Want crime trends? Just ask people

Metropolitan Police officer

Now we know that the statistics watchdog doesn't trust the police recorded crime figures, what faith can we have that crime really has been falling for the past 20 years?

The answer is plenty.

The UK Statistics Authority has said that police recorded crime data in England and Wales should no longer be designated as National Statistics because of accumulating evidence that they may be unreliable.

Recorded crime figures have always been a lousy way to identify crime trends. They are really a measure of police activity, their priorities and the confidence of the public to report crime.

A big operation to tackle knife crime, for instance, may uncover and record many more offences involving knives. It does not mean knife crime is rising.

Once the knife crime operation is over, it is likely the number of knife offences recorded will reduce. That does not mean knife crime is falling.

If police put more emphasis on dealing with domestic violence or homophobia, for example, more victims may be encouraged to come forward.

That doesn't mean there is more of it. It just means police are identifying more of what is going on and recording it.

This is important to remember as we see a spike in recorded incidents of child abuse. There is no good evidence that such abuse is increasing but it is good news that more people are coming forward to report it.

Public confidence and enthusiasm to report crimes generally affects the data.

As with all recorded activity or performance data, there is always a risk of inaccuracy, confusion and fiddling.

Quite which crime category an offence fits into is not always straightforward. Judgment may be required to decide if a mobile phone snatch in the High Street is a "theft" or crosses the threshold to becoming a much more serious "robbery".

One can easily imagine how officers may respond if there is a lot of pressure to show the local force is getting to grips with robberies.

So how can we be confident about crime trends? Well, at a very local level it is hard but at a force or national level there is a much better way to measure what crime is really like.

Ask people.

Each year for more than 30 years, something like 40,000 people in England and Wales have been asked how crime has affected them in the previous 12 months.

The British Crime Survey (now the Crime Survey of England and Wales or CSEW) is a world-renowned invention. Using robust statistical modelling, it identifies far more crimes than are recorded by the police.

Because it is such a big survey and conducted so regularly, it gives a very accurate picture of people's experience of crime. And, critically, it shows up the trends in different crime types.

The survey is not perfect - people may be reluctant to reveal details of some intimate crimes and the quality of the results is dependent on the quality of the answers.

Until recently, crimes against children were not included in the survey. And, of course, it cannot get responses from murder victims.

But as a way of identifying broad crime trends, there is no better way than simply asking lots of people.

What the CSEW reveals is that the number of victims of both property crime and violent crime has halved since the mid-90s.

Some people find this hard to believe. The news is filled with crime stories feeding the impression that criminality is rising.

The evidence otherwise is very powerful. The downward trend since 1995 has been gradual but clear. There have been no surveys in the past 20 years that have produced a different story.

The fall in crime is real and important.

Politicians and planners need to act on the basis of the facts, rather than ill-informed anecdote or impression.

Citizens more generally must live their lives according to the real risks rather than misguided fears.

To lock oneself behind numerous security bolts and locks because of a mistaken belief that great danger lurks beyond is seriously damaging to people's quality of life.

So, for me, the downgrading of recorded crime figures from their previously elevated status of National Statistics is good and bad.

It is good because it recognises the weakness they have as a measure of crime and particularly crime trends. It may stop the unscrupulous from pulling some recorded police data out to make an argument unsupported by the evidence.

It is bad, though, if the effect is further to entrench the widespread and mistaken view that crime statistics are bogus and claims that we are a less dangerous society are too.

I believe that the evidence is clear. Crime in this country (and most other developed nations) has and, for the most part, is still falling.

Please do not let us miss the golden opportunity to understand why that is because of a few coppers massaging the daily log.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    Many suspect the BBC of having turned too many blind eyes to the nudge-nudging of the electorate by this Govt towards party politically inspired policy directions relating to public services. However, let's not lose sight of genuine issues of real consequence, however awkward, eg:

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    BBC, are you sure you haven't deliberately buried this thread in the backwaters of your website, perhaps because you and Mark Easton appeared to be receiving so much criticism? I find it hard to believe that the topic would not have received more than 10 or so comments since 9.00am, if it had remained in a prominent position.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    Inspector Gadget:

    "Crime is bound to fall even further when future cuts to police call-centres are announced. No victim of crime wants to wait in a post office queue with the local busybodies listening while they tell the old bill what has happened to them. In some areas of London, being seen and overheard talking to the ‘Five Oh’ at a supermarket desk could be fatal."

    Source: bit.ly/1avoSFZ

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    to the person that suggested that my criticising the police means I "must be a criminal":

    1. if someone who criticising the authorities (rightly or wrongly) is immediately called a crook/crazy, then we are in line with N.Korea. Youre making the cops above criticism which is why the feel they can do anything they want.

    2. more people agree with me than not

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    "Are we going to become a paramilitary force, dealing with confrontation and coercion issues while all the other traditional policing tasks are gifted to the private sector for profit-making?"
    Met Police Fed Chairman John Tully

    I have little doubt this is where the govt wants us to go: screw the majority of the population, roll on the profits to be made.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    Sorry Auntie I really should not have mentioned your news blackout on the continuing Muslim rape gangs stories, I was just trying to highlight that you are manipulating your fee payers by deneying the truth to them, as it is up to them to interpret the news, your job is to report it.

    Hardly worthy of moderation methinks, you just got caught with your pants down, fess up!

  • Comment number 167.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    Mark If you had lived in the real world rather than your cosy BBC community of well paid and well heeled liberals, who live in the microcosms of affluence around London. Perhaps you would see what we see daily that "None of whats spouted adds up, other than to perpetuate the status quo for the likes of you and the carpet baggers in the HOC."

    You disgrace your profession daily!

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    I see fewer big crimes, but a large increase in stupidity, but then what do you expect from a hen-pecked, dumbed-down population who have been taught by the state for a generation that they don't have to accept responsibility for their actions and are not allowed to protect themselves or their own property.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    JP 162 pt 2.

    Then look at the most popular voices given air at the BBC, pretty much all of them are chosen as they parrott the dogma of a so called objective organisation.
    Dianne Abbot
    Anjem Chowdary
    G Galloway
    Muslim council of Britain

    Basically anyone who hates the white British and our history, even the think tanks that they have replaced OUR views with are rammed with dogma.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    You'll see an interesting angle on this story at http://thinbluelineuk.blogspot.co.uk/

    I don't believe any of the vested interests in the media (most of whom still live in a Ben Elton gig from the late 80's, hating the police coz they're "the man") and I certainly don't believe the tories, in whose hands no taxpayer funded service is safe, and for whom privatisation would be a dream outcome.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    The problem Mark and his organisation has is that it is quite prepared to perpetuate the myths of fiddled figures and present them as gospel. This generally happens when talking about minority issue's, immigration, jobs and the economy though the fact that it of all media outlets should be ringing the bell on the outright lies that are peddled.

    Problem is though some of them fit Aunties agenda

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Have you had someone try to break in to burgle your house in the middle of the night Mark? I have. Or, break in and steal your belongings when you were away for a day or two? I have had that also. Have you? If so, you might understand why people have plenty of security bolts and alarms installed in their property.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    The biggest corruptor of crime figures is performance targets, has been for years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    The fewer crimes of substance there are the more people in authority will fixate on supposed 'risk' and 'prevention'. Scaring us all half to death with tales of ex-offenders eating babies and how they can prevent them from doing it.

    UK Criminal Justice System is a business these days, I doubt the truth about crime will ever be accurately reported to members of the public.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    In the same year as the car thief (last year) I was walking home on a Friday night when I passed a man shouting at and man-handling a woman. He was trying to force her to drive them home despite the fact they were both drunk.

    I called the police and they were there within 2 minutes.

    The public also have a responsibility to stop crime. Not just the police on their own. Apathy doesn't help.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    A man broke into a car outside my flat. I heard the car alarm, saw the car had been broken into and followed him at safe distance while calling the police.

    The police were there in 10 minutes with a dog unit too and caught the thief and his accomplices.

    They do a great job especially when members of the public support them. We all have a responsibility to say no to crime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    The problem with 'crime statistics' is that you don't ever know what a proper crime is. A lot of non-crimes could be folks getting detained with no action taken against them or some may be unjustified instances just so the police can record the numbers to avoid facing cuts.

    The system is tits up and the methods of recording them and displaying them to the public is even worse. What a joke

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    Crime may be falling because so many offences are now not dealt with e.g. possession of drugs , now it only attracts a quick telling off from the police. large amounts of anti social behaviour which affect us the most is not recorded as "crime" neither I would guess are many so called minor traffic offences "speeding" and driving without due care both of which can kill but apparently aren't crimes

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    I never trust official statistics, which can easily be manipulated to show whatever suits the purpose.
    If crime is falling, why (a) are the prisons full, (b) are there such huge and increasing numbers who escape prison sentences (probably because prisons are full) - ?
    I simple don't believe crime is falling, but of course that's not a message the government wants me to hear. Spin, spin ....


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