and order

'Parents give in to children's pleas, insisting the mobile is for emergencies. Sadly,the emergency is often being mugged for your mobile'
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The Independent Online

Not so long ago, date rape was a crime of which no one had ever heard. Nowadays it can appear difficult to find a young woman who doesn't feel that she, or one of her friends, has come close to experiencing such a violation.

Not so long ago, date rape was a crime of which no one had ever heard. Nowadays it can appear difficult to find a young woman who doesn't feel that she, or one of her friends, has come close to experiencing such a violation.

Now, in a similar tradition, comes the particular category of assault called acquaintance violence. The tag is just as self-explanatory as date rape - if not more so. Home Office criminologists stress that the rise in violent crime is largely made up of an explosion in acquaintance violence. Violent attacks by strangers are apparently rising at a much slower rate.

This detail may not make the annual recorded crime figures, showing another rise in violent crime, seem much more palatable. In fact, alongside the seeming rise in road or air rage, bullying in the workplace and so on, the rise of acquaintance violence might be read as pointing to a society in which individuals are increasingly on a short leash with each other. But the argument is that, like date rape, this crime has always occurred, and it is a matter for some celebration that people are now reporting it.

This would certainly make sense of the figures for domestic violence, another crime against women that simply wasn't acknowledged until quite recently. Perhaps, too, the rise of the personal injury claim is spurring people who have been assaulted late on a Saturday night to report injuries from scuffles that they may once have simply put behind them. Manchester police have an even simpler explanation for the current rise in street crime. They blame the "displacement effect" following successful campaigns against burglars and car thieves. Now that cars and homes are more secure, the vulnerable body-on-the-street is being targeted.

However, when one looks at the typical robber and victim in a violent crime, it is the idea of "yob culture", and Jack Straw's suggestion that much of the rise in violence can be blamed on mobile phones, that seem to offer the most plausible explanation. In London, both the protagonists and the victims of violent crime are most likely to be schoolboys of 15 to 16, and the crime is likely to take place when school ends for the evening. Outside London, both victims and perpetrators are slightly older, between 18 and 20.

There are very much the sort of people who have always been clouting each other. One astounding statistic some years ago suggested that around 97 per cent of young men showed some signs of delinquent behaviour during their teenage years, and that nearly all of them became perfectly decent citizens by the age of 20. There can be no doubt that alcohol has a substantial part to play in the rise in assault, while the illegal drug trade probably accounts for much of the rise in gun crime.

But much of the crime among schoolchildren is much less sinister than this. Few would disagree with the assertion that modern schoolchildren are a good deal more sophisticated, while at the same time making no leaps whatsoever (perhaps even the contrary) in their levels of maturity. Even the crimes of schooldays are becoming more sophisticated. The fight at the school gates has forever been a staple of playground life. But now the states are much higher than conkers and real or imagined classroom slights.

The reason why these school-gate contests are being reported as crimes of acquaintance violence rather than, as was traditional, kept secret from parents, could be that they increasingly involve the theft of a mobile phone. Jack Straw's solution, in line with the "design against crime" initiative championed by Dr Lorraine Gamman at St Martin's School of Art, is to make mobiles less attractive to steal. This would involve making them easily immobilised and invulnerable to use by anyone other than the registered owner. It would also involve such measures as not purchasing a bag with a mobile phone holder prominently attached to the outside.

Most parents would probably feel happier with redesigning their children to make them less attractive to steal from - without mobile phones, covetable trainers or any of the other expensive accoutrements that have become so essential to the schoolchild. Many parents who give in to their children's pleas for a mobile phone console themselves by insisting that it is only for emergencies. Unfortunately, it would appear that the great emergency is being mugged for your mobile.

Meanwhile there are worries that just as cannabis is considered a "gateway drug", leading directly to crack dealers toting guns around our cities, mobiles are gateway electronic items, leading robbers on to further crimes of violence. This would presumably account for the much smaller rise in violent crime by strangers - the graduates of mobile phone mugging heading off to Rolex country.

All in all, though, the mobile-phone-as-conduit-to-crime theory is a depressing one. It's not that it doesn't have its appeal. As a woman who has simply and irrationally never liked mobiles, I'm pleased to find some kind of eventual confirmation of my distrust. But otherwise, the logical conclusion - that if we didn't have anything easily stolen then there wouldn't be any robbery - is just not very helpful. It's not that this isn't true - of course a simpler, less materialistic society would be less criminal. It's just that it shows no sign whatever of happening.

Instead, there is likely to be no end of stealable little gizmos that we will want to consume in the near future. Look at the Manchester police force's warnings about the "displacement effect". So mobiles are the new car radios. What will be the new mobiles? We shall see.

The new crime figures, the last before the election, have been pounced upon with glee by the Conservatives. Ann Widdecombe, shadow Home Secretary, didn't even wait for them to appear before crowing about police numbers and failure of public confidence in the ever-thinning blue line under Labour. But while police numbers and police (as well as public) morale are indeed a worry, the overall fall in all other crime figures suggests that they're not doing everything wrong.

Crime prevention is working. It is just far more difficult to prevent crimes against the person than crimes against property. And with a population intent on making their persons ever more worthy of plunder, clearly there is no shortage of temptation for the morally challenged. A hike in the visibility of the police certainly would help, just as it did in New York.

With a smaller population than London, New York City has a considerably larger police force. And since 75 per cent of the street robberies in England and Wales take place in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol or Liverpool, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that bigger city police forces are highly desirable. Predictably enough, though, Ms Widdecombe offers no explanation of how she will raise the finance to do the one necessary thing to increase police numbers. Which is, of course, to pay them rather more.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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