Fresh thinking on anti-social behaviour: look at the data, all of it!
Every few months there is an outbreak of concern on anti-social behaviour that creates headlines yet concludes little more than ‘something must be done’. Usually the cause for concern is either the reporting of a serious case of harassment or victimisation, or public debate about the role of the agencies in managing social disorder, notably the police. That of course recently occurred when Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Police (HMIC) reported that  . . . . the police are too overwhelmed by administration and bureaucracy, or by conflicting targets they are required to meet, to respond properly to antisocial behaviour or to give it the attention it needs.’ This conclusion was rapidly turned into a slogan of ‘more boots on the streets’, meaning that we need more traditional policing.
Two popular themes on managing anti-social behaviour are ‘Broken Windows'  theory and a return to traditional policing. With Broken Windows, crime and anti-social behaviour are not expressions of poor social conditions; instead we are told that if we tolerate crime and anti-social behaviour it will ultimately lead to community decay. Poor social, physical or economic conditions are deemed to be no excuse. With traditional policing we are told that police should stop acting like social workers and instead concentrate on being visible and enforce the agreed social controls.
What do we understand of anti-social behaviour, though? In times past we understood it very well as a miscellany of unpleasant acts such as noise nuisance, harassment, littering and so on, with a clear range of treatments and sanctions applying. But today we label a whole mass of incivilities as being anti-social behaviour – a blame ridden social malaise.
Agencies charged with managing anti-social behaviour tend to take the issue seriously and are committed to addressing the challenges often using a data driven approach; for instance utilising geographical information (GIS) and customer relationship management (CRM) systems. There is a mass of data out there. But what does it tell us? Unfortunately, while it can say a lot, all too often only a limited amount of meaning is extracted and acted upon. So, typically: activity hotspots will be identified and peripatetic teams will be deployed to them; short term projects will be put in place; and short term results might be gained. But if that data is used alongside all the other data that agencies possess one could construct a much richer picture, and do so much more with it.
So why not amalgamate the data from GIS and CRM systems with:
And make sense of what is taking place from a panoramic perspective?
- The demographic data
- The economic data
- The environment and infrastructure data
- The resource deployment data
When we last looked at anti-social behaviour in an urban setting we saw that:
In ward A: with much poor housing, a changing population, a very high population density and very high deprivation index – there was a very high level of anti-social behaviour.
In ward B: with generally good housing, a stable population, average population density and a low deprivation index – there was little to moderate incidence of anti-social behaviour.
We were not surprised at the findings.
Even with a limited panorama, we get quite a different picture of the drivers of crime and anti-social behaviour, which helps us challenge stereotypical thinking. With a wider perspective, we would see, for example that: the most disorder occurs in the poorest communities, and intergenerational poverty ensures the inevitable ‘cycle of deprivation’ , unless we can meaningfully affect underlying social or economic conditions. We would see that we usually view social disorder from our own perspectives, and do not step into the shoes of those who suffer the effects. Consequently we create inadequate institutionalised responses. Because we fail to address such problems adequately in communities, despite the considerable resources we deploy on others’ behalf, we effectively disempower people and then fail them. Thus the fear of crime increases in these communities, who feel beleaguered by forces of disorder.
The recent HMIC report also implied that crime and anti-social behaviour do not simply seem to be caused by rational individuals making bad choices, but that ‘cultural and societal issues (such as lack of consideration and respect, moral decline and lack of community spirit)’ are significant influences, especially on the children of what we label ‘problem families’ or ‘neighbours from hell’. Well, maybe, but such people have always been around, often frequenting neglected areas, where they are constrained by long term unemployment and experience other forms of marginalisation. Good parenting and respect for fellow humankind are qualities that are difficult to instil in such conditions.
Yet why not do the obvious and urge individuals to exercise greater responsibility and also urge the police to operate more visibly and effectively? That should be a given. But the bigger issue is that evidence shows that government has not delivered on its part of the contract with its citizens to tackle anti-social behaviour, despite spending massively (£3bn-4bn per annum).
Without dwelling on the recent past, we set out what we feel are the key themes that now need now to be advanced.
- Encourage local agencies to determine how best to tackle local problems in conjunction with their communities. There is an urgent need to make better sense than central government has done of managing anti-social behaviour. It’s not the same everywhere.
- Encourage local agencies to work together to problem solve panoramically, and share resources to deliver service efficiencies. Action should be on an inter agency basis with common service platforms enabling more efficient operation and more effective results.
- Encourage local communities to do more for themselves - with the state facilitating self-help. We should engender genuine trust with communities and support them to manage their own problems.
We should also stop fantasising that there out there is some magic solution to anti-social behaviour, whether it is the myth of a culture of respect, or the panacea of more police on patrol. We have masses of data on anti-social behaviour, its social environments and the resource commitment required to prevent and manage it. Local agencies involved in this work need to use this all much better, and make a fresh start with their communities, creatively and collectively.
But most of all start with the local data – all of it – taken together.
 Policing anti-social behaviour; the public perspective; HMIC, September 2010
 Wilson J and Kelling G; March 1982 edition of the Atlantic Monthly
 Sir Keith Joseph, Secretary of State for Social Services 1972
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