What is a crime? This simple question turns out to have a variety of answers.
A simple answer would be that a crime is doing anything that is against the law. The problem with this, however, is that there are tens of thousands of laws, and who could possibly remember all of them? Did you know that here in Connecticut it is illegal to throw away used razor blades? In Massachusetts, it’s illegal to use bullets as currency? In Arkansas, it is illegal to drive barefoot?
Some laws may be well-known but rarely or never enforced. For example, when was the last time you got a ticket for driving five miles over the speed limit? If a law is either not known or not enforced, does breaking it constitute a crime?
This raises the issue of which laws actually get enforced, and one answer uses the social psychological principle of social construction. Rooted in the sociological perspective of symbolic interactionism, social construction is the idea that social realities happens as people interact and come to an agreement about what a situation means.
Here’s an example that happens fairly regularly here at UConn: A student walks around at night with a beer in their hand, and they see a police officer. Not only are they underage, but they are also not supposed to have an open container in public, so they drop the beer. The student defines the situation as one of avoiding an alcohol-related crime. The police officer sees the dropped bottle or cup, goes over to the student, and tells them to pick it up and dispose of it properly. The police officer defines the situation as one of littering. This situation is pretty straightforward—the student readily accepts the police officer’s definition and throws away the cup or bottle.
In other situations, however, there is protracted negotiation about what is happening and what is right and wrong.
Here’s a remarkable video shot in St. George Missouri. Police Sergeant Sgt. James Kuehnlein confronts 20-year-old Brett Darrow for being stopped in a parking lot. It turns out that Brett had a video camera on in the back of his car, and so we are able to hear the whole interaction. Here’s a snippet of the conversation:
Kuehnlein asks for identification. When Darrow asks whether he did anything wrong, the officer orders him out of the car and begins shouting.
"You want to try me? You want to try me tonight? You think you have a bad night? I will ruin your night. … Do you want to try me tonight, young boy?"
Darrow says no.
"Do you want to go to jail for some (expletive) reason I come up with?" the police officer says. Later, Darrow says, "I don't want any problems, officer."
"You're about to get it," Kuehnlein is heard saying. "You already started your (expletive) problems with your attitude."
There are various implications of crime being socially negotiated. Most obviously, justice isn’t a predetermined outcome based on what you actually do, instead it’s sometimes what you can negotiate. This puts a premium on your ability to negotiate a successful outcome with police officers and other members of the criminal justice system. That’s why it’s such a good idea to be polite and deferential to the police when you interact with them. “Yes officer” and “no officer” are very good things to say, for a pleasant interaction paves the way for a more successful negotiation of what’s going on.
The criminal justice system may not always enforce all written laws, but they do sometimes enforce unwritten laws. There are various norms of how to deal with the police and other officials, such as being polite, and even though these norms are not official laws, they are enforced as if they were.
For example, having a sarcastic tone with a police officer isn’t illegal, but it can change the amount of punishment you get for a crime. Likewise, there is no law saying that defendants in court have to present themselves well and be apologetic, but it’s quite possible that poor self-presentation in the courtroom will lead to a harsher sentence.
This social construction of crime can also be affected by individuals’ place in society. The police and courtroom actors, like anyone, have their preconceptions about different types of people. That means that going into their interaction with somebody they might already have an idea as to whether that person is guilty or how that person will act.
These preconceptions, which we can also call stereotypes, can affect the interaction between the official and the person in question. In the video clip, the police officer clearly has some ideas about young people in fast cars, and he projected them onto the person he stopped. Not only age, but also race, gender, clothing, and general appearance can affect expectations of law enforcement officials which in turn, via social construction, can alter the way someone is treated by the police or the courts.
The next time that you get pulled over, maybe the real question is not what you did but rather what you can construct through social interaction.