Discretion and net-widening – early intervention and forecasting youth crime

By Helene O. I. Gundhus and Pernille Erichsen Skjevrak

Helene Oppen Ingebrigtsen Gundhus. Photo: UiO
Pernille Erichsen Skjevrak. Photo: Pernille Erichsen Skjevrak

The Norwegian Police are bringing risk assessment tools into use to identify young people who are the ‘most suitable candidates’ for crime prevention. Drawing on field studies, we analyse to what degree these practices are expanding and sharpening surveillance. How much do risk assessment technologies increase intrusive scrutiny of young people?  What are data analytics and other ‘digital layers’ adding to traditional police practice?

An established part of Norwegian police practice is to use prevention units to prevent youth crime and delinquency. To identify young people early in their potential criminal

career, police preventers can request an intelligence report from the (co-located) intelligence unit to map individuals at risk who have not yet come to the attention of the police.

Intelligence analysts use software to analyse and construct a profile of such young people and their associates. However, the data used by the intelligence unit must be available in police databases and registered by police officers, that is, beat officers or crime preventers in the local community. The (street level) police gaze is therefore a key element in being selected as a candidate for attention. Moreover, the data involved does not include anything outside police records, such as social media or other open sources. The software applied does not include automatic alert systems, thus avoiding automatically and systematically monitoring an excessively large number of young people. However, making a report has the effect of widening the net, since more young people are ‘discovered’ in the database and brought under the police gaze.

Our findings show that discretionary considerations of risk by the intelligence analyst are more important in decision-making than directly applying quantified risk scores produced by the system. Moreover, the intelligence analysts are more interested in incidents than social background: the most important thing is what a person has done, not the risk indicators in their family or lifestyle. The professional eye is therefore still important. The analysts and preventers discuss who is selected for attention. The use of risk technologies turns out to be a predominantly manual process, greatly influenced by the human police gaze. So far, what has been striking is rather how professional and organizational collaboration between intelligence analysts and preventers has been restructured. Intelligence analysts’ introduction of digital tools into preventive police work has led to a surprising increase in the group’s communications and discussions about the selection of candidates. They are therefore more likely to co-produce the output and work it out together in stages, over several meetings . However, during this process, the police became more concerned about the limitations of the data, which lacks understanding of the life-course of young people in general and of youth resilience. Their internal discussions about how young people’s resilience had been overlooked became important. The risk analysis products, they said, gave a one-dimensional portrait of young people, and they reflected upon how the emphasis on looking for risks often leads to seeing youngsters as threats and as dangerous.

The critical stance taken by the police involved regarding their own data and their increased awareness of the need to be careful about how it was used, also affected how they worked. There was a change in the language and concepts used, and an effort was made to avoid labelling and stigmatizing young people. The knowledge base was not longer seen as solid enough to initiate police responses. Although the digital prism make the young people visible in the police registers, what this information is used to become important. The police gaze therefore turned out to be more worried and reflective than suspicious.

A recurring theme in criminological crime prevention theory is how the police should go about identifying risks and initiating preventive strategies without increasing the number of young people labelled as criminals.  To increase the amount of criminalized youths are often highlighted as the main problem with net-widening. However. the problematization of the target changed during our observation, and the community of practice also led to a change in the narrative about young people. The face-to-face collaboration between the analysts and the preventers, and the discussions it led to, affected how the risk indicators were interpreted. This points to how intelligence technologies also can be framed as sense-making technologies, rather than practical and functional instruments for revealing the truth.

Helene OI Gundhus is Professor and head of Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo, and Professor II at the Norwegian Police University College. Her research interests include police methods and technology, police professionalism, crime prevention and security. She has also published on issues to do with risk assessments and precautionary logics, migration control and transnational policing.

Pernille Erichsen Skjevrak is a PhD student at the Centre for the study of Professions, Oslo Metropolitan University. Her research interests are social deviations and professional actors, particularly professional judgments in crime prevention. In her PhD project, Pernille aims to examine the interplay between standardized assessment tools and professional discretion in the Norwegian police.