Red is the new black – Why detections aren’t all that.

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.”

Charlie Kaufmann


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.

3 thoughts on “Red is the new black – Why detections aren’t all that.

  1. As a starting point, I’d urge a degree of caution around presumptions that the way your force approaches detections is the way all forces approach them. The red/black thing is clearly very powerful for you, but meaningless in most forces. It’s not just about the particular computer system, there are also important differences between forces in their history and culture around detections. But I get the point.

    If the ultimate aim of policing is to prevent crime, then all our activity school be guided by that aim. A ‘detection’, whether it is a charge, caution, ‘sanction’, ‘JD’, ‘RJ’, ‘clear up’, or whatever, is just a technical term for a stage that is reached in a police investigation of a recorded crime. It often has little relevance to the victim of that crime. If someone is charged, justice is only done when the case goes to court – and of course, there are other stages that may stop that from happening. Out of court disposals may be of value to the victim – or not.

    The ultimate aim, therefore, is for an offender to be dealt with in the way which is most likely to stop then re-offending. This will depend on factors such as past history and current context of the offender. But the victim also has a view of how the person who offended against them should be dealt with . RJ can be a very powerful way to address both these aims, but it has to be on a case-by-case basis.

    And then there is the view of society or the community to consider. The general public will have a view on how crimes should be dealt with, and whether their police are effective at investigating crime.

    It seems to me that most of the focus on detections and the main thrust of your experience is around detections being used as a measure of police efficiency. Forces that detect more crime per cop are more efficient, for example. Forces that detect fewer crimes are clearly failing.

    Just as schools with good exam results are considered better than those with poor results. But education had realised that the better measure should be around value added.

    Similarly, the better question is about police effectiveness. Do more detections make a force more effective at reducing crime and improving confidence? The answer seems to be that there is, for volume crime types, little correlation between detection rates and crime and confidence levels. For most victims, confidence is dependent on the quality of police interaction with them, not on the police disposal outcome. Crime has followed much the same trends in forces with high detection rates as in those with low detection rates. Most figures show that offenders receiving out of court disposals have lower re-offending rates than those who go to court.

    If we are looking for the synecdoche in policing, it should be either the crime level or the confidence (trust) level. Both need to be judged against the local context.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One further point, if I may. Detections can of course be very helpful in preventing crime and reassuring victims. They help prevent crime for example when an offender receives a custodial sentence and is therefore no longer able to commit crime whilst locked up. Or, for example, the intelligence gained from detecting a crime hinders that offender from committing further similar offences. Reassurance for victims is also important, a benefit which is often overlooked in the debates about TICs. This all brings us back to considering wider information about effectiveness, rather than a narrow focus on detections.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot for your comments. I agree with almost everything pointed out. To be fair my force has been really good at cutting out the emphasis on just detections, although at its height several years ago, red/green was very powerful. To be fair, it wasn’t so much the red/green attribution, more the percentage of detection rates, so the result of the red/green, not the red/green itself. I completely agree that the higher rates were/still are seen as indicators of efficiency, yet the closer the systems around the detections are scrutinised, the more this is debunked.

      I think the ‘added value’ point is very fair, and value is such a different thing to measure. I think that aligning this to a solid purpose would be a good start, and a move away from the purpose of ‘performance’ would also be a positive step (by bodies such as HMIC). There are some really brave/difficult questions to be asked around this. Questions like: What happens if we stop monitoring and reacting to short term crime rises? Does the system that we have react to them naturally? Does monitoring them actually add value to the experience of dealing with Police? Does it actually have an effect on the way cops deal with victims? And finally, is the removal of Police monitored performance the way forward? Irene Curtis alluded to this at the Super’s conf this week, and I thought that it was an incredibly brave thing to discuss in such a forum.

      Finally, I think that you have mentioned it several times, the word ‘efficacy’ is such an important one in this context. Is the detection effective? Is jail effective? (Obviously it is whilst the person is in prison!) Are there other more effective solutions that sit within community resolution and how do we achieve them? Can resolution of crime actually be dealt with in communities? Would restorative and collective methods work far more effectively on recidivism?

      Lots of questions! Thanks for making me think, again, I really appreciate the comments!


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