According to a survey by students at Erasmus University, as many as 20 percent of visitors to the campus supermarket steal occasionally. In response, the shop has been experimenting with posters: See a shoplifter? Tell Spar and get a free coffee. We analyse how useful this is via two trends in tackling criminality.

The danger of wild justice

Firstly, students can grass on each other. This reflects the trend in which the government calls on citizens to tackle criminality. Think of neighbourhood watch areas, a WhatsApp group for local crime prevention and programmes like Crimewatch, asking the public to help solve crimes. Criminologists have performed numerous analyses and are cautiously positive about using the public in this way.

But, not unimportantly: the analyses also brought problems to light. For example, the danger of wild justice. The average member of the public is not familiar with the letter of the law; they risk ending up in court themselves if they take matters into their own hands. For example, the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad reported on a neighbourhood watch which even had helicopters and chased alleged offenders with dogs.

Furthermore, the public can sometimes act from prejudice. A young black man walking through an area with an active WhatsApp group may generate a flood of racist and prejudiced posts. In the same way, higher professional education (hbo) students (who, according to Spar, are noticeably inclined to do a bit of proletarian shopping) may be suspected of shoplifting more often than their fellow consumers from the university. So: using the public can help, but there are also risks.

Preventing criminality

Trend two: governments and businesses increasingly try to prevent nuisance and criminality by changing the situation themselves. Take Zuidplein shopping centre. The municipality of Rotterdam brought in a barrel organ, whose incessant whining was intended to drive away loiterers. On the wide staircase from the metro station handrails were installed, making it more difficult for pickpockets.

The Woudestein Spar harnesses the surroundings by informing potential shoplifters via posters that they are being watched. Potential culprits will tend to think twice about shoplifting. At least that’s the idea behind the method. However, the question is how offenders look at these posters. Do they really believe the chance of being caught is greater? It is also debatable whether shoplifters will be caught sooner. In addition, there is the bystander effect: if a group sees something happening and no one does anything, everyone is inclined to think nothing’s wrong.

Moreover, according to criticism from criminologists, this trend doesn’t tackle the problems at the core. The measures change nothing regarding the motive of the culprit, but only focus on the occasional shoplifter. Notorious offenders will move to other areas. So there are plenty of issues surrounding the second trend too.

With thanks to Kimberly Oosterwijk, Tutor in Criminology