The rising risk of anti-social behaviour

Risk Matters - Autumn 2023

Man painting mural on wall

Across Western Australia local governments create and deliver spaces that welcome everyone – from libraries to recreation centres and playgrounds. These services and facilities foster community connection but unfortunately,they can also witness anti-social behaviour.

Local governments facilities, services and assets are particularly vulnerable to anti-social behaviour as, by their nature, they are one of the few places in our community that provide areas that are safe, sheltered and allow an individual to stay all day with little to no cost.

What is anti-social behaviour?

Anti-social behaviour (ASB) is any behaviour that disturbs, annoys, or interferes with a person’s ability to go about their lawful business. The term anti-social behaviour incorporates a range of behaviours from minor offense or harmful acts to more serious criminal activity. It is a serious concern for local governments and their communities.

The most common ASB that members face is:

  • Loitering and obstructing others from using public spaces. 
  • People sleeping in public areas.
  • Noisy or rowdy behaviour and intimidation (e.g. shouting, swearing, and fighting).
  • Drunk or disorderly behaviour.
  • Aggressive, threatening, or obscene language or behaviour directed at people (including staff).
  • Graffiti and vandalism.

The role of local government

When the community is in crisis, it’s local government that they turn to for help. Anti-social behaviour is a complex issue and there is a role for all levels of government to provide interventions to tackle this multi-faceted problem.

Local governments (LGAs) must be cautious in their desire to act; making sure that any action falls within their legislative authority and carefully consider the intent and basis of decision making. The hazards and dangers that come to other stakeholders, including law enforcement, in managing ASB, are not the LGAs legal responsibility – it is important that the issues aren’t conflated. It’s an invidious situation; although members will want to act to protect the community, they must simultaneously ensure that their actions don’t expose them to a potential claim of misfeasance by an injured party (notwithstanding that they may be in the process of alleged criminality).

Definition: Misfeasance

Misfeasance typically occurs when a public official acts unlawfully, they exceed or misuse their powers, when undertaking a duty or responsibility.

WA Police (WAPOL) is the State agency that local government most often works with to address anti-social behaviour. Members should carefully consider any liability exposures that may arise from their actions.

There is clear separation of duties and responsibilities – the WAPOL has responsibility for policing and public safety. Whilst LGAs are recommended to work collaboratively with law enforcement, they must always work within the boundaries of their power as set out in the Local Government Act 1995 (WA) and associated regulations.

Other sections in this season's Risk Matters

Where we’ve been – Autumn 2024

LGIS, together with WorkCover WA and legal partners Mills Oakley and Moray & Agnew have delivered four sector specific information sessions on the new Workers Compensation and Injury Management Act (2023) WA.

Read More »

Complex and interconnected risks of ASB

Misuse of public spaces and amenities, and disregard for community safety may cause significant property, environmental damage, and injury to staff and the public. ASB presents a complex variety of interconnected exposures to LGIS members across liability, property, and workers’ compensation.

Noisy, aggressive, rowdy, and intimidating behaviour can contribute to high stress environments for local government workers, impacting a worker’s sense of safety. It’s difficult to quantify exactly how many claims have been received due to ASB as it can impact a range of claims reasons including exposure to a traumatic event, exposure to workplace or occupational violence, work pressure, and other psychological factors.

From a liability perspective local government has a responsibility to make best endeavours to mitigate the immediate and insidious impacts of ASB on staff and the public who use its facilities. The Work, Health and Safety Act (WA) 2020 outlines the obligations of a PCBU (person conducting a business or undertaking), or employer/local government, to provide a safe working environment.

In practical terms, the most likely liability risk would be a personal injury claim based on negligence alleged against the member. For example, a claim that alleges a breach of duty of care on the part of the local government for failing to, or inadequately protecting patrons and visitors to a facility against a risk of foreseeable injury. To ensure a good defence the member needs to be able to demonstrate that they have considered the risk and are taking reasonable steps to ensure public safety.

Damage to local government assets is another significant concern. From calendar years 2020 to 2024 LGIS received 1,034 property claims in relation to ASB (Graph 1). Property damage disrupts normal operations, has a financial impact, and puts a strain on already limited resources. If the damage happens to a community asset like a playground, library, or swimming pool, it can have a big impact on the wider community. The impact is even worse when these facilities must be temporarily closed because of ASB.

Graph 1: Number of LGIS property claims between 2020-2024 based on ASB activities

Tackling anti-social behaviour – a risk management approach

ASB is a complex issue and an on-going challenge for governments across all levels. The risk factors and causes of ASB are unique to the individual and community, so the approach used by each local government needs to be tailored to the specific situation. Addressing ASB takes a whole of community and multi-agency approach working across local, state, and federal government as well as not-for-profits.

Local government should take a risk management approach – identifying the hazards, assessing the risk, controlling the risks, and then reviewing the controls. By taking this approach members can demonstrate that the risks of ASB to staff, public and property are taken seriously and that it is turning its ‘mind’ to mitigating the consequences of ASB. Documentation is vital at each step of this process, both from a practical operational perspective and to ensure a strong defence if there is a claim.

A risk assessment will identify hot spot areas, times of the year when ASB increases, and key triggers. This will help to prioritise strategies to mitigate and prevent the risk of ASB activities.

There is no silver bullet, or easy fix to ASB and this article’s intent is not to address the reasons for ASB. However, there are strategies that local governments can use to reduce the impact of ASB on their facilities, staff and the people who use the facilities.

First steps – develop a policy

At the outset local governments should determine their over- arching approach to ASB. If ASB is assessed to pose a serious risk to staff safety, assets, and facility users then it may be worth considering a dedicated ASB policy. Ideally this policy would articulate the local governments strategy and related operating procedures, outlining its approach to managing the impacts and risks associated with ASB at their sites.

The next step is reviewing local laws and their role in mitigating the adverse consequences of ASB. Careful consideration should be given to their practical application and when it would be appropriate for staff to implement the laws. Staff need to be trained so that they know when it is safe to apply local laws versus when the situation could escalate, become dangerous, and require police attendance.

Design out crime principles

Many LGIS members will already be familiar with design out crime (DOC) or crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) principles. It’s often more cost effective to integrate DOC concepts during the development process, however where ASB is a significant issue in existing spaces and facilities then consideration of these strategies and potential retrofitting of assets may be warranted.

Surveillance and sight lines

Area surveillance aims to create a perception of increased risk of detection for perpetrators of criminal activity and a feeling of increased safety and security for legitimate users. Are any areas covered or poorly lit, providing a hidden space for potential ASB activity?

For example, consider a situation where the rear library exit is hidden from view by vegetation and large dump bins. Library staff use this exit to return to their vehicles. The path for staff to their vehicles isn’t clear, there is no line of sight from the exit to the car park, and the access road can’t be seen from the exit. Passing foot traffic using the nearby shops can’t see the area, the staff or anybody else in the area. These factors combine to provide cover for ASB making it a location for alcohol consumption and public urination. Staff don’t feel safe using this exit.

In this situation some remedies could be to:

  • Increase maintenance of the vegetation, making sure that it is pruned to ensure sight lines.
  • Review the position and location of the dump bins.
  • Considering retrofitting sensor lights to improve visibility at night.
  • If there is a plan to fit CCTV to existing assets, this location could be considered.

Access control

This strategy aims to reduce or deny offenders access to areas and reduce opportunities for escape whilst guiding legitimate users through the environment.

In publicly accessible locations or buildings such as parks or libraries, it can be difficult to implement design features that deny offender access to a potential target without compromising reasonable access to legitimate use. However, there are opportunities to restrict access to infrequently used areas that are obscured from both natural and camera observation, and potentially vulnerable. For example, this might include restricting access to external clubroom entrances at sporting grounds.

Young man swiping his keycard
Where possible limit access to areas in public facilities. This could include storerooms, staff areas or meeting rooms which are only available for hire.

Territorial reinforcement

The use of physical features to express ownership and control of the environment can, to some degree, assist with the identification of intruders. In public facilities, judging the legitimacy of a person being in a particular area can be difficult unless the person clearly has no place being there e.g. outside of operating hours/trespassing.

Depending on the facility, measures such as boundary fencing can eliminate unwanted entry. Combined with gates or other forms of defined access this can also create access control points.

Target hardening

The placement of physical security measures such as bars, locks and barriers may reduce the incidence of unwanted access and damage to a building. However, target hardening may also have a negative impact on aesthetics and can add to a perceived feeling of fear of crime at the location. It can be challenging to balance the need to create a welcoming community space while adding protections. This is generally reserved as a last resort.

Management and maintenance

A maintained area creates the perception of a well-managed environment that can reduce the fear of crime and encourage legitimate use and behaviour.

Appropriate management of an area to help reduce ASB includes aspects such as maintaining the continuity of lighting; managing vegetation to prevent obstruction to lines of sight; and promptly removing indicators of crime such as graffiti. There is a growing element of offenders utilising social media platforms to brag about criminal acts. The removal of graffiti and other indicators of crime early may also reduce the motivation of these offender(s) by eliminating the potential for notoriety.

Where locations have been noted as ASB ‘hot spots’ priority should be given to maintenance requests in addition to the regular management program. If we go back to our previous example of the library rear exit, where a sensor light has been installed and it fails, then it should be fixed as a priority.

Wide shot of outdoor area
Well maintained areas ensure clear sightlines and encourage legitimate use
Share on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn

Other sections of this season's Risk Matters

Man painting mural on wall

The rising risk of anti-social behaviour

Across Western Australia local governments create and deliver spaces that welcome everyone – from libraries to recreation centres and playgrounds. These services and facilities foster community connection but unfortunately they can also witness anti-social behaviour.

Read more »
Warning posters

CCTV and security

CCTV, alarms and dedicated security may require significant investment (depending on scope), but for those local governments who have identified serious hazards associated with ASB, it’s an investment that may be warranted. When considering these options, it’s important to consider not just the initial investment but the ongoing commitment of resources.

Read more »