Doorstep Crime: The policing ‘scripts’ that decriminalise

Dr Rachael Aplin

The purpose of this blog serves not to detract from the ethical, hard working professionals within the rank and file, of which the writer was proudly part, but instead to expose the shirking uniform carrier(s) (Reiner, 2010) that avoid workload through the perverse ‘cuffing’ of crime (Patrick 2014, p.4).  Through a mixed method analysis the author exposes how, through the use of linguistical scripts, some officers are able to “no crime” cases. In doing so, officers pragmatically apply inappropriate discretion in order to circumvent procedures, which stifles investigations and breaches National Crime Recording Standards (NCRS).

Prior to 2002, crime recording rates across 11 police forces varied between 55% and 82% (HMIC, 2000:x) signalling the necessity for National Crime Recording Standards (NCRS), which aimed to promote consistency in crime recording between England and Wales police forces (Home Office, 2003).The modus operandi of Doorstep crime involves elderly victims being pressurised on their doorstep into having unnecessary work done to their property for an exorbitant fee (Rogue Trader);  or where offenders utilise a falsehood or “distraction” to gain access to a property as a trespasser (Distraction Burglary); which includes purporting to be a bogus official, pretending to be a reputable businessman or miscellaneous guises i.e. ball in the back garden, car ‘broken down’, needing the toilet etc.

Through one police force’s Intelligence Branch the author forwarded questionnaires to 43 England and Wales police forces, resulting in 26 forces responding with 31 completed questionnaires. Additionally, she examined classified police incident data from one force (68 cases) and undertook a Trading Standards focus group. It was only through examination of electronic police data, comparing officers’ summary write-ups with the initial accounts from victims and witnesses, that contradictions and breaches to NCRS were clearly discernible. Such data are ordinarily classified, neither accessible nor exposed and remaining hidden under the ‘sacred canopy’ (Manning 1977, p. 5) of police street operations. Of the police incident reports examined, 44% failed NCRS. There are five key mechanisms used by the unethical officer to actively deconstruct these ‘crimes’ and these are: civil dispute; rogue traders as legitimate businessmen; no property stolen; ‘consenting’ elderly victims and ‘confused’ non-lucid elderly victims.

Such ‘cuffing’ practices are effected through the silver tongued carefully crafted write ups of the officer, reminiscent of the work of Shearing and Ericson (1991). What better way to suggest there is no crime, by elevating the status of the criminal to a bona fide legitimate businessman such as a ‘roofing contractor’ or ‘tradesperson’. Such language lends officer credence to the script of “civil dispute”. The argument oft presented is that the elderly victim has willingly entered into a contractual agreement with the trader, “no matter how unscrupulous that contract may be” (survey no.14). So regardless of the sum fraudulently taken, the repeat victimisation or even the ‘capacity’ of the victim, this is rendered by the unprincipled officer as no longer a ‘police’ matter. Another reliable script is for officers to suggest victims ‘consented’ to traders entering the property, a fact which was not borne out by the evidence. Yet even if this was true, the consent of a victim is legally negated when they discover the deception/false representation (Home Office 2011), so the offender still constitutes a ‘trespasser’ and the definition of burglary is met.

Another significant finding, exposed by comparing officer summaries with victims’ accounts documented on police incident logs, is that particularly when no property has been stolen, there is either an omission in the report that offenders entered the property (sin by omission); or the officer directly manufactures the explanation that traders did not enter the property.  All, it appears, to avoid the submission of a crime report and the workload this generates:

In the case of an 80 year old with Alzheimer’s, despite the incident clearly stating the perpetrator ‘entered his father’s property’ no action is taken and police merely provide ‘reassurance’ to victims and neighbours (incident no.16)

A central script focuses on undermining the competency and reliability of victims, based on their perceived or real failing memory, thereby officers in these cases align with ageist stereotypes  (Aplin, 2021a):  

(Victim) was very forgetful and did not know why I had come..//.. I get the impression (victim) would not recognise the males..//.. as her memory seems very poor ..//..has been unable to confirm that a notifiable crime has taken place, therefore a crime has not been recorded (incident no.56)

Victim with learning difficulties lets a bogus official into the premises on the basis he was a ‘council decorator’ and he ‘looked around’. Concerningly, the officer in the write up justifies ‘no crime’ by discrediting the credibility of the victim, suggesting ‘the facts are different from when she has originally informed the carer of this incident’ (incident no. 2)

The AP unfortunately has no recollection of the events yesterday and can’t recall if she may’ve given the males permission to work on the driveway or even for how much, daughter has cancelled the cheque..//..the driveway was only washed and she has suspicions over how genuine they were..//..no offences disclosed at this stage. In addition, the AP states that the males have not entered the house at any stage. However, again, with the AP having Alzheimer’s it is difficult to say how true this is (incident no. 59)

In that final extract, it is only when one observes the initial report that the victim and several bogus tradesmen “‘all had a cup of tea and biscuits”’ inside the house, leading up to the elderly lady writing a cheque (incident no.59); does one identify the clear discrepancy. Someone is not telling the truth; moreover, some officers are “putting words in people’s’ mouths” (Holdaway,1983, p.112), either by removing or radically altering victim testimony, which becomes entirely drowned out by a dominant officer narrative (Aplin, 2019). Not only does evidence exist that perpetrators entered properties (thereby leading to the under recording of burglary and attempt burglary offences), victim vulnerabilities, whether physical or mental, appear to be employed as a prop by some officers, to undermine victim testimony and alter the circumstances surrounding the crime, justifying ‘no crime’ and no police investigation (Aplin, 2021a).  Moreover, this research perfectly illustrates the art of “stitching” within the perverse policing model, whereby some officers fabricate and manipulate the evidence (Patrick, 2014; Grace, 2022) in order to present an alternative narrative, reminiscent of Chatterton’s ‘defensive writing’ (1983). The ramifications are, that although academics place the assumed vulnerability of older peopleat the top of the victim hierarchy (Walklate, 2011),  aligning with Christie’s ‘ideal victim’ status (1986), this appears to be the polar opposite of the way aberrant officers depict such victims. Paradoxically, despite being entitled to enhanced safeguarding and special measures if vulnerable (YJCEA, 1999), the treatment of these victims by some officers serves to delegitimise their claim to victimhood. Such victims therefore typify the “forgotten players” of the criminal justice system (Duggan, 2018, p.3).

The central premise is that such scripts are relied on because officers pragmatically begin with the end in mind, with some carefully conducting a cost/benefit analysis as to whether a case is worthy of time investment before committing to a crime report. They are acutely mindful, as they were historically, that recording a crime generates workload, which is deemed a “drain on resources” (Edwards 1986, p.235) when officers perceive the incident is ‘going nowhere’. This method rations workload. Such research endorses Lipsky’s contention that due to large caseloads and scarce resources, public officials develop “short cuts” and simplifications which not only limit demand (2010 p.83) but actively suppress demand (HMICFRS, 2017). The very idea that officers have no discretion flies in the face of these findings. Only when crimes are recorded and investigated properly will older victims of doorstep crime be safeguarded and avoid prolonged and repeat victimisation. Until there is an ethical focus of all officers “doing the right thing” by victims, such cuffing practices will endure and voiceless victims will remain marginalised.

Dr Rachael Aplin is a Senior Lecturer in Policing and Criminology at Northumbria University and was previously a Detective Sergeant in the Greater Manchester Police. Email: rachael.aplin@northumbria.ac.uk

Comprehensive details of the research findings can be found here:

Aplin, R. (2021a) Police discretion, pragmatism and crime ‘deconstruction’: Police doorstep crime investigations in England and Wales. Policing and Society: An International Journal of Research and Policy.pp.1-20. https://doi.org/10.1080/10439463.2021.1906668

Aplin, R. (2021b) The policing, investigation and governance of ‘Rogue Trader’ fraud: Whose responsibility? The Police Journal: Theory, Practice and Principles. pp.1-20. https://doi.org/10.1177/0032258X211020038

This research builds on findings from:

Aplin, R. (2019) Policing UK Honour-Based Abuse Crime. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-18430-8

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