Crime figures that flatter to deceive

The police are failing to take anti-social behaviour seriously and to record information about it adequately, according to the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Denis O’Connor.

His report, published last week, found that as a result local police forces are unable to identify people who are repeatedly the victims of harassment or abuse. There have been several high-profile cases in which vulnerable people were repeatedly abused without the police taking any effective action.
Yet the police operate under a strict code for the recording of crime, and report high levels of satisfaction with their services from those who have been the victims of crime, and from the general public. This gap between what the statistics and surveys say and what the public believes helps explain the widespread cynicism about crime statistics.
Take Northumbria Police, chosen not because they are any different from police forces elsewhere but because a Straight Statistics reader, Michael Cassidy, has collected their recent statistical output. He questions many of the claims made and is dissatisfied with the answers he has received.
Northumbria Police, in common with all police forces, publish annual statistics of recorded crime. For the most recent year, 2008-09, a total of 105,458 crimes were recorded, and the force claims a 39.3 per cent detection rate. This caught Mr Cassidy’s eye, because common crimes such as burglary, stealing cars, and criminal damage typically have much lower detection rates.  
These crimes amount to almost half of all those recorded in Northumbria, and have a detection rate of just 19.2 per cent.  How, then, does the force claim an overall detection rate of 39.3 per cent?
The table below lists crimes by category and detection rates for Northumbria Police for 2008-09. For space reasons, some sub-categories have been omitted.
One reason for the high claimed detection rate is that some crimes are virtually invisible unless they are detected, so crime numbers roughly equal detections. Take drug crime. Because there is no victim to report the crime, it is not reported at all unless it is detected, by the police apprehending a drug-user in possession, for example. This often happens as a by-product of other investigations. Northumbria Police claim a detection rate of 97.5 per cent for drug crime.
The same applies to shoplifting: those who steal from shops do not even enter the crime statistics unless they are detected.  In this category Northumbria claims a 78.6 per cent detection rate. For harassment, the crime identified by Denis O’Connor as poorly-policed, Northumbria recorded 4,005 crimes in 2008-09 and a detection rate of 82.4 per cent.
Drug crimes, anti-social behaviour, and shoplifting are all under-reported. By how much it is impossible to say, but in a separate table Northumbria Police list 47,234 youth-related anti-social behaviour incidents, and 95,777 others caused by adults in 2008-09 – a total of 143,011. This far exceeds the total number of all crimes listed in the detection rate table. Of these 143,011 incidents, just 4,005 cases of harassment make it on to the detection rate table.
These figures are consistent with the report from Denis O’Connor, which said  that the police received 3.6 million calls about anti-social behaviour last year, compared with 4.6 million about crime. “Members of the public on the receiving end of anti-social behaviour find it hard to distinguish it from crime” his report says.
So how meaningful is Northumbria’s claim to have detected 82.4 per cent of incidents of harassment? The only cases the police are are those in which the perpetrator is identified, usually by the victim, and some action is taken. The rest - the vast majority - do not feature anywhere in these statistics.
For Northumbria, removing these three categories of crime - drugs, shoplifting, and harassment - from the list reduces the detection rate from 39.3 to 29.6 per cent, a more realistic figure, and possibly more in line with public perceptions.
Mr Cassidy was also puzzled by claims that public satisfaction with the police is high – 86.9 per cent of victims of crime are said by Northumbria Police Authority to be satisfied with the overall service. How can that be, he asks, if so few actually see the crimes of which they were the victims solved, or their stolen possessions returned?
Those questioned in the user surveys are victims of domestic burglary, violent crime, vehicle crime, racist incidents and road traffic accidents. About 5,000 are contacted every year, using a standard set of questions prepared by the Home Office, and the response rate in Northumbria police area is 35 per cent.
Why are so many satisfied with a service that in most cases has failed to detect the perpetrator of the crime of which they were a victim? Possibly because that is not one of the questions they are asked. They are asked instead how satisfied they are with the actions taken by the police – a tricky question, since there is no way of judging how energetic they have been. Several questions relate to the treatment of victims by police officers. Mr Cassidy says: “They might well be measuring the personality of the sympathetic officer who attends and has a cup of tea rather than crime-detection efficiency”.
There’s no reason to suppose these surveys aren’t carried out correctly and according to Home Office rules: other forces report similar satisfaction scores. Where the police do less well is in surveys of the general public. In the Northumbria survey, for example, 63 per cent of the public were satisfied that the police could be relied upon to deal with minor crimes, around the same proportion who believe that the police do a good or excellent job.
Only 48 per cent think the police and local council “seek people’s views on anti-social behaviour and crime issues that matter in this area” and only 59 per cent believe the police and local council are dealing with the issue. A remarkably low proportion (17 per cent) actually knows any police officers or community support officers.