On radio phone-in shows last week there was much discussion of the Ryan report. One idea many members of the public seemed to support was focusing police resources on arresting people for violent crimes over white-collar crimes.The sentiment was that the violent criminal threatens our lives, while the white-collar criminal "just" steals our money.On the surface, this notion is quite palatable. It reflects the personal fear of becoming a victim of violent crime.Yet digging deeper into research on white-collar crime, the popular sentiment of those radio phone-in callers might be considered misplaced, as it misperceives not just the act of white-collar crime but also the behavioural profile of white-collar criminals.
Firstly, the white-collar criminal is not–as stereotypically represented–a standard type of crime offender who is mostly a first-time wrongdoer, who suffered a one-time moral lapse, and is involved in non-violent crime. Rather, white-collar criminals are a diverse group not limited to one economic class and whose crimes are rarely victimless.Second, white-collar crime does have violent consequences. For example, there is the subset of white-collar criminals who commit murder to prevent their crimes from being discovered. There are the victims of white-collar crime, such as those felled by Clico and Enron, who suffer heart attacks, commit suicide, or have their lives destroyed. And it has been shown that the physiological and emotional trauma of white-collar crime is similar to that experienced by victims of street-level violence.
Then there's the fact that the total financial cost of white-collar crime massively exceeds the cost of street crime and that we are far more likely to be a victim of the former than the latter.And of course, the social consequences of massive financial crimes destabilise society, stretch the divide between rich and poor, and damage societal harmony by undermining economic development. What's more is if the white-collar activity is fraud and money laundering for criminal organisations, a white-collar criminal is directly supporting and encouraging the violence of street-level crime.Lastly, white-collar crimes also do violence to people's life chances by denying people opportunities and resources they might otherwise have access to.
In the field of offender profiling, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Behavioral Science Unit now develops behavioural profiles for fraud investigators. They note that many convicted white-collar criminals exhibit behavioural traits and criminal thinking qualities similar to those of violent, street-level criminals. These traits include narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, and psychopathy.Narcissism is "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, a lack of empathy for others, and a belief that one is superior, unique, and chosen." It is also a quality often found among those who commit fraud, not to mention an empirical risk factor used to explain street criminals who commit murder.
Psychopathic traits are "characterised by those who are callous, lack conscience, have an inability to empathise with others, and show no remorse for their actions when they violate the rights of others." This is a quality and risk factor found among many white-collar criminals, and some street-level criminals.Antisocial personality disorder–"a pervasive pattern of disregard and violation of the rights of others and a lack in social conscience and conventional morality"–is common among convicted white-collar criminals (and also found in high numbers among many who work on stock markets like Wall Street and the City of London).
So two central misconceptions about white-collar criminals are that they are people with a quite distinct behavioural profile to violent street-level criminals, and that their crimes are non-violent and victimless. Those ideas do not fit modern frameworks for understanding white-collar crime.White-collar criminals play on such societal misconceptions. They use the perception of themselves as educated, polite, well-spoken, and productive members of society, many disciplining and actively playing down traits like narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, and psychopathy.
They purposefully deceive and rely on a perception of criminality as stemming from street criminals who supposedly are uneducated, rude, ill-mannered, and unstable. This has the effect of making a white-collar criminal invisible even when he/she is standing right in front of you being fraudulent.Fraud, corruption and money-laundering–or lying, cheating and stealing–do have violent consequences–from actual person-on-person violence to the socio-economic violence done to people's life chances. The myths about white-collar crime and criminals that circulate in society and popular culture make us misperceive these dangers, and the destructive consequences of white-collar criminality.
�2 Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine.