What is the future of crime prevention? – Tom Gash

The challenges police face when tackling new types of crime

"A richly researched, supremely sane discussion of the causes of and ways of preventing crime… Gash's important book may well change your attitude to criminality and the justice system."  – The Guardian

Tom Gash advises governments internationally on crime policy and is an Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science, University College London.

He has written a blog for the College of Policing newsletter which explores the future of crime prevention:


In 1993, UK car crime was at a record high. Leaving the house to find your car gone or its window smashed and stereo stolen was commonplace and vehicle crime was near the top of the list of public concerns. Today, you are six times less likely to walk out of your house and find your car stolen. The drop is in large part due to improved security. As older cars without electronic immobilisers, central locking, alarms and trackers fell out of circulation, car crime fell.

It's important that we learn the right lessons from this crime prevention success. First, we learned that if you can make certain crimes just a little harder, a big chunk of people just won't bother. Yes, people are still nicking cars using quite simple electronic devices that overcome car security, but the average joyrider or desperate drug user was put off.

Second, we learned businesses often have as much – or more – influence on crime than the police. It's easy to underestimate the importance of product design and other business security measures. There are as many security staff as police, after all.

Third, we learned that businesses don't always protect us from crime without a nudge. Car companies could have put in place new security measures long before they did. But if you're a car manufacturer at a time when car crime is soaring, where's the problem? Each time a car is stolen and left burned out after a joy ride, you get an extra sale, paid for by insurers, and ultimately consumers.

Security only improved when government started to crank up the pressure. My colleague at the Jill Dando Institute for Crime Science, Professor Gloria Laycock, then at the UK Home Office, led the creation of a Car Theft Index in the UK, which allowed consumers to tell which cars were less likely to be stolen. Margaret Thatcher rounded up the manufacturers and told them in no uncertain terms something needed to be done. And the EU later mandated that new cars should be fitted with immobilisers. Car crime dropped quicker in Europe than in North America as a result.

There have been many other crime prevention successes in recent years, and they reinforce these lessons. Most police forces have worked with local clubs and bars and local authorities to curb alcohol related violence to good effect, often by reducing the mundane frustrations and excessive drunkenness that increase the risks of violence. Recent moves to make it harder to dispose of scrap metal seem to be working. And new research shows that improved security – window locks, lighting and so forth – played a big role in reducing burglary, along with targeted prevention efforts like blocking off back alleys. The College's What Works Centre has published studies on the effectiveness of using alley gating to prevent crime.

The scale of the drops in crime seen in these areas could never have been achieved with arrests and punishment alone. But these successes in the public sphere now need to be spread to two new domains. First, we need to work out what crime prevention should look like online. Second, we need to deal with the crimes committed in private behind closed doors, particularly the bulk of domestic abuse and sexual offences.

Under extreme pressure to maintain response and investigation services with falling budgets, I fear that these efforts will fall between the cracks – even though proper investment could find valuable remedies to growing problems and save police time. For example, I suspect we might eliminate billions of dollars in fraud by changing the way that we do online shopping. We just need to replace the current system where you only need your card details to make online payments with a new version of 'chip and pin' for online transactions. But who will persuade retailers try this, when they are all worried about slowing down customer purchases?

I'm not sure what prevention should look like when it comes to violent crimes committed at home. The most effective prevention techniques have often involved making targets more secure. That's much harder when the thing you're looking to secure is a person, with their own preferences and sometimes trapped by coercive control. Car alarms are fitted in a factory. Solutions to these problems will need to be developed in the wild. Again, I fear that that we won't get the radical investment in developing interventions that we can prove work at scale, nor will we develop the kind of organisations or workforces capable of delivering them. This another area which the College has looked at and a number of interventions are available on the What Works Centre's Crime Reduction Toolkit.

Likewise, who, at this time and within current policing structures is going to think it's their job to consider whether we need to think about reducing sexual violence in the way we thought about drink driving? Who is going to work develop a public education campaign if we need one, and who will test and trial what works? 

There are lots of interesting initiatives already in train, from the Met's Divert programme to work in Greater Manchester warning vulnerable women in areas of Eastern Europe that the promises made by traffickers are grossly misleading. But these are still cottage industries, albeit important ones. I hope we can start a conversation about industrialising crime prevention, while still recognising that precise solutions to crime may vary in different settings.  

Tom Gash (@Tom_Gash) is the author of Criminal: The Truth About Why People Do Bad Things (Penguin, 2017), £7.49.

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