Although slightly cryptic, the title actually says everything that I would like to say in this forthcoming blog. If a crime record remains ‘red’ on police systems, it does not mean that the investigating officers have done the wrong thing. This blog is a discussion about synecdoche, and how damaging it can be for any public service that believes that targets are the way to go. A few definitions for you first:
Detection: Police will gain a ‘detection’ for their statistics if an offender is identified, and one of a number of ‘sanctioned’ disposals is applied. These include a range: conviction, caution, reprimand, fine etc. When you get a ‘detection’ the crime turns from red to green on the system.
A figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa, as in England lost by six wickets (meaning ‘the English cricket team’).
So, I hadn’t heard of ‘synecdoche’ before I stumbled across it in a scholarly article by Hood and Bevan (2006). The article was around gaming practices in public services, or if you are simple like me, fudging the figures to make it appear like you are performing better than you are. This has been recently brought to light via the whole crime stats debacle, but more importantly it is not isolated to just crime stats; it is a product of New Public Management and the culture that is has created across public service. (See previous blog if you want to know about New Public Management.)
The linguistic premise centres on referring to a whole cricket team, using the single term: ‘England.’ So a large group of people, working collectively within a set of rules, competing against an opponent, and encompassing all sorts of national identity related attributes, are referred to in one word. Is that word adequate? Many would say yes, as long as the context is so well known that the single word tells a huge part of the story. i.e. Everyone knows that when you talk about cricket and the national team, the term ‘England’ will suffice as a descriptor. Everyone has grown up with it, we all know what it means, and we know what it is referring to.
‘England,’ when used to describe a national team – for want of a better word – works.
Are you with me so far? (Hopefully the answer is yes.)
So what has this got to do with detections? This is an important question. I would speculate that the word ‘detection’ has become the Police’s term for ‘England.’ It means success, it means satisfaction for the victim, it means the officer did their job, it means the offender was dealt with ‘justly,’ it means that there was a product. The cop delivered. The Police got a detection; that means that all the positive things police associate with crime and its investigation reached end game. It means the cops won. If you work as a cop, how many times have you heard the following:
Is there a detection in it?
Can we turn it green?
Turn out to this one, it’s an easy detection.
Not another. We’ll never detect this.
I’ve too many reds on the board this month.
These are a part of the daily narrative in many work places, and something that sets the tone for what Police on the front line believe represents ‘good’ work. It represents industriousness, commitment, quality, and the victim is always happy with a detection aren’t they?
Or are they? Let’s look at the perverse behaviour that may happen around detections and detection rates:
- Turning a shoplifter green and a murder green represents a single tick in the green box. If you are looking at overall detection rates, it doesn’t take rocket science to know that if you target lots of minor offences such as shoplifting and public order, you get lots of green ticks. You will have seen the fall out of this in all the media around the criminalisation of youths for very minor offences such as stolen Mars bars etc.
- Improving your detection rate happens by default when you lower the total number of crimes, so non-reporting or the moving of crimes into other categories raises artificial detection rates across serious categories such as Robbery or Burglary.
- There is significant pressure around the gaining of TIC’s – or offences that are taken into consideration. These are offences that are added to a conviction, without them being run as separate offences in the courts system. They are a way to ‘clear up’ larger numbers of crimes, if you will.
- Charging far more minor offences to detect the crime, when the harder to prove offence was in the ‘have to wait a few months and we need the stats now’ box.
- Providing faster responses to crimes where a detection was likely to be present.
- Manipulating shifts and resources into back end investigation to bolster detection numbers, and ignoring forward looking preventative work.
- Creating squads and silos for particular crime categories in order to micro-manage the demand in and out.
- Creating huge numbers of remits.
- A disproportionate amount of resources are spent on crime. What about public value? What about community confidence? What about safeguarding? I could go on.
Now all these happen on the inside. They happen to cops working on crime and the support workers around them. The story is strong in the workplace, much like ‘England’ conjures up images of a cricket team in the right context, ‘detection’ conjures up a particular way of working. Cops want that positive result, everything is lined up to provide it, and as the police are nothing if not committed, boy did they deliver.
Detection rates have been at record levels in many forces, as the industry of providing them has flourished.
Now let’s look at what happens on the outside.
- Victims are told that their crime is detected. ‘But what is a detection?’ they ask. Well as a Police Officer you explain it, but they seem more interested in why you haven’t rung for 2 weeks and what they have been sending them over Facebook whilst you investigated it. You try and explain that you have been busy, but you knew that a detection was coming, so you waited to ring them and give them the final result. It’s not final for them though. They now have an impending court appearance. They have a load of stress on the horizon, but you’ve done your job. You detected the crime. It’s green now. Pass the job onto witness care and your work is done.
- Victim is told that their crime is detected. ‘But why did you do that? I only wanted him talking to,’ they say. Well again, as a Police Officer you explain it. You wanted that positive result, to turn it green, and the disposal was only a caution because they admitted it. It’s off your screen now and the boss has stopped bugging you about the job. You did have that chat, but you went the extra mile and added that disposal as well. The outcome here is an unnecessary criminal record and a dissatisfied victim, not to mention higher levels of fallout afterwards.
- Victim is told that their crime is detected. ‘Does that mean I have to go to Court now? I don’t want to go to court. I told the officer that at scene,’ they say. As a Police Officer you describe why it is in their best interests to go to court and finalise this issue. You tell them it’s also in the public interest, and that they will only do it again if there is no deterrent. The victim now feels like the Police are telling them how to feel and what they as a victim, want. The Police are imposing the detection upon the person that asked for them to come and help; they didn’t ask for a 6 month debacle with cancelled court dates and travelling expenses.
- Can’t detect it?
Not interested. The better service is rolled out for those crime classes that see the higher number of detections. Unfortunately, victims don’t know about crime classes. They are interested in feeling reassured and informed. An evidence base around this can help, and there are no easy choices in this department.
- CPS receive file following a Police charging decision.
‘Why has this been charged? It’s not in the public interest to pursue this,’ they say. Thus kicks in the mighty wheels of justice and thousands of pounds of expenditure organising a case file and court appearance. Well, at least it’s green, say the cops.
So what is going on with all this? There’s a few things going on. The Police narrative, or story, has overpowered the fact that they are part of a wider system. Performance has become the bible and detections have become the holy grail. The mission to deliver has meant that the Police have concentrated on only a small part of the service, and used it to represent the whole of it. I should refer you to the definition of Synecdoche above, but I reckon that you have the gist by now.
There’s a couple of things that I need to mention. Detections are very important. They represent the bringing of an offender before the justice system, in one way or another, and often they are aligned with what the victim wants. They are absolutely necessary and should be the subject of a huge amount of Police effort (especially in certain cases and categories). However, they should not be the subject of all of the effort. That would suggest – as has been incorrectly stated on more than one occasion – that the Police only dealt with crime. The Police do not just deal with crime, but when they do, the narrative around the detection should be a collaborative one. What does that mean? It means working on the case with the victim and other parties, and not working on the case as a simple opportunity to turn a red; green. It would be nice to start to see non-court related options like Restorative Justice used more in these areas, too.
And what’s up with red anyway? What if the victim wants it to be red? What if they just want it recording, despite the fact that they know who did it? What if they don’t want the court appearance? What if the offender apologised and they are perfectly happy with that? Why is that seen as ‘bad’? Why is it seen as something negative? This month, several victims weren’t bothered about convictions for minor criminal damage because the offenders were the neighbour’s kids. This meant the detection rates are lower this month. OK, ask the question: ‘So what?’ What does that actually mean? Well actually, it means that the victims didn’t want the police to detect the crimes, so they didn’t. That sounds like providing a bespoke service to me…
But wait, if that is the case, and victims have some sway over the detections, then detection rates actually represent something that the Police do not have sole control over… And that might mean, that the Police can only use them as a measure, rather than using them to set targets… And that might mean, that it will go up and down naturally no matter how hard the police work… And that might mean, that detection rates are simply part of a system of interdependent factors that often change their minds and shift their needs… And that might mean, that regular fluctuations in them don’t really mean anything…
So, detection rates may not be a very valuable indicator of how ‘good’ the Police are, if they are seen/used correctly? Yes, indeed.
Get rid of that synecdoche in your workplace. The Police and detections are part of a much wider system, of which detection rates play a part, but not the whole. Crush that story if you can, release officers from the context of internal led process that means little to the victim and see each crime as a standalone. Acknowledge the complexity of the police’s job as what it is. Stop managing numbers that represent a small part of the function and start managing people instead, because:
“Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make… And you only get one chance to play it out.”
Bevan, G. Hood, C. (2006) What’s measured is what matters: Targets and Gaming in the English Public Health Care System. In: Public Administration Vol. 84, No. 3, 2006 (517–538)
For more info on the crime stats enquiry, visit here: PASC enquiry
For info: My force is moving very steadily in the direction discussed in this article. If you would like to discuss this further, feel free to drop me an email.