Go figure: Crime statistics, lies and fantasy

Kate Hoolu

"Fear of crime is disproportionate to its real incidence in contemporary British society" Yes or No?

This article has arisen out of another piece in progress about stalkers and the fear of being stalked, which will be on the site in a while.

The matter is problematic in a number of ways. Firstly it is accepted that crime rates vary greatly by geographical area and level of urbanisation. It may be that in certain areas of large cities the incidence of crime justifies a higher level of fear, however in other parts of the country fear of any sort of threatening crime is entirely unreasonable due to the statistical rarity. One further point to mention is that there is no reliable unit of measure of fear (although decibels of scream has been suggested!) people's individual levels of apprehension vary greatly, and it is often the case that fears of one event (i.e. being mugged) are greatly increased when compared against the fear of another possible event (i.e. being run over by a car) which are statistically much more likely. The role of the media in stimulating fear of crime is an important area; and I will discuss this later.

We first have to examine the means by which crime figures are gathered; and question whether this is a true picture. The UK police methods of defining a crime are particularly convoluted:

Criminal act not detected No crime recorded
Criminal act detected Detected, but not defined as crime by investigating officer
Criminal act detected Defined as crime, but not reported as crime- usually due to officer’s perception of no hope of solving the crime or making an arrest- i.e. random vandalism
Criminal act detected Not regarded as "serious", so not recorded- i.e. minor vandalism, street yobbishness etc
Criminal act detected Reported as crime but not investigated
Criminal act detected Taken seriously, recorded and investigated
Crime investigated No arrest made
Crime investigated Cautions made
Crime investigated Arrest made
Crime investigated Court details left on file, no convictions
Crime investigated Court case acquitted
Crime investigated Court case leading to conviction. This gives the total recorded official conviction figure.

The totals from the last six boxes is the total recorded ‘Official’ crime figure, and you can see how many chances there are for actual crimes to drop out of the statistics before being counted. There could be many events which may be "criminal", but until they are noticed, processed and officially recorded by the Police force they do not become a statistic which will appear in HMSO material. Unfortunately this is another cause of concern; the publisher of the statistics is Her Majesty's Stationery Office, which is directed (and funded) by the Government, hence a potential problem as the source may conceivably be biased, or swayed by pressure from politicians.

Thus the extent of reported and recorded crime is, for a variety of possible reasons always less than the actual (and not accurately known) level; the so-called "dark figure of crime". The answer is not always to increase police recruitment and/or funding, because strange as it may at first seem, more police officers can mean "more" crime, simply because there are more people to report and record the offences; and even then it may not be of much use in reducing crime.

Greater Manchester police authority showed an improvement in clear-up rates in the early 1990s simply because officers toured prisons en masse collecting multiple admissions (which may or may not have been true) of earlier offences from inmates; none of whom went to trial because these offences admitted were instead taken into favourable consideration by arrangement with the parole boards. What it also meant is that the ‘real’ perpetrators of those crimes got away with them. A government report in 1993 says that as only 1 in 12 of those ever arrested go to prison anyway, it will need a hugely disproportionate rise in the prison population to have any significant impact on the annual crime rate. This revised a 1986 report, which concluded that a 40 per cent increase in the prison population was needed to achieve a 1.6 per cent fall in the annual crime rate. There is anecdotal evidence that some areas have "one-man (or woman) crime waves" where one person may be responsible for the large majority of crimes. In this instance it may only take the arrest of that person to drastically reduce the crime rate; however arrests of many others in the same area will have little effect if the most prolific criminal remains at large.

Equally, without being insensitive, the New York Police will show a massive increase in their murder clear-up rate from 2000 to 2001, simply because of the World Trade Centre event- a large number of known victims and a number of known perpetrators. This will skew the statistics out of all proportion to previous and subsequent years.

The definitions of crime can also be too limited to give a true picture; for example in recent years there have been outbreaks of violence associated with football matches, Poll Tax and Fuel Tax demonstrations, music concerts, mass murders, anti-road protests, fox hunts, terrorist acts, industrial disputes, prison riots, immigration problems, anti-live animal export protests, globalisation and religious-ethnic conflicts to name but a few; and yet these are all generalised as "the same" crimes of violence; however disparate the underlying motives may be. A major problem with data on crime is that people's increased willingness to report some offences (such as those where insurance companies will only pay out if given a police crime report reference number) may stimulate some of the increases in reported crime and exaggerated the apparent rise; the main questions to ask of any figures is whether it is a rise in actual events, or a rise in reporting of a steady frequency of events? And who is gaining from the way that matters are being reported?

Conversely there are also apparent trends of not reporting crimes where the perception of the police's ability to do anything about the problem is low, such as petty vandalism. Bearing this in mind, evidence from the British Crime Survey suggests that reported crime has increased by at least 50 per cent over the past decade, with burglaries and thefts doubling. On a wider view, reported crime has "soared tenfold since the 1950s and there is now one offence each year for every 10 people in England and Wales". With reference to the many criticisms of Emile Durkheim's study of suicide, the same sorts of comments are valid here. Durkheim ‘proved’ that Catholic societies have a lower rate of suicide than Protestant ones. What he failed to spot is that suicide, as a mortal sin in Catholicism, was being re-labelled as such things as ‘poisoning’ (with an unspoken codicil of ‘self-administered’), ‘strangulation’ (by self) etc. Similarly any official statistics are based upon a subjective analysis, in the case of crime it is often the individual responsibility of a police officer as to whether any reported crime is followed up or noted at all, and even then it may be reclassified as either more trivial or more serious than it may objectively seem to the outside observer. Police officers are not standardised machines who have always acted consistently to the same level of objectivity, hence there is a great deal of variation in policing methods; often even within the same station, let alone the same district or county.

The measurement of crime other than by directly looking at reports to Police and arrests made leads us into other areas of uncertainty. These methods are generally via some form of questionnaire or interview, with the associated horrendous validity problems of memory, exaggeration, lies and distortion. Statistics can also be manipulated or selectively expressed in order to follow some other agenda, be it Political or economic; for example if a politician wanted to show a drop in crime rates this could be accomplished by comparison of figures for historic crime (i.e. irrelevant in modern times) versus the current rates; a hypothetical example for this could be the rate of sheep rustling for the Cardiff area in the 1860s set against the current rate (Cardiff now being 95% industrial, and probably the only sheep to be found is in a saucepan) to "demonstrate" a fall in crime (without mentioning the nature of the offence being cited) which could spuriously be assigned to the excellence of policy and policing, rather than the more sensible reason of there being virtually no sheep in the area to be stolen; hence scarce opportunity for this crime to happen. This is a rather simplistic example, but it demonstrates the principle used.

As someone once said, there are only three kinds of lie: lies, damned lies and statistics. One political use of crime figures is shown by the recent tendency of the Conservative New Right to selectively express figures in a way calculated to exacerbate public concern and thus justify their authoritarian ideas regarding strengthening the police force and implementing new laws, such as the Criminal Justice Act. In a letter to the Times about 10 years ago an eminent surgeon suggested one way to improve the statistics gathering for crimes of violence; "Accident and emergency departments are excellent sources of information about serious violent crime and their statistics are already computerised in many hospitals. Despite the fact that people are at the same time patients and victims, there is virtually no collaboration between Home Office crime prevention and Department of Health injury prevention programmes, though objectives are shared." It seems astonishing that such a procedure, which would increase accuracy of crime figures, has never been properly implemented.

The role of the media is in several areas; firstly the circulation of crime figures; which as we have seen can be very selectively expressed. Secondly in the use of lurid and graphic accounts of a particular event (such as the child shootings in Dunblane, or a particularly nasty beating of a pensioner) particular agendas, such as gun control or public safety, can be heavily introduced to the issues. Thirdly, by manipulating the news coverage of events a possibly spurious upswing in certain crimes can be highlighted if this suits the aims of the controlling interests of the newspaper or TV programme. One example of this would be the actual incidence of murders as opposed to their frequency of reporting; in the USA between 1990-1994 it was found that the murder rate stayed virtually static, but the TV news airtime devoted to reporting murders increased FOURFOLD.... The standard media excuse of a "slow news week" cannot be used here since the increased exposure went on consistently for several years.

The matter of victimology is important in crime; it is broken down into two areas. Firstly the typing of victims; i.e. what victims have in common in order to identify any behaviour or categorisations which constitute a risk of being a victim. The secondary aspect is a means of labelling as an INNOCENT victim; as an extension to the victim typing by removing any possibility of blame for being a victim of crime...a good example of this would be two rape victims; one who wore subjectively "provocative" clothing in the street at night and the other who was a “plain old woman” who was attacked in her own home. In the eyes of the media (and probably the judiciary) the latter victim would be more innocent that the former. Sickening.

The media can also generate moral panics. It was Mark Twain who observed that "man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to"; and it is precisely this guilt and/or shame that media hype feeds on. By identifying, isolating and then attacking any sub-group of society an atmosphere of division and resentment can be quickly built up; and an easy scapegoat to blame a complex problem on is often utilised by the media and politicians. The great fear generated in the early 1990s by the apparent sudden incidence of satanic child abuse was a cause of immense grief to hundreds of traumatised parents who had their children taken away and who were then abused, and in some cases assaulted by their neighbours.

After a long and detailed investigation it was found that none of the children had been abused; and the whole scare had originated with a small group of fundamentalist Christians in the USA who had started up a consultancy to train police and social workers from all over the world in detecting abuse; awarding their own impressive certificates to those trained. Having gained these dubious qualifications the trainees then went out looking for abuse; and with no little surprise (and the co-operation of some sensationalist reporting in the media) a huge number of "true" cases were found. The hidden agenda here was, of course, the boost to respectability of Fundamentalism; and their very financially lucrative seminars and training courses.

Satanists are, in the real world, a pretty rare breed, and child abuse is far from an essential part of their ritual curriculum; and on a scale of religious groups implicated in child abuse they are well towards the low end. It is in fact the various Christian denominations that are statistically highest in the child abuse table; which the fundamentalists obviously kept very quiet at the time. This example illustrates just how easy it is to manipulate a good moral panic with no basis in objective reality. A further area of concern is the use of media to sell security items by provoking fear in certain groups; for example the RAC and mobile phone manufacturers have both had TV advertisement campaigns which tried to instil fear into lone woman motorists; implying that if they broke down at night in an urban area they would be in great danger without a mobile phone and car recovery membership. The sales of personal alarms and home security devices have enjoyed a major boom in recent years; one of the few areas that has not been affected by the various recessions over the decades. Arguably much of this boost to trade has been due to imagery of fear generated by the media, often in more subtle ways than direct scare stories followed by advertisements offering a solution for the right price to the consumer. It would seem that the Police either believe some of the media hype and/or have their own ingrained prejudices: the Metropolitan Police paid out nearly £800,000 in settlements of civil claims for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment and assault in 1992; virtually all to people from ethnic and other minority groups. In 1996 the payments to just 2 people wrongly arrested (and assaulted while in "safe custody") alone exceeded this figure, and it’s rising all the time.

It can be argued that fear of being a victim of crime is largely out of proportion to the current incidence in society; although the use of sensible precautions to avoid crime cannot be discouraged, since there is little room for complacency. Modern society is undoubtedly dangerous in many aspects and there is no such thing as a "low risk activity" in a world where the sun causes cancer, you can’t drink the water, the air kills people in some cities, the rain is corrosive, food is poison, sex is death and everybody dies at some point (Have a nice day!).

The role of the media and certain political and business groups in exaggerated scaremongering for financial or governmental reasons is largely a reprehensible act that should be vilified wherever possible.