Community safety and social sciences

16th September 2020

Social science is focused on engendering positive social change through creative, engaged and collaborative environments. It encompasses a diverse, inclusive and innovative research landscape. In this context, community safety, especially in the COVID-19 era is a key area of focus for social scientists.

We spoke to John Strutton from The Institute of Community Safety and Senior Crime Reduction & Operational Security Manager for Transport for London, about some of the existing and emerging challenges in the community safety arena, with a focus on the impact of COVID-19 – and the important role of social science research in this area.

How would you define community safety in terms of its relationship to conventional policing?

I would describe community safety as the combination of preventative measures (both physical and “managerial”), multi-agency partnership problem solving where issues are in existence, and enforcement as a key supporting element of a holistic approach. Community safety can be viewed from a lens of improving quality of life, where communities are better able to address issues associated with crime and anti-social behaviour without reverting to conventional policing activities. In its strictest definition we can say that it is the use of skills, knowledge and techniques to reduce the instance of crime, fear associated with crime and enhanced community safety. Thus, limited need to rely on conventional policing.

Effective community safety is founded on co-operation between all relevant stakeholders where conventional policing structures are merely one of many stakeholders. Effectively, community safety is the concern for all members: victims of crime and offenders, the young and old and special interest groups – in fact all who work and study or visit an area. How community safety is viewed by all who live and visit the area impacts the perspectives on crime and the levels of fear associated with crime. As Baroness Newlove observes:  “We all want our neighbourhoods to be safe and enjoyable places to live: a united community where we know and can rely upon our neighbours, where parents take responsibility for their children and where people are willing and able to intervene to challenge bad behaviour, confident that they will be supported by their neighbours, police, landlord, local council, ward councillors and their MP”.

Prior to the advent of COVID-19 what would you say were the biggest challenges facing community safety practitioners?

Despite the existence of the Crime & Disorder Act 1998, partnership approaches to deliver crime reduction remain difficult to establish for reasons that are manifold. Social science research is an essential element to the development of effective problem-solving plans; without it, key demographic, cultural and socioeconomic factors cannot be included in the core “Scanning” phase of the SARA problem solving process (Scan, Analyse, Respond, Assess). SARA is founded on applied social science, and with the advent of COVID-19 the challenges that we as community safety practitioners face are going to be considerably more difficult to address, in no small part due to the impact on employment and the decline in suitable third space options for many members of the community. One of the motivations for us working with Aspect and other partners is to ensure that the cutting edge of social science and other research activities act as a reference for activities and ensure application of global best practice.

How has COVID-19 changed the challenges facing community safety?

The reaction to COVID-19 has introduced a crime hiatus in some areas across a range of crime categories but has increased the incidence of others that are more prevalent “behind closed doors”. These are harder to identify and therefore represent a challenge which requires new interventions, to both increase the visibility of these offences and to help to develop preventative approaches that are effective during the pandemic response. As mentioned above, social sciences has extensive potential to support on-going community safety responses to COVID and through engagement with Aspect we hope to access academics and other practitioners to ensure effective community safety solutions are found and applied. It is clear to me and to many of my community safety colleagues that university-based specialists are best placed to ensure we apply global best practice and that our activities are appropriately benchmarked.

Do you see opportunities for commercialisation and social enterprise-based solutions for addressing these challenges?

I see opportunities for both – the development of technological methods of reporting and recording crime such as domestic violence covertly (so as not to increase the risk to victims) is one example, as is a method of third party reporting and support via dedicated social enterprise platforms that serve more than one community purpose (thus providing a “cover” activity for victims). In addition, the delivery of training in crime reduction and problem solving is another area where social capital can be gained via wider capacity building in crime prevention within communities and non-police agencies. Crime is bad for business and costs communities dearly. One of the key reasons that we are engaged with Aspect is to get valuable insight into where and how social science research could benefit our sector and through this engagement to allow us to see how we can commercialise and sustain solutions.

Photo credit: Leah Kelley via Pexels

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