Tuesday, 6 August 2013

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.

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- Justice and Chaos