Serious organised crime in Scotland: a summary of the evidence

A desk-based review of national and international literature and national operational and mapping data on serious organised crime.

6. Public perceptions of SOC

Following on from the discussion of public fear surrounding crime, part of understanding SOC (including its impacts) and addressing SOC relies on having a full understanding of how the public perceive SOC. Given the diverse and far reaching harms associated with SOC, it is important that the public are able to identify SOC in their area and to report it. Moreover, if the public are aware of these harms, this may help to deter them from engaging with SOC markets: for example, from purchasing counterfeit goods. Further, having an understanding of public perceptions helps to ensure that we have a reliable sense of the problem, directly from the people who experience it. If this is not gained, there is a risk that the agencies may be tackling a problem that has been defined by ideas and definitions that do not necessarily fit with how SOC is actually experienced.

While again there is a lack of research on this, there is some evidence to draw from, that supports other findings that SOC is concentrated within certain socio-economic -groups and locations, and is connected to other elements of disadvantage. Among the findings from the 2013 Ipsos MORI survey was the finding that people in Scotland think that OC affects some groups of individuals to a greater degree than others, and also that some groups of people view OC to be a more serious problem than others.

To give some detail on this, in this survey people thought that the groups most impacted by OC were young people (38% of respondents), older people (25%) and those from poorer economic backgrounds (16%). [128] The high proportion who considered young people to be most impacted may be partly explained by the fact that when asked 'What types of illegal activity do you associate with organised crime?', 72 % said drug dealing or trafficking; drug misuse may be thought to disproportionately affect young people when compared with older adults. The relatively high proportion of respondents that thought older people were most at risk may be reflective of public concerns about rogue traders or doorstep crime, which may be considered to disproportionately affect the elderly. Although, given the lack of further explanation provided by the survey these explanations are tentative only.

It also seems to be connected directly with disadvantaged neighbourhoods. This survey also revealed that while seven in ten people in Scotland (69%) think that OC is not a serious problem in their neighbourhood, just over a quarter (27%) perceive it to be a serious issue, with those living in urban (31%) and the most deprived areas (46%) most likely to regard it as a problem. [129] Higher levels of concern about SOC in particular may be due to individuals living in these areas being more likely to witness, hear about or directly experience crime in general ( SOC is not disaggregated) than those living in other areas of Scotland. Despite the relative lack of concern at a neighbourhood level in general (excluding these differences discussed), the majority (84%) perceived OC to be a serious issue in Scotland as a whole. [130] This is also reflected in findings from a 2016 national public participation survey from Police Scotland, which suggested that SOC is of concern to the Scottish public, featuring in the top five national priorities. [131] This national concern is further reflected in the 2014-2015 SCJS which indicated that national crime rates were of greater concern than local crime rates. [132] However, it is important to consider that since only 10% of respondents reported having experienced organised crime personally (the limited scope and timescales already acknowledged); these concerns may originate from media coverage [133] , witnessing or hearing about SOC, rather than from personal experience of victimisation. As discussed, the variation in perceptions of SOC rates in local areas may be due to witnessing or hearing about SOC to greater or lesser degrees.

Evidence suggests that the public might perceive SOC on a wider spectrum of crime, rather than as a specific and distinct form. In terms of understanding perceptions of the level of harm caused by SOC, a Home Office study on public perceptions of OC offers some insights. [134] The study identified that the public in general do not differentiate between the harms caused by OC and harms caused by general crime. In this study, harm to individuals (in terms of physical and emotional damage) was seen to be most harmful, followed by community impacts (such as reputational damage to the community), followed finally by harms to wider society (for example, loss of revenue to businesses and to the Treasury). Perceptions of the harm caused, combined with the perception of the likelihood of occurrence, appeared to underlie assessments of harm. As the authors note, this explains why some forms of OC were considered to be less harmful than forms of general crime: for example the effects of fraud were seen to harm wider society rather than individuals. An exception to a general under estimation of the harms caused by OC was the public perception of drug dealing. Drug dealing was believed to be responsible for causing a broad range of harms to individuals as well as wider society, but was also more likely to be visible in respective communities. [135] The 2013 survey mentioned, while not directly comparable, revealed that the top five responses in terms of the main perceived impacts of SOC in Scotland were fear in the community (21%) followed by drugs/drug abuse (17%), less money available for public services (12%), violence in the community (11%) and damage to victims health (11%). One in five respondents however, were not able to name any impacts of SOC.

Other research also supports the finding that there are complex perceptions on SOC among the public, and demonstrates that while the public are likely to view SOC as being harmful or problematic at a general level, there is nuance and complexity to this view. Work by Tilley and Hopkins [136] revealed that for businesses located in areas characterised as 'high crime residential neighbourhoods', receiving offers of stolen or counterfeit goods is a normal feature of business life. The authors noted that very few of these businesses reported such offers to the police, and suggested that it is likely that at least some of these businesses accepted such offers given the frequency at which these offers are made. They suggest that it may be the case that businesses and residents in these areas see themselves as beneficiaries of SOC; businesses are able to generate higher profits and residents derive benefit from cheaper goods.

PricewaterhouseCoopers ( PWC) commissioned an external provider to undertake a small scale survey of adult consumers about their attitudes to and familiarity with counterfeit goods. Its findings suggested that there were variations in the experience of having purchased counterfeit goods across both region and age, but also across socio-economic groups, with those in lower social grades [137] seeming more inclined to purchase counterfeit goods. It did not offer an explanation for this and its findings were suggestive only, but it may be the case that those who experience financial disadvantage may be more inclined because this disadvantage limits their choices, and counterfeit markets enable the purchase of otherwise financially unattainable goods. This is supported by a qualitative study conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which found that those experiencing poverty sometimes relied on black markets to obtain goods that they could otherwise not afford. [138] On the other hand, the other variations suggested by the PWC survey (such as between regions and across age ranges) are worthy of further exploration. Moreover, arguably the desire for 'a bargain' may be widespread and not limited to particular sub groups of the population.

Another perceived benefit of SOC may be the employment opportunities it offers. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report into contemporary workless families found that sometimes those in the areas studied who had limited opportunities for legitimate employment (due to a lack of qualifications or limited formal education) instead found opportunities to work in the drug trade to be more "abundant and attractive". The individuals who made use of these opportunities lived in areas with "thriving drugs markets", offering easy opportunity to become involved and profit from these. [139]

Given these findings, Mackenzie and Hamilton-Smith [140] suggest that it is not always appropriate to portray the community (including businesses and residents) as a 'victim' and as opposed to the presence of SOC in their areas. Both individuals and business may gain various types of benefit from SOC activity, or perceive that they are benefitting. Moreover, it is also worth highlighting that in order for SOC groups to be successful (as outlined earlier in this review), they must have a ready client or customer base for their products; for example, for drugs or counterfeit goods.

Von Lampe stresses the complexity of this. For example, he highlights that there are OC activities such as theft and fraud, which involve a SOC group targeting a victim. These activities are not influenced by supply and demand, meaning that this explanation cannot be applied to all SOC activities. Von Lampe also observes that illegal markets are variable across space and time; therefore there is not always a steady demand for a particular good or service. On the other hand, as he notes, there is an "obvious link" between SOC and society with both connected through voluntary transactions between suppliers and consumers. In other words, firstly, individuals and businesses are willing participants in this exchange; and secondly, there is a demand for SOC activities precisely because they fill a gap or meet a need otherwise unfilled or unmet by society. [141] However, it is important to bear in mind that individual choices may be constrained by financial disadvantage, which brings into question the voluntariness of the consumption of illegal goods or services. SOC groups may recognise these constraints and take advantage of individuals and certain groups within society. Finally, while there may be a perceived benefit associated with SOC- for example, a financial benefit from buying a product at a discounted price- any benefit (whether perceived or actual) is outweighed by the diverse range of harms associated with SOC. As mentioned, one of the four strands of the strategy is DETER which includes the aim to raise awareness of threats posed and harms inflicted.

In summary, it is important to emphasise that, as with other aspects of SOC, there is a lack of detailed evidence on the complex ways that the public perceive SOC, but this seems to be an important evidence gap. Specifically, there is a lack of qualitative insight into public perceptions of SOC which constitutes a significant limitation. However, there is a sense that public perceptions of SOC are complex. The public in general may fear the consequences of SOC markets, and this fear may be equally, if not more strongly, felt by those living in communities which are disproportionately impacted by SOC. The evidence, even in relation to perceptions of SOC, suggests that SOC thrives on and may exacerbate inequality. It exploits individuals who have vulnerabilities and causes far reaching harms, affecting more than those directly involved or those most obviously impacted.

The evidence suggests that the public tend to assess level of harm caused by any crime (whether it is organised or not) on the basis of the extent to which individuals are harmed physically or emotionally; crimes which have a less obvious victim are less likely to be considered harmful.

Lastly, it seems that despite this fear and despite recognition of harms, SOC may also generate benefits (or perceive to generate benefits) for individuals and for communities. For example, individuals may benefit from cheaper consumer goods (that are stolen, smuggled or counterfeit), or may benefit from gaining lucrative employment in the drugs market. Nonetheless, these benefits whether perceived or actual, must be placed in the broader context of harm associated with SOC.

It is emphasised that further, particularly qualitative, research is required to deepen understanding. However, the findings presented within this report may have implications for our understanding of the impacts of SOC and may also impact the efficacy of interventions to prevent, minimise and tackle SOC.


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