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Street violence in Brighton

“Students wandering home drunk, being loud and drawing attention to themselves render themselves vulnerable.”

West Street, 2am on a Friday night: Groups of clubbers emerge onto the streets and wait around – for friends, for a taxi, for a decision on where to go next. The police cars parked around the city centre go largely ignored.

Brighton and Hove’s publicity material paints a picture of a friendly, tolerant city- one of the “loveliest and liveliest” in the country. This is reflected in the responses to a survey by The Badger where 100% of respondents said that, in general, they felt safe in Brighton at night, and despite 35% reported to having been threatened or felt intimidated in Brighton’s streets, 87% would still walk in the city centre at night alone.

However, in just the last couple of weeks, the local media has covered two shocking stories of violence in which the victims were university students. On Wednesday 15th October a young couple, students at Brighton University, fell victim to an unprovoked and vicious attack. The two students were sitting close to the Palace Pier when a stranger approached them at around 1.55am, first verbally abusing them then returning ten minutes later and attacking them. Both students sustained injuries which required stitches, and it is reported that the woman was also sexually assaulted.

Last Friday, a taxi driver was jailed for seven years for the rape of another Brighton University student in June. The crime took place when the woman was coming back to Falmer after a night out with friends, two of whom had left her alone in the taxi unable to pay the fare.

‘From April 2007 to March 2008, 291 Assaults Occasioning Bodily Harm took place between 9pm and 4am. In the same period and times there were 192 reported incidences of Common Assault and Battery, 38 fights and 18 counts of Grievous Bodily Harm.’

Sue Heard, Press Officer for Sussex Police, was keen to portray Brighton in a positive light. She asserted that “serious violence has fallen by 20% from last year” and reassures students that “the city is a very safe place to be.”

A closer look at the crime statistics indicates that the number of incidences of serious physical violence has decreased, but the number of common assaults has increased. A report on public place violent crime in the night-time economy also reflects a reduction for most offences.

However, the levels of public place violent crime reported in the last year may still come as a surprise. From April 2007 to March 2008, 291 Assaults Occasioning Bodily Harm took place between 9pm and 4am. In the same period and times there were 192 reported incidences of Common Assault and Battery, 38 fights and 18 counts of Grievous Bodily Harm. Crime might be going down, but Brighton by night is still less safe than you may imagine.

Every year, October sees a peak in the number of people admitted to A&E with assault injuries. This indicates a possible connection between the return of students to the city and an increase in public place violence. Whether students are likely to be the victims or perpetrators of assaults is ambiguous, but it seems probable that this rise in the data is more likely to be due to a higher concentration of people on the streets than any other more perturbing conclusions. Ben Parsons, crime reporter for Brighton’s local newspaper The Argus, is all too familiar with the patterns of violence associated with what he calls “a culture of drinking.” Drawing attention to the unpredictability of aggressive behaviour, which can easily escalate from verbal abuse to something more serious, he commented that “students wandering home drunk, being loud and drawing attention to themselves can render themselves vulnerable.” This message was echoed by the Police spokesperson, Sue Heard, who stressed how much more perceptible individuals are to low-level crime such as theft, when over the legal recommendation for alcohol consumption.

There is no doubt that alcohol and binge drinking are at the root of many of the problems. Brighton and Hove City Council estimate that 50% of public place violent crime in the city is alcohol-related, with that figure rising at the weekend. The city also has one of the highest ratios of drinking establishments to people in the country, with 278 pubs between 250,000 residents. The concentration of clubs and pubs in central Brighton, between the West Street and station areas, has been determined by the Council to be causing problems of crime and disorder and public nuisance, and is now subject to a special policy designating it a “Cumulative Impact Area”, aimed at limiting the number of licensed premises.

The demographic of Brighton’s population is also unusual in many respects. 35% of the population is aged between 20 – 39, a figure much higher than the national average. The city is also a magnet for visitors- a massive 8 million a year- from the UK and overseas, many of whom are attracted by the nightlife.

‘There is no doubt that hiding behind the official police figures there are hundreds of unreported incidents.’

As Charlie, a Sussex undergraduate from London, commented: “I reckon you’re more likely to get mugged in London, but in Brighton there are more drunk people just looking to fight.”

Of those respondents to the survey who answered that they had been threatened or felt intimidated, there was a distinct pattern to the type of experience reported. Most incidents seemed to start with verbal aggression, which either did or did not progress into a physical fight. Of those that were involved in fighting or were the victim of assault, no-one involved the police. Why do young people resist involving the authorities?

“There’s nothing they could do,” said one student who wanted to remain anonymous, “It was just a one off anyway. I wouldn’t want those blokes knowing I’d called the police on them in case I ever saw them again.” There is no doubt that hiding behind the official police figures there are hundreds of unreported, low-level incidents.

Worryingly, another type of crime sits alongside this yobbish, random violence. Brighton’s liberal reputation is belied by recent reports of hate crimes. In September, Brighton resident John Percy was severely beaten up in Kemptown and hospitalised in what is believed to have been a homophobic attack. This incident sparked a great deal of discussion in the local community and prompted Argus readers to call for more policing in the St. James Street area. Des Turner, MP for Kemptown, publicly condemned the crime and called on “the police and Brighton and Hove City Council to say what steps they are taking to deal with the continuing violence against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and to set out a plan for reducing homophobic and alcohol related violence on our city’s streets.”

Another worrying trend is the increase in incidences of Racially Aggravated Actual Bodily Harm, which rose from 5 counts in the 2006-2007 period to 18 counts in the 2007-2008 period. The Brighton & Hove Crime & Disorder Reduction Partnership reported that “there is a year on year increase in the number of reports of RRMIs to the common database and this projected to continue.” One respondent to The Badger’s survey said he believed the fight he in which he was involved six months ago was racially aggravated, having been preceded by racist taunts.

Brighton and Hove Police are taking steps to reduce the dangers of public place violence. The crime prevention initiative “Operation Marbles” ensures a high visibility police presence in the city centre on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Sue Heard says that police patrols, which are concentrated on West Street, the Lower Esplanade and St James Street, “set the tone for the evening.” Although the weekend evenings may be the prime time for violent crime, this won’t benefit clubbers making the most of “student nights” earlier in the week. And is this concentration of police in the centre enough to make the streets safer for those people who find themselves walking home at night outside of the main proliferation of clubs and pubs?

Until the latest figures of crime rates are collated, it remains to be seen whether or not these efforts are succeeding in making Brighton safer.

Richa Kaul Padte, the University of Sussex Students’ Union (USSU) Welfare Officer, gave the following advice for students to stay safe on the streets: “I think basically it’s important to remember that while there are lots of students living in Brighton, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all young people are students and can be trusted in the same capacity. It’s so important to always be cautious, look out for your friends, and make sure you report any incidents to the police.”

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