The Ups and Downs of Crime Figures?

Here we go again… Crime figures – up and down, more times than a whore’s drawers… Should we trust the stats and more importantly, what do they actually mean?

The opening line of this post was not intended to offend however, it is intended to be cynical and flippant.

As Mark Easton (BBC Home Affairs Editor) points out in his article Burglar Bill and statistical insignificance; “It’s that time of year again when journalists scour the crime figures for England and Wales for reasons to send us whimpering to the locksmith.”

The British Crime Survey (BCS) of 45,000 people recently indicated that overall crime levels were up slightly, though researchers said this was not “statistically significant“. Officials regard the BCS as the most reliable indicator of crime trends. Separate data of crimes recorded by police showed crime fell 4% and domestic burglary was down 4%… (bbc.co.uk)

The British Crime Survey (BCS) asks people aged 16 and over living in households in England and Wales about their experiences of crime in the last 12 months. These experiences are used to estimate levels of crime in England and Wales. (Home Office). But why do we have to ‘estimate’ when all crime is (supposedly) recorded by the police?

It appears that some journalists and commentators are (finally) becoming just as sceptical about crime figures as those with first hand knowledge of the real situation… “If you’re looking for clarity about crime, these figures don’t provide it“…(Danny Shaw – BBC Home affairs correspondent).

“Lies, damned lies, and statistics”

The above is an often used line when arguing a point and, as Wikipedia explains; it is a phrase describing the persuasive power of numbers, particularly the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments, and the tendency of people to disparage statistics that do not support their positions. It is also sometimes colloquially used to doubt statistics used to prove an opponent’s point. This explanation of that well-known phrase is so poignant and correct.

Crime figures, like so many other forms of statistical information today, are often manipulated or interfered with to ‘prove’ a particular point. It’s a practice that has gone on for years and various individuals and/or organisation have become extremely adept at it, not least the police service. There was a time when the ‘manipulation’ was born out of a simple instruction from the local Detective Inspector;“don’t crime that son, we haven’t got a bloody body for it yet”.

However, what was once a widespread but simple attempt to improve the appearance of performance, is now something of a required trait in the police, one that is driven by senior commanders and their political masters. During my thirty years service as a police officer the Home Office Counting Rules, which govern how/when and which crimes the police actually record, could change substantially year on year, all dictated by the current political drive. A climate driven by a need for politicians to court the popularity of an electorate, often solely informed by the sensationalism of journalists.

As I’ve said before (on numerous occasions), the only way to have a true picture of crime is to record and report on it as per legal definition. No lumping of similar crimes into a single recordable figure, no sanctioned and non sanctioned detection. If we want to have any confidence in the statistics we need to be more honest in how we record the figures in the first place. A crime is a crime… Simples!

If you really want to try to understand crime figures and how they are manipulated, one of the greatest sources of information about current practices can be found at The Thin Blue Line.

The Crime Analysis Team at Nice 1 Limited (the company behind the site), are a group of professionals with a wealth of experience in business & law enforcement. Their aim is to raise public awareness about the true picture of policing and crime. They do this by providing in-depth analysis of trends & public domain statistics and explain the challenges facing policing in the UK today. If you have the remotest interest in what the statisticians and politicians are trying to get you to believe, I commend this site to you.

Don’t always (blindly) believe what you are told, at least not without researching it first.

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About Dave Hasney

National Coordinator for UK SMART Recovery - Previously a Recovery Worker and prior to that a Management Consultant and H&S Practitioner - Kept sane by Angling, Good Food, Real Ale & Wine - Cynical thoughts sometimes developed from others.

Posted on 26-07-2011, in Police and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. You should check out You Can’t Polish a Turd – the Civil Servant’s Manual. It might appeal to you – if you’re findnig yourself a little bit cynical.

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  2. One ghastly thought in all the gaming is that it’s so like the false accounting going on in the financial sector – which leads to the question ‘where is the hole’?

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  3. Steve thanks for the reply and additional information. I do recal your mention of the work done by Dr Rodger Patrick MSc. BA (Hons) on the subject. As you say in your email, Roger’s research into the practice of “Gaming” is pretty detailed. The (large) piece does make for very interesting reading (see here). I’m aware that Rodger’s work can also be seen in the press and as you say, a fine example of his work can be found at The Telegraph (see here)

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  4. Thanks for the kind words and mention Dave!

    Peter Fahy, Chief of GMP has denied police corruption is widespread – he is unconvinced corruption is a ‘major problem’.

    His comments might turn out a little premature now that the Prime Minister has ordered a review of all forces’ media relationships and in particular with News International.

    It would be naive to believe that the extent of the problem is restricted solely to the Met. Chief Constables and senior officers up and down the country must be fearing who the spotlight will fall on next, many seriously considering if they should jump first and save their gold plated pensions before being pushed.

    The morale of decent officers had been damaged by claims which have emerged during the scandal. However, it is not the decent, honest officers that need worry about the fall out from this saga, it is those who have acted inappropriately, even criminally.

    So Mr Fahy is not convinced that corruption is a major problem?

    What is the pernicious, deceitful manipulation of recorded crime and detections over a 20 year period, where Chief Officers knowingly accepted 10-15% performance bonuses related to fudged numbers if it isn’t corruption?

    I’m not talking of mass individual corruption here, but institutional corruption, in the formation and/or condoning of strategies that force lower ranks to compromise their integrity with fallacious crime reporting and detections? Worse, when the faeces strikes the oscillating mechanism, who will end up being held accountable? Certainly not the teflon coated ACPO ranks I’ll wager.

    Police corruption comes in many guises, from accepting bribes to fabricating evidence in order to secure the conviction of a suspected criminal. Such a wide variety makes it difficult to formulate a definition which encapsulates all forms of the behaviour. Earlier studies tended to concentrate on the more obvious forms of illegal behaviour, which are adequately legislated for in criminal law:

    “Police scandals are of three predominant varieties: corruption, such as accepting bribes; procedural abuse that perverts the course of justice; and the excessive use of force against suspects.” (Waddington 1999:121)

    However such a definition does not extend to behaviours designed to give the impression of improved performance by perverse means. Such practices are referred to within the service as ‘fiddling the figures’, ‘massaging the books’ or more recently ‘good housekeeping’ (Chatterton 2008:46). In academic circles the phenomenon is referred to as ‘gaming’ and has recently been much associated with Performance Management Loveday (1994 & 1999),De Bruijn (2001 & 2007), Bevan & Hood (2006).

    The evidence to suggest the involvement of senior officers in ‘gaming’ behaviour is not surprisingly limited. Kappeler et al (1994) noted that senior officers entered into an ‘unholy alliance’ with junior officers, tolerating illicit activities as long as they were effective while Diez (1995) suggested senior officers manipulated performance information to give a favourable impression of the organisation.

    Chief Officers and SMT’s clearly take the view that probity comes at the cost of reduced performance. So, Chief Constables and some SMT’s have been fiddling the stats for donkeys years. However, most are cute enough to force the muck downhill, either saying they only encouraged ethical practices or they were simply ignorant of what’s been going on. In fact, all the evidence we have accumulated indicates the problem is more of an institutional nature than individual. Fudging crime statistics and detections for career and financial gain cannot be right. Peter Fahy says that corruption within the service is not endemic. Should the full story about crime be finally revealed, there will be many that will take the opposing view, particularly regarding the ACPO ranks who are ultimately responsible for the processes.

    The facts remain:-

    • Forces are fiddling TIC’s something rotten (still). Villains serving custodial sentences admit 40+% of the burglary and vehicle offences detected this way. There is no come back as the system allows (with the authorisation of a Guvnor) the admissions without court attendance or any punitive measures. I thought this practice died years ago, but all they’ve done is adjusted the framework. In return for inducements, or a nice ride out from clink, scrotes will admit 1000 ‘s of offences, most of which they didn’t commit. Have a looks at oneof our colleagues posts at http://blog.old-and-bold.com/wordpress/?p=5470 to witness one of many examples we have on file illustrating the extent of the problem.

    • False reporting strategies (well intended initially for false mobile phone theft reports) have been extended to all volume acquisitive crime in lots of forces, suppressing the crime levels dramatically.

    • Abuse of cautions (20% of detections) Fixed penalties (7%), TIC’s (6%) and cannabis warnings (7%) is rife. The burden of proof principle seems to have been ignored in ‘000’s of such instances, whereby cases that would never go the distance at court due to weak evidence, are all too often disposed of by these methods as an attractive alternative for the offender to avoid the court process. In such cases, abuse of discretionary powers results in poor policing practice.

    • Cannabis warnings account for 7% of national detections. Whilst I’m no fan of “whacky backy” ‘000’s of police man hours are consumed at the direction of SMT’s just to perpetuate the myth of 28% national detection averages. The same applies to the minor public order and threats offences, (playground & mobile phone threats etc). Literally ‘000’s of them driving up detection rates fallaciously and diverting officer attention away from the more serious, harder to resolve crimes.

    • SMT’s up and down the country screen out ‘000’s of harder to detect crimes, in favour of the middle class “Quick Win” offences, what we used to call domestics that have been allowed to be upgraded to technical criminal matters. Teams of officers redeployed to tick boxes rather than acquire the investigative expertise to resolve crimes that matter most to the public.

    • Forces discovered keeping unofficial crime registers to keep the numbers down. (We knew them as occurrence books MK47). HMIC discovered forces using these for crimes that never hit the books.

    • Forces abusing the incident reporting process, issuing incident numbers that never elevate to crime numbers.

    • Re classifying burglaries as damage to dwellings/commercial properties (thousands of them!!)

    • Re classifying vehicle offences downward so they appear in larger lesser offence groups.

    • Re classifying robberies. No offender caught = no mens rea = lesser “other theft”

    • Serious offences cautioned or PND issued

    • HMIC have been particularly reluctant to open up on the subject, despite a number of force inspections revealing clear evidence of gaming activity, no senior officer has been brought to account. In 2007 HMIC carried out an audit of detections for the years 2005/6 and 2006/7 (Home Office Nov.2006 & 2007). The results of this audit were not made public, although Police Authorities were provided with a copy of the results on their own force only. This was a deviation from the policy of publication pursued by HMIC since 1991. However HMIC did subsequently publish a summary of the results on their web site in response to a request made under the provisions of the Freedom Of Information Act. (We have a copy). The audit showed 33 out of 44 forces were graded ‘poor’ on non-sanctioned detections, made up in the main of informal warnings. It appears this audit uncovered cases where offences had been recorded as detected without the suspect being made aware that this had occurred. This resulted in the Association of Police Officers writing to the Information Commissioner to inform him of the breaches of the Data Protection Act:

    “The nub of the issue faced by the service is that a proportion of the offences detected by non-sanction means fail the ‘administrative test’ in that they do not comply with HOCR . The most frequent errors are:

    • The sufficiency of evidence (this is a judgement issue with the HMIC and forces coming to a different view) to justify/support a non-sanctioned detection.

    • A failure to record whether the victim has been informed that the offence has been detected through non-sanctioned means, and

    • A failure to record that the suspect has been informed.”
    (ACPO letter to the Information Commissioner 13.2.2007 unpublished)

    The Information Commissioner articulates the crux of the matter in his response:
    “From my perspective I am most concerned that individuals were not being informed that they were considered to be the perpetrator of an offence even though this did not involve a legal process, especially if such information could be used in future Enhanced Disclosure relating to them. This clearly breaches the requirement of the first data protection principle that the processing of personal data must be done fairly. I am also worried by the sufficiency of evidence used. If a police force is going to label an individual as the de facto perpetrator then they must have a good objective reason for doing so. Not having this could lead to a record being viewed as inadequate or inaccurate (breaches of the third and fourth principles respectively).” (Information Commissioner 26.3.2007: Unpublished)

    However, he declined to take any proactive action to alert the public:

    “I would prefer to work with chief officers to ensure compliance. I would like to know more detail about how this has come about and what action is being taken to ensure future compliance” (Information Commissioner 26.3.2007: Unpublished)

    Further correspondence from ACPO dated 10.4.2007 provided further assurances:
    “Please rest assured that the issues that have come to light as a result of the recent Association of Chief Police Officers’ and HMIC audits have been taken extremely seriously by the police service. To this end a series of meetings have taken place in fast time with all relevant parties, including the Home Office, to consider how best to address the concerns that you raised to which we are alive” (ACPO letter to the Information Commissioner 10.4.2007: Unpublished)

    This correspondence demonstrates that ACPO, together with HMIC, their principal regulator, and the Home Office, to whom they are politically accountable, as well as the Information Commissioner, have decided to deal with a major failing without making the public aware of the nature or scale of the issue. However ACPO were particularly vague on the nature and scale of the problem:

    “ACPO has reviewed a snapshot of disclosures for the period 2003 – 2005 (for a range of ‘high risk’ offences). Whilst the process has (but for a handful of cases) worked effectively.” (ACPO letter to the Information Commissioner 13.2.2007 unpublished)

    ALL IN ALL, ONE ALMIGHTY FUDGE BY THE REGULATORY AUTHORITIES, WHO SEEM TO BE “RUNNING SCARED” AT THE POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES OF OPENING THIS CAN OF WORMS.

    • Bear in mind that over the 15-20 or so years that the numbers have been frigged so astronomically, many Chiefs and SMT’s received between 10-15% of their basic as bonus for successful performance management. So, in short, manipulate the numbers disgracefully and perniciously beyond recognition, satisfy the police authority targets were met, get paid thousands as a bonus for hitting targets! As my article on our site reflects, if this isn’t corruption in public office, I’m I don’t know what is.

    • Much of this information was passed onto the National Statistician (Jil Matthieson) after she was commissioned by Theresa May to review crime statistics and detections. Whilst pleased to get a mention in the acknowledgements of her report (under the company name Nice 1 Ltd), she too failed to take the bull by the horns. When push came to shove, all she proposed was that the presentation of the data should be independently processed through her office. It remains to be seen whether she will have the spine for the job.

    • In view of the fact that a considerable number of high powered police chiefs may turn out to be implicated in doubtful practices, it may well be that other means to bring the information to the surface may need to be considered.

    All in all, a real can of worms. My greatest concern for the service (a view shared with Federation Chairman Paul McKeever) is that this fallacious picture of success on reducing crime and increasing detections, played its part in the inclusion of policing in the comprehensive spending review. Which minister in his/her right mind would have authorised cuts with rising crime and downward spiralling detections? The allocation of funding is partly arrived at through assessment of performance criteria. So, the conclusion we must draw from this, is that the deceptive practices have come back to bite the backsides of the Chief Officers that introduced or at the very least condoned them. “Authors of their own misfortune” springs to mind.

    The fact remains that there is plenty of evidence to indicate that the crime statistics and detections scandal pales the MP expenses saga into relative insignificance. I would not wish to see any unnecessary obstructions placed in the path of honourable, honest policing. However, unless and until this mess is exposed fully, public confidence cannot be expected. I have little or no confidence that MP’s of any colour would have the courage or motivation required to take this forward.

    All I can do from my limited position is act as a collator of information, present it to whoever in influence will listen and have the guts to prize open the can. The rest will be up to them.

    Best wishes

    Steve
    Thin Blue Line Uk

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