Is anti-social behaviour on the rise?

12 April 2013

"Anti-social behaviour growing, says official survey. More than eight out of 10 people say anti-social behaviour has risen in England and Wales over the past 12 months, the Government's main crime survey has revealed."

The Telegraph, 12 April 2013 - also in Express, Mail and Star

This week the Office for National Statistics (ONS) gave us a short story about anti-social behaviour. It revealed nearly a third of people surveyed for the report said they'd experienced or witnessed anti-social behaviour locally at least once in the past 12 months.

What's interesting about this is how it compares to previous releases. The 2011/12 Crime Survey measured people's perceptions of anti-social behaviour, finding that 49% of people believe anti-social behaviour has risen "a lot" on a national level, but only 10% believe anti-social behaviour has gone up "a lot" in their local area.

15% of adults had a high-level of perceived anti-social behaviour in their local area in the last 12 months. The figures showed no change from the previous year.

So why do some newspapers say anti-social behaviour is growing?

To understand the difference, we have to compare two different questions within the Crime Survey.

Table 1 (as shown above) of the Crime Survey report looks at "high levels of perceived anti-social behaviour". According to the User Guide to Crime Statistics, "high levels" relate to abandoned or burnt-out cars; noisy neighbours or loud parties; people being drunk or rowdy in public places; people using or dealing drugs; rubbish or litter lying around; teenagers hanging around on the streets; and vandalism, graffiti, and other deliberate damage to property.

Of course these just account for high levels of anti-social behaviour. Looking at general perceptions of anti-social behaviour - which is more broadly defined in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 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' - there is a spike in the perception levels. As the Telegraph reports, if we consider both people who think anti-social behaviour has gone up a lot with people who think it has gone up a little, we have 81 per cent of people surveyed believing anti-social behaviour has gone up, and this is what newspapers are reporting.

According to the ONS (see page 78) the distinction between different types of anti-social behaviour is crucial, and overall "longer term trends indicate a decrease in the perceived level of anti-social behaviour for most indicators, apart from levels of problems with noisy neighbours and drunk or rowdy behaviour which remain relatively flat."

Leaving perceptions aside, what do the police records tell us?

In January this year, figures from Crime in England and Wales revealed that around 2.4 million incidents of anti-social behaviour were recorded by the police in the year ending September 2012. That's a reduction from 3.2 million the previous year. Indeed, police-recorded incidents of anti-social behaviour have been steadily declining in the past five years or so.

How do we explain anti-social behaviour perception rising, if incident levels are declining?

One potential explanation could come from an in-depth survey of 10,000 anti-social behaviour victims commissioned by Her Majecty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and conducted by the University of Cardiff. The study - published just last week - focused on the experience and perception of anti-social behaviour victims.

It revealed that 35 per cent of victims viewed their call to police as having made "no difference", a figure that rises to 45 percent in the most acute category of repeat and vulnerable victims. The report also found that some incidents recorded by the police as anti-social behaviour should have instead been recorded as crimes.

The Crime Survey User Guide also points out that in many cases anti-social behaviour incidents are reported to other agencies, such as local authorities or landlords (for example, issues with loud neighbours). These reports are not included in police figures, and can account for part of the discrepancy.

There have also been changes in the way that anti-social behaviour incidents are recorded. Prior to 2011/12, the police had been using 14 categories, defined by the National Standard for Incident Recording, for recording anti-social behaviour incidents that fall short of being notifiable crimes. The User Guide notes that "while these categories provided a suitable dataset for recording anti-social behaviour they did not encourage call-handlers to consider vulnerability issues and the risk involved for the caller, other individuals, the community as a whole or the environment if the anti-social behaviour continued."

Three new sets of simplified categories were introduced in 2011/12 which shifted the emphasis from merely recording and responding to incidents "to indentifying those vulnerable individuals, communities and environments most at risk and therefore in need of a response before the problems escalate."

So it is possible that changes in recording have a role in the number of incidents recorded.

But gaps between perceptions and actual recorded crime are by no means a new phenomenon; indeed that was the focus of the 2008 Ipsos MORI report "Closing the Gaps". According to the authors of the report, it is not uncommon for public beliefs to be out of step with reality, and the 'perception gap' in relation to crime and punishment was especially large.

The Ipsos MORI report didn't specifically relate to anti-social behaviour, but it's easy to imagine why the same conclusions might apply. Indeed, the fact that new categories of anti-social behaviour victims were introduced within the National Standard for Incident Recording sheds light on how a victim's context and personal situation can influence the perception of a crime. In 2011/12 the Crime Survey started to measure how many people actually experienced anti-social behaviour, so in a few years we may know whether there is a perception gap here too.

Rather than contradicting each other, the two indicators - recorded incidents and perception - can be used in complementary ways.

In fact, the Crime Survey - originally known as the British Crime Survey - was launched as way to fill the gap in police recording of crime, and examine the "dark figure" of crime, in other words crimes that are not reported to or recorded by the police. As a result, the Crime Survey can provide a better picture of the true level of delinquency than police statistics. Statisticians believe it's a "better indicator of long-term trends" because it is "unaffected by changes in levels of reporting to the police or police recording practices".


Flickr image courtesy of Adam Ross

Full Fact fights bad information

Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.