- Criminals tend to be more versatile in the crimes they commit than we tend to give them credit for.
- Those who offend big are also likely to offend small.
- Self-selection policing could save police lives.
For more than 20 years, Professor Ken Pease and I have been developing an additional means by which police might uncover or identify active, serious criminals. We call it "self-selection policing" (SSP). It's spooky, perhaps, but we both thought of this approach independently, yet at the same time, in the early late-1990s/2000s. When we first discussed the idea, it was enough to convince us that we might be onto something worth running with.
Self-selection policing is necessarily simple to comprehend and relatively cheap to implement, two qualities that can make senior officers sit up and listen. This is not because we feel that police brains require simplicity but because simplicity makes new ideas more attractive and easier to pass on and remember for all of us, not just cops. It is, for example, based on the premise that "those who commit big bad things also commit little bad things" (Roach and Pease, 2016), and that, by committing "little" crimes, active, serious criminals are in fact "offering themselves up for police attention" (Roach and Pease, 2016)—attention that is more warranted because they have broken the law, however minor an infraction it may be. Put simply, we think it rude not to act on such an invitation. A little scrutiny can go a long way, and, in their committing a minor offence, the legal and moral ground lies with the police scrutineer.
Why self-selection policing should work
There exists a wealth of criminology research focused on criminal careers that supports the idea that criminals tend to be more versatile in the crimes they commit than we tend to give them credit for. For example, serious and prolific criminals often have criminal records replete with a wide range of different types of crime rather than listing one specialism. They might prefer one type of crime (e.g., burglary), but they are more than prepared to take other criminal opportunities as they present themselves, thank you very much.
The point is that those who offend big are also likely to offend small. The tricky part has been trying to identify and disentangle which minor offences our active, serious offenders are likely to commit most. Put another way, which minor offences act best as reliable "trigger offences" for police to use in identifying more active, serious offending? This has been our focus for the past 20 years, and we thank our police friends who have helped us in our search for self-selection trigger offences over the years. So, what have we found so far?
Research supports self-selection policing
For the sake of brevity, I will try to spare readers from our usual sensational examples of serial murderers uncovered by the commission of minor offences (e.g., Dick Turpin was uncovered for stealing a horse and the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, for displaying false number plates on his car—sorry, I couldn’t help myself. See Roach and Pease, 2016, for more) in favour of presenting some brief examples of self-selection policing in action over the past few years. Here are a few minor "trigger offences" we have found to be useful ways of uncovering active, serious offenders:
- Illegal parking in disabled bays.
- Driving while disqualified.
- HORT1 (Home Office Road Transport Form 1) noncompliance.
- Driving in bus lanes, without seat-belts, or while on mobile phones.
- Animal cruelty.
I bet that many of you familiar with UK police practices immediately thought, "We don’t issue those anymore" when you read number 3 (HORT1—also known as a "producer"), and you’d be right. When issued, UK drivers were legally compelled to produce their driving and vehicle documents (e.g., driver's licence, motor insurance) within seven days, at a police station of their choice. If all is satisfactory, then no further action will be taken. Sad as it may sound, I conducted a study of HORT1 compliance with some open-minded Lancashire Police officers. In a nutshell, we found that a large percentage of those who did not comply with this rather innocuous requirement were already known to police and, more importantly, committed an array of offences close to when they were issued with the HORT1.
The important thing that we took away was that those who did not comply with a HORT1 usually had something to hide (i.e., they self-selected for police scrutiny). Although nowadays police can check immediately whether vehicles and drivers have the necessary documentation such as insurance and vehicle tax (as they do in the United States and other countries), alas, the opportunity that a HORT1 promised has now passed. How? The important factor was not the fact that they might not have had the right documentation so much as the fact they did not see why they should have to comply in the first place. I lament the passing of the tax disc for much the same reason.
The most important element of the self-selection policing approach is that it must be of as little irritation to the public as possible, as most minor offences will, of course, not be committed by serious criminals. The best self-selection trigger offence we have found to date in this respect remains parking illegally in disabled bays when other bays are available, as monitoring illegal parking in disabled bays does not necessitate drivers knowing they have been scrutinised. Too much inconvenience and the public will react unfavourably to the disruption to their lives and arguably deservedly so.
Self-selection policing could save police lives
Knowledge of SSP, and that many motoring-related offences can act as triggers of serious criminality, should prepare police officers to prepare for danger when they pull drivers over for speeding. Those they approach may be serious offenders, and, tragically, on too many occasions, police in the United States are shot by drivers they pull over in such a scenario because they have unwittingly stopped a violent criminal driver.
Some self-selection policing offences we are currently researching include animal cruelty, those caught driving while banned from doing so, and those who broke social-distancing laws in the United Kingdom during the lockdown periods of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Roach, J. and Pease, K. (2016). Self-Selection Policing: Theory, Research and Practice. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Roach, J (2023) Practical Psychology for Policing. Bristol, UK: Policy Press (published January 2023).