Anti-Social

by Nick Pettigrew

Cover image

Publisher: Century
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 1-4735-7639-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 375

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Nick Pettigrew was an anti-social behavior officer for council housing for over a decade. This book is a diary of one year in the life of that job. According to the author, the dates, names, and some of the identifying details have been changed but not exaggerated. While it's hard to verify that, and I'm sure a few of the stories have been tweaked to make better narratives, it has a messiness and chaos of half-resolved drama mixed with mundane office tedium that makes it ring true.

The subject matter requires some explanation for US readers.

Council housing is the UK's version of what the US would call public housing or "the projects," although it's a far larger percentage of the housing stock in the UK than it is in the US. These are buildings built by the government and run by local governments or non-profits to provide housing to working class and poor people at reduced cost compared to the private market. As in the US, new council housing construction has dropped off dramatically; as in the US, a bunch of it has been privatized, although in the UK the Right to Buy law at least sells the housing to the people living in it, as opposed to slumlords.

The 1998 UK Crime and Disorder Act collects under anti-social behavior a bunch of low-grade irritations that in the US would fall under public nuisance laws, noise ordinances, and other vague misdemeanors like "creating a public disturbance": essentially, all the irritating and obnoxious things that people subject their neighbors to, but which fall short of obvious criminal behavior like theft or assault. As Pettigrew puts it:

"I just don't want to hear the word 'cunt' shouted repeatedly at 3am every night any more. I don't think that's unreasonable."

That law required the organizations managing council estates to have a procedure to deal with anti-social behavior, and thus the job of an anti-social behavior officer was created.

In the US, these sorts of problems are dealt with by the local police, which is a little like trying to get rid of a raccoon by running it over with a balky, thirty-year-old car. The best outcome is that the raccoon gets freaked out by your efforts to get the car to start and leaves. The worst outcome is that you accidentally run over your neighbor's kid while aiming for the raccoon. Either way, neither you nor the car nor your neighbors are going to be happy about the process.

An anti-social behavior officer is someone with some authority to do things like install cameras, tell people who don't live somewhere that they need to stop coming there, and start eviction proceedings, but who doesn't carry guns, can't arrest people, and enforces those rules when necessary via court proceedings or calling the police. In other words, it's one of the types of alternative responders whose job is to solve problems rather than stop crimes that we've been talking about in the United States. And although Pettigrew is quite grumpy and cynical about his job (for very understandable reasons explained in this book), my takeaway from another country with even worse problems is that the system sort of works. It's underfunded and poorly managed and nebulous and sometimes very sad, but it also achieves some of what it sets out to do, and you can see the outlines of a better system beneath it.

My favorite thing about this book is that it forces the reader to grapple with the actual job in all its messiness, rather than our ideals of what we want the job to be. For example, if you're going to hire a bunch of people to do this job, you need some way to figure out whether they're any good at it, but it's not obvious how to measure success.

One infuriating KPI we're measured on is the final question a resident is asked once their case is closed: "Are you happy with the outcome of your case?" Because unless you evict the problem neighbor within a fortnight, erect a security wall around the complainant's house manned by armed guards, and bake them a cake, the answer will almost certainly be no.

Pettigrew has a background in comedy so he's sarcastically funny rather than strident or didactic, which for me was just the tone I needed to enjoy reading this enough to think deeply about it.

The thing that most surprised me, even though it probably shouldn't, was just how many of the problems Pettigrew had to deal with stemmed from drugs. My guess is that a good 75% of the issues he described were a direct result of someone dealing drugs, growing drugs, stealing things to buy drugs, throwing parties with druggie friends, doing bizarre and dangerous things because they were on drugs, not taking care of their property because they were too busy doing drugs, or letting their property be taken over by other people doing or selling drugs. It's just never-ending. The case load is clearly made worse by chronic understaffing and underfunding, and spending more money on giving people more assistance is part of any reasonable solution, but so is reducing the demand. If the pattern of complaints in the US is at all similar (and I bet it is), it's no wonder that the police perceive drugs as central to their job.

Pettigrew talks about this at some length in the epilogue, and I think one of his conclusions is worth quoting here:

Years of interacting with class A drug users has shown me that they really don't want to be out hustling to make enough money for their next score of diluted heroin. They want to sit at home, take drugs and when those drugs wear off, take some more. You may view this as a wasted life, and you may well be right, but here's the thing: they are going to do this anyway, whether we decide to criminalize them or not.

If, after a lengthy period of honest, mature drug education across the country via schools, further education, government advertising and so on, class A drugs were made legally available on prescription to adults via pharmacies, the vast majority of users would pick up their prescriptions, go home, take their drugs and leave everyone else alone. They couldn't be arsed to break into your car if they didn't have to.

The decriminalization argument is a lot larger than the space of this book review, so I won't get into it further, except to say that if you think that conclusion sounds unreasonable or dangerous or destructive to society, consider reading this book. One of the things that becomes obvious from Pettigrew's diary of incidents is that most people just want to feel safe, and a truly stunning amount of crime and anti-social behavior that makes them feel not safe is a direct or indirect result of people trying to get drugs or to get money to get drugs.

The other pattern that's obvious from this book (and obvious from most writing by anyone involved in the justice system) is that the system doesn't really work.

The best way to describe going to court is that it's like paying a visit to a run-down hospital where nobody gets better.

Some of that is because it's not set up to solve problems, and a lot of that is because solving problems is a lot more expensive than we want to admit and we don't want to pony up the resources.

I'm probably making this book sound hopelessly depressing, but it's not. It's angry and cynical, but it's also very funny (particularly if you like sarcasm), extremely quotable, insightful, and deeply empathetic. There are people trying their best to help other people despite a system that doesn't reward them for doing so, and surprisingly often they manage to do so. The path to helping more people isn't even that difficult to find. The epilogue of this book is full of solid and straightforward ideas that don't require some novel insight into humanity, just a bunch of hard work. And, while reading about the work of helping people and being exasperated by people, you'll also get to laugh at the bits of office nonsense that are universal.

The old form for monthly one-to-ones used to have two questions — "What did you do over the last month?" and "What do you plan to do in the next month?" — and my line manager at the time seemed unimpressed when I answered "my job" to both.

I loved this book. It was one of my favorite random finds of the year, and, at least judging from how difficult it is to find in Amazon search results, it's not gotten enough attention in the United States. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-12-22

Last modified and spun 2020-12-23