Arthur Collins, former partner of reality TV star Ferne McCann, has been sentenced to 20 years, plus an extended licence period of five years for causing five counts of grievous bodily harm and nine counts of actual bodily harm when he threw acid across the packed dance floor of a nightclub in East London, during a night out in April 2017.
The sentence was handed down more than a month after Collins was found guilty of carrying out the acid attack, following a trial at Wood Green Crown Court in North London. At the trial, Collins claimed that he threw the substance thinking it was a date-rape drug, after hearing a group of men plotting to spike a woman’s drink. But ultimately the jury saw through his attempt at deception.
Having spent years as a criminologist, researching the behaviour of violent men, I know that it’s not uncommon for cowardly, aggressive and selfish offenders to try to present themselves as heroes. The unfortunate and mundane reality is that violent offenders are most often insecure, damaged people. In contrast to the tortured, romantic gangsters we often see in films and on television, such men are usually conformist, shallow, selfish and callous.
On social media, Collins put himself across as the man with everything; an assured and attractive persona, with a celebrity girlfriend and a model life. His online posts – widely circulated by the tabloid press – frequently featured designer clothes and luxurious holidays.
Yet for all his glamorous pretences, Collins is not what he makes out. At his trial, it emerged that Collins had sent a text to his sister days before the attack: “Tell mum to mind that little hand wash in my car acid”. He claimed the message referred to the shampoo – containing amino acid and coconut oil – which he used because he was worried about hair loss. He sent the text, he said, because he was concerned about his nieces finding and “biting it”.
A corrosive trend
Acid and other corrosives are becoming a more popular weapon among violent offenders. At the request of the Home Office, the National Police Chiefs’ Council collected data from 39 police forces between November 2016 and April 2017, recording 408 cases of attacks using corrosive substances during the six-month period. Almost a quarter (21%) of these offenders were under 18, where the age of the offender was known.
According to Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), the UK has one of the highest rates of recorded acid attacks in the world. Worse, the foundation reports that charges were brought over just 414 of the 2,078 acid attacks recorded between 2011 and 2016.
These data paint a very different picture to the common assumptions about acid attacks, wherein the perpetrator is male, the victim female, and the violence is linked to “honour” crime. Rather, I am inclined to think the growth of acid attacks might simply be copycat behaviour, carried out by thoughtless, violent young men.
I have seen the imitation of violence take place within the criminal justice system before. The recent rise in acid attacks is actually reminiscent of the instances of “napalming” among prisoners, which I have documented while undertaking research on violence in Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) since 2000. Young male prisoners would mix sugar with boiling water, and throw it in rivals’ faces to scar them.
In prison, these sorts of offences would spike alarmingly for a period, as young prisoners imitated one another. And just like the violent young men I worked with in prisons, many of the offenders using acid today have grown up an increasingly competitive world, where crime is a way of both making money, and forging a personal identity.
Of course, acid attacks are not a new phenomenon. They were also used by gangsters in the Victorian era to humiliate and disfigure rival gang members. There are some commonalities between that time, and today – not least a growing number of children are living in “Victorian conditions”.
In the age of austerity, residents of UK cities are increasingly turning to charity for regular meals, and going without heating to save money on fuel. And with police funding falling year on year, it’s no surprise that violence might rise as austerity bites.
Collins used acid to damage the looks of his rivals, so his actions bear some resemblance to the crimes of the Victorian era. Yet today’s acid attacks take place against the backdrop of a culture obsessed with personal image.
These days, everyone from celebrity starlets to politicians, teenagers to grandparents, is being encouraged to embrace individualism while being judged on their appearance. Society is becoming ever more divided between haves and have not’s. Life in precarious, post-industrial Britain has been accompanied by the rise of social media and the cult of the celebrity selfie.
So when young people today turn violent and lash out at others, it’s no wonder that the core logic of their attacks centres around damaging their rivals’ appearances. Indeed, it may be one explanation for the fact that offences such as acid attacks and “bagging” – stabbing someone in the buttocks so badly that the feeling and nerve damage means that they require a colostomy bag – are on the rise among violent young men, and those unfortunate enough to stand in their path.
Violent criminals are not the romantic, glamorous rebels of Hollywood movies – they are selfish, narcissistic men who will attack others with little thought for the consequences. But on a deeper level, the rise in acid attacks reflects British society’s corrosive fixation on physical appearance, as well as the shallow, unthinking nature of violent criminals.