Drinking and Public Disorder
A report of research conducted for The Portman Group by MCM Research
UK Research – Coventry
Additional, though very modest, funds were made available by the Home Office Safer Cities Programme to extend fieldwork to include Coventry. Concern had been expressed by the local authority, the Chamber of Commerce, the police and other agencies about drink-related disorder in the city centre, and in a street called The Burges in particular. A bye-law prohibiting the consumption of alcohol in public places in the centre had been introduced in November 1989 and various attempts had been made to counteract the negative impressions held about the area and to reduce widespread fear of crime among residents.
In addition to the research brief outlined in Section 1, we were asked to comment specifically on policing strategies and the perceptions of the police held by users of the town centre on weekend evenings. These aspects are therefore included in this section. A more detailed summary of police statistics relating to drink-related offenses than that provided in Appendix A is also included.
The scale of the problem
Accurate determination of levels and patterns of violence and disorder is always extremely difficult. Popular perceptions of the problems are strongly influenced by media reporting and the publicity given to the views of various interest groups. Official statistics are also fallible in that they are influenced by changes in policing policies and the readiness of people to report crimes. In the Coventry study, however, we were provided by the police with unusually detailed statistics concerning alcohol-related crime and disorder in the city centre. These figures covered the period 1986 to 1989, six-month samples being obtained from each year. The data for 1986 were obtained retrospectively from occurrence logs.
The difficulties in determining drink-relatedness are acknowledged in these police reports and the limits of the methodologies employed are recognised. "One thing is for sure, the true relationship between alcohol and crime is too complex to be fully comprehended using these methods. In order to do this it would be necessary to interview every offender and examine their motives for committing each offence."
The methods of determining whether a crime was drink-related or not are given as:
- The incident was one of drunkenness, or
- The incident took place in or immediately outside or could otherwise be positively linked with any licensed premises, or
- Where applicable, the offender or complainant was under the influence of alcohol, or
- The circumstances surrounding the incident in any other way inferred the effects of alcohol.
In the 1986 retrospective study a further criterion was included. All arrests for offenses of disorder committed between the hours of 11.00 pm and 3.00 am were defined as drink-related. This was clearly a very crude way of assessing the role which alcohol might have played in the commission of crimes and appears to have been dropped in the subsequent studies.
There are, however, some problems with the four main criteria. Leaving aside criterion 1, where the consumption of alcohol is, by definition, causally related to the crime, the nature of the link between drinking and the offence is unclear. In criterion 3 the level of inebriation of the complainant is used to establish the crime as drink-related even though the offender might not have been drinking. Thus, we must assume, if a person walks out of a pub and is ‘mugged’ by a person who is a total abstainer, that crime would be included as drink-related. Even in criteria 2 and 4 there is the possibility that the consumption of alcohol might have been quite coincidental and unrelated to the motives and manner of execution of the crime.
The limitations of classification, despite the caveats contained in the reports, must lead us to be cautious in interpreting the data and assessing the true scale of drink-related crimes until more detailed evidence is available. We can, however, assume that even though the data are flawed, they are fairly consistent over the period 1987 to 1989. Examining changes over this period gives some insight into the effects of various initiatives and policy implementation.
Our principal interest in these data is with disorder, the extent to which it is influenced by alcohol and with the effects of certain changes, such as the introduction of the bye-law. The West Midlands Police reports stress that in the period June to December 1989 the proportion of disorder arrests which were deemed to be drink-related had fallen significantly compared with the same period in the previous year: 87.4% in 1988 to 58.19% in 1989. The 1989 period had, in fact, the lowest proportion of drink-related disorder offenses of all the four study periods. (See table in Appendix A)
This finding has been taken as an indication of the success of the bye-law and of policing policies which have followed in its wake. While we do not wish to belittle the achievements of the bye-law or policing strategies we have to make the point that the figures can be interpreted in a rather different way. If we look at the figures for disorder arrests generally, irrespective of their categorisation as drink-related or not, we find a steady rise from 1986 to 1989. These data are summarised in Appendix A.
The difference between the proportions of disorder offenses deemed drink-related in 1988 and 1989 is highly significant (c2= 33.87, p < .00001) Thus, while disorder increased, the role played by drinking appears to have diminished.
These data must call into question the assumed causal connection between alcohol and disorder. If an effect increases while an assumed cause decreases there is no option but to reconsider the attribution of causality. Put more simply, one might reasonably conclude that people will commit acts of disorder whether they have been drinking or not. While the regulations may reduce the incidence of drinking in the street, and subsequently the classification of an offence as drink-related, they do little or nothing to inhibit disorderly behaviour.
We are aware that this might not be a popular conclusion to draw. There has been some suggestion that although there has been a measured increase in disorder in Coventry as a whole, the increase in M1 sub-division, where the bye-law applies, is smaller than that in other sub-divisions. We do not, however, have a breakdown of the disorder offenses to confirm this. The figures for woundings and assaults certainly show a smaller rise in M1, compared with other sub-divisions, between 1989 and 1990, as shown in Fig 5.1. The difference between M1 and the other two sub-divisions is, however, statistically insignificant (c2=.17, p < .68). In other words, there is a 68% probability that the differences are due to chance fluctuations. We can, therefore, draw no conclusions from these data.
Fig 5.1. Woundings and assaults
We are surprised that simplistic assertions in the media that the bye-law has resulted in a 26% decrease in crime in Coventry have not only gone unchallenged but have actually been supported by, for example, the Chamber of Commerce and others, when available data quite clearly show an increase in both crime and disorder following the introduction of the bye-law. Even if the claim were only that drink-related crime and disorder had been reduced, which is not evident in press reporting, such claims would be disingenuous in the absence of a statement to the effect that crime and disorder, as a whole, had increased.
Our conclusions here have recently been supported by research conducted by The Home Office:
The police statistics for recorded crimes in the city centre … showed that key categories – assaults, robberies/thefts from the person and criminal damage – seem not to have been affected by the introduction of the byelaw.
Other data supplied to us were summary records of woundings in the city centre in 1989 and 1990. These enabled us to obtain an overview not only of the frequency of such crimes but also of the nature of the crimes and the participants involved. The data show that, on average, about four woundings are reported or detected in the city centre each weekend. These figures are consistent with the levels in our other research sites. There is no evidence to indicate that Coventry has either higher or lower levels of this type of violence than other city and town centres.
The most disturbing feature of these reports, however, is the fact that around 10% of all the woundings are allegedly committed by doormen and security staff in, or immediately outside, various pubs and night-clubs in the city centre. While it seems clear that in some cases the doormen acted in self-defence, there are many occasions where they appear to have instigated the violence.
The issue of doormen and security staff was raised frequently by the users who were interviewed. There were many reports of violence inflicted by doormen on allegedly innocent people attempting to gain admission to pubs or night clubs. While many of these reports may have been a little embellished, the sheer frequency of accounts indicates that there is a significant problem.
We have noted above that 10% of all the woundings occurring in the city centre are allegedly committed by doormen or involve the active participation of door staff. Research in other towns and cities suggests that this is a fairly typical, but still worrying, level.
The managers of the night clubs, and their security staff, were at pains to emphasise their professional and non-aggressive approach to door control:
We try to stop all the trouble at the door. Fighting is not our method of making people leave. We like the doormen to walk them to the door, open the door and escort them out. The doormen then walk away from the door in order not to antagonise the person who has been thrown out. … If any door staff are reported to do anything wrong they are sacked immediately. One was caught on the video camera recently giving someone a push out of the door. He was sacked. The videos capture incidents and protect staff from unjustified allegations. We maintain the highest possible standards.
In contrast to this view most users (85% of those who discussed the issue) felt that many door staff were exceptionally brutal in dealing with ‘difficult’ customers and that management turned a blind eye to much of the violence that they dished out. The presence of video cameras was felt to be an ineffective deterrent:
The video cameras are in the wrong position to show the doormen taking people out of the back door and kicking shit out of them.
The P__ P__ was singled out by the majority of users (all of those who discussed the issue) for special criticism:
Most doormen do their job quite well, except in the P__ P__ where they are too heavy handed. The doormen there are different to the others. They tend to leap in with violence without assessing the situation.
They have got an ego problem there and they try to assert their authority by laying into people. They always pick on people much smaller than them to ensure that they are never beaten.
A young man with a bruised and cut face and a set of fingers which were black and swollen to twice their normal size commented:
I won’t go to the P__ P__. OK, I was drunk and deserved to be thrown out, but I wasn’t being violent or anything – I just couldn’t stand up very well. I was sick on the steps and it went over the bouncer’s shoe. I just couldn’t help it. He banged me all around the face and then just dislocated three of my fingers by bending them backwards.
Many of the users (80%) felt that only a small fraction of the violence involving doormen was reported to the police. There was a general philosophy that most people deserved the treatment they got. In addition, it was felt that the police would be unlikely to believe the complainant because the doormen would collude and act as each other’s witnesses.
We will be making suggestions in Section 7 of this report for more effective
control of door and security staff.
Our researchers reported that a number of pubs in the city centre catered for people who were manifestly under the age of 18. Some of the users who were interviewed (5%) were aged 17 or less and freely admitted that they had never experienced being refused service in most pubs.
I never have a problem getting served. All those people over there – none of them are 18. They are friends of mine. I reckon that 70% of the people in here are underage.
90% of the people in the P__ P__ and P__ L__ are underage. I know because I am as well.
Although these estimates of the proportion of under-age drinkers are undoubtedly too high, the number of such drinkers in Coventry is higher than we have observed in other towns and cities. These young people are often seen as instigating, directly or indirectly, some types of disorderly behaviour.
The under-age drinkers get stupid when they’ve had a couple of pints.
The trouble in the T__ S__ is caused by underage drinkers.
The under-age people have a few drinks, think that they are hard, get a bit mouthy and that’s when the trouble starts.
New initiatives, such as the Portman Group’s proof of age card scheme, may help to control the level of underage drinking. There needs to be, however, a positive desire on the part of pub licensees to tackle the problem.
Perceptions of the police
The officials’ view
The officials and providers of services in the city centre had quite varying comments to make regarding the levels and style of policing in this area. Some thought there was a lack of community policing and officers on patrol. Others thought that existing levels of policing acted as a sufficient deterrent while a few viewed the levels as too high and potentially provocative. Most, however, were united in their view that the police were overworked and understaffed but were actively engaged in improving Coventry’s reputation and image.
The managers’ view
There was a general feeling among pub managers (75%) that the police visited their premises too rarely. They commented that there was a time when beat patrols would regularly come into the pubs on weekend evenings. Their presence was felt to act as a deterrent to unruly behaviour and also indicated a close and positive relationship between landlords and the police:
As pub landlords we welcomed the police coming into the pubs – just to have a look and say "Good evening" and show that they were around and knew what was going on. This has tailed off recently so we don’t see them, which I think is a pity.
Some managers (45%) commented that the police tended to stay in their vans, rather than walking the streets, and saw this as generally ineffective in preventing disorder in its early stages.
In general, however, the police were seen as sympathetic, cooperative and supportive – a consensus view which we have rarely encountered in other research sites. The pub managers also commented on the generally swift response from the police in times of emergency.
Managers of the night clubs similarly saw the police as having a lower profile in the city centre than was the case six months ago. There was also some suggestion of tension between the police and door staff:
They see the door staff as a threat and harass them to assert their authority.
This view, however, should be seen in the context of earlier comments in this section regarding the activities of door staff.
The users’ view
There were surprisingly few negative comments (20%) regarding the police voiced by the users who were interviewed. Compared with other research sites the Coventry police attract much less criticism. Many of the criticisms that were made were of a constructive nature rather than wholesale condemnation:
Generally they do a good job.
The police have a hard job to do and they are blamed for trouble which is not always their fault.
In line with the views of the officials, the users were divided in their perceptions of policing levels and visibility:
The police remain too much in the background, you never see them.
They are too much high-profile at weekends.
Echoing the views of some pub managers, a number of users (60%) thought that the use of vans was a mistake:
They just sit in the van at the top of the Burges. It’s like they are waiting for something to happen. But they are in the wrong place – they are not where the trouble is happening.
Underage drinking was again mentioned in this context. It was felt that because the police no longer seem to visit the pubs in the evenings they have no real idea about the number of youngsters who are drinking there.
Night-club users said that they very rarely saw the police in or around the clubs. They felt that a stronger police presence here might inhibit the alleged violent tendencies of some doormen.
Only a small minority of users (15%) thought that the police were heavy handed in dealing with offenders. They thought that there were individual officers who were overly aggressive and overtly violent in their attempts to prevent disorder.
The police view
The police officers who were interviewed provided an additional perspective on policing policies and difficulties. Most officers thought that there was only a small amount of localised hostility towards them in the pubs in the city centre:
The city-centre pubs are quite easy to go into. The licensees like to see the police in their pubs. But there is an element of anti-police attitudes in some pubs. Some customers do not welcome us. There is always going to be some antagonism to authority from people who are having fun.
One officer commented that individual officers varied in their reaction to hostility from pub customers:
The cut-off point for abuse from the public depends on the individual officer. Some will take anything. Others are more volatile and cannot take much at all.
The use of vans and cars was seen as ineffective by some officers:
On Friday and Saturday nights vans with ten men in them are not what is needed. It is best to get them out of the city centre by 10.30pm at the latest with one somewhere in reserve to deal with big fights.
The high profile which the vans can indicate was also seen as being potentially dangerous by some officers:
The police can cause more problems by being high profile. It stirs the crowd who may turn on them. But if they do not stop incidents somebody may get injured and the police will be attacked for not being there in force.
Other officers, however, thought that the vans were essential to ensure adequate control:
An extended shift and vans are necessary to make the police presence known in the city centre at weekends.
Our own observations support the general views expressed by users and officials and also some of the criticisms. On Friday and Saturday evenings we saw very few officers except at pub closing time and later when the night clubs closed. While we did not feel that the presence of the van at the top of the Burges at these times was provocative, we did not see it as being particularly helpful either. We felt that the police inside the van might be better employed, pro-actively, in the street. We are aware that this might conflict with the need for a quick-response unit, but it may be possible to achieve a more even balance between the competing needs for such a unit and for active policing and monitoring of late-night activity.
Given the generally positive attitudes towards the police it does not seem unreasonable to suggest responses to the constructive criticisms and suggestions which have been made by all of the groups. These are included in our recommendations in Section 7.
Effects of the bye-law
The officials’ view
There was a general consensus among the officials (90%) that the bye-law had radically changed the general perception of the city centre:
It has improved the public’s view of the city and has made it a more attractive place. People’s fears have been substantially reduced.
It has removed the alcoholics from the public view.
It has taken away all the kids who used to hang around the streets drinking.
It has been, without reservation, effective in what it set out to do.
People have shown respect for the bye-law by not drinking in the streets.
It is a real asset to us.
Although we cannot prove this, I believe that it is responsible for a decrease in violence.
A number of the officials (45%), however, thought that too many claims had been made for the bye-law:
It might have reduced the problem of fighting in the shopping centre, but this was never really a problem.
It has been defeated by the all-day drinking laws. They can still have a skin-full and wander around the town.
The bye-law has not had much impact on the reduction of crime, especially at night. You have to consider factors other than alcohol.
The managers’ view
Pub managers were divided in their opinions on the bye-law:
Problems of disorder have diminished.
It has not really solved the problems of disorder.
There never really was a problem with people drinking on a Saturday afternoon.
We no longer get bottles and glasses thrown at the door.
Improved policing has been much more effective than the bye-law.
Managers generally felt that the bye-law had improved Coventry’s image but felt that actual changes, in terms of behaviour etc, were much smaller than most people imagined.
The alcoholics have been removed from the streets, but they were only just an eye-sore – they didn’t actually cause much trouble. Now they just drink somewhere else.
The users’ view
The opinions of the users were mixed but the most common consensus (60%) was that the bye-law had achieved little more than good PR for Coventry.
Yes, it’s a good idea, but I haven’t noticed much difference in the city centre.
It may have improved the image for the tourists.
You never used to get gangs of lads drinking and causing trouble in the city centre anyway.
Some users commented on the lack of enforcement of the bye-law:
It’s easy – people still drink on the streets. They can only warn you first time, and then you get warned again. If I want to drink I do, and nobody has said anything to me.
Perceptions of the city centre
The officials’ view
Much has been written about the city centre of Coventry and the problems it has experienced. Various commentators have emphasised its negative aspects and pointed to its allegedly disproportionate levels of crime and disorder. This perspective was also apparent among 70% of the officials whom we interviewed:
Coventry is a dead, open territory. It is soulless, bleak and empty.
Coventry is not seen as a nice place to come to. There is a certain fear of coming to the city centre. This was highlighted in a survey carried out two and a half years ago which showed that elderly people and families feared attack and felt insecure in the city centre.
It is not the sort of place you would advocate coming to on a Friday or Saturday night. It is not a friendly city. Nobody is over 25 and it is full of young kids.
There is no residence inside the ring road and nothing to attract the over-25 age range. There is a shortage of classy wine bars and decent restaurants and the parking is appalling.
The officials offering these views felt that although some improvements had been made since the introduction of the bye-law, the fundamental problems still remained and the image of the city centre on Friday and Saturday nights had hardly altered.
Our own experiences of spending weekends in Coventry are certainly consistent with this general view. We found the lack of restaurants and ‘up-market’ bars, to which researchers could retreat for an hour or so, a distinct disadvantage. Only the D__ V__ hotel offered anything like an ‘adult’ atmosphere. Even here, however, the bar was generally full of young people on Friday and Saturday nights.
Perceptions of the Burges have generally associated the area with problems of disorder and violence.
The levels of disorder are high.
They have not increased over time but the nature of the incidents has got worse. They are more prone to use weapons now.
There is rarely a weekend without some sort of trouble on the Burges.
There is trouble in the Burges every night at weekends.
There is more senseless violence than before. There has been a shift in the nature of violence – more wanton and damaging. It’s part of the society we live in.
Many officials (60%), however, attributed the problems not to drinking but to the lack of facilities and frustration experienced by users, particularly after pub closing time:
The problem is getting people out of the town centre. There are no late-night buses so people have to rely on taxis. People queuing for taxis get more and more frustrated and annoyed, which builds up to violence. The Burges can become a battle ground.
The density of fast-food outlets was also seen by some (40%) as contributing to the problems:
The main problem with the Burges is the chip shops – everyone crowds around them. If it was not for them many people might go home earlier.
The taxi ranks and the fast-food outlets are in the wrong place.
Coventry’s reputation was thought by all the officials to be negative. This is not particularly surprising given the amount of media coverage and discussion:
People do not want to come to Coventry because of its reputation, unless they are coming for a fight.
The younger element may try to live up to the reputation that Coventry has been branded with. The press saying Coventry is this, that and the other does not help the situation.
Many officials felt that the reputation which had been generated was inaccurate and attributed much of the blame to the media, and the local press in particular:
The local newspaper is not the best for reporting the facts. It is not a popular paper – it is sensationalist, unbelievably negative. It never focuses on good things. It gives the impression that Coventry is a violent city that nobody would want to come to.
The trouble is blown out of all proportion. Coventry has a reputation for trouble, but there really isn’t very much.
Coventry’s reputation is much worse than the reality.
We have examined a selection of reports and news items from the last three years’ editions of the Coventry Evening Telegraph. Our general impression is that the style of reporting and the headlining of particular issues are not markedly different from those found in local papers in other regions. There has been a consistent and marked concern with law-and-order issues, and with drinking and crime in particular. There is also frequent use of emotive labels such as ‘yobbos’ and ‘lager louts’. In the more recent editions, however, there has been strong support for the bye-law and the Coventry projects. Compare, for example, ‘Violence crackdown makes streets safer’ (16 Nov 1989) with ‘Late-night yobs who make our lives hell’ (24 May 1988).
There has been, it would seem, a strained relationship between officials, the police in particular, and the editor and journalists of the Coventry Evening Telegraph. While officials perceive the Telegraph as having distorted reality by presenting a sensationalist view of Coventry’s problems, at least one journalist on the Telegraph perceives the police as having been unnecessarily secretive and uncooperative. This state of affairs, however, is by no means unique to Coventry.
Perceived causes of disorder
Many of the ‘officials’ who were interviewed were able to provide examples of disorder in the city centre. In most cases, however, their experiences were second-hand. The beat police officers were more able to provide first-hand accounts, eg:
At 11.30pm a group emerged from The D___. Two lads were walking the other way. Comments were made and the group set about the two lads. They picked one of them up and threw him through a window, dragged him out again and kicked him.
At 2.00am one person did not want to be arrested. A crowd gathered round, chanting and trying to get the officers off. All Hell was let loose. Coins were thrown at the police.
The managers and manageresses of the pubs in the city centre were also able to provide a number of accounts of disorderly and violent behaviour. These generally related to disturbances and fights between individuals, rather than groups:
There were three incidents one weekend. In the P__ P__ someone got their nose bitten off. Someone was glassed in B__ and someone was knifed in the P__ L__. But these incidents are isolated considering the number of people.
This view of the relative rarity of violence and disorder was echoed by all of the other managers. The general consensus among those who had run pubs in other areas was that Coventry’s problems were no greater than those found elsewhere.
Our impression, having looked carefully at managers’ reports, is in accord with this consensus view. In terms of violence and disorder inside the pubs, the frequencies and levels are consistent with those found in previous research which has covered a variety of areas from Plymouth to Newcastle.
The ‘users’ were able to provide countless first- and second-hand experiences of disorder and violence both inside pubs and clubs and in the surrounding areas. The ‘nose-biting’ incident in the P__ P__ was recounted by many. More relevant to our interests, however, were the perceived causes of the incidents.
Many users (45%) referred to the problems caused by underage drinkers. These were thought to antagonise other drinkers because of their immaturity, and to create problems for older (up to 25 years) people to sort out. It was generally felt that after the age of 25 most young men calmed down and became less actively involved in fighting.
The role of alcohol was mentioned by a number of users in this context, but there was by no means a general consensus that drinking and fighting were necessarily related.:
It’s not just the drink – it’s the kind of person you are before you start drinking.
Alcohol is not the cause of violence, but it accentuates your mood and may bring out the problems.
Drinking makes you less concerned about the consequences.
Personally, drinking makes me sleepy, happy and maybe a bit silly, but not violent.
Others thought that drugs were more significantly related to violence than alcohol:
It’s not alcohol that’s the real problem, it’s when you have drugs as well that you get the real violence.
The lack of resources for young people in the city centre was raised by a majority of users (60%):
The city centre has a large number of pubs for such a small area, but not much else. It’s a cold atmosphere – it’s difficult to talk to people or approach them in pubs. They have the centre to themselves – no families.
In the context of this rather sterile environment, fighting was seen as a way of generating a little excitement:
It relieves the boredom, gives you a bit of a thrill. Having a fight is part of having a good night out.
In comparing Coventry to other cities and towns, the officials provided diverging views:
Coventry is no different from any other city centre.
Coventry is worse than other city centres – everything is so close. In other places the pubs are further apart.
Coventry was a culture shock after Birmingham – lots of people drunk and shouting abuse and not wanting to go home.
There is no problem arresting people in Birmingham – in Coventry they always want to fight you.
The Evening Telegraph presents it as violent, but Leamington, Nuneaton, Warwick and Southam have their share of violence.
It is hard to believe it is the most violent city in the West Midlands.
Racial disharmony exists in other cities. It is not so bad in Coventry.
Our research in other centres around the country enabled us to make some comparisons of our own, even though a certain level of subjectivity is inevitable. Coventry, it must be said, is very bleak, even when compared with Preston and Wakefield. Wakefield, in particular, has a similar concentration of pubs and night-clubs in an area known as the Westgate. Here, however, the quality of the facilities is higher and a number of pubs on the edge of the Westgate cater for an older clientele.
Perhaps the most distinctive difference between Wakefield and Coventry is the proportion of females to males in the city centre at weekends. On Friday evenings, in particular, one regularly finds groups of young women in the pubs of Wakefield who feel quite safe without male company. In Coventry such groups are much less common, perhaps reflecting the fact that young women do not feel as secure on their own.
In both Wakefield and Preston there is a style of weekend drinking which differs quite markedly from that in the South or even in the Midlands. ‘Circuit drinking’ involves movement from pub to pub throughout the evening and walking in the streets between them. Groups may visit up to 9 or 10 pubs in this way, although 5 or 6 is more typical, and the activity in the streets is reminiscent of a Spanish paseo.
In Coventry, the groups with whom we established contact rarely go to more than two pubs in an evening, although some subsequently visit one of the night clubs. This more static style results in fairly quiet streets until closing time. This difference, in turn, has implications for the deployment of police at weekends.
Comparing Coventry with Banbury is not really legitimate since the two differ in so many ways. A comparison with Oxford is similarly difficult because of the generally more cosmopolitan image of the latter. Nonetheless, the city centre of Oxford provides facilities at weekends for a population which is very similar to that found in Coventry and the concentration of pubs and night-clubs in the centre of Oxford presents problems similar to those in the Burges. A reduction of such problems, however, has been achieved using strategies which differ in many respects from those employed in Coventry. We discuss these differences later in this Section.
The ‘users’ view
The users of the city centre on weekend evenings were all very much aware of Coventry’s negative image. The majority (75%), however, were generally unconcerned about the potential for disorder and violence and few felt that they were at risk. A number (55%) also expressed the opinion that disorder and violence were things of the past and that new measures had largely curbed the problems:
There is never any trouble in the Burges now because of the police presence.
There’s never much trouble these days. There never was really. It got blown up out of all proportion.
The young people we talked to in Coventry expressed views very similar to those in the other centres of our research. They commented on the lack of facilities in their own neighbourhoods and saw the city centre as providing a bit of late-night excitement to compensate for otherwise quite dull weekday lives. The quality of the services provided was not a significant issue. For them, crowded pubs, lots of drinking and group activity were sufficient attraction. The night-clubs provided a simple extension of drinking time, rather than an opportunity for a meal or dancing. For some (10%), evenings in the Burges also provided an arena for aggressive displays and the pursuit of tough reputations. Many of the young males clearly welcomed the ‘hard’ image of some of the pubs and clubs and saw the potential for violence as a positive benefit:
It doesn’t worry me. If someone wants to start a fight – that’s fine. I don’t look for trouble, but I don’t mind finishing it.
The majority of users had clear ideas about the characteristics of the pubs and clubs in the city centre and planned their activities accordingly. Although some places were known as potentially violent, this did not deter people from using them if they wanted to meet people there or simply wanted a change from their usual venues.
Comparison with Oxford
It seems appropriate in this context to make a comparison between Coventry and Oxford. Oxford relies very heavily on the tourist trade and Coventry is keen to develop such trade. Oxford has, for a long time, ‘suffered’ from the problem of street drinkers due, principally, to the large number of charities and organisations which cater for ‘down and outs’ in the city. A very different policing philosophy towards these problems has, however, prevailed in Oxford. This can be gleaned from the tone of recent reports by the police to the Licensing Justices. The following is an extract from the February 1990 report:
… in the area served by the City Centre sub-division, in 1989, 774 people were arrested for being drunk and incapable or drunk and disorderly, a 29.5% reduction in the number of arrests compared with 1988. However I would not like that reduction to be regarded in any sense as an indication that the problem of public drunkenness is any less than it was; far from it. The evidence of our eyes tells us that we still have a sizeable population of sad and vulnerable people whose offence against our community is that they are addicted to alcohol and their addiction makes them behave in ways which we the majority find to be unacceptable.
The Police sadly can do nothing to ease their individual pain, but we can show compassion by offering shelter and care, thankfully in new and improved cell accommodation when absolutely essential … The decline in the number of arrests, therefore, ought to be seen in the context of changes in Police response to street drinkers and perhaps to the positive reaction of some people to advice given to them by the Police and others.
In addition to what many would see as an unusually liberal view, the Oxford police have pursued a simple strategy to decrease the problem of on-street drinking. Officers have regularly examined the litter bins near where street-drinkers have been observed in order to determine from where the drink has been purchased. Subsequently ‘advice’ has been given to the managers of off-licenses concerning the wisdom of selling alcohol to known street-drinkers. Many of these off-licenses in the city now carry notices saying that street-drinkers will not be served and our own observations show that this rule is put into practice. The result of this strategy has been remarkably similar to that of the Coventry bye-law. Many of the vagrants and other street-drinkers are now to be found just outside of the city centre in places where they are unlikely to pose a threat to tourists or shoppers and where they can buy drink from small grocery shops.
The reduction in crimes of drunkenness reported by the Licensing Chief Superintendent are certainly significant. It is also the case that arrests for disorder (damage, assault and public order offenses) fell by 16.8% between 1988 and 1989 at a time when many other cities, including Coventry, experienced an increase. The proportion of the Oxford arrests deemed to be drink related, however, remained virtually constant between 1988 and 1989 (around 77% of Public Order Offenses and around 20% of all disorder arrests).
If we compare these and other figures from Oxford with those discussed earlier in this section, we find an interesting contrast which, despite the fact that it may be unwelcome, we feel we must make. In Coventry, where the proportion of drink-related disorder offenses has fallen, the levels of disorder generally have risen. In Oxford, where the proportion of drink-related disorder offenses has remained stable, the level of disorder offenses generally has fallen quite dramatically – from 1356 in 1988 to 559 in 1989. Taking Public Order offenses as a separate category we find a similar, though slightly less dramatic, decrease in Oxford from 364 in 1988 to 228 in 1989.
We are obliged, therefore, to conclude, that reducing the number of drink-related disorder offences does not necessarily lead to a reduction in the total number of crimes of disorder. Ironically, the suggestion is that it might have the opposite effect. In the absence of other data, however, we would not wish to pursue this controversial argument further. We can, however, say, in line with the view of Malcolm Ramsay, who conducted the Home Office study referred to earlier, that there is no evidence to show that the bye-law has had any effect on levels of disorder, or on other categories of violent crime in Coventry.