Before I write this blog, I need to put out a few disclaimers. This is NOT a political blog and it is not a tool that should be wielded for political purposes. It is written from my experience and knowledge gained as a police officer in large UK force, and has not been generated as a result of dislike. This is a blog about education and increasing awareness about an argument that is used hastily and without due consideration by many people both inside and outside the public facing world. I’m writing this to help increase understanding, nothing more, and nothing less.
Let me tell you about crime recording…
The first no: Complexity
The statistics that are used on the news and in the papers are generated from two primary sources. One is the British Crime Survey, the other is generated from crime that is reported by police officers in one of the 43 police forces in England and Wales. I was initially trained as a cop for around 5 months, during which time I learned most of the definitions used in everyday crime, verbatim. I can still quote the definitions over ten years later, and use them daily when on the frontline. You would think that the recording systems follow this legislation, but they don’t. The rules around recording are completely different to the classification and charging rules inherent within legislation.
This is a good question. I could go through a load of examples around arguments I have had with our crime recorders in force, not because we don’t like each other, but because the rules don’t fit with daily work. The recording of assaults are completely out of kilter with the charging standards. What the CPS would say was Actual Bodily Harm, is nothing like what the recording rules say. What is said in the heat of an emergency 999 phone call isn’t always exactly what happened, but crimes are recorded on the back of these comments despite independent investigation strongly indicating events to the contrary. I can see the rationale for this, as it empowers the victim, but the opposite is true as a result; it disempowers the cops.
I could talk about this all day. Because of these empowerment rules and tight classifications the system is massively complex. This means mistakes are made every day. It also means that there are times when crimes are recorded when independent evidence from witnesses at scene indicate the victim’s account is not all as it should be. There are lots of reasons for this, not least the effect of memory recall after a stressful event. The cops have 3 days to record it or it is recorded automatically. The numbers of recorded crimes therefore sometimes contain huge errors, without any intent on the part of those doing the recording. Why? The system is old, it’s hugely bureaucratic, it doesn’t fit with the organisations that use it, and people are doing the inputs – and they make mistakes.
At this point I could go into gaming caused by target culture, but this argument has been put across on many occasions by persons more worthy than I. It’s why the crime statistics have recently been downgraded in terms of reliability, and this tells its own story. It doesn’t happen in some forces as all targets have been removed, but targets exist in other forces and there is repeated research proving perverse behaviour around them. Targets skew data; where they exist, a true picture is very difficult to find. When a target is created, the number becomes the focus, and not the victim. Changing the objective like this causes all sorts of unforeseen problems that have been discussed by a PASC enquiry. The activity however around these problems skews our view of crime and crime mapping. If the data is messed with in the first place, how can we rely on it?
The second no: The systems are exclusive
Things are excluded from the British Crime Survey, just like things are excluded from police crime recording. Hey, neither of these reporting systems address cyber crime… I’m going to say that again. Neither of the statistical recording methods that are used to generate the phrase, ‘crime is falling,’ include cyber crime. I’m going to hammer this home. The biggest and fastest growing industry, housing some of the highest value crime, providing the most dangerous systems for exploiting vulnerability, and facilitating connections between very dangerous people, is bereft of crime recording. There is no comprehensive and reliable reporting system that properly captures what is ongoing on the web.
With regards to this, we need to readdress the subject of this blog and make the salient point again. If the picture is incomplete, you can’t draw solid conclusions from the picture. If it’s half the picture, you can guess at what is shows. If the picture is missing one of the main subject matters, you can only speculate. Crime is falling? How does anyone actually know? We don’t record it all…
Aside from cyber crime, there are a number of offences that are also unrecorded. These include traffic offences, some theft offences, offences such as drunk and disorderly etc.. A large proportion of fraud is now dealt with via Action Fraud, and can you guess at whether that stuff is recorded in the official reports? Nope. All of these contribute to the overall picture of what the public would consider as crime, but none are recorded on the systems that matter, so they aren’t subject to comment.
Crime is down? No. ‘Recorded’ crime is down, and this only represents a portion of the picture.
The third no: The system is reactive
Crimes are recorded when one of two things happen:
- The police witness the offence
- The victim or a credible 3rd party reports the offence
I think I’m going to do some hammering again. If the victim chooses not to contact the police, and neither do the witnesses, then the crime ‘officially’ hasn’t happened. The implications around this are complicated, because I need to now discuss legitimacy.
When a person trusts in the police and what they do (approx. two thirds on the latest data), then they may be more likely to contact the police if they become a victim. Speculating, if one in three don’t trust the police, will they even report a crime if they fall victim to one? If someone doesn’t believe it’s possible to locate the offender, or they don’t want to go through the stress of going to court, they may never ring the cops. If they don’t ring, it hasn’t happened.
So, legitimacy. If the police do a good job, engage with communities, get good results, help the vulnerable, and are fair in their behaviour, then the trust from the public may be high. This means they may contact the police more, and consequently, crime will appear to rise. When there is higher confidence in the cops, victims could be more likely to use them. What does this mean? Well it could mean the exact opposite of a narrative that is often used, and that is that the cops are responsible for falling crime through great work…
Falling crime may simply be representative of a falling number of reports. It doesn’t necessarily mean that crime is falling. This has been written about extensively, as people within communities think crime is rising, but the official stats say they are falling. Could it be that after almost two decades of target based performance culture, victims feel less confident about calling the cops, and therefore less crime is being recorded? Could it be that the less officers we have on the beat, the less we find offences that get recorded?
The BCS says that it gets around this legitimacy issue by randomly surveying the population. This apparently gets around the issue of confidence in reporting. I’ve just done the sums on the representative nature of the BCS. It too is exclusive in its choices of what is counted as crime. It also surveys approximately 0.06% of the population to generate it’s picture on crime. I shall leave you to consider the effectiveness of this sample in terms of generating a more comprehensive picture…
Far more insidious than any of the issues I’ve discussed above, is the attachment of causality to police. What does this phrase mean? It means that crime goes up or down because of police activity. This is a very dangerous game to play as it provides a narrative to cut police numbers whenever crime falls. I talk about this a lot, but it’s a gross over simplification. Crime is a social product, something created out of a myriad of previous experiences. Think about it, putting out 8 police officers into a city centre or suburban area housing tens of thousands of people, and then expecting them to affect individual’s behaviours inside premises is highly presumptious… at best. I’m not being defeatist, I’m just being a realist. Crime has fallen in many areas because it has been designed out, or because someone has gone to jail, or because a family has moved away or, or, or… Crime does not belong to police, and police are not responsible for causing it.
I don’t want this blog to end on a negative note. The stats state that confidence in the cops is high in comparison to many other public professions and that is something to be proud of. The issue with legitimacy is just discussed because it highlights a significant weakness in the way that crime is recorded. There are other elements at work too, like only the primary (or most important) crime being recorded, public order offence ambiguity, complex and long winded offences like harassment being reported in one single report, and the list goes on.
This blog isn’t here to offer any answers, it’s just there to assist with clearing the waters. Black and white arguments are rarely thus. In this case it’s far more gray than many even comprehend. Next time you hear the comment that crime is falling, recall the issues discussed here and have a think. And while you’re at it, have a look over what’s been discussed and ask a few more questions too:
- Are police really responsible for instances of crime, or are the causes of crime far more complicated than the numbers of cops on patrol? Societal issues like cohesion, poverty and culture may be far more influential than how many cops are on patrol at any given time.
- If we wish to use the phrase and give it some credence, what needs to be included and who would be responsible for recording it?
- If cops aren’t responsible for the causes of crime, what are the causes and how do we really influence them?
I’ll leave it there. Is crime falling?
No, no, and no. It’s changing, and the systems we use to record it are not keeping pace.