By Alistair Fraser, Senior Lecturer, University of Glasgow
When we think of organised crime thoughts turn inevitably to images from popular culture. If you are of a certain vintage it will be The Godfather or The Sopranos; for the Netflix generation it might be Breaking Bad or Narcos. A seedy-glamorous world of anti-heroes and outlaws, families and complexity; an underworld that is both familiar and unfamiliar. For most of us organised crime exists in the realm of fiction and fantasy rather than reality. And because of this we are happy to think of it as the preserve of specialist police. A hidden world monitored by a hidden police force.
But as we found in our recent research, the realities of organised crime in Scotland are a long way from these images. Organised crime doesn’t exist as a secretive subculture, hidden from view, but is stitched into the fabric of our communities. Criminal gangs rely on local areas to support their activities, leaning on vulnerable individuals, offering ‘help’ to people struggling with debt, selling a dream to unemployed youth. And it is at times a mutually beneficial relationship – a source of cheap goods and a way of resolving dispute. Viewed up close these relationships are easy to understand.
Taking a wider view reveals a different picture. These small moments take place in a bigger context of enduring community disadvantage, tied to the decline of Scottish industry. Organised crime has become entwined with community life where work has disappeared, and debt and addiction have emerged in its place. The vulnerabilities caused by entrenched poverty are the lifeblood of organised crime. A map of communities most impacted by organised crime in Scotland would closely mirror the map of economic disadvantage.
It would be a mistake however to think organised crime is just a problem for disadvantaged inner-city communities. The study also uncovered the reach of organised crime to towns, villages and rural areas, as well as to precarious migrant communities. The most successful players in the illicit economy were often residing in leafy suburbs or well-heeled commuter towns, and there was evidence of organised crime operating at a both national and transnational level. These findings suggest that organised crime is not some shadowy invisible force but runs through many of our communities, institutions and organisations.
When the problem is this deep rooted, it cannot be solved by one organisation alone. In the report we suggest the need to change the conversation about organised crime in Scotland. Rather than seeing it as an issue just for police, it should be seen as a challenge for society as a whole. The current police strategy – Divert, Deter, Detect, Disrupt – is wide-ranging but could go further. We recommend a fifth ‘D’, Develop, which aims to support community development as the best and most effective response to criminal exploitation. Recognising vulnerability is something that requires joined up thinking and broad partnerships.
We argue that approaches to organised crime needs to step out of the shadows and into the light. We often heard the narrative that organised crime was an alternative employer for young people, that they were sold on the dream of easy money and expensive cars. Instead a chaotic pattern of prison, violence, debt, and addiction was the reality for many expendable foot soldiers. The perception of easy money needs to be challenged not only with the reality, but also with real alternatives to employment and attainment. Making this stick needs authentic voices and grassroots support.
Responding to these issues is complex and requires not only new partnerships and approaches but also fresh legislative thinking. The report suggests that the relationship between organised crime and communities can be characterised as a form of ‘coercive control’. Like the new offence for domestic abuse, which targets acts aimed to encourage dependency, enhance isolation, and exploit resources for personal gain, we suggest that criminalising this form of exploitation would be a productive conversation to have.
As we sit tonight in front of another police drama or crime thriller, it is worth remembering that these issues don’t just take place on our screens but in the real world we live in. They aren’t titillating or glamorous but deeply harmful and corrosive. And it is a conversation not just for the police but for us all.
Community Experiences of Serious Organised Crime in Scotland by Fraser, A., Hamilton-Smith, N., Clark, A., Atkinson, C., Graham, W. & McBride, M. with Doyle, M. and Hobbs, D was published on Monday 4 June, 2018.
*An edited version of this article was first published in the Herald newspaper.