The use of crime statistics


I read with interest the ONS figures from the 2016 Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW). I have always been sceptical of crime statistics, particularly how they are used, which is often via the media to bolster some kind of agenda. In the Police they would often be used to justify that a particular person or team had been successful, that there was a pressing need for more resource allocation or by local groups including politicians and community groups who felt they should have more Police Officers. The College of Policing and the HIMC found that crime statistics are treated with scepticism by the public at large, who are reassured more by contact with police and how visible they are.

Many students of Criminology and Sociology will be expected to understand the types of surveys being undertaken, what these mean and how they are used. Let me start with the following statement, neither of these present a totally accurate picture of crime. The Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) is a victimisation survey, where approximately 50,000 households are asked (interviewed face to face) about their experiences of crime in the past 12 months. They may well not have reported those crimes to the police for various reasons. Those numbers are then projected into a larger population, but are generally considered more accurate than recorded crime for reasons that will be explored. The overall trend though is still that crime rates are generally falling (alternatively the chance of becoming a victim has continued a downward trend). CSEW does not include figures based upon businesses being victims or the state (e.g. drug possession). Therefore, when using this survey please consider they may include all offence types.

Police recorded crime is usually a set of crimes pre-identified by the researchers (rather than all offences) and covers a much higher number of incidents or victims than the 50,000 for the CSEW. The main faults with this set of numbers is that they are volatile to changes in recording standards, volatile doe to police tactics in combatting crime and the changing nature of how the public views crime and legitimate responses (including discourse). The report states the recording changes have made it appear crime may be higher than expected whilst the latter point can be seen in the growth of historic sexual abuse cases as a Post Saville. The middle point can perhaps be viewed in the rise of a relative new category in the UK of female genital mutilation, or as one retired officer told me during research into force priorities ‘if you look for it, you will find it’.

However, looking at recorded crime and CSEW together can indicate where there is an under reporting of offences which could then help develop new recording practices. Recorded crime can also let us know what the workload of the police is and where most demand is. This allows us to consider the statements that police demand is changing, especially in terms of cybercrime and fraud cases, both of which are known to be more complicated and labour intensive. Those offence types may well show that the police cannot cope with the demand or complex nature of the work and this will in turn expand the police family (plurality). Overall the statistics are showing a rise in reported crime of around 8%.

Anti-Social behaviour (ASB) is accepted as having the ability to drastically reduce the quality of life of individuals, households and communities. Whilst some incidents may be minor crimes, they may well be recorded as ASB instead. It is important not to overlook ASB as it can undermine public confidence in the police and partner agencies. Overall, ASB fell by around 7% in the last year to a figure of around 1.8 million incidents.

The stories that will come out over the next few days will have agendas attached to them. One of the headline figures in the report is a 6% fall in crimes committed against adults. On the face of it that sounds great, but it depends what you are hoping to take from the figures. Already Steve White of the Police Federation has highlighted the first time inclusion of around 5.8 million fraud and cyber offences, which must take an enormous number of Police hours to record, investigate, process and action. The Federation is happy those figures are included because they show the enormity of the task they face when considering the continuing fall in officer numbers (between March 2010 and March 2015 the number fell by 18,500). Steve White claims another 3000 left in the past year. The emerging picture must surely be the Police are unable to keep taking those kinds of cuts when the nature of crime is changing into more complex investigations online. However, the government is pursuing the changes to the police family in the face of the changing nature of crime. An example of this is recruiting more graduates as crime investigation is becoming more complex.

I anticipate the government will issue a statement along the lines of ‘the report shows the nature of crime is changing and the police must accept responsibility for the reform agenda suggested by Tom Winsor. It may also highlight that Police although Police recorded crime has increased this is due to improved recording practices. So even if unrecorded crime is falling or static, that does not reflect the very large increase in crimes that were recorded by the Police. The problem there is it increases the workload on an already declining workforce. We must also be careful not to overlook that cybercrime has been happening for many years now, it is only just being included in this report in 2016. I am not sure we will hear much of the rise in homicides which is up 34% to 571. The impact these offences cannot be underestimated, however from a Police perspective each of those murder teams contained many officers who were not available for other duties.

I would use statistics in your assignments, however be careful as to the source and how reliable the figures are. Check the source is valid and reliable, so yes Wikipedia is out. Include quotes from people who are using the quotes as this will allow you to explore greater discussion, media outlets can do the work for you here. I have interpreted and commented on the figures differently to how someone else may have used them. Finally, try to use the original source such as the ONS as this will look like you have done your research.

#crime #criminology #sociology #police #statistics #students #university #hmic

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Jonathan South MA, BA (hons), Pcep (YJ)