TDI's biggest programme is our Leisurewatch Scheme, a public protection programme which has been running across Great Britain and Northern Ireland for over 15 years. It works to help those managing public spaces - such as leisure centres, libraries, shopping centres, parks, museums, visitor centres and lighthouses - to think about the risks of sexual offending and how to reduce them in their specific place. The current crisis has been a difficult one for our members. First they had to close down for several months, and now they have to reopen with a set of restrictions. How do these restrictions, and the crisis more generally, impact on the risk of sexual offending?
General safety principles
The Leisurewatch programme has three underlying principles:
- that staff need to be aware of the risks of sexual offending (and other harms) and remain curious and vigilant about public behaviour;
- be confident in challenging concerning behaviour in a professional and caring manner;
- share their observations and concerns with colleagues and managers to help build a bigger picture.
These principles are still as relevant as they were before the crisis. But the crisis has brought about changes which makes following these principles harder in some ways, but easier in others. The overall risk of offending hasn't changed all that much, but its nature will have.
What has changed?
Throughout the crisis we've seen a change in offending behaviour as conditions have changed. For example, there has been a reported increase in cases of domestic violence. As we open up, we may have fewer staff on duty - either in response to self-isolation, job losses, staff reallocation to other parts of the organisation, ongoing furloughing or just in response to smaller capacities. This means there is less supervision over what can be large and complex sites. We may be opening up parts of the site that we weren't before, or using parts of the site differently. Capacity pressures and corresponding limits on activity for site users takes away chances for loitering. These factors may combine to provide offenders with opportunities to be unseen or alone with victims.
At the same time, though, some of these changes will make to discourage offending. Enforced social distancing will make it harder for offenders to approach potential victims, and recording details of site users may discourage behaviour from those who now feel more visible and less anonymous. As opportunities for offending decrease with the number of potential victims, offenders may move elsewhere, to places where children and vulnerable adults can still congregate, either unaccompanied, like parks, or accompanied in busy social spaces, like beaches. Equally, offenders may find it easier to access victims online as social distancing and lockdown requirements remain in force.
These factors will impact on different spaces differently. While a small library, for instance, may become less appealing to an offender because social distancing means they are unable to contact victims, beaches or transport hubs may become more appealing as opportunities to access victims unobserved increase.
What can we do?
The message to take home from this is that risks have shifted, but not gone away. Those who look to offend will still be looking, and those who offend opportunisiticallynow have new avenues opened to them just as others close. So, staff need to remain vigilant and curious about the behaviour of their site users. There are new warning flags like refusing to respect social distancing or other safety rules, or overstaying allocated time slots. There are also new places where staff can apply their Leisurewatch training - what is going on in the park outside the Leisurecentre, or the queues for shops which run past your building? Staff need to remain confident in their customer-facing response - how to site users respond to a gentle query about their behaviour or an offer of help? And staff need to talk to each other and their managers - does anyone else have a concern, or are there other behaviours which provide a new context for this one?