Beyond the smoke and mirrors of crime statistics

Beyond the smoke and mirrors of crime statistics

by Liam Kerr
article from Saturday 14, October, 2017

IN HIS BOOK “How the Good Guys Finally Won: Notes from an Impeachment Summer”, journalist Jimmy Breslin suggests "All political power is primarily an illusion... Mirrors and blue smoke, beautiful blue smoke rolling over the surface of highly polished mirrors... If somebody tells you how to look, there can be seen in the smoke great, magnificent shapes, castles and kingdoms, and maybe they can be yours."

Mirrors and blue smoke; magicians making objects appear or disappear with clever movement and use of mirrors and rolling, distracting smoke.

And so to the Recorded Crime statistics which came out in September and give statistics on crimes and offences recorded by the police, to provide a measure of the volume of criminal activity with which the police are faced.

The figures were, said Michael Matheson, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, “encouraging” as they showed a 3 per cent fall in overall recorded crime to “historically low levels” and trumpeted “… the lowest level of recorded crime since 1974”.

That IS encouraging. The lowest level of recorded crime in 43 years must be a good thing.

But let’s move the mirror a little...

Violent crime is on the up:

  • The number of non-sexual crimes of violence is up from 6,737 in 2015-16 to 7,164 in 2016-17;
  • Homicides, including murder, culpable homicide and death by dangerous driving? Up by 30 per cent;
  • Sexual cyber-crimes? Up 50 per cent since 2014; and
  • Attempted murder, serious assault and robbery… all up.

There are nuances here but the figures should reflect the unadulterated truth rather than a sanitised version, refracted to fit a Government press release.

And then there’s the smoke… Keep watching carefully because it turns out the Scottish Government’s rules for official crime counting mean “lesser” assaults — which, just so we’re all clear include punching and kicking victims, having a weapon, those resulting in broken noses or loss of consciousness — are not classified as “violent crime” but “offences”.

By not including these the SNP successfully reduces the official victim toll from 68,482 to just 6,775. So when the “reduction” is trumpeted, the figure actually excludes nearly 60,000 assaults.

Don’t just take my word for it. The Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Derek Penman, first raised this issue in 2014 and has since called for the SNP to review its crime counting rules, saying that ‘crime statistics need to be meaningful and presented in a way the public can understand and which can be used to inform effective preventive approaches’.

Earlier this year he said that figures combining violence with and without injury offer “a better overall measure of violent crime”, as is the case with the Crime Survey for England and Wales.

In fact, this “reclassification” of crimes manages to spirit away more than 288,000 offences from the official statistics/press release. Playing fast and loose with the figures for PR whilst victims are having to live with the aftermath.

“Yeah but, no, but”, says the Cabinet Secretary as he tweets: ‘’The distinction between ‘crimes’ & ‘offences’ has applied to Scotland’s crime statistics under all previous administrations, since the 1920s’’.

True in that statistics in the 1920s drew a distinction between “crimes” and “offences”, however no form of assault falls under the ‘IV: Miscellaneous offences’ heading until 1970 (“petty assault”). He claims the classification was the same – it was demonstrably not.

Furthermore, press releases which highlighted only violent crime and conveniently forgot to mention the total common assault figures were not so prominent (by which I mean: “didn’t happen”) in the 1920s. The statistics from the 1920s were the aggregated recorded crime/criminal proceedings. Now they are published separately

Then there’s the weasel word inherent in the title: “recorded”. The Association of Scottish Police Superintendents has said recorded crime statistics do not ‘’in any way’’ represent the demands placed upon the service, highlighting that 80 per cent of their work is more complex and does not result in a crime report.

Police Scotland agree, saying: ‘’crime figures are not an accurate measure of demand’’. The Force’s ten-year strategy notes: ‘’Only 1 in 5 incidents attended by police result in a crime being recorded...considering recorded crime in isolation is therefore not an accurate measure of demand on policing services.’’

Even the Scottish Government admits that 62 per cent of all crime is not reported to police - including 44 per cent of violent crime. The 2014-15 Scottish Crime and Justice Survey estimated that of 688,000 incidents of crime, 38 per cent came to the attention of police.

But when clear-up rates (cases where there is sufficient evidence to prosecute) are down at 50 per cent, it’s no wonder some victims don’t bother.

You read that correctly: the latest statistics on clear-up rates show that, at the moment, criminals, quite literally, stand a 50/50 chance of getting away with it.

And just for full transparency, that’s the average. When you interrogate the figures behind the press releases, fraud has a clear-up rate of 39.9 per cent and for housebreakers, a mere 22.5 per cent will be caught.

There is a scene towards the end of “Something Wicked This Way Comes” in which Charles Holloway triumphs over Mr. Dark, finds his son in the mirror maze and destroys all the mirrors. The truth revealed and the World a better place for it.

Perhaps time for the Cabinet Secretary to read up: collate and report ALL the data, not just that which confirms that which they wish to trumpet; gather all the relevant figures together so people can see actually what the true level of reported crime is; and factor in the significant amount of unreported crime.

People will be rightly concerned that police simply aren’t being given sufficient Government support or resources to tackle the apparent rise in crime.

A joined-up, practical and transparent approach on this issue will ensure that the public have full confidence in crime statistics. The current spin does a disservice to the victims, is at best confusing, at worst misleading and does not serve the best interests of the public.

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