Police Statistics: A Modern Take on a Greek Tragedy

On 15th January 2014 the UK Statistics Authority withdrew national statistics designation, i.e. the official kite mark, from police recorded crime figures. This landmark decision was taken in response to the findings of the Parliamentary Public Administration Select Committee which had been taking evidence on the reliability of police data. The committee had heard evidence from four serving and retired officers including the author, who exposed the ‘gaming’ practices used to distort police data. The perverse behaviours outlined fall into four distinct categories:

  1. Cuffing’: making crime disappear by failing to record it. This is facilitated by a re-interpretation of the National Crime Recording Standard and a pre disposition to assume that victims are falsely reporting crime in pursuit of bogus insurance claims. In effect treating victims as suspects; thus by an Orwellian twist reducing the well used slogan ‘tough on the causes of crime’, to getting tough on the victims who are causing crime by reporting it.    
  2. ‘Nodding’: the practice whereby suspects nod at locations where they have committed crimes and are able to have them ‘taken into consideration’ (TIC) without any risk of increasing their sentence. This administrative procedure has a long history of abuse and there have been a number of reported instances involving inducements in the form of reduced sentences, sex, drugs and alcohol linked to admissions.
  3. ‘Stitching’: fabricating evidence. Whilst the use of such tactics to secure convictions at Court has largely been addressed by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, administrative procedures still offer the opportunity to obtain detections without sufficient evidence to secure a conviction. The research suggests ‘stitching’ is still prevalent in this arena.
  4. Skewing’: concentrating effort and resources on areas subject of performance indicators. It would appear that more difficult and resource intensive areas of police activity such as the prevention and investigation of serious crime such as child abuse and sexual offences have suffered as police leaders seek to hit the targets set for them. The spread of resources, a by-product of the move to local geographical policing, is also identified as a potential problem as officers are be re-deployed in favour of more affluent neighbourhoods.

 

Employed in unison they represent what can be referred to as a Perverse Policing Model.

At the end of the session the chair of the committee Bernard Jenkin MP made the following comment:

“Personally, I would like to apologise on behalf of politicians of all parties, who are responsible for creating this atmosphere in which targets must be achieved, creating the perverse incentives that have created this situation. This must be addressed by the political class as well as the police.”

On 11th December 2013 Professors Shute and Hough from the Crime Statistics Advisory Committee appeared before the committee and admitted:

“From 2007 or 2008 onwards, that proportion has been falling, so now about 70% of reported crimes end up in police statistics.”

The research conducted by the author (Patrick 2009, 2011) identified the source of the problem much earlier, circa 2004, when a change in the interpretation of rules governing the recording of crime, the National Crime Recording Standard occurred. The Home Office were alerted to this risk in 2005.

On 21st January 2014 The Committee continued their questioning of senior, and academically well qualified figures, responsible for overseeing the reliability of government statistics including Sir Andrew Dilnot, Chair, UK Statistics Authority which had stripped the police statistics of their official designation. The committee members were clearly concerned that these regulators had failed to act earlier and the chair rebuked them in the following terms:

“I would express some disappointment that, from a state of reasonable and fairly commonplace ignorance about the very technical matter of police-recorded crime statistics, we have stumbled into what appears to be a very well-kept and widely-shared secret: that these figures were never very reliable”

The Home Affairs Select Committee also took up the issue and on 7th January 2014 and interviewed Lord Stevens the ex Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service who admitted crime figures were being manipulated:

“I was in a session with police sergeants nine months to a year ago in Cheshire talking about what their feelings were about the police service. All of them said the biggest scandal that is coming our way is recording of crime.”

He then went on to call for further action:

“I think every single force should be subject to an independent investigation – a focused, lasered investigation into crime figures – both detections and recording of crime. This should happen as a matter of urgency”

Taking up the baton again, the Public Administration Committee interviewed Tom Winsor, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and he informed them of the national audit of crime recording planned by the inspectorate. However Mr Winsor appeared reluctant to admit ‘gaming’ behaviour was widespread, deliberate and managerially driven:

“I do not anticipate that we are going to find, as I said, institutional corruption. I would be extraordinarily surprised if we do.”

This is not the conclusion of the research (Patrick 2009; 2011a,b & c) and is not the best starting point for an investigation. However such a predisposition supports the findings of Bevan and Hood (2006) who suggested a ‘Nelson Eye’, i.e. blind eye approach to regulation prevailed. Certainly the response from front line officer contradicted the view of Mr Winsor as the following comment affirms:

“My constable colleagues and I feel nothing but disgust for these practices. Many of us have been telling everyone who will listen about this for decades – I’m fed up of banging my drum about it. So why has this only just come to light? Tom Winsor and others are subtly hinting that the constables are responsible. Mr Winsor, please try to understand that police senior managers rule with iron fists and in the Met at least, they have it all sewn up. They cannot bear dissent, and absolutely cannot bear light being shone upon their venality and incompetence.” (http://justiceandchaos.blogspot.co.uk 23.1.14)

In a short book published by Civitas (A Tangled Web: Why you can’t trust crime statistics Download ebook or buy the paperback here) the author exposes the methodological flaws in the HMIC review of crime recording (http://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmic/publication/crime-recording-making-the-victim-count/).

Whilst the rhetoric in the latest HMIC report is strong, the failure to hold Chief Officers to account will do nothing to restore public trust and dispel the impression that police regulation is little more than symbolic.

Whilst the evidence presented in this short piece would support the call for an independent, judge-led inquiry to establish why the perverse behaviour underpinning un-reliable crime statistics was not challenged earlier, it is unlikely the academic contribution will add to the wisdom of the ancient Greeks whose philosophers would no doubt look down with disdain on the failure to talk knowledge to power.

Dr Rodger Patrick is an independent consultant who researches issues related to police performance, governance and regulation. Email rodger.patrick@blueyonder.co.uk  

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