Crime and Punishment

Last week, my office mates informed we would be taking a “field day” to a local police station.  The institute maintains close ties and relationships with Lithuanian law enforcement on all levels, so, naturally, when a precinct invited them to a presentation on crime trends in Vilnius they were going to go.  I was excited-- it’s not every day, afterall, you get an officer-guided tour of a Lithuanian jail.  Unfortunately, it didn’t really occur to me that the presentation would be in Lithuanian (although it seems very obvious looking back on it).  Thankfully, there were a few willing translators to help me out.  

The presentation focused on modern crime trends in Vilnius and the impact of a few key shifts in the criminal code.  Notably, a change requiring compulsory police filings for domestic violence has drastically altered the total number of police incidents reported as well as dramatically shifting the rate at which alternative and experimental resolution models are used in favor of traditional models.  As an aside, because I’ve had the opportunity to research some restorative justice policies being implemented in Lithuania to address this very issue, I think I’ll hold off on further discussing this until I am able to devote more attention to the topic.   

Now, back to crime trends discussed at the meeting!  What was interesting for me, as an american, was exactly how different the crime trends in Vilnius, a large european city, are from the crime I’ve experienced in America.  The crimes plaguing Vilnius and discussed by the officers weren’t violent or aggressive crimes, they were well-planned, organized crimes with minimal, if any, physical harm to other persons.  Fraud, identify theft, and illicit smuggling were above and beyond the crimes most frequently discussed and becoming most common.  And aside from the recent rise in officially reported domestic violence cases (as discussed above), violent crime seemed more anomaly than issue.  

I was still trying to explain to my co-workers and the officers how different the crime rates outlined in the presentation were from my perceptions of american cities, when some officers offered to give me an “authentic” tour of crime in Vilnius.  Although this tour would be from the back of a police car rather than a double decker bus, I’m not sure I had ever been more excited for sightseeing.  So I jumped in the back of the squad car, put on my best no-this-driving-isn’t-terrifying face, and was chauffeured through all of Vilnius’s crime hot spots.  

Most of the tour was driving through the new town past countless identical soviet era housing projects, but the officers thought I would get a kick out of taking a walking tour on the “most dangerous” street in the city.  And they were right, I did get a kick out of strolling along the crime promenade, but moreso because of how surprisingly safe I felt than any perceptions of danger.  Granted, it was midday and I was surrounded by some pretty tough-on-crime officers, but it was a refreshing break from only mildly dangerous streets in american cities.  There was no graffiti, or broken windows, or iron gating, or even any trash.  The officers kept assuring me it got a lot worse after nightfall, and I’m sure that’s true, but it’s more than that.  The fact of the matter is, smuggling, fraud, and identity theft aren’t obvious crimes.  They don’t make you clutch your purse or quicken your pace.  They’re silent and hidden.  They operate out of the crime underworld, not a flashing neon sign offering to buy cigarettes that fell off trucks-- a successful smuggling operation simply doesn’t operate out of an obvious criminal hangout.  And that’s what this street was, a bunch of shops where you could turn around any good for cash, as quietly as possible.