It’s not often that ground-breaking research in criminology is presented to audiences in such a way that (a) it is witty and fascinating and (b) it is not obviously criminology. However, last night, Stevyn Colgan—a police officer with the Met for 30 years—achieved that feat. In the course of a discussion of how he came to join the police (he made a bet for £50 with his father on his 18th birthday that he would last more than 6 months) and how he always believed that policing was as much about preventing crime as about catching criminals after the fact, he introduced his audience to a great deal of important evidence-based policing.
First, there was Kelling and Wilson’s ‘Broken Windows’: in short, small things matter—graffiti, litter, chewing gum—and methods that tackle ‘the small stuff’ finish up having a large effect on ‘the big stuff’. Next was a range of related theories on and applications to community policing, including the vital finding that for communities to cohere, people within them must not only know each other, but also those who would police them. One of Mr Colgan’s most extraordinary accounts of the latter involved the sort of London housing estate often written off as emblematic of ‘Broken Britain’. He successfully brought that community together through a dog show: he had noticed that every resident owned a dog, and was thus not only interested in a display by police dogs, but also keen to show off his or her dog to everyone else in the neighbourhood. Finally, there was an amusing discussion of Levitt and Donohue’s research on perceptions of crime: not only have crime rates been dropping like a stone over the last 20 years, but all those stories you’ve heard about child abduction are almost certainly made up. Abduction is in fact an extraordinarily rare crime.
Mr Colgan’s talk ended on a nicely upbeat note: the methods that he helped pioneer have now been adopted across the UK, as well as by other police forces around the world. He also made the point that he wasn’t alone: there were a large number of his contemporaries at the Met all pushing for policing based on evidence of what actually worked, and that this has contributed to the dramatic falls in all types of crime we are experiencing now.