Professor Kevin Bampton reports in on work to critically explore the policing of rural crime. One of the reasons for ongoing work in this field – pardon the pun – is the relative lack of significant studies which focus on how we think about rural crime and what we think we know about it. In particular it can easily be missed off some approaches to risk, threat and harm within the ‘crime hierarchy’. This recent work from the University of Derby questions some assumptions, based on a lack of meaningful data, that may make you think again about a ‘rural idyll’ stereotype; suggesting rural crime should not get overlooked in any risk and harm prioritisation process.
Listen to Professor Bampton explain all about the research and scroll down for more detail.
For previous research we could perhaps go back to Cain’s 1973 study of rural policing, which undertook a systematic approach; but Mawby and Yarwood (2011) point to a dearth of enquiry since then. Fecht (2017) suggests that rural crime should increasingly be looked at within changing social trends and perceptions, such as rural infrastructure.
What we can say with more certainty is that significant changes have taken place in the last four decades with regard to the conceptualisation of risk and priority in policing. Risk, threat and harm have taken priority over the protection of property and public order in the national policing agenda. Consequently, the resources and attention have been focused on areas of higher density population and areas of high visibility of risk, threat and harm. However, rural policing remains synonymous with property crime and occasional public order issues. Rural criminality, relating to organised crime, child sexual exploitation, hate crime, domestic violence and modern slavery have not attracted much attention or resource.
Rural crime does appear to be low. But looking scientifically at the available datasets, when the type of crime was disaggregated, then the incidence of certain crimes was so low as to present a challenge to make any meaningful statistical analysis possible. By combining types of crime to generate statistically sufficient numbers for analysis, the generalisation arising negated any specific insights.
Much data upon which estimates of rural crime is based derives from surveys conducted by insurers and the National Farmers Union. Insurance claims information also forms the basis of some estimates. A clear issue with this victim self-report is the question of whether self-report data can be relied upon. The insurable value for claims, differs from the actual value and the incidence of insurance fraud or, conversely, reluctance to claim because of other methods of reclaiming loss renders the insurance figures unreliable.
In addition, a significant factor is that these studies are often farm-focused and deal with acquisitive crime and some criminal damage, rather than the range of crimes that happen in rural areas (Gilling 2011; Mawby and Yarwood 2011). The relatively low numbers of detected crime and the limited engagement of victims with the criminal justice process and of witnesses created a further challenge to creating an evidence-base for victimological study.
So is it right to assume that there are lower levels of crime in rural areas?
The traditional view of the rural community is of a part of society that is not seen as vulnerable. There is an assumption of relative stability, social solidarity and cohesion. Research into the resilience of rural populations in relation to other factors such as health, education and poverty does not seem to illustrate a similar correlation between the apparent decline in rural infrastructure and the fragmentation of communities and deprivation.
Important aspects of rural deprivation relate to fuel poverty (i.e. households whose energy costs are higher than can be sustained by their income), hidden unemployment, and lack in opportunities such as poor access to services including shops and amenities, healthcare, childcare or digital services access. Nonetheless, crime seems to be resolutely statistically immune to these appreciable social changes.
However, this observation, in itself seems to be problematic. In other communities, the relationship between social deprivation and crime have long been established. However, the long-standing “rural idyll” notion of neighbourhoods as being close-knit and supportive seemed to provide an explanation of low crime rates, while low crime rates seemed to confirm that rural neighbourhoods were close-knit.
This view worked well alongside national policing policy over the last three decades with increasing placed the emphasis for policing on community partnership or self-help. Neighbourhood Watch and similar schemes were perceived to be ideally suited to rural communities (Yarwood and Edwards, 1995). However, the British Crime Survey reported that agricultural areas were not necessarily receptive environments (Hussain, 1988) as within a restructured countryside local networks had dissipated (Yarwood and Edwards, 1995).
It is perhaps only the fact that there is significantly lower satisfaction with policing in rural areas that has prompted attention. The result was increasing fear of crime and significantly lower satisfaction levels in the police than the national average” (RSN online2015). The recent focus in Police and Crime Plans on Rural Crime may be seen more as a reaction to satisfaction levels than a concern for crime under-reporting.
However, the RSN online survey of over 17,000 people living and working in rural areas identified 27% of respondents saying they did not report the last crime of which they were a victim. This is a significant level of under-reporting. Similarly, in 2013 domestic violence services were being accessed by a disproportionate amount of rural women (26% of service users lived in rural areas, while 19% of the population live in the countryside). (Crimestoppers (2014) Domestic violence in rural areas. https://blog.crimestoppers-uk.org/domestic-violence-in-rural-areas/)
Situational elements also magnify the probability of crime in rural areas, including the vulnerability arising from remoteness and lack of infrastructure, the increased opportunity to engage in crime undetected as well as the comparative lack of resources and opportunity highlighted by rural social deprivation factors. These are factors which are documented in environmental crime research (Bottoms and Wiles, 1997), and are underpinned by theoretical models (Cohen and Felson, 1979; Clarke, 1995).
In the absence of evidence of rural crime, arising from under-resourcing, lack of policing presence and consequent intelligence and poor infrastructure low rural crime report rates become self-perpetuating. In the absence of evidence, risk-based strategies prioritise areas of higher crime reporting and ‘hot spots’ (Garland, 1996). With declining resources an increasing emphasis on intelligence-led policing further saps the ability to disrupt rural crime because the police presence and relationship necessary to clean intelligence is absent (Maguire and John, 2006).
In effect, national policing and crime policy may be making crime in rural areas invisible (Gilling, 2011). The business case for investing more resources in rural crime is a difficult one. However, the complexity of rural crime and changing social circumstances does mean that there needs to be serious consideration of the real risks involved. In several areas of the United States rural crime rates are higher than in urban areas. This is partly a function of the democratisation of the policing function, where rural voters expect a service from local Sherriff’s Departments. However, mostly, this reflects the complete disengagement of the policing function from rural communities.
The political agenda within UK policing is also providing distorting factors. The proportion of policing resource currently focused on urban policing relating to homelessness, begging and alcohol-related low level public order is to be contrasted with the almost absent presence of policing in large tracts of rural areas. A potential risk exists that, as a result of lack of resources and the prioritisation of visible crime, serious child sexual exploitation, modern slavery or some other form of very harmful criminal activity may be being carried out with impunity in those same areas.