Page last updated at 19:04 GMT, Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Award for drink-violence project

By Neil Prior
BBC News website

St Mary St, Cardiff
Police on duty in St Mary Street, one of Cardiff's busiest areas at night

A partnership between university researchers and police in Cardiff to reduce alcohol-related violence has been given an award.

The approach, ranging from looking at pub opening hours, bar design to the use of plastic glasses, has already been adopted by other cities.

Those behind the project say the amount of drunken crime in the city has been cut by 20% in seven years.

Cardiff University was honoured with a Queen's Anniversary Award in London.

Weekend after weekend I was seeing patients who'd been glassed in pubs and clubs, I could spot the tell-tale signs a mile off,
Prof Jonathan Shepherd, Cardiff University

The project run by the university's violence and society research group has involved South Wales Police, the NHS, the council and Cardiff licensees.

They share information and predict trends.

Professor Jonathan Shepherd founded the team in 1996, after noticing trends emerging in the types of facial injuries he was treating as a surgeon at the capital's University Hospital of Wales (UHW).

"Thirteen years into the project it seems so simple now, and you can't imagine that most of these things weren't already being done.

"Weekend after weekend I was seeing patients who'd been glassed in pubs and clubs, I could spot the tell-tale signs a mile off, and I suppose I thought that so could everyone else."

"I started to realise however, that even though we were continually seeing the same injuries, they weren't routinely being reported to the police, and so there weren't any trends being correlated, or solutions proposed."

"The immediately obvious solution, which had an instantaneous benefit, was to put pressure on clubs and city centre pubs open late to adopt plastic glasses or one's made from toughened glass."

"Obviously being hit with something hard has it's own related issues, but on balance, given the relatively light weight of a glass or bottle, you'll recover far more quickly after being hit by tempered, toughened glass than you would if you were struck by one which shatters and causes severe lacerations."

Professor Shepherd's work brought about an immediate decline in facial injuries connected to alcohol.

The biggest drop came in Hull, where after adopting Cardiff's model, glassing injuries fell from 55 in 1998 to none at all in 1999.

But even though the severity of the injuries passing through the accident and emergency department at UHW in Cardiff was falling, the same couldn't be said for the number of violent incidents.

Throughout the first five years of the group's existence, drink-related crimes in Cardiff rose year-on-year, peaking in 2001.

Prof Jonathan Shepherd
The overwhelming majority of victims of alcohol-related crime are drunk themselves. When you're drunk you make bad decisions
Prof Jonathan Shepherd, Cardiff University

"We were delighted to have stopped a high number of the most serious injuries in town on the weekend," said Prof Shepherd.

"But by the millennium it was obvious that we weren't really making many inroads into actually stopping the crimes themselves."

"Making the environment itself safer was one thing, but we had to get to grips with what actually made people want to fight when they were supposed to be out enjoying themselves."

Early initiatives included handing out sweets and lollypops to pub and club-goers, to pre-empt vocal exchanges which may otherwise have led to fights.

The project partners also worked with licensees to re-design pubs with more space and seating, in an attempt to avoid the flash-points of being jostled, having your drink spilled, or being burned with a cigarette.

But the key breakthrough came when the police, council and licensees agreed to pool information to chart where and how trouble had started before, and therefore predict it in the future.

"Nowadays every time someone comes through A&E with any sort of injury where alcohol is a contributory factor the police are informed," said Prof Shepherd.

"Even if there's no prosecution as a result, we analyse the details of every incident, which gives us more intelligence to plan better for the future."

"The council's now know how to pay more attention to the geography of town when staggering opening hours and licences, the police know where to concentrate their resources on weekends, CCTVs are better positioned, and paramedics can be on hand to try and reach casualties before their condition worsens."

"Now that we've proved the value of this intelligence-led, preventative approach, we've been able to reduce violent incidents.

"That compares extremely favourably with equivalent-sized towns and cities around the UK, but it's still far too high, and there's a lot more we want to achieve."

The Queen's Anniversary Award is the highest possible UK honour for higher education establishments, recognising only those departments which have achieved results of unprecedented significance.

But as far as Prof Shepherd is concerned, it is only the inspiration to go further.

"I'm truly honoured to be going to Buckingham Palace to receive such an award on behalf of our team, but if we saw this as the culmination of our work, then we as a department, and Cardiff in general would be in real trouble."

Currently the violence and society research group is focusing its attention on looking beyond the night out, to the factors which make people more likely to become involved in alcohol-related crime before they even leave the house.

In conjunction with the universities of Leicester and Bradford, they are part of a study into the role of drink in hate crimes, as well as extrapolating useable information from the social demographics of the victims of drunken violence.

"Fear of crime surveys all seem to suggest that people in Llandaff, Lisvane and Cyncoed in Cardiff are the most afraid of suffering violent crime, but there's an element of the worried well to this.

'Leaving yourself vulnerable'

"All the data we've collected over the last 13 years has confirmed what you may have guessed - that you are far more likely to be a victim of violent alcohol-related crime if you are from a working-class background and live in an economically deprived area of the city."

"It's not particularly politically-correct to say it these days, but a lack of appropriate parenting does seem to be a common theme amongst perpetrators.

"That's not Daily Mail shorthand for single mothers, it means a lack of attention and discipline, most importantly between birth and eight years old.

Revellers in St Mary Street, Cardiff
Council, police and NHS coordinate resources to deal with Cardiff at night

"Our research shows us that very small children who learn that violent outbursts and tantrums result in them getting their own way are far far more likely to experience the sort of frustration in later life, which will lead to them committing violent crime under the influence of alcohol."

"But by far the biggest bit of advice I can give people to keep themselves safe, is don't get too drunk themselves.

"It's pretty rare that a sober person, minding their own business, will be assaulted by someone who's been drinking.

"The overwhelming majority of victims of alcohol-related crime are drunk themselves. When you're drunk you make bad decisions, you can't spot potential flash-points, your lack of inhibitions make you more likely to say something you wouldn't have otherwise said.

"You stand a greater chance of breaking away from your group and leaving yourself vulnerable walking the streets alone, and the perpetrators almost never get caught, because you're less able to provide a description or give credible evidence."

"Of course I have the utmost sympathy for anyone who's violently assaulted, but the truth of the matter is that very often the only difference between the victim and the perpetrator of an alcohol-related assault, is that the victim is the one who ends up under the knife in the operating theatre."

'Turn the corner'

Welcoming the award, South Wales chief constable Barbara Wilding said the research group has been one of the "key members" of the community safety partnership.

"Together we have made great strides in tackling city centre violence and making Cardiff city a safer place," she said.

"With our partners we are now looking forward to extend this work throughout the whole of the South Wales area."

Nick Newman, chairman of the Cardiff Licensees forum said the research team had worked "tirelessly and inclusively" to get to grips with the problem.

"I'd like to think that pubs and clubs in Cardiff have responded constructively, and that together, as a partnership, we're beginning to turn the corner."

"The on-licensed premises have made huge strides in getting our house in order.

"We've made better training of staff mandatory, to make sure that no-one is served who's too drunk, and that staff have the confidence to say no.

"We also have the 'night-net' radio system operating across Cardiff to share information and prevent trouble before it spreads."

But he added: "Unfortunately a lot of our work is being undone by off-licences and supermarkets, who can sell alcohol at ridiculously reduced prices, because they don't have any of the costs associated with taking responsibility for the aftermath of drinking."

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