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Is crime contagious?

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The Ulu Tiram incident and its aftermath

By Dr Haezreena Begum Abdul Hamid

From the attack at the Ulu Tiram, Johor police station on 17 May 2024 to the arrest of two men with ‘parang’ who tried to trespass into the palace grounds, to the recent arrest of a man who tried to attack the Datuk Keramat police station in Penang, people are constantly kept on edge on what’s going to happen next.

Dr Haezreena Begum Abdul Hamid

This is definitely not a healthy emotional state we are in neither does this give us a reprieve from the horrific incident at Ulu Tiram police station or the time to mourn over the incident.

The Ulu Tiram police station attack that was originally presumed to be a terrorist or extremist attack orchestrated by the Jemaah Islamiyah group by some quarters quickly dwindled when the authority did not discover any clear evidence linking the attack to JI.

There’s also been nuances of opinion made on social media on the motivation of the attacker with some presuming that his main target was to acquire weapons and firearms from the police station while some felt that it was just an act of hatred and frustration. Some also felt that the attacker just wanted to make a statement and showcase an act of heroism.

Whatever our opinion is, it is important to reflect if we are content with the evidence reported in the news or are we questioning the credibility of the findings? Whatever your answer is, it is important to ensure that we are not a nation that revere crime and malevolence but a nation that strives towards justice, social cohesion and harmony.

The Palace and Datuk Keramat police station incident may not be related at all. But can we possibly presume that these crimes were opportunistic crimes or crimes committed to ensure a continuum of crime and deviance?

To answer this, we need to explore if crime is contagious or transmittable. This is important for law enforcement and for policies that affect how people are sorted across social settings. Can we presume that there is a propensity to commit similar crimes in the aftermath of a major crime such as the attack at Ulu Tiram? Can we also presume that the crimes succeeding the Ulu Tiram’s incident was an attempt to gain notoriety by the perpetrators or just an act to taunt the police given that they are on high alert?

The answer can be uncovered by analysing the crime contagion model. This model predict a positive relationship between neighbourhood violent crime rates and the propensity of moving to opportunity to engage in violent crimes. Applying this model to the current scenario in Malaysia, there seems to be a spate of crimes which seems to emulate the crime at Ulu Tiram (although this may not be the case at all) in different vicinities within the country.

Presuming that the succeeding crimes were opportunistic crimes aimed at taunting the police and to instil fear upon the nation, there is a need to understand the reason for this and to effectively respond to these crimes without creating further fear and panic in the country.

In this regard, studies have shown that people commit crime due to emotional factors. This includes anger, sadness, depression, dissatisfaction, bad experience, or other strong emotions. An opportunist criminal may not be looking to commit crime but will commit one when the opportunity arises.

There may be feelings of grudge, anger and dissatisfaction towards the authorities. And what better time to act out on these feelings at a time where emotions are high and people feel vulnerable.

Therefore, responses should take into account the emotional and psychological state of the perpetrator to understand the reason behind their criminal act.

Prevention strategies should also be carefully thought out to ensure that there is barely an opportunity to commit crime and to do everything necessary to make it inconvenient for an opportunist to commit crime. Criminals learn from our behaviour, and they change when we change, so we must always be one step ahead of them.

The author is a criminologist and Deputy Dean (Postgraduate Degree) at the Faculty of Law, Universiti Malaya. She may be reached at haezreena@um.edu.my


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