Contemporary issues in Criminology


The method used to monitor the activities, behaviour and other changing information of people in order to manage, influence, direct or protect them is known as surveillance. It is used by police for investigation of allegations of illegal behaviour by covert observation of people, vehicles or places (1). It is one of the most vital and versatile skill that can be possessed by a police officer. Surveillance has huge risks – it may result in death or injury when undercover officers are unmasked of their identity and purpose. The main objective of surveillance includes – obtaining information, locating a subject and obtaining intelligence regarding that subject or location, preventing occurrence of crime through covert or overt surveillance and providing protection to undercover police officers.

Surveillance is a complex process and a number of methods and techniques can be adopted to ensure its effectiveness. The police uses a wide range of methods of surveillance that are described as follows :

Electronic monitoring : It is also known as wire tapping, it refers to the surveillance of fax, emails, telephone communication and internet. A court order is required to carry out this surveillance whereby it is required to show that a crime has been or is being or will be committed. After the court grants the order, criminal conspirators can be identified by police agencies so that the involved offenders can be deterred or punished (2.pp.451-469). But in certain cases, where there is risk of death or severe injury, the government would allow to start monitoring without the order of court.

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Fixed surveillance : This is also referred to as stakeout in which police officers are required to keep a surreptitious observation on people and place from a distance. This method include two variations – one person surveillance in which officer cannot take his eyes off the scene and do not get any relief and two person surveillance where officers switch their positions periodically. This reduces the chances of spotting them by the suspect.

Stationary technical surveillance : Hidden cameras and recording equipment are installed by the investigators in a parked car. It is also known as unmanned surveillance because there is no need for officers to monitor the suspect round the clock. Video images and photos can be recorded anytime and it also reduces the risk of discovery.

Three person surveillance : This is a complex technique which reduces the possibility of detection to a great extent (3). It is also called ABC method where officer A remains behind the suspect, officer B follows him and officer C is on the other side of the street who moves slightly ahead or behind the suspect.

Undercover operations : In this method, an active role is played by police officers to reveal the criminal activities. For instance – undercover officer may infiltrate with the group by adopting similar jobs or hobbies of suspects. To gain trust and acceptance, he might create a reasonable cover story that justifies his presence in the neighbourhood.

The surveillance methods enables the police to collect data and content of communication i.e. the type of device used and information transmitted with the use of different resources such as bulk of data can be collected through internet.

Positive scope of surveillance : Surveillance has proved to be quite beneficial for detection and reduction of criminal activities. Some of the positive aspects of surveillance are mentioned hereunder :

  • Complaints about behaviour of police officer and use of force is minimised due to record of every interaction with the residents as interactions captured can be seen by everyone.
  • Hard video evidences are provided by the use of cam when decisions are made by the officers in highly intense situations on duty (4.pp.725-749).
  • Video recorded by body cams helps in protecting any kind of false accusations, abuse or misconduct against officers.
  • It ensures increased accountability and transparency of the officers.
  • Confrontational situations between civilians and police officers may be prevented and de- escalated.
  • It helps in providing valuable evidence to obtain victim statements and accurate witnesses.
  • The court proceeding can be conducted speedily as it provides undisputable evidence of situations by video footages captured. Therefore, it helps to reduce the expenses of the court due to increase in pre – trial plea bargains or increased rate of convictions.

Marxist theory

According to this theory, crime and deviance are determined by ruling class and used as a means of social control. It is argued that people who are involved in petty crimes on street such as theft and burglary are treated as criminals and whole justice system focuses on their trial rather than white collar crimes i.e. crimes committed by powerful segment of society is ignored. There are numerous examples and cases in the real life world where it was seen that rich and powerful people of the society committed serious offences and nothing happened to them, just because they have power to influence police, politics and whole justice system which is based on bureaucracy. On the other hand, poor people have to suffer a lot even if the crimes is not so serious and they are blamed whole their lives.

Thus, in the context of surveillance, it becomes necessary to address that there need to be made a balance between both positive and negative aspects of it. Police should not use its force on poor and less powerful sections of the society. Moreover, the tool of surveillance should also be used to identify and prevent crimes committed by rich people. Only when a proper balance is maintained, the objectives of surveillance as a tool in justice and law can serve its purpose.

A study was conducted by Cambridge university with the regard to use of body cameras by police officers (5). According to this study, there is a 50% reduction in use of force by police officers and public complaints reduced by almost 90% when the police officers are equipped with body camera. It found that both the public and police officer were adjusting their behaviour. The social theory explains the bond between individual and society which is based on four major elements – attachment, involvement, commitment and belief. In the context of using body cameras by officers, it can be explained with reference to social theory as when the bond between society and individual is strengthened, the chances of involvement in delinquency reduces.

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Michele foucault theory

In the context of body cameras, Michele foucalt theory provides an understanding of disciplinary actions. In his opinion, modern society is a disciplinary society which means that in today's time, power is mainly exercised through disciplinary means in different institution such as prisons, schools etc.

But many times, the police uses disciplinary actions such as surveillance as means of coercion and force which does not conform to the legal and ethical principles of a society. Thus, it is imperative that surveillance should create a balance and police should not use this as a force on the general public.

Another important aspect that needs to be focused is police surveillance through infiltration (6. p.1). In this context case of Bob Lambert can be considered who was an undercover police officer who infiltrated political groups. His covert work that consist of infiltration for animal rights and environmental groups was exposed by campaigner group that he had spied. During his mission, he fathered a child with an activist of the group and then abandoned both of them. He also had such intimate relationship with many other women. Moreover, as a part of his undercover work, he developed his fake identity by stealing the identity of a dead boy and appeared in court using false persona. Lambert was a key figure in secret operations to spy on the family of a murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence.

The case of Mark Thomas is yet another important example of police surveillance through infiltration. He worked as a police detective and investigative journalist on child abuse and abduction cases. One of the biggest case he worked on was unmasking Jimmy Savile as a paedophile. He was a predatory and prolific sex offender who abused many children and adults over a long period of time (7 pp.61-86). Mark William Thomas took various efforts to unmask him, he talked to different persons, met them and called them to collect information. He approached ITV bosses who agreed to air his investigation that were kept secret. Jimmy Savile was exposed by an interview with five women who admitted how he used to sexually abuse them as teenagers. Thus, the work of Mark Thomas is quite appreciable and shows the importance of police surveillance through infiltration.

It can be analysed from both these cases, police surveillance plays a cardinal role in detecting and preventing the crime which would otherwise be difficult for the police. Infiltration with the suspected individuals or groups enables to gain information and constant monitoring so that their activities can be tracked and prevented (8. p.104).

But every coin has two sides i.e. both pros and cons and so is the case with police surveillance. I can be seen from the case of Bob Lambert that use of surveillance proved to be a disaster for the lives of many women. He fathered a child and betrayed the family for so many years, which was traumatised after knowing his reality.

The guidelines that should be followed for using surveillance are mentioned hereunder:

  • It is must that cameras are employed and implemented responsibly to ensure that civil liberties and public surveillance can co – exist.
  • Surveillance is a cost effective way that can be used for documenting, reducing and deterring criminal activities and detecting criminals (9 p.349).
  • It is imperative that systems are monitored by trained staff to en sure effectiveness and crime detected using technology are integrated into all manner of law enforcement activities. The resources put into surveillance decide the usefulness of surveillance technology for solving and preventing the crimes.


In a nutshell, it can be articulated that surveillance is covert observation of people, vehicles or places that is used by police or other law enforcement agencies to do investigation of allegations of illegal behaviour. There a number of techniques used for surveillance that may range from physical observation to electronic monitoring. It possesses great risk and sometimes lead to death or injury of the officers. Further, it can be concluded that police surveillance through infiltration prove to be very crucial in revelation of criminal activities in certain cases. In such cases, they work as undercover officers and infiltrate with other groups on whom they are required to spy. Further, the importance of body cameras used by police officers can be seen by reduced complaints and reduction in use of force by the officers. Therefore, it can be summed up from this report that surveillance can be used as a great weapon by the police that would help in detecting and preventing criminal activities by constantly keeping a watch on the actions of suspects. Moreover, the images and video footages acts as indisputable proofs in the court and helps in saving the time and costs of pleadings. However, there are some negative aspects of surveillance as police use this it as a safeguard while they are involved in any kind of malafide activities.


  • Morgan, R., Maguire, M. and Reiner, R., 2012. The Oxford handbook of criminology. Oxford University Press.
  • Hathaway, A. D., Comeau, N. C. and Erickson, P. G., 2011. Cannabis normalization and stigma: Contemporary practices of moral regulation. Criminology & Criminal Justice. 11(5). pp.451-469.
  • White, R., 2013. Crimes against nature: Environmental criminology and ecological justice. Routledge.
  • Uggen, C. and Inderbitzin, M., 2010. Public criminologies. Criminology & Public Policy, 9(4), pp.725-749.
  • Larsen, G., Ellefsen, R. and Sollund, R. eds., 2012. Eco-global crimes: Contemporary problems and future challenges. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd..
  • Carrier, N. and Walby, K., 2014. Ptolemizing Lombroso the Pseudo-Revolution of Biosocial Criminology. Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology. 6(1). p.1.
  • Walsh, D. P. and Conway, V., 2011. Police governance and accountability: Overview of current issues. Crime, Law and Social Change. 55(2-3). pp.61-86.
  • McLaughlin, E. and Murji, K., 2012. Lost connections and new directions: neo-liberalism, new public managerialism and. Crime, risk and justice. p.104.
  • Bontrager, S., Barrick, K. and Stupi, E., 2013. Gender and sentencing: A meta-analysis of contemporary research. J. Gender Race & Just.. 16. p.349.
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