The media and politicians are calling ever more loudly for a tougher approach to public nuisance, but the residents of the problem districts don’t really support it. A
criminologist went to investigate.
In 2008, bus driversrefused to drive through Oosterwei, a district of Gouda, after an attack on a bus in; at the times, they had been increasingly confronted with violent youths. Politicians and the media rushed to get in on the story.
The calls for a tough approach were the loudest, but that’s nothing new. Only the year before, the urban district council chairman of Amsterdam’s Baarsjes district had suggested introducing the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO). The ASBO is a measure first implemented in 1998 by the British Prime Minister Tony Blair to prohibit disruptive behaviour in problem areas.
If you are served an ASBO, you are not allowed to swear in public, drink or wear a hood. If you do, you will be punished. The Amsterdam urban district council chairman’s plans became the inspiration for Criminologist Monique Koemans’ research.
“Are young people really terrorising the streets? Do other politicians agree with this? What do the public think? Is the ASBO a successful instrument? Today, she hopes to receive her doctorate for her work The war on antisocial behaviour.
Koemans analysed the discussions on public antisocial conduct in the districts in question among politicians, in the media and in legal circles and compared the Dutch and the English situations. Quite a few contrasts emerged between what the papers write, what politicians say and the opinions of the inhabitants of the problem areas. Politicians claim that the antisocial behaviour is on the rise, and refer to a call from society. The ASBO seems to be an attractive solution to the problem. “If the current options don’t seem to be working, we need to try something else.”
Koemans explains that, although the myth of success seems to surround the British approach, in England, the ASBO is regarded as a controversial measure and is applied less and less often. “It results in the exclusion of certain young people who start to feel isolated. Now you see more focus on an approach that deals with the entire district and on social policy.” Criticism is now also directed at the publication of ASBOs served to inhabitants for things like hanging up posters in the neighbourhood, while some teenagers regarded them as a badge of honour, as something to be proud of. Moreover, the measure allegedly criminalised problem youths unnecessarily.
“Most of the Dutch politicians I interviewed and who were familiar with the measure were totally surprised by the criticism and did not realise that its favourable effects had not been proven.” Nonetheless, the majority claimed to believe that a rigid approach could reduce public antisocial behaviour and similar calls came from the press. After examining 22 thousand articles in De Telegraaf and de Volkskrant published between 1990 and 2008, Koemans discovered that public antisocial conduct is featured more and more often in the papers. “Even though it’s an old problem – there hasn’t been any immediate increase of instances of public nuisance, only the reports have increased.” Furthermore, the Dutch media linked public nuisance more frequently to ethnic groups in comparison to the British press, “though they have quite an aggressive tabloid culture.”
In addition to this work, Koemans also visited eleven of the former “Vogelaar” districts [districts designated by former Minister Vogelaar for additional investments to deal with mainly social problems] and interviewed the inhabitants, shopkeepers, wardens and the public nuisances themselves. Antisocial conduct was felt to be a major problem in three of the districts, but in the other districts, the problems were less urgent than generally reported. Support for repressive measures such as the ASBO was considerably less than might be expected; in fact only a few shopkeepers were in favour. “If there is very little support in the problem districts themselves, why should you introduce symbolic politics? You would merely be alleviating the feelings of people in areas where there aren’t many problems. Wouldn’t it be better to show people that there isn’t really much public nuisance, instead of introducing a new policy?”
This task falls to criminologists, in her opinion: “On the one hand, scientists are expected to research the effects of implemented policies properly, yet if the data doesn’t square with what politicians want to hear, the scientists are brushed aside. In a speech, Blair once admitted that politicians are not concerned with numbers any more, but with people’s emotions”.
And Koemans thinks, in that case, scientists should bombard the politicians and the media with their results: “If they won’t listen, it doesn’t mean to say you should stop shouting”.