Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Meaningless UK Crime Statistics

My previous post coincidentally sheds light on the BBC News article by Dominic Casciani (BBC News. Analysis: Is the thin blue line thinner?) published shortly thereafter, on 18th July. My primary point was that the rules governing crime-recording change frequently, depending on whichever particular crime about which the police senior management happens to be panicking. When the number of robberies, or burglaries, for example, becomes higher than the Commissioner wants them, an edict goes out to all of us to stop recording that type of crime.

Robberies are then recorded only as thefts. Or burglaries as criminal damage with theft. If frauds or rapes are too high, the burden of proof that must be satisfied before a crime can be recorded, increases.

The obvious consequence of this lack of consistency is that comparing this year’s crime figures with the year before is a meaningless exercise. And that of course undermines all the very serious debate going on over police effectiveness.

Dilbert says it best:

Arbitrary Crime-Recording

I am mystified as to why this article (Kent Police 'inaccurately recorded crimes') has appeared only now. It seems always to have been common knowledge amongst my colleagues that the crime-recording policies under which they labour change almost on a monthly basis. Police constables – even those not responsible for police blogs – always grumble and joke whenever management issues the latest arbitrary instructions on crime recording.

There exist Home Office rules for recording crimes (Counting rules for recorded crime). However, missives from the senior management of the Metropolitan Police Service are instead in the form of emails cascaded down from on-high.

The way this crime-recording tomfoolery manifests in the day-to-day activities of cops is as follows. For example a year ago we were told we were recording too many robberies. Consequently officers were instructed that when a person’s mobile phone or handbag is snatched on the street they were no longer to record this as a robbery but as a simple theft. They were also never to create a crime report for robbery without authority from the sergeant of the robbery squad. Another time, they were told that the burglary figures were too high. Then followed instructions on how burglary reports were no longer to be created. Instead officers were to list them as a criminal damage (e.g. a broken window) and a theft (jewellery stolen).

Another factor is the ‘not our remit’ culture: investigative departments such as robbery and burglary squads are always under pressure. A robbery squad will always try to downgrade the snatch-theft of a mobile phone to a simple theft because they can then pass it to another team or officer. The same happens with frauds, sexual assaults and other crimes. If the media understood that the definitions of crime types are so malleable and arbitrary perhaps they might publish fewer misleading articles.

These perpetual changes in crime recording are all part of the job – not corruption per se, and not even considered secret, which is why in the first instance I pondered the newsworthiness of the above article about Kent Police. No, the contortions in crime-recording are simply a management tool for bringing the crime stats in under the target. It enables senior managers to make occasional media-worthy pronouncements (see below), and more generally to satisfy the Home Office and so have their budgets renewed annually.

Paradoxically, forces must support the Commissioner’s claims by showing low levels of burglary and robbery, yet constables are pressured daily to maximise their arrests and detections in order that forces can hit their Home Office targets. Similarly, corporate propaganda on police station walls always trumpets ever-increasing detection and arrest rates, but also ever-decreasing recorded crime. Both cannot be true. The only way both these conflicting objectives can be achieved is by continually altering the way these crimes are recorded.

Massaging of statistics will happen in any system driven entirely by targets. (Consider the ever-mutating rules for calculating unemployment or inflation). Anybody who thinks otherwise should wake up to our modern state directed on the basis of simplistic numerical models.

It’s important to realise that no constable has the standing to question any of this – at best he would be rudely ignored, at worst disciplined and sacked for insubordination. We are just numbers and must do what we are told. And mentioning any of this to people outside the job is of course another sackable offence. Heaven forbid there should be any transparency or genuine dialogue between the public and Scotland Yard.

Knowing all of the above lends a certain context to the Commissioner’s statements last year, when he insisted that burglary was lower than any time during the previous 27 years:

Burglary victims hit back as top policeman says: You're safest for 27 years at home

Likewise for his proclamations since then – that the statistics prove crime has reduced significantly under his stewardship.

Policing the UK.

Enlightened reader, welcome to my first ever blog. I have been driven to this, kicking and screaming, by the passion and anger I feel over our Criminal Justice System. Our police is in a terrible state – not only for the constables quietly suffering daily insults and abuse from their own management, but also for the public. I am a constable and I passionately want a career where I feel respected and properly utilised by my employer. I am also a member of the public and so deserve a properly functioning police service. Police senior management, in the furtherance of their own careers, are laughing at all of us. They are taking the mickey and getting away with it.

It’s convenient for them that constables have no right to strike, no protection by employment law, no personal life that the job can’t invade, no control over their working hours or workload, and are forbidden from speaking out without the certainty of being sacked.

My career includes both county forces and the Met, and I simply cannot any longer give support to such organisations. I have to communicate my experiences. My criticisms aren’t against the constables, who are almost entirely decent hard-working folk who make the job work. The constables accept almost unbelievable intrusion into their personal lives, but they keep making it work because they still think it’s a good job and an important one. Despite the recent erosion that has turned a career for life into a job, the rank-and-file still care about their professionalism.

We need a management who get out of the way and allow the PCs to do the job they love. Managers must also start communicating with the public. If we're not allowed to speak, and the only information comes in the form of management sound-bites and propaganda how can people know what we do and what can go wrong?

In the hope of bringing about a fruitful dialogue, I intend to share here some of my thoughts in the lead up to the completion of my manuscript. I hope you will find some of them interesting.