Barcelona's alleged security crisis exaggerated by media ‘echo chamber’, says expert

“These are not new problems, they have been around for a longer period of time”, says criminology lecturer Steven Kemp

Criminology expert Kemp argued against the “security crisis” claims (Catalan News)
Criminology expert Kemp argued against the “security crisis” claims (Catalan News) / Oliver Little

Oliver Little | Barcelona

September 2, 2019 12:19 PM

Despite a 9% increase in overall crime in Barcelona in 2019, the supposed “security crisis” declared by the Barcelona City Council in the middle of August has excessively “perpetuated fear of the crime problem,” says criminology expert Steven Kemp in an interview with Catalan News.

Kemp, a Professor in criminology at the University of Girona, feels that the issues that have arisen this year are “not new problems, they have been around for a long period of time.” Kemp refutes the comparisons that are being made with 2016, given that crime statistics in 2016 were particularly favourable. 

Kemp instead points to prior statistics, assuring that a “comparison with 2012 or 2013 shows crime rates to be the same or higher then.”

Media “echo chamber” exaggerating matters

It would seem then that the statistics contradict the Barcelona City Council’s declaration of a “security crisis”, as well as a greater feeling of insecurity in the city.

Kemp believes that this is due to an “echo chamber” created by negative media coverage. He argues that journalists “produce negative stories because they know that that is what everybody else is producing.” 

All Spanish big cities affected

He stresses that the increase in crime in 2019 is applicable to the whole of Spain, and not just Barcelona. “Pretty much all of the large Spanish cities have seen rises in crime in the last 18 months. But Seville and Saragossa’s rise in crime in the first three months of this year was actually bigger than Barcelona’s, and I personally haven’t seen any national stories about a security crisis there.” 

Low-value theft the most pressing issue in Barcelona

Despite the recent string of homicides in Barcelona, as well as several cases of rape that has led to protests, Kemp sees reason for optimism regarding violent crime in the city. 

“Violent robberies account for something like 3% of total crime in Barcelona,” he stresses. He also points to Barcelona’s “very low homicide rates”, while conceding that authorities should focus on the recent rise in violent crime.

However, Kemp asserts that “statistics show that low-value theft is the main problem” in Barcelona, encouraging authorities to “continue focusing” on reducing the number of robberies every year.

Reoffending stems from underlying root causes

Reoffending is also a cause for concern for Catalan police - although the number of people with weapons in the city has not increased, the activity has. 

To counter this, Kemp underlines the importance of protocol being “evidence-based.” He believes that it is much more than a case of “increasing police resources”, urging for a “proactive, rather than reactive” model of policing.

Gentrification weakening neighborhood bonds

Kemp also attributes reoffending to several underlying root causes - he cites inequality, social exclusion and particularly tourism as factors particular to Barcelona. 

He laments that gentrification is leading to the weakening of neighborhood bonds. “In the past, in one building you would have six households. Now, you have three households and three airbnbs. That has really negative effects on informal social control, which is so important for crime prevention.”

Police operations “unlikely to have a great effect”

Last week a police operation on the metro was organized by Catalan and Spanish police to counter theft. Kemp feels that operations such as these, in this case dedicated towards theft on the metro, are “unlikely to have a great effect.”

“Many of these people are probably doing this to make a living. They’re probably suffering from social exclusion, don’t have access to a legitimate job market, so we are likely to see a displacement effect, so they’ll either continue the same activity in another place, or change to another criminal activity where there is less police pressure.” 

The operation generated controversy, after an NGO accused police of racially profiling their suspects after 22 of the 23 arrested thieves were arrested under migration law

Kemp errs on the side of caution with these accusations: “I will assume that the police had reasonable grounds for suspicion that they were pickpockets.” However, he warns that racial profiling, an example of “labelling, criminalizing and stigmatizing” can be a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, causing people who are stopped and searched to “lose confidence or trust in the justice system or in the police.”