Community experiences of serious organised crime in Scotland: research report

Information relating to the nature and extent of the impacts of serious organised crime on everyday life in the community.

Executive Summary


This summary sets out key findings from a research project that aimed to explore the community experiences of serious organised crime ( SOC) in Scotland. The study sought to answer the following questions:
1) What are the relationships that exist between SOC and communities in Scotland?
2) What are the experiences and perceptions of residents, stakeholders and organisations of the scope and nature of SOC within their local area? and
3) How does SOC impact on community wellbeing, and to what extent can the harms associated with SOC be mitigated?

The work involved in-depth qualitative research, to understand both direct and indirect forms of harm. Key points pertaining to the research and its results are as follows:

  • The study involved the selection of three community case study sites based on a typology of ' SOC-affected' communities. These sites were based in varying urban and semi-urban settings.
  • The impact of SOC at a more 'diffuse' national level was explored via research in a range of smaller case study sites and via interviews with national stakeholders. This included a consideration of SOC impacts in rural and remote areas, and on populations that were not concentrated in any defined geographic community.
  • The case study areas were selected on the basis of pre-existing academic and policy literature, an initial set of interviews with key experts, and on the basis of aggregated and anonymised intelligence summaries provided by Police Scotland.
  • 188 individuals participated in the study, which mostly involved semi-structured qualitative interviews, but also a small number of focus groups, unstructured interviews and observational research.
  • Interviews were conducted with residents, local businesses, service providers, community groups, and national organisations, as well as with a small number of individuals with lived experience of SOC.
  • Interviews comprised of questions about: the relationship between SOC and communities; the experiences and perceptions of residents and local service providers as to the nature and extent of SOC; and the impact of SOC on community wellbeing.
  • Preliminary findings were presented back to a sub-sample of 33 community residents and representatives, across three of the case study areas, through a feedback method called 'co-inquiry'. This involved the organisation of events designed to assess the integrity of the findings, and elicit reflections on the implications of the findings for potential actions.

Key Findings

Serious Organised crime in Scotland

SOC is considered to have a significant impact on the wellbeing of Scottish communities. As well as economic costs, it is evident that there are broader social costs in community settings.

The effects of SOC on Scottish communities are not evenly distributed, with impact varying in nature and severity across urban, semi-urban and rural areas. While certain forms of SOC have deep roots in territorially-defined communities, others have less visible and more diffuse and invisible forms of impact. In recent years SOC in Scotland has demonstrated both continuity and change, involving both neighbourhood-based criminality and more geographically diverse forms of activity.

The case study areas had all experienced the consequences of the decline in Scotland's traditional industries, including coal-mining, fishing, and manufacturing. All could be characterised as experiencing significant social and economic disadvantage, with unemployment and underemployment a common concern. Participants identified poverty and inequality as key drivers of crime in their local areas, including SOC activity.

While the case study areas had traits that were similar to other communities in Scotland, however, it should be noted that these findings should not be read as a generalised picture of SOC-community relations in Scotland. While these themes were evident across the various case study locations, it is notable that there were differences in intensity between urban, semi-urban, and rural contexts. The intensity was highest in the urban embedded context and least intense in the diffuse location.

Community experiences

Criminal activity and impacts

Across all fieldsites, participants recognised organised crime as a significant and enduring feature of the local landscape. In each area, there were local firms, families and 'faces' who were seen to have involvement in organised criminality. 'Organised' crime frequently featured as a relatively routine aspect of everyday life that was recognised, to a greater or lesser extent, by a majority of participants.

Participants in all fieldsites identified street crime – notably drug dealing and theft – as the most visible manifestation of organised criminality. It was often recognised, however, that these visible forms of crime were the 'tip of the iceberg', with the majority of SOC activity hidden from public view.

There was consensus that the principal community impact of SOC in Scotland continues to result from the illicit drugs market. The illicit drugs market embeds a range of harmful consequences for users, their families, and the general fabric of community life, including the entrenchment of vulnerabilities such as addiction and debt.

For communities where SOC is deeply embedded, the cumulative effect of its presence can result in a degree of resignation to its impact. Fear and violence form part of the background to everyday life.

Outside of these very direct community impacts, SOC has clear economic, cultural and social consequences within Scottish society more broadly; in particular through the harmful and pernicious effects of criminal markets in illicit drugs, stolen property, and human exploitation.

Organised crime – exploitation, recruitment and supporting 'narratives'

Organised crime groups often have detailed knowledge of vulnerability in local areas. Groups seek opportunities to create financial gain from exploiting or recruiting (frequently vulnerable) individuals. Weaknesses in welfare provision and in the provision of essential services such as shortfalls in housing benefit, or forms of welfare sanction, were found to be readily identified and exploited by SOC groups.

Exploitation of community groups also extends to more diffuse forms of SOC. Participants reported forms of exploitation across a range of legal and illegal enterprises ( e.g. hospitality, fishing, agriculture, nail bars, prostitution, and cannabis cultivation). Precarious migrants were particularly vulnerable to exploitation in these enterprises.

Youths hanging around in public areas were a community concern across all fieldsites, specifically when they were involved in anti-social behaviour and street crime. In some cases young people from this cohort are understood to be 'mentored' towards involvement in more organised forms of criminality.

Although territorial identity remains significant, community respondents reported that street-based gang violence had declined in visibility and severity in recent years. A number of explanations were offered for this, including the growth of social media-facilitated drug dealing.

In the context of unemployment, precarious work, and zero-hours contracts, organised crime was seen as offering a route to financial reward that was very appealing to some young people, particularly young men in search of respect. Organised crime was portrayed as a meritocratic, 'equal opportunity' employer where able young people could find both success, and a sense of belonging, that they were denied in the legitimate economy.

To a significant extent 'positive' narratives and perceptions of SOC represented a mismatch with reality. In fact, the prospects for youth getting involved in organised crime is bleak, with few achieving sustained material success without detriment. Involvement comes with a persistent threat of imprisonment or, when at liberty, a constant threat of violence.

Service providers

The study engaged in interview-based data-collection with local police and statutory agencies, including social work, housing, and schools. This data was used to triangulate the findings from community interviews and explore the barriers to service provision in case-study areas.

Statutory agencies and their partners face considerable challenges in the provision of services and supporting the needs of communities. Against this backdrop the presence of SOC constitutes a barrier to effective and equitable service delivery, both 'blocking' and 'distracting' scant resources.

Across all case study sites a decade of austerity and budget cuts has clearly eroded the capacity of service providers. In particular this has led to office closures in the majority of case study sites, resulting in a 'distancing' between organisations and residents, and an associated loss of community knowledge. The presence of embedded SOC activity in a local area can create further distance between communities and service providers through the fear of reporting crime.

The increased mobility and inter-connectedness of SOC, promoted by improved travel infrastructure and the global reach of online and social media technologies, creates particular challenges for local statutory partners, who may not have ready access to the central resources and capabilities required to deal with highly mobile and/or technology-enabled criminality.

Issues for the main service providers / agencies are summarised as follows:

Community policing has relatively weak purchase on SOC issues in the case study areas. Police community relationships were generally seen as poor, being characterised by high levels of mistrust. In some communities these poor relationships were considered long-standing and often inter-generational.The effectiveness and credibility of local policing generally was further challenged by strategies used by SOC groups to foil police operations, and efforts to deliberately divert police resources away from SOC activity through reporting of bogus 'incidents'.

Schools are seen as a key asset in communities but also a potential problem when pupils are disengaged from school and at risk of school 'drop out' and subsequent involvement in crime. Drug dealing around schools, often facilitated by social media, was seen as a problem in a number of areas.

Housing is also considered to be a significant asset in communities, with local providers commanding more trust in communities than many other agencies. Exploitation of vulnerable tenants was identified as a significant concern across the fieldsites, with some providers offering innovative new approaches for identifying and supporting vulnerable populations.

Private businesses and retail premises did not feature significantly in case study areas, which were generally characterised by weak commercial environments. In one area this had enabled SOC groups to gain some purchase on the community through providing services and facilities. In this area SOC had also been associated with intimidation and the prevention of other, legitimate businesses, from setting up in the area. This combined, with the stigma associated with negative area reputation, could partially contribute to the sustained levels of socio-economic exclusion experienced within these communities.

Social work and related organisations face substantial challenges in supporting desistance and reintegration for individuals convicted of SOC offences. Whilst some individuals with backgrounds of offending are anxious to escape from their criminal associations, this can be difficult in circumstances where SOC groups are not prepared to let them 'walk away'. Supporting these individuals through the provision of appropriate housing, medical care, and employment is a particular challenge in a resource-stretched environment.

Fig 1. Services providers: Summary of key points in case study areas
Fig 1. Services providers: Summary of key points in case study areas


Developing Resilient Communities

  • The current Scottish Government SOC strategy is framed by four strategic principles: Divert, Deter, Detect and Disrupt. This study recommends the addition of a fifth D – Develop – which is premised on community development as a means of responding to the harms associated with organised crime. Specifically, this should focus on developing community resources and local policing models to enable the gathering of community intelligence and increased trust in the police and other key service providers.
  • Community development should not be premised on tackling organised crime being a panacea to a community's problems, but it is based on the assertion that efforts to tackle bigger issues of structural disadvantage are liable to fail if the barrier of organised crime is not tackled in parallel.
  • This approach recognises that the best asset in responding to organised crime is the community itself. Individuals involved in harmful, exploitative or coercive practices are deeply intertwined with the majority of law abiding residents via families, friendships and other social connections. The implications of this should be further explored and help to frame prevention, policing and other responses which balance building opportunities for all in communities with rehabilitation and social support.
  • This cannot be achieved without corresponding investment in good place-based empowerment and planning, something which is understood in policy terms but often not accompanied by economic investment. This study suggests that grassroots, community-level resistance should be prioritised rather than it being led from outside the community. Organised crime cannot, and should not, be a dominant theme in community conversations and planning, but neither should the conversation be avoided through an exclusive focus on more positive 'assets'.

Changing the Narrative

  • At a national level, challenging the narrative of organised crime demands two shifts: first, a shift in presenting the issue as the preserve of law enforcement to one for the community at large; and, second, a shift in presenting organised crime as solely an issue for socially and economically disadvantaged communities to one that extends its reach to all areas of society, including those affluent communities where many 'successful' organised criminals reside.
  • At a community level, effectively challenging the organised crime narrative requires investment in a coherent, authentic and effectively targeted counter-narrative. This is likely to involve work which gathers the stories of those involved, maps these against more accurate real-world consequences and seeks to profile and share them as a preventative strategy, in face to face contexts such as in schools and through other means such as social media.
  • At an individual level, work with convicted offenders and young people and individuals on the cusp of organised crime should emphasise the distance between myth and reality in the narrative of organised crime at key transition points. As opposed to supporting the narrative of flash cars and ready cash, these ideas should be challenged to create alternative and authentic stories – involving individuals with lived experience of SOC – that make sense to young people. Services such as diversionary youth work also need to be sustainably funded, credible and sufficiently attractive to provide a real alternative to what can be exciting experiences linked to SOC.

Addressing Vulnerability

  • Local service providers dealing with various forms of vulnerability – particularly housing and social work – should develop strategies focused on the prevention of exploitation of vulnerable residents. Mapping and targeting support to the most vulnerable is a viable strategy with the potential to create a significant prevention dividend. Partnership working and information-sharing on the issue of vulnerability and exploitation should form a key part of this strategy.
  • Consideration should be given to legislative responses to create greater powers to respond to exploitation. One possible route would be to create a criminal offence of 'coercive control' similar to the recent UK legislation (2015: 3) on domestic violence: 'a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.'
  • The current focus on harm reduction and health education in drugs policy and practice is welcome but needs to be strengthened and broadened out to take proper stock of rapidly diversifying drug markets and drug using populations.
  • Given uncertainties in the current political and economic environment, and how this may impact on existing migrant populations in Scotland in the near future, careful monitoring is required of labour markets given the scope for exploitation of migrants to increase if labour shortages grow after the UK's probable departure from the European Union.

Broadening Community Partnership

  • A broad-based police, community and statutory partnership approach to SOC is required to enable the development of cohesive forms of intervention and responses. A key focus of this work should involve developing partnerships with families, mentors, and schools, and should involve sufficient investment in preventative services, particularly in community and campus policing models, as key facilitators and organisers.
  • Preventing SOC and mitigating its effects requires good universal service provision, most notably education and youth work. This package of embedded response requires an enduring infrastructure including physical focal points like community spaces, services mitigating social exclusion and poverty, and processes for empowerment and dialogue.
  • Improved partnership working and information sharing should be prioritised, with SOC acting as a 'red thread' that connects local service provision. Improving links between community justice and other community planning solutions could involve integrating locality planning with services such as employability, work with ex-offenders, and services dealing with addiction or mental health. These partnerships should prioritise genuinely shared organisational objectives to incentivise joined up practice.
  • A key part of achieving joined-up practice must include continuing to develop more effective models of working, between national resources configured to tackle organised crime ( i.e. partner agencies co-located at the Scottish Crime Campus ( SCC) at Gartcosh) and more local service providers. Operations by national agencies should not be developed or implemented in isolation from consideration of community plans and impacts.


The research team gratefully acknowledge the fieldwork support of Penny Woolnough, Christopher Kerr, Stewart Matthew, Luis Figuero, Lisseth Carpio, and Karyn Mabon; interview referrals provided by Hamish MacLean, Becka Kay, Robin Jamieson and Robert Cuthbert; assistance with ethical compliance from Susan Batchelor; research advisory assistance from Simon Mackenzie and Kenneth Murray; and the transcription services of Kirsty Deacon and Elizabeth Graham. We are also very grateful to the numerous community organisations, statutory agencies and local groups who facilitated access, and to the Research Advisory Group for their timely and valuable assistance.


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