Don’t dumb down! Invest in advanced frameworks for good practice and research in crime prevention

Blog post

Don’t dumb down! Invest in advanced frameworks for good practice and research in crime prevention

Paul Ekblom Visiting Professor, Department of Security and Crime Science, UCL; Emeritus Professor of Design Against Crime, University of the Arts London

Recently we’ve seen worthy initiatives to boost ‘evidence-based’ and ‘precision’ policing, now currently eclipsed by the monumental issue of public trust. All these mainly concern law enforcement. Crime prevention or community safety is rightly seen as a less-confrontational way to reduce the harms from crime, disorder and inappropriate or, indeed, badly-conducted enforcement activity. And a systemic approach to prevention has recently been advocated by the Strategic Review of Policing commissioned and conducted by the Police Foundation. But crime prevention has its own issues.

Individual preventive interventions have proven cost-effective – including both situational approaches and (with considerable variability) Problem-Oriented Policing. But rolled out as programmes they can suffer significant implementation failure.

Many studies on major national initiatives like the UK Crime Reduction Programme acknowledge implementation failure, commonly explaining it by, for example, ‘poor project management’, or ‘short-term, over-centralised funding’. Furthermore, experienced police crime prevention personnel were retired in droves in post-2008 cuts. The UK College of Policing has acknowledged implementation concerns in recently issuing for consultation draft guidance on effective implementation of problem-oriented policing, covering organisational governance, infrastructure and capability, and partnerships.

But important though these factors are, also significant is how those who lead crime prevention handle knowledge and the messy complexity of real life: by dumbing down.

In my experience, senior managers and policymakers in crime prevention, security and community safety, as well as many practice-oriented researchers, often seem to believe ‘the only information you can ever hope to get into practitioners’ heads is a slogan or two – if you’re lucky.’ It’s been said that crime prevention isn’t rocket science.

Well, I couldn’t disagree more. Certainly, the basic idea of crime prevention is simple: to cut the risk of crime, cut the cause. But in practice, prevention is complex. Reliable, valid data must be collected; patterns analysed to reveal important subtleties and avoid misleading conclusions; evidence of what works assessed, selected and adapted (cookbook copying, sprayed uniformly over diverse contexts, won’t work); in-principle ideas turned into practical reality, often addressing ‘wicked’ problems; people and organisations engaged in partnerships; evaluation, feedback, adjustment and learning undertaken; and knowledge systematically shared for collective benefit.

The principle of rocket science is actually dead simple – feed in fuel, ignite, apply Newton’s laws of motion, and whoosh! What is difficult are the detailed, practical engineering and control systems required for a successful mission. Just like crime prevention.

There is numerical complication, too. One excellent local project on underage drinking had 13 different interventions – all had to be realised, and customised to context. Until this and much practical information was winkled out of the local beat officer and civilian worker they hadn’t grasped the extent of their achievement; more importantly, neither had anyone else.

Here’s the main point. Given this complexity, there’s no point dumbing down crime prevention knowledge into slogans and rapid-read case studies, if the information conveyed cannot then produce actions that are sophisticated and subtle enough to have a chance of working, and of avoiding harmful side-effects. While totally necessary, all the organisational governance and infrastructure in the world won’t deliver successful and acceptable solutions.

As recognised, our mental models and frameworks must be sufficiently complex and sophisticated to handle the complexity of the real-world problems addressed.

Two familiar introductions to the problem-oriented approach to prevention are the Problem Analysis Triangle (PAT – crime problems caused by combination of target/victim, offender, location, as clues to intervention) and SARA (the process of Scanning, Analysis, Response, Assessment). But once practitioners have grasped these helpful basics, they rapidly find little depth to structure, store, retrieve and share knowledge, and guide action. Sticking at a simple introductory level constrains the advanced action often needed.

Moreover, I don’t think PAT and SARA can inspire the creativity and generate the innovations vital to take crime prevention to new contexts and keep up with social change and adaptive criminals. PAT is incomplete as a map of causes and interventions and under-represents the richness of the offender side in particular: even situational interventions may work better if based on a subtler understanding of offenders, and what influences their behaviour. And SARA’s amorphous ‘Response’ stage, confuses several quite distinct activities, as this discussion makes clear.

Looking beyond the development of guidance for frontline crime prevention practice towards research within crime science, fragmentary part-models of causes and theories abound. Each individual model (such as Routine Activities) is simple – but the models are in effect dumped in a pile and it’s left to each individual researcher or practitioner to work out how to relate one to the other (how does Routine Activities relate to Rational Choice? And where does Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design fit?). How should researchers and practitioners cope with gaps and overlaps; and explanations which may compete, operate at different levels or merely be expressed in different terms?

This isn’t simple – just chaotic.

What’s behind the drive to oversimplify?

  • Misunderstanding of practice and disdain for detail. Senior policymakers prefer high-level abstractions like the Systematic Reviews by the Campbell Collaboration, delivering messages such as ‘Street lighting is a cost-effective way of reducing crime and fear’. This is completely right for strategic policy, but once we shift perspective to the infrastructure needed to deliver the policy or the practical detail needed to implement it on the ground, it’s not remotely detailed enough.

  • The usual remedy is for practitioners wishing to emulate a successful project is to be given the team’s contact information. But the project’s architect may have left, or have little time to talk to them. Or they may simply be unable to articulate what they had done in clear, transferable terms that make explicit the underlying principles and ‘troublesome trade-offs’ with other goals, and interactions with contextual factors. Although peer-to-peer learning is valuable, if undertaken in isolation and without structure it is hardly efficient or quality-assured.

  • A patronising attitude to practitioners. There is concern that the poor practitioner won’t understand and use the information. Allied to this is a vision of practitioners as technicians with limited diagnostic skills and limited repertoire of responses. Yet it is common experience from working alongside practitioners that they can well handle the complexity of knowledge if they see it as relevant to their task and reflecting the necessary complexity of what they are facing daily. And they certainly aspire to be more like consultants with principles and methods at their fingertips ready to configure and innovate in each new context.

  • Top-down stops too soon. Top-down initiatives for improving performance are important, but programme planners somehow always leave their grand edifice miraculously suspended without a ground floor, let alone foundations. To fill the gap they rely on barely adequate toolkits and minimalist sharing of good practice – namely superficial entries in ‘knowledge bases’.

  • A reluctance to grasp the nettle of improving the frameworks for organising knowledge and action. Fear prevails, that practitioners could never be prised from their comfort zones of PAT and SARA to accept something that was initially more challenging – but ultimately far more functional.

  • The problem is compounded by the ‘pick’n’mix’ approach to learning and the reinvention of (often imprecise) terminology and structure in every new practice guidance document or toolkit. The slogans and superficial definitions used in major programmes give no clear, consistent and systematic grounding to practitioners’ work.

  • Low investment in professional education and career development, delivering low yield in performance. It’s understandable that employers and maybe employees are unwilling to devote significant resources to training if staff are dipping in and out of community safety posts or doing them alongside other work. But the consequence is wasted opportunity for safer communities, and limited professional careers.

So what’s to be done?

Any plans to improve crime prevention, security and community safety performance will require a decent framework and language to describe and structure knowledge of good practice if they are to succeed in getting the best out of existing research, stimulating new studies and facilitating training and guidance of practitioners. This is basic good practice – in knowledge management.

To be avoided is trying to pack complex knowledge into an unready and aching head, by reliance on learning from knowledge-bases and toolkits while the practitioners struggle to do their job. The investment in practitioners must be front-loaded – give them a professional start to their career by offering sophisticated and integrated frameworks for understanding crime, security and community safety and knowing how to tackle it. With such frameworks in their minds they can comfortably take in much more information, make their own professional judgement about how valid or useful it is, assimilate it (knowing which mental files to store the information in and retrieve it from) and start to apply it.

I’ve spent much of my career working with others including practitioners in developing frameworks and definitions as ‘precision tools for thinking, communication and action’ that are designed to handle appropriate complexity in the knowledge and practice of crime prevention and community safety.

One of these tools is the Conjunction of Criminal Opportunity Framework (CCO) which provides a one-stop-shop for identifying causes and designing interventions to reduce crime. The CCO is an integrated map of 11 generic causes of criminal events, covering both situational and offender perspectives, and 11 sets of intervention principles. It incorporates and integrates PAT, Routine Activities, Rational Choice and other approaches, on both situational and offender sides.

Another tool is the 5Is Framework for capturing, consolidating and transferring practice knowledge via structured and detailed project descriptions, and serving as a prescriptive but flexible process model. It avoids oversimplification by extending and deepening the SARA process (as Intelligence, Intervention, Implementation, Involvement and Impact, and many subsidiary headings beneath these main task streams). Implementation covers the practical issues, and Involvement the ‘people and organisations’ issues, often more challenging than the main intervention. Proposed implementation guidance such as that from the College of Policing needs to draw on, to build and quality-assure, and to share detailed knowledge and know-how from all these task streams if it is to make a sustained and substantial difference to the performance of problem-solving. The 5Is book gives detailed examples of how rich practical knowledge was winkled out of practitioners, then re-expressed in standard terms and organised under standard headings for sharing.

Both CCO and 5Is frameworks zoom from top-level headings into organised and analytic detail allowing a wide choice of intervention methods, adaptation of action to context, and innovation; and let users find their own comfort level of sophistication. More advanced, yes – but no more so than the intricacies of law and criminal procedure that police have to learn – and suitable for a complex and fast-changing world.

These and other frameworks, definitions and glossaries on my new Crime Frameworks website are intended to help practitioners and researchers handle, not hide, the complexity they routinely encounter in understanding and controlling crime – and share and adapt the detailed solutions.