POLICE: Lies, damned lies and statistics

Have your say

The above quotation, variously attributed to a number of late 19th Century luminaries, in my opinion aptly describes the publication of the latest national and local crime statistics.

For decades, and probably since the requirement to record crime figures began, the police have unofficially been playing what is known in the job as “the numbers game” – the massaging and manipulation of volume crime figures to suit their purpose(s) at any given time in history.

There are essentially two main playing strategies: one of maximising numbers and one of minimising numbers – these can be whole or partial strategies dependent upon the prevailing political, social, and economic climate. A maximising strategy may seek to attract police funding streams – many of which are ring-fenced for particular crime fighting initiatives.

Or it may seek to highlight specific criminal offence categories for whatever reason. A minimising strategy, on the other hand, may seek to reduce police workloads and spending, change public perceptions about police efficiency and effectiveness, or, more usually, to enhance force detection rates by recording fewer undetected crimes.

The potential pay-offs of both strategies are never guaranteed and unfortunately the police generally find themselves in a no-win situation with their political paymasters. They are supposedly bound by “Home Office counting rules” when recording crime figures.

However, these have continued to be periodically amended over the years and will always remain open to interpretation and manipulation by those who wish to do so in certain key areas.

Furthermore, a number of policies adopted by the police in recent years also serve to skew the figures. Many minor criminal offences reported to them end up as being recorded as “incidents” as opposed to crimes.

Insurance companies appear to be comfortable with this and only ask if the matter has been reported to the police.

An “incident number” is not the same as a “crime number”. Incident logs run consecutively on a 24 hour basis in each force area to give a daily total on some form of database. Crime registers, however, run consecutively on an annual basis in each force area to give a yearly total, which can be broken down into different offence categories.

Another tactic allegedly employed by one large Midlands Police Force concerns the non-recording of volume crimes committed against public authorities and utility services – especially where the relevant organisation has its own investigative branch.

If these practices are being followed, then at best “official crime figures” can only give a very general indication of true volume crime trends.

It is also sad to say and all too apparent from speaking to others that some people have lost faith in the police and simply do not bother to report offences to them.

The police are caught between a rock and a hard place – maximising crime figures at present is clearly a waste of time as there is no money for more resources.

They have been forced to adopt a minimising strategy for several years now and this looks unlikely to change. Unfortunately, this will continue to have a negative effect on the quality of service they are able to provide and sadly will also continue to alienate them from many law-abiding members of the public.

It has been said that a police service is simply a reflection of the society it serves. Until the government of the day recognises the fact that instead of cutting police budgets there needs to be some serious and urgent reinvestment, then service standards will continue to decline, public safety will be put at further risk and crime WILL pay for many.

My former colleagues, like it or not, are being forced into seizing every opportunity to cut corners, take short cuts, and shed long-held responsibilities to other agencies in order to ease their workload.

Nor can I see our new crime commissioner changing things for the better, even if he gets his 1,000 volunteers.

As for official crime figures, as true statistics they are probably as meaningful as they were in Victorian times.

Tom Bell

Retired police officer