1. For a start, the chances are you think crime is on the rise. Not sure why you’d think that…
Given these stories are so prevalent, it’s odd how infrequently we ask where we’re getting our information on crime trends from.
2. A lot of our information comes from the police, and it’s not very accurate.
Police-recorded figures might seem a pretty accurate way to present a picture of what’s going on. Indeed policy makers and commentators are generally more than happy to take them at face value. Which is odd, because they’re deeply flawed, for a number of reasons.
3. For starters, a lot of crime is, almost by definition, secret.
The whole point of drug dealing, or blackmail, or fraud, or any number of other crimes, is not to get caught.
It’s hard to say how much crime is never recorded - some criminologists put the figure as high as 70% but to be quite honest they’re guessing, because well, no one knows. That’s the point.
4. And the police mess up the figures when they do their jobs.
There’s the perverse effect that better policing can make the crime rate go up. If the police clamp down on a crime like burglary it’s likely arrest figures - and thereby the crime rate - will go up, whereas if they let it carry on in blissful ignorance the figures go down. Different commanders can have completely different priorities too - some are very strict on, say, prostitution, while others will generally let it slide.
And proactive policing can actually end up being a bad thing. Perhaps the zenith of this absurdity can be seen in this story from 2001. The Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset, Steve Pilkington, managed to get the force in Bristol to mediate between the Aggis - local drug dealers - and a gang of Yardies who were hoping to muscle in on their turf.
Home Office officials, concerned by the corresponding drop in the number of arrests, tried to force him out of a job.
5. Also: the goalposts keep shifting.
This is a Daily Mail story from 2008. What had happened was that less serious offences were bumped up, so grievous bodily harm, for example, now included offences where no one was hurt. As with so much crime reporting, it’s not untrue to say violent crime is up 22%, except, it kind of is, because the actual amount of crime hasn’t changed.
When you consider this happens for scores upon scores of different crimes, you can see how confused the police can get - never mind civil servants, journalists and above all the general public.
And such changes are hardly going to be covered by the media like this, are they?
7. We also don’t tell the police about crime anywhere near as much as you’d think.
Here’s a video of some undercover police officers brazenly stealing a bike in a city centre. Lots of people saw them, not one person reported the crime.
This Audit Commission report suggests that for various reasons (including fear, guilt and cynicism) nearly two thirds of people don’t tell the police about crimes they’ve either suffered or seen.
This isn’t just about minor crimes - under reporting is rife with regard to rape, stabbings and shootings.
8. Here’s a really suprising thing: a third of crime reported to the police is never recorded as crime.
To quote Nick Ross’s book Crime: “Retired officers will sometimes readily concede that, in years gone past, many quite unpleasant crimes were not taken very seriously: people who were racially abused, young men ‘having a scrap’, and even serious bodily harm if inflicted by a husband on his wife. part from anything else, turning a blind eye could save a lot of work…”
In 2000 the Police Inspectorate found error rates ranging from 15-65% and in 2013 the Office for National Statistics warned the police might be tinkering with figures to meet targets.
The books are cooked. It’s official.
9. But the authorities are finally starting to act on this.
In January the UK Statistics Authority, which oversees the publication of official data, said it could no longer approve crime figures based on information recorded by the police in England and Wales. The reason was the massive discrepancy between those figures and the Crime Survey for England and Wales.
This seeks to measure the amount of crime in England and Wales by asking around 50,000 people aged 16 and over (as of January 2009), living in private households, about the crimes they have experienced in the last year. And as a yardstick, it has almost as many issues as the police figures described above.
But nevertheless, there was a huge discrepancy here: from 2006 to 2012 there was a percentage fall in offences recorded by the police of 33%, and of 17% by the Crime Survey. The Office for National Statistics concluded police forces might be guilty of a “gradual erosion of compliance” with the national rules on counting crime.
10. The moral is that crime statistics are so arcane the media can basically write any story it likes.
That is a real story, by the way.
11. And we know what story it likes to tell the most…
12. And almost every time such coverage could be reduced to a single headline.
Honestly. That’s what’s been happening since about 1995.