Are Crime Statistics Falling Because Police Are Failing to Report Them?
Photo by Dulcie Lee
Britain's overwhelmed, beat-up government made a proud announcement last week: there had been an eight percent drop in overall crime during 2012. Meaning police and those in the government in charge of police are doing the job they're being paid to do at the level they're supposed to do it. Good work! Murder is totally going out of fashion (down by ten percent), sexual offences are so out (down by five percent) and even the one-time Olympic gold-holder of cool, knife crime, fell a huge 11 percent.
This is bigger news than it would normally be because, if history is anything to go by, the UK normally sees a rise in crime during a recession. What's also keeping Dave and George smugly perched atop their high horse is the fact that the figures have defied everyone's expectations after the government made huge financial cuts to the police force, ending up in the sacking of over 11,500 officers to date.
The announcement was largely viewed as hugely promising news by experts. Professor Mike Hough, a member of the team who helped set up the British crime survey, said that the statistics show there's been a “real and welcome fall”. He added that "it's striking and unexpected, especially in light of the fiscal crisis, because the main impact of that is bearing down on the poorest, most marginal social groups".
It is unexpected, and nobody's really explained why exactly the statistics are falling. The drop in violent crime is just riding the downwards wave it's been on since it peaked in the mid 90s, but the fall in property crime is tougher to analyse. You might suggest that our cars, houses and belongings are being protected in a much more sophisticated way and thieves are simply failing to develop at the same speed, but good thieves make a living out of being cunning, so that's unlikely. Vandalism is falling, too, supposedly because our streets are becoming increasingly wipe-clean thanks to anti-graffiti paint. But I reckon that one might just be down to the fact that people are starting to realise how reprehensibly lame graffiti is.
There are those, however, who explain the dramatic drop in crime rates as simply because more crimes are going unreported. Jenny Jones – the Green Party's London mayoral candidate, who recently published a report about the relationship between police and young people – argues that, “people who have lost trust in police don’t report crimes, which is a particular problem among young people and ethnic minorities".
She went on to explain that there are specific crimes going unreported. “Rape is one, sexual assault is one, bike theft is one and then just other crimes against young people generally. These are the casualties that are consistently underreported.” Police and young people haven't had the best relationship historically, and despite all the counselling and attempts to better integrate police into communities, there doesn't seem to be much promise of that trust growing any time soon. And for a large amount of young people, retaliation, revenge and self-enforced justice beats spending hours filing crime reports for what they consider minor issues.
Another arguably more worrying explanation for crime figures falling is that police aren't recording crime properly. Jones mentioned that "there have been various reports recently, including anonymous quotes from supposed police officers who say they don't record crimes properly because they're overwhelmed".
John Flatley, head of the crime statistics and analysis division at the Office of National Statistics, also claims that "police-recorded crime appears to overstate the true rate at which crime has been falling". He went on to explain: "With some lower level crimes, there is a judgment call to be made as to whether the incident attended to by the officer is actually a crime or just a low level incident that wouldn't get into the crime figures. If there's a pressure on officers to reduce crime, then their judgment will sway more towards putting those kind of things in the low level incident category." It's also been claimed that at least 400,000 minor crimes went unrecorded last year, making those statistics look increasingly less impressive.
Besides the deep-seated issues bubbling between British citizens and those who are supposed to protect them, and the fact that members of law enforcement are intentionally cutting corners, there's a bigger looming problem at hand here. These announcements are only going to further the government's idea that cuts to the police force are justified and will make little difference to how effectively they run. Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne said, "Police reform is working... these figures show forces are rising to the challenge of doing more with less.”
Granted, a drop in any kind of crime is a good thing, but if those drops stem from mistrust or the police failing society, that's clearly not such a good thing. But most worrying is the government's apparent willingness to triumph their cuts as the thing making the difference. By that logic, if we were to withdraw every penny of funding to the police, all crime would stop completely. How about trying that out for 2013?
Follow George on Twitter: @georgemarsden
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