Responding to Calgary's "Gang War": A Political Sociology of Criminological Ideas

Article excerpt

On 3 April 2006, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed the Canadian Professional Police Association, saying, "Many police forces are currently under-funded and under siege. This situation carries dire consequences for public safety. The lack of police patrols inevitably leads to more crime and more serious crime" (Harper 2006). In this speech, the prime minister directly equates an inadequacy of policing resources with increases in crime and a heightened level of risk and danger. In doing so, he reinforces two ideas: first, that public safety is in jeopardy; and second, that increasing the number of police officers will ensure the public is safe. Police, he implies, are the key element in ensuring public safety.

Increasing the size of a police force in response to a perceived crime problem is a common policy response. However, research that empirically examines the relationship between increasing the number of police officers and subsequent reductions in crime is contradictory at best (e.g., Sherman and Weisburd 1995; Sherman 1990; Cameron 1988; Blumstein, Nagin, and Cohen 1978). In general, the potential for police to significantly reduce the level of crime is limited. Yet, when crime is perceived to be increasing, political leaders consistently claim that the solution to crime is to increase the police presence on the street.

This paper examines why increased policing is taken up as a crime control policy, especially given that there is only limited evidence that a heightened police presence will lead to reductions in crime. We argue that a resolution to this paradox can be found by examining the ideas that guide political understandings of criminal events. More specifically, we will show how a heightened police presence is the logical policy solution because political actors (2) rely on prominent conservative ideas in the framing of criminal events. To illustrate this point, we rely on the political sociology of ideas, a theoretical framework that has been widely used to understand economic and welfare state policy but has scarcely been applied to understand the development of crime control policy. This framework is useful because it helps to connect general ideas about the nature of crime to specific policy responses. To illustrate our argument more clearly, we present a case study of a crime threat: a series of gang-related incidents occurring in Calgary, Alberta since 2007. Through an analysis of newspaper articles, we show how this event was framed by political actors in their communication with the news media. In turn, we demonstrate how this interpretation of the events enabled the general acceptance of policies that sought to increase the number of police. We begin with a consideration of previous research on crime control policy.

The relationship between crime and politics

The relationship between crime and politics is complex and has been a central issue in academic theorizing. Scholars have argued that the presence of crime issues on political agendas reflects an increased public concern over crime (Scheingold 1984). According to this perspective, individuals are increasingly experiencing crime, either directly or vicariously, and this leads to a heightened concern about crime issues (Skogan and Maxfield 1981). In turn, crime becomes a political issue because individuals perceive that crime is affecting their well-being (Wilson 1977). Therefore, the prominence of crime issues is simply "democracy at work" (Scheingold 1984: 49).

This perspective is contested by those who argue that political actors and the media play a significant role in establishing crime as an important social issue. According to this view, claims made by the state have a greater influence on perceptions of crime than on the actual incidence of crime (Beckett 1994). Such approaches to understanding the relationship between crime and politics emphasize the process through which various claims about crime problems are made and those claims, in turn, frame crime issues in a particular way. …