The Psychology Behind Copycat Crimes And Community Fear

Copycat crimes are complex and the current strawberry contamination crisis that has gripped our nation shows how powerful they can be.

For most of us it’s difficult to imagine what could possess someone to stick needles inside a piece of fruit which could be consumed by an innocent stranger or even a child, let alone for someone to copy that same crime.

For criminal psychology experts, the limited research that is available seems to show that every individual case of copycat crime is different.

Psychologist and criminologist Dr Michelle Noon, a lecturer at RMIT University said there is a bit more research in relation to copycat homicides because they often become well-known cases, but in general criminal copycat behaviour is very complex.

There have been over 100 cases of contaminated fruit reported.

Noon, who works clinically with people who commit criminal offences said Australia’s fruit contamination copycat crimes reflect extremely unusual behaviour.

“When I heard about these cases I thought if I got a file saying it was someone who had been found to be doing this, who would I expect to walk through the door?,” Noon told ten daily.

“I couldn’t even imagine who that would be because it’s such unusual behaviour.”

She said her research shows copycat crimes often arise after a certain crime gains a lot of media attention because it arouses the community’s interest, consequently increasing the likelihood of copycat crimes occurring.

“We don’t think that the media coverage actually gives people the idea to commit the crime,” Noon said.

“They may already have anti-social interests and this then gives them the idea of what to do,” she added.

“It’s not that anyone, who is for example pro-social and very engaged with the community, is then going to start engaging with this idea.”

Noon said the general trend suggests that once media and community interest dispels then the copycat does as well.

The Long-Term Effects Of Community Fear

Noon believes the real issue lies with the fear the fruit contamination has raised in the community and the potentially long-term impacts on Australians.

Living in fear of strawberries is potentially going to have a serious impact on the community’s mental health, according to Noon.

Owing to this heightened fear, Noon believes Australians will be eating cut up fruit salad for a long time to come, and many will even never eat fruit whole again in the future.

Noon likened this to the infamous tampering case in Chicago in the 1980s which saw seven people killed after taking over-the-counter pain killers laced with cyanide.

Noon said this event led to a noticeable drop in aspirin use in the U.S. which never fully recovered.

READ MORE: History's Most Notorious Cases Of Food Tampering, Contamination

“We know the community fears crime at a much higher rate than is appropriate given the rational threat of crime, and that has a really deep impact on the community’s mental health,” she added.

“If we in the community just stop eating fruit in the long term what could that actually mean to us and how bad could that be for us as an entire community? I think that’s the real issue here.”

What’s The Effect Of The Government’s Response?

Police and health authorities in Queensland, and later in other affected states, took urgent action last week when the first reports of contaminated fruit emerged.

Product recalls and warnings to throw out purchased fruit were swiftly followed by calls for community aid in catching those responsible.

A week later, the federal government officially became involved announcing at least 100 cases had been reported nationwide as Scott Morrison issued a scathing warning for the strawberry saboteurs.

READ MORE: 'Cowards, Idiots, Grubs': Scott Morrison Announces Tougher Penalties For Fruit Saboteurs

On Wednesday the Prime Minister announced the maximum penalty for those found guilty of food contamination would be lifted from 10 to 15 years.

The government also announced a new offence for those who "recklessly" tamper with fruit, including carrying out hoaxes, will hold a similar jail time.

Peter Dutton said the new offence would extend to people making false reports or jokes on social media, with many of the reported cases believed to be hoaxes or copycats.

"It's a diversion of policing resources when we want to find the true culprits. We don't want policing resources being distracted and diverted by posters being put up by people who might think they are funny," the Home Affairs Minister said.

Noon said despite the Prime Minister’s commentary, a lot of the sentences these sorts of crimes would apply to would be 10 years anyway.

She added that the government’s rhetoric can also have been to serve a political purpose.

“One of the things that can happen particularly when we are in election cycles is that… if politicians can arouse a community’s fear, people become very uncertain and they don’t like to change political parties.”

What’s The Thinking Behind Intervention

Noon said research shows that enhancing sentencing typically does not act as a deterrent for copycat crimes.

She said without knowing the reasons behind the crime it’s hard to think of a helpful intervention, and even in cases where the perpetrator is known, it takes hours to go over people’s files to determine what treatment would be helpful.

“What we do know is that it takes a lot to change people’s behaviours.”

Noon said at the end of the day it’s vital Australians understands that we live in a very safe community and the “incredible majority” of our fruit for that matter is safe too.

READ MORE: Here Are 20 Recipes Using Strawberries To Help Support Farmers

Contact the author: vgerova@networkten.com.au