Fighting hate crime armed with a spreadsheet

March 2, 2001

With Stephen Lawrence's murder still reverberating, Betsy Stanko is beginning much-needed research with the Met police into reducing hate crime. She spoke to Mandy Garner.

Betsy Stanko has a team of 28,000 people helping her with her research. It is a slightly bigger staff than most academics can command.

But then she is conducting the first academic study into the way the Metropolitan police deal with hate crime. Her job is to look for gaps in the data gathered by officers on a routine basis and to suggest ways they can be filled. The aim is to help the police to do their job better, but, at the same time, she could be helping to create a valuable resource for social science researchers.

"If Sainsbury's can tell me how many carrots they sold last week, then public organisations should be able to make routine information into something socially useful," says Stanko, professor of criminology at the department of social and political science at Royal Holloway, London University.

The Met police project, entitled "Understanding and Responding to Hate Crime", is funded by the Home Office Targeted Policing Initiative. It will also link up the police with other agencies interested in hate crime.

Work began two months ago, but it gets under way in earnest this week, with the addition of three more researchers to Stanko's current staff of one. All are having to adjust to the culture shock of life in the Met: a world where bureaucracy and the preservation of security are king.

The Met receives thousands of calls a week reporting hate crime -1,800 of them are about domestic violence, which makes up a fifth of London's reported violence.

Stanko's team has access to every report coming into the part of the diversity unit where it is working.

Most people who have studied violence have analysed police statistics. Stanko, who is also director of the Economic and Social Research Council's violence research programme, is the first to admit that a lot of violence is hidden and that many people do not call the police to report hate crime, but says that is not an argument against exploiting the information that is readily available.

Sitting in her cosy London flat, surrounded by hundreds of images of cats on cushions, mats and knick-knacks, she seems a million miles from the violence she studies. But the homely surroundings are deceptive. Stanko has clearly not chosen an easy path in researching a field that for years was derided by other professionals.

This perhaps explains why, throughout our conversation, she feels the need to emphasise her credentials and experience, which more than speak for themselves.

An impressive American with 25 years' experience, she compl-eted her PhD in 1977 in New York on prosecutors' decisions about violent crime. She says she did not intentionally go into violence research. It was just that she wanted to look at the kind of crimes she thought would be seen as important by the criminal justice system.

Her concentration was on the social domain -how violence affected the socially marginalised more than other groups -and she sought to deconstruct myths such as the idea that most serious violence is random rather than targeted. It was a time when feminists were on the march and Stanko was one of the first criminologists to look at domestic violence in a serious way.

"It was seen as a misguided academic pursuit of a trivial matter," she says. "There was an acceptance that it was inevitable and not serious. But people were not really looking carefully at the outcomes."

She adds that most people who studied violence were doing so by analysing police statistics that gave no breakdown of different kinds of assault at that time.

It has taken 25 years for this to change and for different forms of hate crime to be flagged, she says, "but the uselessness of police statistics has not been overcome".

"The police are a repository for a great amount of information that they do not exploit. They just use it to nick offenders rather than to reduce crime."

The Met has a definition of domestic violence that it uses to identify cases, whereas racist and homophobic assaults are flagged according to the caller's definition and then investigated. Contrary to what could be inferred from the Stephen Lawrence case, only a small proportion of assaults labelled racist by callers are not found to be so after police investigation, says Stanko.

The information her team finds about gaps in police data will be used to teach police how to deal with hate crime, for which there is no specific training, as well as suggesting ways of better organising the workforce.

It can be broken down according to ethnic group, age, specific areas of London, times of day when calls are recorded and so on. Calls can also be traced to find patterns.

For example, researchers will be able to see when someone has reported several different episodes of assault. This will allow practical steps to be taken, such as giving victims personal alarms or putting more police on duty if it is found that there is a rise, as Stanko suspects, in reporting of domestic violence on Mondays -the first opportunity women get to ring after a weekend of violence because their partners are not at home. It will also help officers and agencies such as victims' groups look at how they can work together to provide different solutions for different cases.

A lot of the information, however, is already there. It is just a question of how it is used. "It is like unpeeling onions," says Stanko.

For instance, there is a database on offenders and one on victims. Matching these up can reveal useful information about the way relationships work, says Stanko - this is particularly useful for domestic violence cases.

Stanko is the perfect person to head the project since she has spent her professional life straddling the line between victims of crime and the police.

"I have pounded the beat, ridden in squad cars, taught a masters course in criminal justice, whose students included police officers, and set up a refuge for battered women. There are not a lot of people like me."

She came to the United Kingdom on sabbatical in 1982 and then went back and forth across the Atlantic for several years before taking permanent residence in 1990. Now she thinks she could never return. "I find the UK more intellectually, politically and personally compatible," she says. She believes the existence in the UK of a welfare state is "crucial" to her work because it provides some kind of safety net for the marginalised communities she studies.

She has done her fair share of work with different governments over the years: for example, she was a member of a UK Home Office committee on crime in 1989 and wrote the Women's Unit's recent report on domestic violence. Despite Conservative beliefs that social conditions do not cause crime, Stanko says the growth of interest in victims of crime in the 1980s helped to lay the foundations for the recognition of domestic violence as a serious problem and one that accounts for 40 per cent of the UK's murder statistics.

Stanko is not interested in "big picture" scenarios. Hers is very much an evidence-based approach. "I don't want to get side-tracked by ideas about what makes men commit violent acts. There are people looking at that and the nature-nurture debate will go on for some time. I don't have time for that."

Her directorship at the ESRC comes to an end next year and there are no plans to extend it. There is also no earmarked funding available for research on violence, despite its prominence in the media. This means Stanko will have to return to traditional academia and the administrative work that entails instead of capitalising on the skills she has learnt as director. She thinks that is a shame. "The demands of teaching and administration are so overwhelming," she says. "There ought to be some consideration given for the kinds of contribution that some people can make to the wider common good."

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