Monday, 31 January 2011
Lies, damned lies and fudged crime statistics
The problem with crime is that it’s illegal. This means it’s secret, which means that there is not one person at any level of the criminal justice system in this country who can honestly declare that they really know what’s happening.
Over recent years, every Tom, Dick and Harry involved in the compilation, manipulation and obfuscation of crime statistics have thrown their hats and helmets in the air to celebrate a steady fall in crime. The Home Office boasted it was all down to its crime prevention efforts. The police hierarchy said it was their intelligence-led approach that was responsible. Academics said rising consumption, falling inequality, better security devices, fewer adolescent males, an upsurge in abortions (with fewer neglected children) and/or a fall in unemployment were at the root of it all. The last Government would have us believe it was a direct result of their strategy to bolster officer numbers and wonderful performance targeting that brought about the miraculous decrease in crime and increase in detections.
But what if it never happened? What if all that research (and all of the political point-scoring which it inspired) is one big misleading lie? What if it was all a pernicious web of deceit involving Senior Politicians and Police Chiefs with the conspiratorial intention of fooling the public into believing everything in the garden was rosy? What if the truth is that crime didn’t fall at all – that it was only the statistics that fell, and in fact the illusion of falling crime was the biggest crime of them all?
There are two sources of crime statistics in this country. The first is the police whose figures are deeply unreliable because they deal only with the crime which they record. Millions of crimes each year are never reported to them at all: victims of assaults and sex attacks (particularly children) are often too fearful; the stores who are the victims of shoplifting often discover the offence only in their stock-taking and then prefer not to advertise their vulnerability; and a mass of victims of minor crime simply do not bother to contact a system which offers them only a faint prospect of justice.
More importantly, even if crime is reported, it is frequently not recorded because the police have a long and skillful history of fiddling the figures. They call it ‘cuffing’, because the reported offences magically disappear up the officer’s sleeve. On a wider scale, the deception is known as “Gaming” and there are a number of tricks that Senior Officers (who would no doubt deny their existence) employ to satisfy their police authorities and political masters. Make no mistake, this is not a few officers or even forces engaging in some kind of occasional sport. The alarming reality is that “Gaming” (as confirmed by front line officers) is endemic and widespread throughout the police forces of England and Wales.
In July 2000, HM Inspector of Constabulary reported that in eleven forces which his staff had inspected, 24%) reported crimes had been mis-recorded, either through genuine confusion or deliberate concealment. At the end of that year, the Labour politicians celebrated a fall in the crime recorded by police nationally of 122,344 offences. Taking it further, if HMI’s snapshot were repeated across the country, then in that same year, police forces concealed or mis-recorded 1,635,424 offences – more than 13 times the number of “alleged” fewer offences recorded. In other words, for years, the fudged police statistics have been not just slightly misleading but wholly worthless as a statement of what is really happening.
In April 2002, the Home Office introduced NCRS, the National Crime Recording Standard, supposedly to tighten up the process. They rejected HMI’s strong advice to make the rules legally binding and to order ‘robust and independent audits’ of police practice. Instead, they relied on dip-sampling by the Audit Commission and internal checks, enforced by chief officers – even though past scandals indicated the collusion of chief officers in delivering false figures. In the foggy aftermath of the NCRS and other statistically challenged changes prior to that, it is not clear whether the NCRS rules are killing off or even reducing the cuffing, but the Home Office discounted 5% of the reported crime in years that followed it on the basis that police were indeed obeying them.
More recent evidence from front line officers confirms that the "Gaming" practices are as rife as ever in modern policing. This is perhaps what prompted Home Secretary Theresa May to appoint the National Statistician to conduct a full review of the recording processes. Let us hope that the deceitful conduct of the few over the years is finally brought to the surface so the honourable police officers can start afresh with a clean slate.
Theresa May has replaced the plethora of nonsense performance targets with one single focus, to reduce crime. In order that this can be measured accurately with figures that can be trusted going forward, the whole rotten, shoddy corrupt system must be exposed for the sham that it is. It is a pityful display of arrogance by those Chief Officers who have disobeyed her instruction and to this day, implement strategies based on targets they believe will justify their existence.
The really sad part of all of this, is that when the can of worms is finally prized open, it is unlikely that Chief Officers will admit they have condoned and encouraged deceitful practices all along (many have received up to 15% bonus payments on top of their handsome six figure salaries for doing so). No, the likely scapegoats will be the very front line federated ranks forced to implement their devisive and corrupt plans. Little wonder so few rank and file officers are prepared to speak out.
The second source of crime statistics is the British Crime Survey. This is fundamentally flawed because it cannot record crime unless a victim tells one of their interviewers about it, so the survey misses all crimes where the victim decides not to disclose details. Until recently crimes against children (estimated by the Home Office at 600,000), all crimes against commercial victims (all bank robbery; and all shoplifting, which is estimated at anywhere between 7.7 million and 30 million offences a year), were omitted from the survey. Perhaps the biggest criticism of the BCS is that it is based on estimates drawn from the survey of 45,000 citizens. Crimes against public sector property (arson, criminal damage, theft) and all murder offences have been or remain omitted from the survey.
So, the survey fails to record at least 11.3 million crimes and possibly as many as 33.6 million crimes, in addition to the 13 million which it does pick up. And that is without taking account of commercial fraud, which the Association of British Insurers blames for a third of the £35 billion annual cost of all crime.
Let us take a step back and examine the fall in crime figures. Two important clues jump out at us to support the belief that the books have been well and truly “cooked”. First, it has happened all across the developed world. Jock Young, formerly professor of criminology at Middlesex University, likes to tell the story of the American crime conference which he attended a few years ago where the opening speakers armed themselves with a stage full of multi-coloured graphs and flow charts and announced that they had explained the dramatic drop in US crime rates. It was the effect of the Brady Bill in cutting ownership of handguns, plus the peaking of the market in crack cocaine, plus a dip in the population of adolescent males, plus a little of this and a little of that. All the percentages added up – until a delegate from Spain stood up to say that they had the same fall in crime numbers in her country and none of those explanations, and then a delegate from Canada said the same, and so on around the globe.
Second, this fall has happened at the same time as every developed country in the world reports more blackmarket drug use. In this country, for example, since 1998, according to the British Crime Survey, there has been “a statistically significant increase” in Class A drug use, particularly of crack cocaine. The Home Office’s own assessment of the number of problematic drug users suggests that they are responsible for more than 50% of crime. How can there be more prolific offenders and yet less crime?
There is one explanation of which we can be certain: the drug users who drive the crime figures are committing a mass of offences which are statistically invisible. Repeated surveys of drug users in custody show that easily their most common property crime is shoplifting (50% of their offences in most surveys); and, beyond that, most drug users fund their habit by selling drugs, whether to friends or strangers – thousands of them in any major city in the time it has taken to read this article. In both cases, this mass of offences are almost entirely invisible to police records (they are recorded only when they are detected); and completely invisible to the British Crime Survey. Parallel to that, drug users commit crimes against each other – the Yardie dealers are constantly ripping each other off, pimps rob cash off each other’s working girls, rival gangs beat each other up. And these victims don’t go to the police or sit down with a form from the British Crime Survey.
It is one of the enduring problems of criminal justice systems that whilst they can change the pattern of crime they struggle to change its scale. The one explanation which applies to all the developed countries who have seen their crime figures fall is that they have shifted their expanding population of blackmarket drug users into committing a surge of invisible offences. It is difficult to prove that that is what has happened – because crime is hidden. But it is fair to say that the great crime fall is at best unproven and at worst a politically useful myth born out of deceitful practices.
Look at how the “fall in crime” is used. The right have claimed it proves that Michael Howard’s programme of imprisonment was a success. Liberals spun it in the opposite direction, as supposed evidence that there is no need for any kind of fundamental change in the criminal justice system. The Labour government repeatedly used it to claim credit for bringing down crime since 1997. They not only ignored the impact of invisible crime, they also conveniently overlooked the absence of any observable link between the fall and government policy. So, for example, assuming they were right to say that in reality, burglary and vehicle crime have been falling: it must be significant that the same downward trend shows up independently both in the police figures and in the British Crime Survey. But they chose to date this from the year they came to power when in fact the statistics show that burglary figures have been falling since 1993 and vehicle figures have been falling since 1992. Nobody knows why, and, during that time, crime recording policy has changed direction repeatedly adding layer upon layer of obfuscation to the mess, as if to throw distraction techniques into the pot to disguise the deceitful practices.
If you really want to understand the reality of crime in this country, the figures that matter are the research which show that just 1% of the population suffer 59% of all violent crime; that just 2% of the population suffer 41% of all property crime. And where are these victims? Most criminals commit their offences within 1.8 miles of their own front door. In other words, they rob their neighbours. Overwhelmingly, those offenders live in the shabby tower blocks and rotting council estates which have been consumed by poverty and criminalised by the war against drugs. That is where crime is booming, far, far away from where our Chief Officers deploy their resources toward easier middle class detection pickings in the middle class suburbs. In these inner city areas, as a single example, an 18-year-old lone woman with a child is more than five times more likely than the average to be a crime victim – far away from the statisticians and the politicians and their celebrations of success.
In this series of articles we will delve further into the practices that have brought our crime statistics into such a malaise, leaving all but the exceptionally naïve bereft of confidence in a system so corrupt as to undermine the good work being done by our front line officers.
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