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Sharp practice on knife crime stats?

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Mark Easton | 16:54 UK time, Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Home Office has been anxious about public confidence in published crime statistics, but some will wonder whether today they may have undermined their credibility.

Regular readers will know of my scepticism that we ever suffered an "epidemic" of knife crime this year, but I would urge extreme caution in drawing conclusions from the latest data released by the Home Office.

Firstly, the new numbers are not official crime statistics. They will not be published by the Office for National Statistics, which is independent of government and supposedly ensures figures are free of political spin.

ntk bus advert by alan connorInstead, the Home Office has rung up police forces and asked them for statistics to illustrate the effectiveness of their "Tackling Knives Action Programme" (TKAP).

"Serious knife crimes against young people (homicide, attempted murder, GBH with intent) fell by 17% between June and October 2008 in the ten TKAP areas," the Home Office press release proclaims.

Sounds good. But 17% actually equals, er... 17 incidents. In June, there were 98 serious offences. In October there were 81. In fact, the Home Office confirmed to me this afternoon that in September, there were only 68.

This is statistical nonsense. Some papers may like to proclaim tomorrow that knife crime has "soared 19%" on the basis of the figures from the latest two months. But this would be equally misleading. When you get down to such small numbers, percentage change doesn't mean much.

And comparing figures month on month is also questionable, because crime is seasonal. Gangsters don't go out so much when it gets cold.

Here's another of their claims.

"In London, there were 18% fewer young victims (under 20) of knife crime between April and September 2008 than in the same period in 2007."

Odd to choose April to September, when their scheme only really got going in July. Sceptics might think this has something to do with the fact that recorded knife crime was already falling before their scheme.

Figures from the Met show that, despite public perceptions, in the year to June 2007 there were 11,642 knife crimes recorded in the capital. In the year to June 2008 there were 9,997 - a fall of 14%. Serious violence and assault with less serious injury was down 5.2% and youth violence generally was down 7.7%.

What about the rest of the TKAP areas? Well, we don't know the story elsewhere, because the Home Office only got the figures from the police on the understanding that they would not publish a regional breakdown. So we can't tell whether knife crime has gone up in one place and down in another.

We also don't know what figures the Home Office may have been given but decided not to publish.

tkap203.jpgNone of which is to suggest that these selective statistics don't offer some encouragement. If you increase targeted stop and searches by 10,000 per month and then see a halving of the proportion of those operations which uncover a weapon, it may mean that fewer young people are carrying knives.

But what today's announcement really looks like is an attempt to show cause and effect: politicians take action on knife crime and, within weeks, knife crime falls.

And realistically, it is not that simple. The intense level of activity is unlikely to be sustained. Changing behaviour and shifting crime trends are jobs for the long term.

Perhaps the Tackling Knives Action Programme reassures people that something is being done. It's also important that people have confidence in crime statistics.


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  • 1. At 6:01pm on 11 Dec 2008, alexanderjbateman wrote:

    The whole knife crime issue is another sign that politicians of all stripes are allowed to publish propaganda via the media without it being questioned if it is sensationalist enough to sell copy or gain viewers/listeners.
    The strains of the economy on the free press have reduced it to being, neither free, nor able to properly perform its role of holding politicians to account, because far too concerned with trivia about who they are sleeping with.

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  • 2. At 6:47pm on 11 Dec 2008, tarquin wrote:

    I wish more people would read this blog, a drip of reality in a sensationalised world

    The government takes responsibility for a short term, misleading statistic to shut up the papers and look tough to voters - in reality it's been a long term thing, barely touched by government activity, probably more to do with economic conditions

    be interesting to see how crime rates will go if this recession keeps on going (the only sensible thing I've heard out of jaqui smith, which she then backtracked on)

    that's if someone is clever enough to work out the real stats

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  • 3. At 9:13pm on 11 Dec 2008, sweetsmellofsuccess wrote:

    This is an all-too-familiar set of tricks from the Home Office. I recall working for a police force and being rung by Home Office 'statistics experts' asking for our action plan about the 50% rise in robberies.

    It had risen from two per month, to three...

    Selective figures, selective time periods, selective interpretations. Has anyone ever seen one of these special 'throw money at a tabloid-induced panic' that hasn't magically resulted in a desired drop in the figures?

    Meanwhile the pitiful centralisation, politicisation and standardisation to the lowest common denominator, continues unnoticed and unchecked.

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  • 4. At 10:42pm on 11 Dec 2008, AlanGreenall wrote:

    The only way to stop young people from carring knifes is for every single one of these people to understand the consiquences. Although i completly agree with more random searchs it's not going to solve the problem all together. The only way the problem can be solved is if all young people stand together and say no, this is not acceptable. I watched a program resently where people around my age (18) were going into schools telling stories of how they have lost people to knife crime and how it has affected their lifes. This sends a much stronger message than any goverment intervention. projects like thes should be better funded and would make a big differance. It is also wrong to assum that all teenagers carry knifes. Stories like this make people afraid. ive seen older people walking on the otherside of the road so they dnt have to walk past me because of my age. This is just ridiculous. Its all because the press only give you bad stories about my age group. i can't remember the last time a picked up a paper and heard more of good things we are doing in the community than the bad and there is no doubt there are about 100 times as many examples of this if not alot more.

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  • 5. At 10:47pm on 11 Dec 2008, MonkeyBot 5000 wrote:

    "If you increase targeted stop and searches by 10,000 per month and then see a halving of the proportion of those operations which uncover a weapon, it may mean that fewer young people are carrying knives."

    Only if you also see a corresponding drop in the number of knife crimes, otherwise it just shows an increase in the observational and running skills of the people who are carrying knifes.

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  • 6. At 11:57pm on 11 Dec 2008, cping500 wrote:

    Mark instead of wittering on about the Home Office why not build a story using FOI on Police Ambulance Service and A&E.... on knife crime: I suspect outside London and Glasgow it is not an issue and even there is is confined to certain localities.

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  • 7. At 00:21am on 12 Dec 2008, estobanmaturin wrote:

    Governments (not just this one) throw out such numbers to try to convince the citizens that something useful is being done. Much of the media throws out such numbers to sell their product.
    Most citizens have no idea at all about how to interpret such numbers.
    Most people will not understand what a 'standard deviation' attempts to measure, or notions of population sampling: their minds are made up by anecdotal information (more often from the media than from the government) and from inbuilt prejudice.
    If the Daily Meldrew encouraged their readers to engage some thought - perhaps high-school math would help - instead of enhancing the miserabalist
    tendancy, we might have politicians who could speak sense rather than populist nonsense.

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  • 8. At 2:29pm on 12 Dec 2008, Marksword wrote:

    Statistics / Media hype / Political gains, etc...i feel we are missing admitting the cause of the problem (which in most things is 90% towards the cure).
    We do have knife crime in this country. Are the majority of victims gang members themselves? Lets cut through it and realise that carrying a weapon is illegal and no one has the backbone to impose greater sentencing on carriers of knives and gang members. If caught with a knife, why not lock them up for a long time. Protect the public and start setting an example to the youth of today. This would not be tolerated in any other European country. People carry knives in the UK because they can and they can get away with it.

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  • 9. At 4:19pm on 12 Dec 2008, oldsnudge wrote:

    This release of information smacks of Ministerial leaks to ensure the whole story does not come out. This incident just sums up the incompetent useless Home Secretary.

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  • 10. At 4:30pm on 12 Dec 2008, Wartonsuperman wrote:

    When I joined the Police in 1963, I was slightly worried about not quite making the performance I should, I stated this to my Sergeant and he told me not to worry about statistics, as they are like prostitutes in the you can make them do what you want. Fiddling statistics went on throughout my career to prove my efficiency and no doubt still to this day. It was during the Victorian era that the expression 'cuffing' crime was first used meaning that the officer recorded minor crime on his cuff than doing it officially. It was well known that the Detective Inspector kept unsolved and unrecorded crimes in his desk to be resurrected as detected crime at an opportune moment. The police service are only one establishment who adjust figures to prove their efficiency.Figures are not to be believed, they only prove what the originator want them to prove.

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  • 11. At 4:40pm on 12 Dec 2008, Gordon wrote:

    Perhaps Easton should stop acting as a mouthpiece of Nu Labour and actually do his own analysis instead?

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  • 12. At 5:07pm on 12 Dec 2008, John1948 wrote:

    If the provisional figures had shown that the government's policy was not working, then they would not have published them. I suppose that the figures would have been leaked to a Tory spokesman, who would have accused the Home Sec of supressing unfavourable figures - no one would have listened to gov's pleas that they were only provisional and further clarification was being sought. Sounds familiar?

    Is politics a game, or is it a mechanism for running the country?

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  • 13. At 5:15pm on 12 Dec 2008, mikemadf wrote:

    Yet another sign that anyone who believes any fugure a Government issues needs a reality check.

    And the result will be : more distrust of politicians...

    And these are the people who complain voters can't be bothered to vote..

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  • 14. At 5:28pm on 12 Dec 2008, David Evershed wrote:

    You should get the next BBC interview with the Home Secretary - not Andrew Marr or John Humphries.

    Tell your bosses.

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  • 15. At 5:31pm on 12 Dec 2008, Doctor Bob wrote:

    It's about time Jacqui Smith was dismissed. Lies, damned lies and Jaqui Smith's statistics.

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  • 16. At 2:12pm on 13 Dec 2008, stalisman wrote:

    Why are you folks here? Do you realy think that Knife Crime is a subject for 'release?
    You know .. the 'release' you get from posting and infighting.

    You are a disgrace to debate.

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  • 17. At 6:09pm on 13 Dec 2008, AnnoyedofHythe wrote:

    12 has got to the crux of the matter - it's all a big game.

    Politics is like the law. It is about presenting a better 'arguement' than your opponent.

    Lawyers use it to 'win' cases, Polititians use it to 'win' headlines. At no time does the truth or running the country come in to it.

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  • 18. At 1:20pm on 15 Dec 2008, Rapedwife wrote:

    Good article today by Christine Jeavens on youth murders. I would like to see the BBC run an article also on the number of domestic homicides recorded this year.

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  • 19. At 6:06pm on 15 Dec 2008, Rachel Blackburn wrote:

    "If you increase targeted stop and searches by 10,000 per month and then see a halving of the proportion of those operations which uncover a weapon, it may mean that fewer young people are carrying knives."

    Oh, that's such tosh, Mark! Police are always going to give priority on targeted stop and searches to those they think most likely to be carrying a knife. If they increase the number of searches, they'll thus be moving steadily on to less and less suspicious targets and so have a corresponding steady reduction in the proportion of searches which find a weapon.

    It *might* mean fewer people are carrying knives, sure. But since a reduction is exactly what you'd expect to find if there was zero change in the knife-carrying proportion, it is a veritable triumph of spin over logic to try to read an improvement into this!

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  • 20. At 07:35am on 16 Dec 2008, iworkforwork wrote:

    mybe polititions and councils should loook at the areas where there is knife crime and just mybe ask them selves what have we got in the areas to motivate,stimulate and encourage the young to partisipate in other activities.
    The goverment is very quick to dip into the lottery fund to finance ther projects why not look at the cost of liesure centers and other clubs inthese areas and fund them so they are cheaper to useyou can tackle the obese and the bored youth.
    The goverment should ban all councils from selling off all the fields and play areas,
    you can never fully stop knife crime,knives are very easy to get hold of there in every house hold in the country,boredem and cost,
    i believe this is what turns the young to crime (easy money and excitement the buzz)

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  • 21. At 10:28am on 16 Dec 2008, bigsammyb wrote:


    What a tired old non argument. When i was a kid there were no liesure centres or places to go for young people there were just the same things as anywhere else.

    The idea of thugs being justified in carrying knives and stabbing each other because they are bored is so incredibily stupid i can't believe you said it.

    Afterall look at the places knife crime happens, does it happen in the highlands of Scotland? Rural Worcestershire?

    No it happens in major conurbations, the same places that have the largest numbers of liesure centres, swimming pools etc.

    So i'm sorry but that has NOTHING to do with it.

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  • 22. At 2:05pm on 16 Dec 2008, nolemonade wrote:

    Dump the flawed "targets" mentality.
    Send the failed Home Secretary back to being a failed teacher.
    Send the weird-eyebrowed one and the dour prudence back north of Hadrian's wall.

    We are all sick of NuLaburr spin and lies - give us an ELECTION

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  • 23. At 2:22pm on 16 Dec 2008, iworkforwork wrote:

    I see bigsammyb is just reading articals without looking at the big picture. knife crime is in the concrete jungles.
    try looking at the cost of these places try looking deeper instead of on the surface.
    Try talking to the young in inner cities there is allways the comments we are bored , and swimming pools and liesure centres cost to much. DONT JUST READ AND DISMISS TRY THINKING LOOK AT THE PRESENT NOT THE PAST TIMES GHANGE.

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  • 24. At 2:48pm on 16 Dec 2008, Moorlandhunter wrote:

    The laughable release of knife crime figures was not a mistake, it was a naked, concerted, political lies to pull the wool over the eyes of the electorate.
    Labour and number 10 were warned that they should not release half baked, unsubstantiated figures by the very person they put in place to oversee government statistics from being misused, yet Labour trumpeted the figures as if they were true.
    All governments fail to tell the truth, but this one, lies without a sense of shame.
    GW Bush has stated the US wanted regime change and that was why they went into Iraq. They did use the ‘data’ on WMD to help out in the call for allies to help out in Iraq, which Bush says he regrets. Where did this lying data come from? Directly from Number 10 Downing Street under Blair, Brown and the cabinet.
    Labour tells out and out lies without any sense of shame, and we should NEVER trust them,

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  • 25. At 3:18pm on 16 Dec 2008, lord_of_the_things wrote:

    These discussion have been going on for a long while. I think most of the people here will agree with me that the problem lies with the fact that British law fails to deter criminals from crime as the consequences are not serious enough for them to consider while stabbing or shooting somebody. By the way things are going, it will not be a surprise if in 10 years some parts of Britain end up being in a similar situation to some other cities of the world where the public has taken law into their own hands.

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  • 26. At 6:38pm on 20 Dec 2008, bigsammyb wrote:

    # 23

    Too expensive? Please, there is plenty to do in london and manchester, far more so than the places that knife crime doesn't happen.

    Someone living in a major conurbation justifiying knife crime due to being bored is like a man who lives next door to a bothal justifying rape due to being sexually frustrated.

    No the causes of knife crime are far more complicated than that.

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  • 27. At 10:51am on 23 Jan 2009, pandatank wrote:

    #25 - lord of the things, I think that criminals when contemplating crime, balance a number of factors. The major consideration is the probability of being caught. Only secondary is the consideration of the consequences ie. severity of punishment. They don't even consider the consequences for the victims. Countries with capital punishment and/or harsh treatment of prisoners actually seem to have similar or worse levels of crime. Countries with lower crime levels seem to have 2 things going for them, higher visible levels of policing and an abundance of witnesses willing to report. Muggers prey on the apparently weak or timid, because they are less likely to fight back and therefore increase the chances of getting away with it.

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