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Vandalism: a European view.

VANDALISM A European View

IN THE NETHERLANDS, as elsewhere, vandalism is growing. The fact that the mass media are devoting more attention to vandalism is but one indication of the increasing concern for this phenomenon. Reports of damage resulting from widespread acts of destruction keep coming in from schools, transport companies, and public service corporations and are becoming more and more somber.

If we are to establish whether this growing concern actually correlates with an increase in the amount of vandalism, we should first of all define that very concept. In everyday language the word vandalism is used divergently. At times it is used purely to denote acts of deliberate destruction. At other times it is taken to mean violence in public or else graffiti.

In my opinion, creating violence in public, introducing graffiti, and performing acts of destruction should not and cannot be bracketed together as one concept since the three types of behavior differ considerably. Perhaps a brief description of what vandalism really is will help support this point: Vandalism is the deliberate destruction of objects by young people without this leading to any perceptible material gain.

To elaborate, I stress that the damage has to be deliberate. Therefore, one cannot include, for example, a motorist who loses control of the steering wheel and accidentally crashes into a lamppost. Sometimes it is indeed difficult to discern between deliberate and accidental destruction. As for destruction, I would confine the definition to breaking or damaging objects. And as for objects, these can be either private property (such as car mirrors and gardens) or public property (such as telephone kiosks and lampposts). The young people in the definition would be aged roughly between eight and 20 years. In stating 20 as an upper age limit I do not, of course, mean to say that people above that age are incapable of vandalism. The point is that vandalism typically arises among youths. It is also predominantly a problem of males.

When creating a policy to combat vandalism, it is obviously vital to gather information on the phenomenon. Unfortunately, such information is sparse. The details needed are the exact nature of the deed, the location, the extent of the damage, the type of victim, and, preferably, descriptions of the offender or offenders.

Access to even more information is necessary if the problem is to be tackled in an integral way. In fact, all approaches to vandalism contain their own particular requirements for information. Persons interested in the social aspect of vandalism would want to know the housing and living conditions of offenders. Where vandalism is viewed as stemming from educational shortcomings or from unemployment, one might examine offenders' educational achievements.

Information is necessary not only for preparing and creating policies but also for executing and evaluating the measures taken. Data is also required for gauging changes in the magnitude and geographic distribution of the problem.

In addition to the lack of information, another hindrance to fighting vandalism is the lack of a joint approach. For some reason the various players are entrenched in ad hoc and purely subjective approaches to the problem. Companies, local authorities, and the courts stick firmly to their particular priorities and different assessments of the problem. Here and there I have detected a slight tendency toward closer cooperation, but we still have a long way to go.

In the meantime things just deteriorate. Already it is sometimes difficult to find walls that are free of daubings and roadside fixtures that are intact.

As mentioned earlier, we hear reports from various sources these days that vandalism is on the rise. It is curious that people often speak of vandalism as if it were a problem with only a single aspect. Surely there are different kinds of vandalism. If two young children want to demonstrate their strength and manage, with great difficulty, to damage a public transport stop sign, this is classified as vandalism. If a group of livid schoolchildren ransack their school the day after failing their exams and flood the examination place, this too qualifies as vandalism. To sum up, vandalism is a collective term that can be used to describe widely varying destructive acts. So we are dealing with different sorts of vandalism. Various experts on the matter have defined the sorts as follows.

Vandalism during play. A substantial amount of property is damaged when children play. This category of vandalism involves children up to roughly 12 years of age and rarely occurs deliberately. As much as a third of all reported vandalism is a direct result of accidents occurring during play. Generally speaking, the groups of boys involved have not committed other offenses and are not drawn from sectors of society where law breaking is common.

With the younger age group (five-to eight-year-olds) the damaging of property has to do with exploring their environment. Because deliberate destruction is rarely involved, this cannot fairly be labeled as vandalism. Where the older age group is concerned, the eight-to 12-year-olds, the situation is different. Of course, here too damage to property can always be an accidental side effect of play. However, the difference is that children of this age are fully aware one may not break things simply for the fun of it. Therefore, one can usually talk of deliberate destruction here, though it should be added that at this age children are rarely aware of the consequences attached to their actions.

Prestige vandalism. The youngsters involved in this kind of vandalism are usually aged between 12 and 16. Here the play element is very much secondary. The vandalism often arises from dares and is aimed at gaining the admiration of friends. The element of competition is strong, as is the degree of craftiness involved. Often the emphasis lies on the extent of the damage caused -- for example: "How many panes can you break?" As in the vandalism during play category, the absence of social or parental control plays a crucial role.

Vandalism out of boredom. This sort of vandalism overlaps somewhat with the kind just mentioned. It is viewed as a way to expel boredom--"There is nothing else to do anyway." The theory has been put forward that such youths turn to being destructive only because they cannot think of any other way to occupy themselves. As soon as suitable alternatives arise, such as fairs and pop concerts, the urge to be destructive is considerably reduced.

Vandalism out of revenge or frustration. A great deal of vandalism that looks utterly pointless on the surface falls into this category. For these kinds of offenders, vandalism is a way to vent bad feelings. In some cases, such acts serve as an outlet for those who feel they have been unjustly treated or who harbor deep-seated grudges. Often such a grudge proves more imagined than actual, and the object of destruction is only indirectly or symbolically linked to the original source of frustration. Still, the ultimate destruction remains the same.

The age range where this sort of behavior is most prevalent is from 16 years and upwards. Frequently such vandals feel they have failed somehow. The youths involved often come from broken homes, have already left school, and are unemployed. They tend to be the teenagers involved in the big acts of vandalism that hit the headlines.

Vandalism rooted in greed. Here the object of the vandalism is obvious: material gain. Lead or copper may be stolen from buildings; street signs pinched from posts; and money stolen from vending machines, parking meters, and telephone booths.

This category of vandalism has been mentioned only to make the picture complete. In contrast to the authorities on vandalism, I would prefer to classify this kind of crime as robbery and breaking and entering, not as vandalism.

Tactical vandalism. Here the tactics underlying the deliberate destruction derive from something other than material gain. This kind of destructiveness is generally carefully planned and weighed. Think, for instance, of the painting of slogans on walls. Similarly, if a homeless person breaks a few window panes in the hope of being arrested and thus gaining a roof over his or her head, this may well be termed tactical vandalism.

This kind of vandalism is also sometimes manifested in the form of industrial sabotage. It could be employed as a tactic to break the monotony of the job or as a way of having a break from work (putting machines out of order).

Categorizing vandalism as I have done shows how important it is not to stereotype vandalism as absolutely pointless behavior. Varying motives underlie all acts of vandalism.

In practical terms, if one wants to diminish or abolish a given type of vandalism, one must always start by asking what kind of vandalism it is. Different approaches have to be found for each type of vandalism. Dividing vandalism into categories tells little about its specific causes and backgrounds. However, it does give clues as to the best ways to tackle the problems. Combating vandalism is like choosing a security system: One must choose measures that suit the situation.

IN A POLICY PLAN CALLED "SOCIETY and Crime," the Dutch government radiated the optimistic view that parents, neighbors, local authorities, and social organizations should be able to decrease if not banish this kind of crime altogether. Unfortunately, I do not share this optimism. If the expectations that are created are only partly fulfilled or are not met at all, that could lead to frustration. That frustration could in turn provide a breeding ground for renewed vandalism and also for a strict and repressive policy. I do not subscribe to such policies because they do not solve anything but only remain one step behind the problem all the time.

Vandalism has received considerable publicity in recent years. Sports columns in newspapers suggest that every soccer match is accompanied by vandalizing gangs of youthful supporters. They attack each other, the referees, and the railway cars. By all accounts, the resulting material and nonmaterial damage is enormous, and the increase in vandalism horrifying.

While I do not want to say these reports are complete nonsense and that the damage is not at all worrying, I would seriously question whether vandalism is as alarming and frightening as we are led to believe. At the moment vandalism is a very topical political subject. I believe we should try to put the problem in perspective. Above all else, I think we must take great care not to lump all forms of vandalism together and pigeonhole it as real crime to be dealt with along criminal lines.

I am convinced that a great portion of all vandalism simply has to do with the problems involved in the normal process of growing up. It has to do with discovering the limits to which one can go. A combination of social developments--increased individualizing within society, the division of urban areas into residential and working quarters, and the fact that society is growing less personal -- has provoked vandalism and enabled it to thrive.

Therefore, many recommendations relating to urban areas, social cohesion, and supervision are understandable. However, since the bulk of all vandalism is related to normal growing up, to consciously or unconsciously testing the norms of society, it will never be possible to weed out vandalism completely.

The concept of vandalism is not new, and the compulsion to destroy willfully will always remain. Exasperating as it may sometimes be, this phenomenon is part and parcel of growing up. Expectations about antivandalism policy should therefore be tempered rather than high. No one has suggested that other types of recurrent crime be done away with altogether. People advocate simply that it should be reduced. Such nuances tend to be forgotten quickly. I believe that if vandalism is combated from a youth policy rather than a crime policy angle, we will not lose sight of our objectives quite so fast.

In this context, I mean a broad-based youth policy not confined to youth welfare but also embracing other fields such as regional planning, housing, public works, education, the police, and justice. On this point I agree with the government--that the biggest cause of recurrent crime is all the underlying social problems and that criminal prosecution should not be the only or main approach.

The outcome of a number of anti-vandalism projects set up in certain Dutch cities has also given me reason to feel hopeful. With some of the projects, alternative judicial punishments were offered. First offenders could choose between a traditional penalty (imprisonment or fines) and an alternative penalty in the form of carrying out certain jobs. The kind of jobs given were tasks like cleaning up graffiti -- tasks that bore some relationship to the crimes committed. This approach attempts to remind the youths concerned of the basic social norms on which society is built (for example, respect for property even if it is community or government property). Repetition among these vandals is very low: 2 percent. This particular approach thus seems to be a quite effective one.

Vandalism differs from other crimes in its intention. Acts of vandalism are generally deliberate, but the vandal is not always aware of the consequences attached to his or her actions. Likewise, the vandal is often oblivious to the fact that he or she is going against an established norm.

Up until now I have not even touched on the violation of morality and decency. No judge can possibly be expected to deal with vandalism if the adult world persists in telling lies, cheating, bending the rules, dealing in underhanded ways, and displaying all kinds of reprehensible forms of behavior that remain punishable.

Where this activity resembles vandalism is in the fact that it crops up on a small and a big scale and most of all that it is widespread. Perhaps things have never been any different. The crux of the matter, though, is that in our open society we are now in a much better position than ever before to bear witness to this kind of behavior.

I consider the social problem of vandalism nothing more than an extreme form of the things adults themselves often do. In any case, in the Netherlands vandalism needs to be tackled from a wide administrative angle with attention focused on the causes and not the consequences. This is how many local authorities and companies will have to--and indeed are already slowly starting to--handle the problem. I am confident that in doing so we are on the right road even if we succeed only in controlling the problem and do not eradicate it.

About the Author...J. A. Seij is chief of the police force of NV Nederlandse Spoorwegen, the Dutch national railway. He is a member of ASIS.
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Author:Seij, J.A.
Publication:Security Management
Date:Mar 1, 1989
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