Cutting crime: Cardiff University surgeon’s research that helps stop street violence

Prof Jonathan Shepherd’s pioneering research helped cut violence in Cardiff by 40% – now he wants R&D thinktanks linking up public policy across the UK

Nights out in Cardiff around 20 years ago often ended in grim scenes at the A&E of the University Hospital of Wales, not least for Prof Jonathan Shepherd, a surgeon with the job of treating what seemed a steady stream of patients with facial injuries.

Beyond the injury toll lay something surprising when Shepherd and his researchers examined the figures – less than a quarter of the A&E cases treated were recorded by police, largely because victims were fearful of reprisals, were confused about what had happened, or were victims of domestic violence.

Over the following 15 years, the surgeon brought together the police, medical staff and local authorities to pool information on weapons, times and the city’s violent hotspots. The move allowed officers to better focus their energies, with streets pedestrianised and plastic glasses introduced. By 2007, violent incidents had fallen by around 40%, with savings of £7m to the taxpayer that year alone, and Cardiff rank as safer than similar-sized cities.

“The cost savings are not just for the NHS but for the criminal justice system as well – probation, the courts, prisons, all the rest of it,” says Shepherd, who is professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the school of dentistry at Cardiff University and director of the university’s violence and society research group. “The other aspect of this in terms of the economy is that clearly people want to work in a city that is safe. There is an economic impact in developing a safe city and a safe region.”

The “Cardiff model” is now employed to pinpoint hotspots of violence across the UK as well as in Amsterdam, the Western Cape in South Africa, and Milwaukee in the US. Shepherd, now an adviser to the Cabinet Office, has become a vocal campaigner for such collaborative research methods to be used across government and for different public services to work together , with all the attendant savings for the public purse.

“It seemed the logical thing to do but you don’t know until you test it whether it is going to work or not,” he says. “Around 2005, I was surprised to read a report that compared about 55 cities in Great Britain which had a population of more than 100,000 and Cardiff was down there … [with] Eastbourne and Cambridge and others which were leafy, gentle, nonviolent places. That was the first clue that this was working.”

By bringing together the police, health professionals and the local authorities – which came to be known as “community safety partnerships” – the various public services started to talk to each other , says Shepherd. Prior to that, the various departments and authorities worked independently, in what is called “silos”.

The principle that public services and the professions have a lot to learn from each other came out of the local violence-reduction partnership, he says.

While chairing meetings with law enforcement staff, Shepherd noticed that although he had been trained at a medical school, there was little by way of research and development facilities for the police. “Why don’t we have a college for policing or a professional body for probation? It is part of the furniture for many of the other professions but not in this arena.”

By 2007, the Universities Police Science Institute was opened in Cardiff University and now acts as an R&D unit for policing, looking at topics such as intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism. It is a model which could be rolled out across the public services, Shepherd says.

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