Tackling Anti Social Behaviour In Belfast Criminology Essay

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The issue of ASB gained increasing amounts of attention nationally across the UK over the past decade following the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the stories of many people affected by ASB. In comparison, the city of Belfast has witnessed similar problems though ASB is heightened by a longstanding history of violence in Northern Ireland. The bureaucratic tactics used by practitioners do not appear to be reducing the increasing breaches of ASB orders, and thus more effective measures need to be realised. The following report will: firstly, try to define ASB and outline the past and current situation in Belfast; secondly, examine the challenges encountered by leaders of various sectors in the fight to end ASB in Belfast and the effectiveness of their actions, incorporating both primary and secondary research; and, finally, recommend potential actions that could be taken by these leaders in the future to overcome the challenges identified.

Background: ASB in Belfast

ASB is defined by The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 [2] as:

'Acting in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household as the perpetrator'.

ASB in NI is categorised into fourteen classified offences [3] (Appendix 1). A number of legal sanctions were established to address ASB, from issuing warning letters to applying for civil orders like the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) which can result in a jail sentence of up to five years if broken. ASB legislation is intended to deal with 'non-' or 'sub-criminal' behaviour, both because of the 'quality of life effects' of the behaviour itself and the perceived risk that it could develop into crime [4] . Thus, ASB can be likened to Kelling and Wilson's 'broken windows' thesis [5] .

The Anti-Social Behaviour Act was adopted by Northern Ireland Parliament in 2003 in line with the Community Safety Strategy (CSS) for NI launched by NI Office in March 2003. It uses much the same framework and applications as the UK, despite the absence of a complete body of empirical data on the nature and extent of the problem.

However, ASBO's were criticised for being expensive and counterproductive because they became a "badge of honour" for some offenders [6] . Many are simply ignored; the breach rate rising from less than 40% in 2003 to 56% by the end of 2009, with 41% being breached more than once [7] .

In Belfast city alone, a staggering 21,278 ASB incidents were reported between March 2010 and February 2011 [8] (See Figure. 1). This image adds to Belfast City Council research in 2007 [9] which concluded that the worst things about living in Belfast were ASB (24%) and religious tension (9%). Interestingly, when asked what the council's priorities should be, residents highlighted making local areas safer (54%) as a key priority and that the top thing for improving quality of life for all was activities for teenagers (41%).

Figure - The proportion of ASB Incidents recorded between March 2010 and February 2011 in NI. Source: PSNI [10] .

Bodies in the public, political government and community sectors each play a role in tackling ASB in Belfast and their work in NI thus far is briefly summarised below.

Politics: Many MPs in the Northern Ireland Assembly, such as Naomi Long of the East Belfast Parliamentary Constituency, have worked to draw attention and tackle ASB in various ways during the past decade, as well as the current Minister of Justice for NI, David Ford. Most notably the CSS for NI launched in 2003 [11] .

Public: At the forefront of tackling ASB in NI are the NI Housing Executive (NIHE), Youth Justice Agency (YJA), and Police Services Northern Ireland (PSNI). The areas that are perceived as most problematic are those consisting of social housing [12] hence why many of the duties fall to NIHE who already have a presence and knowledge of these areas. YJA tend to be involved in many complex and multi-faceted problems [13] such as social exclusion, deprivation, drug problems, and poor parenting. Matt Baggott is Chief Constable of the PSNI. The PSNI works in partnership with LA's, NIHE and the YJA and negotiate who applies for orders, prepare ASBO applications for court and give evidence at hearings [14] .

Community/Voluntary Sector: The largest organisation of this sector is the Belfast Community Safety Partnership (BCSP) [15] . It aims to reduce crime, the fear of crime and ASB through various projects such as Neighbourhood Watch Schemes and Community Safety Grants. However, there are many community and charitable organisations such as Belfast Community Circus School, Belfast Community Development Agency, and the Belfast Area Project run by Alan Wilson, whose work is especially prominent in Belfast.


The ambiguity of the definition of ASB renders it open to wide-ranging interpretation, providing limitless opportunities for its identification and intervention [16] . For example Home Office defined ASB in 2007 as follows [17] :

"Anti-social behaviour is any activity that impacts on other people in a negative way."

This can be viewed as widening the reach of the law and strengthening the criminal justice process against juveniles [18] rather than focusing on alternative early interventions [19] (See Appendix 2). This report will seek to uncover more of this problem.

Research Methods and Limitations

It was decided that the research would take the form of interviews conducted via email and telephone using a question guide applied to each leader. One-to-one interviews were rejected as it would be difficult to travel and manage research in NI during University term-time. Interviews were sought with leaders across all identified areas: political, public and community. It was anticipated that, given the huge work demands upon potential interviewees, there would be few responses.

However, interviews were successfully undertaken with leaders from various sectors as noted in section 2.1. The interviewees helped to build on the research through direction to further contact with other leaders in the sector. An interview, unexpectedly, was arranged with Matt Baggott Chief Constable of PSNI; however time was very restricted. DoJ Minister was unable to contribute to research but re-directed me to their publications.

It is also understood that leaders within the public sectors may tend to refrain from revealing weaknesses or challenges with their work possibly due to the reforms of ASB legislation that were on-going throughout the research period. Furthermore, the broad nature of ASB means that the research tries to allow for an analysis from all sectors but is impossible to look at all areas. When combined with secondary sources, however, the findings still provide an interesting insight into the problems faced by leaders in all three sectors, as well as the victims and offenders of ASB, and form an adequate basis for the future recommendations which follow.

Research Findings

Analysis of Primary Research:

Interviews are taken with Naomi Long (East Belfast MP), Alan Wilson (East Belfast Area Project), Elaine McWilliams (community co-ordinator), Matt Baggott (PSNI), Will Chamberlain (Belfast Circus School), Jennifer Stewart (Automatic Dance Company), Bernie McConnell (Belfast Community Development Agency), Stephen Mann (Sports Youth Development Officer) and Sharon Wallace (Social Development Officer).

Recent Achievements

An internal trial by PSNI talks of a new approach for handling complaints of ASB; focusing more on the vulnerability of the victim rather than the crime itself and creating an effective call handling system where each individual has a log of complaints created from the very first call. It is hoped that 'this new approach will help to quickly identify and protect vulnerable victims' says Baggott. Also, the PSNI continues to be sensitive to the issue of paramilitary groups in NI and continues to retain information regarding antisocial individuals so as they cannot be targeted.

However, the most noticeable developments are seen amongst community and voluntary organisations. The East Belfast Area Project works in a number of communities across the area offering teenagers and young adults "the opportunity to participate in a range of personal and social development programmes" explains Wilson. These organisations also appear to be much more direct and flexible when tackling ASB. McConnell explained if there was a bit of trouble arising somewhere they would immediately "get kids involved to make them aware of their responsibilities to their communities" and clarified that "it was a cross-community project involving kids from the Short Strand [Catholic Community] and the wider Protestant community." Wilson also confirmed the effects of these initiatives stating that many of the children were known to police but that they now 'have a bit of pride in their community" and that ASB "is no way near at the level it was like." Mann summarised this outlook stating that "this is merely the start of a series of events to address the anti-social and recreational rioting problems that have blighted Belfast for too long."

The PSNI has seen a fall in ASB; since March 2009 reports have decreased by 4.7%. Baggott stated that current ASB tactics "clog up the court system with minor matters" and that policy needs to be rewritten to give communities in Belfast back professional 'problem solvers' rather than people with their 'hands tied behind their backs', so as the PSNI can deal with minor matters on their own. He also believes in the need for better inter-connections with the HA and community organisations and a more thorough analysis of ASB by 'stepping right into the heart of communities' to have the conversations with people who can be 'police advocates'. He states:

"We are currently mapping all the neighbourhoods by deprivation, disadvantage, and alienation. Where do young offenders live? Where are people growing up without any sense of knowledge of us? Then we are going to put more community policing in there because that is relationship building."

Most of these strategies are correctional intervention, but there have been many independent studies into preventative intervention. They have shown an excellent cost-benefit ratio and concluded that early intervention does in fact have a greater economic return than correctional [20] .

There are still, however, numerous factors discussed by all leaders that have restricted their role in tackling ASB in Belfast.

Potential Challenges

Politics and Government

Firstly, there is still 'currently no agreed protocol' for data collection and little national collation of data says Long, resulting in 'substantial gaps in the evidence base', so that remarkably little is known about who commits what kinds of ASB and who suffers from it. McWilliams touched on this point by stating that several of the new powers, like dispersal, 'are area-based' and she found very little data on its effectiveness other than 'anecdotally.'

Furthermore, tackling ASB is challenged by a welfare state which allows long term unemployment and 'teaches generations of people to aspire to nothing beyond this' says Long. There is also a feeling amongst communities that current ASB policy 'isn't effective in the long term' says McWilliams. Thus, there needs to be much more focus on the very early causes of ASB as,

"The growing number of people who breach their ASBO suggests that they are not being deterred by the penalties they face from continuing their anti-social or criminal behaviour."

However, Baggott asserts that "we are in a recession and the budget is less so we have to take costs out for things that don't matter" but, nonetheless, the PSNI will be more involved with the community in combating ASB:

"When a police officer comes to you, you will not just get a report of a crime, they are going to ask you why you think it happened…Can we stop it happening again?"


The category of ASB offences in the new proposals would be cut from fourteen to five as part of a process of making "the toolkit of measures" less prescriptive and bureaucratic. However, simplifying a system of which the definition is already broad and confusing could backfire. There is thus some indication of a difference in approach between ministers and policy officials; the latter seeing advantages of a consistent set of ASB categories for data collection and analysis; the former preferring a non-specific concept of ASB to 'maximise its usefulness' says Baggott. However, Long touched on this issue, explaining that:

"This uncertainty can lead to victims finding themselves being passed from agency to agency, or reporting the same problem again and again. This has been made worse by some agencies not realising the impact of an incident on the victim or the community."


The 'collapse of communities' is often seen as a key influence in the rise of ASB, with young people growing up without positive role models and a framework within which to develop into sociable adults. Wallace, Stewart, Chamberlain and McConnell raised the issue of a lack of activities for teenagers who have nowhere to go, stating they were victims of the deprivation they were born into. McConnell also reiterated that some of the funding given to the PSNI and public sectors to combat ASB is "a waste" and that more money should be given to community organisations to "provide lasting activities and opportunities to the younger generation." Long went on to say "the problem now is that the cuts in funding to aid communities will hinder the progress it has been making."

Primary Research Conclusions

Undeniably, important actions have been taken in the past decade, not least the recent ASB proposals from NIO which focus more on community action and involvement. However these achievements do not raise attention to the fact that if the community sector is to become more involved in tackling ASB in Belfast then there needs to be adequate long-term funding. The voluntary community sector is clearly dependent upon the government to a huge extent in funding the invaluable work it does for children and teenagers by providing positive opportunities and activities, and it is very clear that without their work many teenagers would be socialising on streets with nothing to do. Their progress will significantly depend on this.

Evaluation of Secondary Sources and Comparison

Public Services: In relation to the bureaucracy of ASB policies and fragmented research, a recent survey, conducted by the British Institute for Brain Injured Children (BIBIC) indicated that around 30% of 10 to 17 year olds in receipt of an ASBO had a diagnosed mental health disorder or learning difficulty [21] and emphasised the responsibility of government to monitor such issues. Another of these fragments is also in the Home Office's 'One Day Count' publication in 2003, which found 66,000 reports of ASB made in one day and an estimate of 13.5 million annually. This single fact was used for subsequent years, even on the 'Respect' website in 2007, to emphasise drops in ASB behaviour and to make claims for government success in responding to ASB [22] .

It is argued that whereas ASB has in the past been seen as part of managing 'problem' estates it can now arise due to processes such as the residualisation of social housing. This has led to the adoption of strategies which individualise the treatment of ASB rather than addressing the wider difficulties faced by many anti-social tenants. For example, the use of dispersal powers by the PSNI are in any sense intended to protect vulnerable young people, however they arguably render them more vulnerable if they separate to less open and more dangerous areas [23] .

Politics: In NI, little or no analytical attention is given to understanding what goes on within these diverse local contexts in the shaping of policy outcomes. There is an unwillingness to explore beyond the empirical level of what can be observed, especially within the media. There lacks initiative to investigate what really happens when people 'experience' ASB or when certain activities get labelled as such, and to seek out explanations of why these things happen. For example, ASBOs may have their place but when overused it unnecessarily catapults children into a custodial system of which the chances of rehabilitation are extremely slim and the chances of further criminalisation very likely. This irony is that the poverty of knowledge, and the absence of a clear definition, allows ASB its power as a policy concept [24] .

However, a consultation document, 'More Effective Responses to Anti-Social Behaviour' [25] , and is in the process of "streamlining" the toolkit currently in place to tackle ASB. It recognises that there are currently too many tools in place, some 'are bureaucratic, slow, and expensive,' whilst 'the tools designed to help perpetrators deal with underlying causes of their anti-social behaviour are rarely used.' This acceptance of problems is a clear step in the right direction.

Community: Belfast, in particular, relies heavily on the community and voluntary sector in providing services and opportunities at a local level [26] . At this level, this sector understands the people it aims to help, but as government continues to cut valuable funding to public and small organisation sectors, coupled with increasing breaches of ASBOs and the government's aim to donate more power to communities, this will add to the pressures already currently felt.

Moreover, Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) [27] , Patricia Lewsley, said the next NI Assembly must work together to make communities safe for children and that the government's plan to keep ASBOs is continuing to focus on the punishment of young people [28] . Thus NI moves further away from making communities and town centres safe and welcoming places. However, NICCY's research paper 2011 stated that they support the commitment shown by this Community Safety Strategy (CSS) to invest in wider community initiatives that are 'needed to tackle the root causes of community safety issues'.

However, NICCY responded formally to the CSS consultation and drew attention to its vagueness by stating in its letter:

"NICCY is concerned that the provision of play and recreation facilities is not a part of the community safety strategy. NICCY would recommend that preventative measures such as the provision and maintenance of play and recreation facilities is included in the community safety strategy.

NICCY also noted the lack of information on what special protection measures for children are used when dealing with complaints suggested that NIHE should state these procedures in the strategy.

Conclusions and Recommendations for Future Action

It is evident that with ASB there are many underlying inter-connected causes and problems and that the multi-agency leadership approach is required in order to tackle it effectively, especially between community leaders, LA's and PSNI. Most important though, is the need for more research on the stages prior to ASB by an individual.

Despite this, as well as the impossibility of taking into account every single factor affecting leadership when tackling ASB, it is still possible to draw clear conclusions of the effectiveness of actions by leaders in public, government and community sectors. By doing so, it is also feasible to recommend actions to improve performance in the future.

It is therefore recommended that:

There needs to be a move away from having a separate tool for every different ASB problem in order to ensure that police and other partners have faster and more flexible options. This will also help to prevent the court system being congested with ASB matters that the communities and PSNI can tackle alone.

More research and funding is needed to help with early intervention programmes, such as the measures laid out in DOE research in 2004, which clearly show a desirable cost-benefit ratio of this.

Adequate and sustained funding is given to local communities and its voluntary sector to cater for the lack of amenities and opportunities for children and teenagers, whilst at the same time avoiding sub-criminalising many children whose actions could arguably be a result of this. The government must support the community sector, and encourage leadership, to allow it to tackle ASB to its full potential; especially in respect to tackling NI's history of community fragmentation via cross-community activities.

Instead of focusing on the ASB itself, the PSNI should apply its trial nationally so as the focus is on the victim of the behaviour and its effects. This should be used with an effective IT system in place which allows call-handlers to see and act on any previous ASB reported by the victims.

A robust partnership between communities, the PSNI, NIHE, and LA, with clearly established mechanisms for communication and sharing information which are responsive to Belfast's circumstances and the needs of the individuals/families involved in ASB. To do this, it is the PSNI who first need to lead and offer this participation to the communities and people of NI, such inclusion has the potential of open support by communities.

The PSNI should continue to promote itself as a source of help, not fear, especially in schools, and to educate young people as early as possible on the history of NI and the importance of moving forward. It will then be this partnership between the PSNI and the community which will lead the solution addressing ASB.

Thus, a clear definition of ASB is unnecessary when acting on reports, but a clear categorical outline of the distinctions between ASB and criminal behaviour, needs to be in place to allow better data recording and research - this must be exactly the same nationally to allow for a clear picture of ASB.

Ensure that the PSNI provides more emphasis on adequate support for the underlying causes of any persistent ASB by an individual.

ASB strategies employed by leaders must understand the importance of community action and that the element of fear between the younger and older generations is bridged over by the work the community sector can do, who stand less risk of distrust and suspicion. The involvement of young people in activities is vital here and organisations such as Belfast Youth Circus and Automatic Dance Company are important in helping tackle ASB in the long term.

At the time of this research, the topic of ASB in Belfast was constantly changing and was a major topic of debate due to the NI government's new ASB proposal and consultation. For example, in April 2011, after the majority of research, a £1 Million Collaboration Support Project for NI Voluntary Sector was given by NI Department of Social Development. While it remains likely that the right steps are being taken towards community action in the future, it is unlikely, with cuts to public spending, that the community and voluntary sector will be sufficiently funded and supported, resulting in stilted progress in preventative action. The evidence provided in this report may well suggest continued problems ahead for all leaders involved in tackling ASB in Belfast. However, with the leadership of the above interviewees, as well as the vast number of community project leaders, voluntary workers and the general consensus of people wanting to move forward from the past, the fight against ASB in Belfast will continue.

Final total word count (excluding footnotes): 4319

Appendix 1

ASB Incidents are categorised by the PSNI since 2006 as follows:

Abandoned vehicles (not stolen or causing an obstruction)

Animal problems

Begging / vagrancy

Hoax calls to emergency services

Inappropriate use / sale / possession of fireworks

Malicious / nuisance communications


Prostitution related activity

Littering Drugs Paraphernalia

Nuisance neighbours

Rowdy or inconsiderate behaviour

Street drinking


Vehicle nuisance / inappropriate vehicle use

Appendix 2

The Support from the Start: Working with young children and their families to reduce the risks of crime and anti-social behaviour research by the DOE in 2004 produced a series of measures to combat ASB as early as possible (Source: DOE, 2004).


I would like to thank Dr. Frank Manista and Dr. Bidisha Ray. Without their effort the completion of the project would not be possible.