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All that glitters is not gold: on the uses and abuses of Crime and Disorder Audits

Simon Hallsworth

One of the most important provisions of New Labour's 1998 Crime and Disorder Act was the obligation placed on local 'responsible authorities' to initiate a Crime and Disorder Audit and to construct on the basis of its findings a three year crime reduction strategy. By emphasising the need for a careful and 'comprehensive' examination of problems of crime and disorder at the local level, New Labour not only evidenced its commitment to the value of applied research, but also its commitment to the idea of research-driven policy formation more generally. In its management speak, what Audits were supposed to encourage was the 'joined-up' thinking necessary to promote effective 'joined-up' policymaking.

Whilst these measures in the 1998 Act appear to signify a progressive agenda, I shall argue in this paper that there remain serious problems due to the way in which these provisions have been conceptualised and which relate to their application. More specifically, I will argue that: (i) at the conceptual level, Crime and Disorder Audits are inappropriate vehicles to address the nature of risks and dangers that impact on a community's safety and well-being; (ii) at the point of practice, most audits produced have typically relied on highly suspect data that undermines their claim to be taken seriously as 'objective' research.

The first issue I would like to consider is whether Crime and Disorder Audits are appropriate vehicles to address issues connected with enhancing what is often spoken of as 'community safety'. To an extent, at first sight this would certainly appear to be the case. Many of the events we think of as crime are, after all, serious forms of social harm, and without doubt they can and do impact negatively upon the safety and well-being of individuals and communities. An audit of problems connected with crime and disorder would thus appear a sensible and rational attempt to provide the information basis needed to confront crime at the local level.

It does not, however, take a great leap of imagination to realise that there are many social harms that impact upon a communities safety, security and sense of well-being, not all of which can, by any means, be classified under the labels of either crime or disorder. Unemployment, poverty, deprivation and pollution, for example, are also serious social harms that impact negatively upon a community. In the case of poverty and deprivation, these harms may not only more severe in their effects than crime as it is formally defined, they also help sustain what we think of as crime, not least by providing a conducive environment in which it can flourish. Such harms, however, are not considered fit objects for the auditing process that the Government has sought to promote. 'Crime and disorder' are the only harms that are supposed to figure.

If the terms 'crime' and 'disorder' are problematic in part because they ignore the context of the wider social harms that might be considered in the audit process, they are also highly suspect categories in themselves because what they appear to classify has no ontological reality. As Hulsman (1986) tellingly demonstrates, what the term 'crime' identifies is a host of diverse disputes and conflicts that have very little in common with each other beyond the fact that they involve some infraction of the criminal law. The term, in other words, does not represent a generic category so much as a social construction that draws together acts that have different degrees of seriousness, completely different aetiologies, and which consequently require completely different solutions.

Nor is this a social construction innocent of bias or neutral with respect to the interests that frame its production. As critical criminologists such as Box (1983) and Scraton et al (1987) have pointed out, the term 'crime' is a label that is systematically used to identify and criminalise some acts but not others. By and large, it is a term applied to characterise certain activities of the 'poor'. The offences of the powerful, such as fraud and corruption, which often occasion a higher social cost to the public (see Croall 1992, 1998; Slapper and Tombs, 1999) rarely fall within its remit. Unsurprisingly, such harms fail to come within the remit of Crime and Disorder Audits as they are formally constituted under Government guidance. For in these exercises in 'rational joined-up thinking', only the usual suspects are considered for inclusion.

To use terms like 'crime' to designate the object of enquiry of audits is, therefore, to reinforce a highly suspect ideological construction of the harms that may impact negatively on communities. The term reinforces the myth that crime is the worst problem communities face, and helps produce and reproduce a gaze in which only the harmful activities of some are designated for consideration. The label 'crime', as it were, conditions the way the object of audits are interpreted and demarcated and bias is its logical corollary.

By constraining audits to the narrow domains of crime and disorder, New Labour may also be justifiably accused of further entrenching what Hudson (1999) appropriately terms the 'politics of judicial vengeance' that have characterised law and order policy making for the best part of the last two decades. To put it bluntly, by emphasising crime and disorder, and by making this the focal point of the audit process, the consequence has been to help encourage further the ideological construction of social problems as problems reducible to law and order, resolvable through law and order initiatives. This, in turn, also exacerbates another problem identified (again and again) by critical criminologists. This argument holds that the net result of defining and reducing social problems to problems of crime is that it is the same old suspects who are invariably rounded up as appropriate targets for social intervention: poor people, young people and black people. Not only are these constituencies defined as the repository of social evil, they become too easily definable as ready-made scapegoats for all social problems. In effect, what Crime and Disorder Audits can help produce and reproduce is the identification of folk devils ready-made for state and media induced scape-goating rituals. Rituals whose conclusion will be to propel what remain marginal constituencies ever more rapidly in the direction of the expanding penal industrial complex that has developed to receive and process them in recent decades.

Worse, by emphasising 'disorder' as a key object of community safety intervention, the New Labour Government has exacerbated the implicit reduction of social harm to problems of law and order - with all the criminalising tendencies that follow logically on from it. In this case, by invoking a new threat to the good society that is utterly devoid of any substantive content. To pose this question in another way - what precisely is 'disorder'? It's a term that slips easily off the tongue of a government that often confuses communication with effective sound-bites, but, divested of any grounding in social analysis, the term means nothing tangible or consistent in practice (see Cowan, 1999). To state this in a slightly more formalistic way, disorder, like 'crime' has no ontological reality. Not that this appears to have bothered many people involved in the auditing process. Particularly those who, no doubt influenced by the police's own (totally illogical) conception of the term, feel that they can include within its remit a range of harms that are in fact completely different. In this sense for example, we have cases of disorder defined in ways that include domestic violence, racial crime, kids hanging around on street corners or in fact any offence that might concern a member of the public, all condensed together into one spurious category.

Even if we accept that an audit of the harms we term and label crime and disorder are appropriate - which I do not - what is frightening about most of the audits that have been produced is the highly questionable status of the data on which they typically rely. Audits, after all, are supposed to be applied objective research and one should therefore expect that the protocols that inhere to social research more generally should be observed. At the very least the data used should be able to pass some tests of reliability and validity, and 'health warnings', ought to be attached as a matter of course, drawing attention to the limits of the data.

Such protocols, however, do not appear to have been widely observed in the current audit exercise. The audits I have seen, not only typically rely on highly suspect police-generated data, but proceed to use it without any sense of its obvious drawbacks and limitations - even though these are widely known. And it gets worse. Not only do most audits rely on official crime statistics, these are presented in ways that suggests that it can be used to make serious claims about the level and incidence of crime in an area; about changes in crime over time; and to draw comparisons in the level of crime between different areas.

In their enthusiasm for getting to grips with the horrors of crime and disorder, it would appear that the manifold problems that inhere to using this data can all too easily be forgotten in the auditing process. The fact that officially recorded crime tells us little about the real extent and prevalence of various offences is one fact all too easily overlooked. That crime data is by no means reliable given inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the nature of its recording is another. And if this is not cause enough to promote a healthy sense of scepticism, let us not lose sight of another unpleasant fact, namely that crime data can also be 'cuffed' by those responsible for its production.

Despite the fact that such data remains highly suspect, this has not stopped anyone using it as the basis on which to construct most audits. Nor have the researchers who have typically compiled audits felt obliged to indicate to the world how limited and dangerous such data are. The Liverpool Crime and Disorder Audit (1999) is a good case in point. It 'looks the business', coming as it does in a fetching glossy red cover, set in a nice plastic wallet to which is also attached the city's Crime Reduction Strategy. If we look at the information contained inside, what forms the substance of the audit is simply police-generated data reproduced without any 'health warnings' to draw attention to its serious limitations. The aesthetics of the product signify something authoritative and in some way objective. The content, however, is anything but. Thus, we find tables of offences that only list those events that have been reported and recorded. Despite this fatal limitation they are presented as definitive guides to problems which are denied any meaningful context in which to interpret them. That the problems of 'crime' might be due to a number of structural factors relating for example to unemployment, deprivation or marginalisation does not even get a look in. In fact these factors are not meaningfully cited at all. Such specious information, however, is nevertheless considered good enough to promote 'joined-up' policies. But let us be clear here, Liverpool is not alone in taking this track, there are many more audits even more facile than this.

There are, of course, some pertinent objections that might be raised with regard to the criticisms outlined above. After all, the Crime and Disorder Act is not terribly prescriptive and it does give local authorities considerable discretion with regard to deciding what should or should not be contained in a Crime and Disorder Audit. Second, the Home Office (1998) guidance on Conducting Crime and Disorder Audits emphasises the importance of creating a 'comprehensive' understanding of local problems. Third, the advice circulated also intimates that a wide range of data sources ought to be used.

First, with regard to the advice specified in the guidance to the effect that a wide range of source material should be utilised, this is a piece of advice too easily ignored in practice. Three reasons may be postulated to explain this. First of all, it is likely that many auditors are insufficiently trained in social science research techniques and consequently do not know what other data sources are appropriate. It might also be the case that, even if the will to conduct more appropriate research were there, funding was not. Research, after all, is not a cheap option. A more ominous reason that might be cited to explain the systematic over-reliance on suspect police data, however, might well be because of the pressure that police agencies are able to exercise over the audit process. It is worth bearing in mind that what is chosen for inclusion in an audit is not formally proscribed; it is consequently a highly political affair. It might also be observed that, given the interests of those who commission the audits (local authorities and police divisions) it is unlikely that they will actively endorse attempts to use information that might not cast the authorities in question in a positive light.

As to the advice circulated in the Home Office guidance that Crime and Disorder Audits should be comprehensive in their identification of local problems, this has also fallen largely by the wayside. To an extent this has occurred because of the absurdly short time frame local authorities were given to conduct their audits, but a more important limitation was the original restricted focus on crime and disorder. The problem here is that any meaningful attempt to address the nature of social problems that impact on a community's safety would have to take local partnerships beyond the restricted straitjacket of crime and disorder. Unfortunately, it was precisely this straitjacket that prescribed the ideological parameters in which 'responsible authorities' operated. 'Comprehensiveness' has invariably gone to the wall in audits that are organised to see only those arbitrary harms termed 'crime' and precious little else besides.

Given these serious limitations, it is evident that the validity and objectively of Crime and Disorder Audits can legitimately be questioned on a number of grounds. One question that could certainly be asked is whether these audits can, in fact, be considered serious exercises in applied social research at all. This is an important question, not least given the importance of audits to the formation of community safety policy more generally. My own answer to this, confirmed by every audit I have seen, is that, however we might choose to categorise Crime and Disorder Audits, they should not be included in or be accorded the status of meaningful social research. What we have here I would suggest is a strange hybrid that is quite unique. But what is it finally for?

If its aim, at the conceptual level, was designed as a vehicle through which the harms and dangers that communities confront could be mapped and identified, then this ambition has clearly not been realised as the first section of this paper has sought to make clear. Given the serious limitations of Crime and Disorder Audits at the point of practice, it is also evident that they should not be considered to have passed the tests of validity and reliability. Let me end this paper by outlining what I consider to be the real function of the Crime and Disorder Audit. What they are I would suggest are public relations documents. In their selectivity and in their abuse of common research protocols, what we have here is not a meaningful attempt to get to the heart of difficult problems. What we see produced instead are documents that exist solely to sell the virtues of the law enforcement agencies responsible for producing them.


Box, S. (1983), Crime, Power and Mystification, Tavistock: London.

Cowan, D. (1999), Housing Law and Policy, Macmillan: Hampshire.

Croall, H. (1998), Crime and Society in England, Longman: London.

Croall, H. (1992), White Collar Crime, Open University Press: Buckingham.

Home Office (1998), Conducting Crime and Disorder Audits, HMSO.

Hudson, B. (1999), Criminologies of sameness and difference: implications for punishment and control, conference paper at 'Zemiology: Beyond Criminology', Dartington Hall, Feb. 12-14.

Hulsman (1986), 'Critical criminology and the problem of crime', Contemporary Crisis, 10, pp. 63-80.

Liverpool Community Safety Partnership (1999), The Liverpool Crime and Disorder Audit.

Scraton, P. (ed.) (1987), Law, Order and the Authoritarian State, Open University Press: Milton Keynes

Slapper, G. & Tombs, S. (1999), Corporate Crime, Longman.

Simon Hallsworth
Department of Sociology and Applied Social Studies
London Guildhall University
Calcutta House
Old Castle Street
London E1 7NT

Telephone: (0171) 320 1295
E-mail: hallswor@lgu.ac.uk


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