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Can the Victorians teach us how to treat ‘careless’ victims of crime?

Statue of justice. Shutterstock, CC BY-SA

Hapless victims of crime are “corrupting” vulnerable criminals by making it too easy for them to stray from the straight and narrow path. This may not be a popular opinion now but it’s how some police officers and magistrates approached crime prevention in the Victorian era.

Today, instant controversy awaits any police officer who appears to blame the victim. The latest to come under fire was Phil Kay, assistant chief constable of Leicestershire Police, who late last year queried whether students who left doors and windows unlocked deserve to have cases of burglary investigated. He argued that limitless expectations are placed on the police while other public services, such as the NHS, are deliberately rationed for the benefit of “deserving” users - or in other words, those with a healthy body weight.

The Daily Mail jumped on Kay’s comments with the headline: “Now police blame VICTIMS for being burgled!” Local politicians responded similarly, declaring that “burglary is burglary” and urging the police to “bear down on persistent, dishonest criminality”. Only the Moral Maze – Radio 4’s weekly ethics-based shouting match – set out to explore the issues at stake in Kay’s comments. But the episode was quickly diverted towards the usual suspects in cases of personal responsibility, such as “feckless” welfare-claimants and chain-smoking hospital patients.

Burglar breaking into a house through open window. Shutterstock, CC BY

But the question raised by Kay – who is responsible? – cuts to the heart of how we as a society respond to crime. This whole debate seems at odds with a fondly remembered golden age when doors and windows were left open on trust and when, if anything did go missing, the victim could rely upon a no-nonsense British bobby to bring the offender to justice.

Yet in fact, Kay’s remarks fit into a much longer history of the police offloading responsibility for crime prevention onto private individuals. Back in the 19th century, the police made very similar (though often more strident) statements about victim culpability.

In 1833, Manchester’s police authority condemned the “very great carelessness which exists in securing premises for the night” and the “absolute indifference” of householders. This kind of comment was repeated throughout the Victorian period. In 1879, the chief constable of Leeds complained of the “great carelessness of owners and occupiers” in failing to fortify their premises.

These comments indicate that the issue of public and private responsibility for crime control has long remained unresolved. In recent years, the police service has increasingly sought to encourage householders to protect themselves by providing information on domestic security. Other agencies have played a similar role. In fact, Kay’s comments came amid National Home Security Month - an initiative backed by security firms, home improvement retailers and police forces. Yet projects like this are not unprecedented. Rather, they are the latest attempts by the police and others to describe what they may reasonably expect of the public in dealing with crime.

What can we learn from the past?

Revisiting 19th-century evidence suggests that something is missing from discussions of crime prevention today. Unlike our own, Victorian domestic security advice was sometimes concerned with the welfare of would-be criminals as much as the interests of potential victims. Victorian commentators worried that lax security unfairly tempted the honesty of those easily misled, especially children and the poor. For this reason, a Liverpool magistrate suggested in 1860 that retailers who exposed goods outside their shops should not be reimbursed for expenses incurred in prosecuting the offender. He asserted that exposed wares “offer too much temptation – more, indeed, than ought to be offered – to persons in a very poor position in life”.

For the authorities in Victorian times, securing property was not just about preventing losses to victims but also preventing the corruption of the vulnerable. If today’s senior police officers were to explore these broader implications of insecurity, they might better guard against the charge of cynicism and self-interest in their ongoing dialogue with the public over crime prevention.

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