The curious case of the fall in crime

Professor Marian Fitzgerald
Sunday, 13 April 2014
This comment piece was covered by The Observer newspaper

By the time of the general election in 2010 Labour was able to claim with confidence that since it came to power in 1997, the public was safer than it had been for over 25 years. And the annual crime statistics published shortly after it left office estimated that the number of victims of crime had fallen by 50 per cent since 1995 alone.

This estimate was based on the Home Office’s national crime survey which was by now well established as the government’s preferred measure of trends in crime. The alternative – the police recorded crime figures – had always been open to question for this purpose since, with the exception of burglary and vehicle theft, the majority of crimes are never reported to the police in the first place. In addition, how the police record these offences and which offences are then included in the government’s crime statistics are subject to rules laid down by the Home Office.

An unprecedented number of major changes to these rules during Labour’s time in office were followed up with a series of ‘clarifications’. Combined with further changes to how the figures were presented meant that it was no longer possible to track the trends shown by these figures for nearly a century until 1998. However, one of these major changes in 2002 had inflated total police recorded crime by 8 per cent, after which the figures started to fall rapidly, at much the same rate as the crime survey.

Baffling trends

These trends not only baffled most criminologists; they also flew in the face of several very sophisticated models of long-run trends in crime in Britain and in other comparable countries. For these models (at least one of which was developed within the Home Office) had confirmed that changes in the level and pattern of crime were determined primarily by economic and social factors, while the operation of the criminal justice system had little or no influence. Yet the Labour government seemed to have given the lie to this. It had achieved a dramatic fall in crime largely by virtue of setting the police targets for crime reduction early in its first term; it had reinforced these in its second term with further targets for increasing detections; and, in the run up to its third term, it had significantly increased officer numbers and heightened the visibility of the police on the streets with the creation of the Police Community Support Officer.

By 2010, though, the recession was already exacerbating the conditions which would traditionally have been expected to cause a rise in crime and which the models of the 1990s would authoritatively predicted. For the violence associated with the late night economy would fall (though domestic violence might rise) while the market for stolen, counterfeit and otherwise questionable goods would rapidly expand as increasing numbers of people felt the pinch. And, from this perspective, many of the measures adopted by the new government in the name of tackling the financial deficit would only make matters worse.

Alternatively, since crime had continued to fall, the police themselves had bought into the notion that this was primarily due to achieving what was now ingrained as their primary mission. They could continue to reduce crime even in adverse economic circumstances; but – as the Police Federation was quick to warn the new government – if its programme of austerity included significant cuts to police budgets, crime would inevitably start to rise again.

Police numbers down. Crime rate down

Yet the recession deepened, the austerity measures began to bite and, heedless of the Federation’s warnings, the government cut the budgets of most public services, including the police. As police numbers continued to fall, so too did crime. And ministers now claimed that the public was safer than they had been for over 30 years, thanks to the Coalition. They had no plausible explanation to offer but speculation by other commentators has ranged widely – from higher rates of abortion among the criminal classes to the idea that young people today are too busy playing computer games in their own bedrooms to be out causing trouble on the streets. Curiously there seems to have been relatively little interest in some very significant changes in patterns of crime as a result of two main developments in technology over the last 20 years. Still less attention has been given to the fact that many traditional offences are increasingly being committed in new ways thanks to these developments. Yet these are now conspicuous by their absence from both official measures of trends in crime.

The rise of cybercrime

The first of these technical developments was the rapid increase in the use of credit and debit cards from the early 1990s and the parallel increase in the use of stolen cards to defraud the holder’s account of money, whether directly or by buying goods and services before the card was stopped. Initially this required the card physically to be stolen; but opportunities for using information related to the card expanded rapidly from the middle of the decade with the second of these developments.

The ability of private citizens to access cyberspace from the end of the 20th century – at first with the growing ownership of home computers but subsequently via a proliferation of other, more mobile, devices – opened up unprecedented opportunities both for new forms of crime but also for perpetrating more traditional forms of crime. High street shops, including long-established chains, started to close as more and more people shopped online; and cyberspace soon became the obvious place to dispose of stolen, counterfeit and otherwise questionable goods. Not only were the risks of getting caught so much lower; as recent research for the Home Office has illustrated, doing so requires little technical skill beyond the ability to log on. At the same time, the internet was now providing otherwise upstanding citizens with previously unimaginable ways of indulging guilty pleasures without the risk of being recognised. And when times are hard it has never been easier to hunt for bargains or for quick ways to earn money on the side. So the market for illegal goods expanded to unprecedented dimensions while these new forms of communication exponentially increased the number of potential victims of fraud, blackmail, harassment and worse.

With regard to the first of these developments, most victims of card fraud have always reported the incident to their card issuer but only a small minority additionally reported to the police. So it was well acknowledged that the police recorded crime figures were not a good indicator of the scale of the problem or of trends. However card issuers began regularly to publish statistics showing the losses to them and the total more than quadrupled over the ten year period when crime had officially started to fall dramatically, until by 2008 the introduction of chip and pin appeared to have brought the rise under control. Meanwhile, the crime survey appeared to turn a blind eye to all of these developments until 2005 when it finally asked respondents whether they had been victims of card fraud. Had the results been included in the survey’s estimate of the overall level of personal crime in 2005-6, the figure would have been 4 per cent higher than the previous year and would have continued to rise each time the survey repeated the question in subsequent years until 2008. However, a variety of reasons were given for excluding card fraud from the survey’s official count of crime, which duly continued to fall, in accordance with government policy.

With regard to the second of these developments, though, there are no reliable figures. The studies which have been done suggest a number of good reasons to suppose that victims of the wide range of offences involved are even less likely to report these crimes to the police than they are to report more traditional offences. Nor, unlike the victims of card fraud, would they have any idea who else they might report to. Yet an inquiry in 2013 by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee concluded that low-level ‘e-crime’ was now being perpetrated ‘on an industrial scale’ and ‘with impunity’; and the complete absence of any relevant statistics in this area amounted to a ‘black hole’.

And accurate and honest measure of crime?

The obvious question which arises from this is whether it is possible to get an accurate and honest measure of the current level of crime and to maintain its integrity in tracking trends against this benchmark over time regardless of political pressures.

But a second, less obvious, yet arguably more important question is whether getting an accurate and honest measure of crime matters at all.

It is impossible to know what adjustment might be needed to the story of the fall in crime in crime if the ‘black hole’ of cyber-enabled crime were to be filled in and topped up with a count of the individual victims of card fraud, as well as retailers (including small shop keepers) who have lost out in this way. But the chances of getting an accurate account of the level of crime against which to measure future trends are slim for two main reasons.

One is simply that there will be no appetite for doing so among all of the key players. For not only could politicians in both the previous and the present government end up with a considerable amount of egg on their faces; so too would the government statisticians who have for so long provided them with the evidence to support their claims of success in reducing crime to a degree which seemed almost unbelievable and may yet prove to be so.

The other is the fact that these offences might always have been significantly under-reported, but this is likely to be more than ever the case now that the rule-makers have agreed that victims should not report such offences to the police at all. Card fraud should only be reported to the card issuer (who will then be responsible for passing the information to the police) but most low-level e-crime should be reported centrally to an organisation called Action Fraud. Action Fraud will give victims a crime number if that is their sole reason for reporting. But there is no obvious incentive for other victims to ensure that Action Fraud’s figures are as complete as those of the police. For they offer no hope – however remote – of that victim knowing that some effort will be made to investigate what had happened to them personally and possibly even seeing those responsible caught and punished.

As to whether having accurate figures matters, in one sense it doesn’t matter at all to members of the public. They are cynical about government statistics and would probably remain so even if the figures looked completely different and were signed off by the queen. In any case, their own rating of the police or any other service is unlikely to correspond to any average figures and the larger the number the more irrelevant the statistics may seem. What counts for individuals is not based on statistics but on the quality of their personal experience in the particular context in which they have contact with that service, as well as the accounts of others they know; and these, in turn, may be reinforced by (or at odds with) individual cases which are the subject of media reports.

The problem with targets

In that sense it matters greatly if, as the Public Administration Committee has recently highlighted, the pressures within the police for the numbers to look right has had a perverse impact on the quality of service the public experiences. It is, however, disappointing that the Committee appears to have focused so intensely on target setting within the police service rather than explore the external pressures which have actively encouraged this type of behaviour for so many years now that it concludes that ‘the attitudes and behaviour which lead to the misrecording of crime have become ingrained, including within senior leadership’.

For recent cases of the misrecording of hospital data, for example, are a reminder that these behaviours and the external pressures which have exacerbated them are by no means peculiar to the police. Nor is it safe to assume that if ‘numerical targets’ cease to be set, those pressures have gone away. The present government, for example, tried to sell the idea of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) to a less than enthusiastic electorate on the grounds that they would get crime down locally. So, while the Committee congratulates ‘some’ PCCs for refusing to set specified targets, given their core mandate to cut crime and their power to hire and fire Chief Constables, any fan of The Wire will be only too well aware of the likelihood that the pressure for continuing reductions in crime will intensify as PCCs seek re-election.

In conclusion, it is worth remembering that it is not only the public who suffer as a result. Of course it is unacceptable that victims of crime may themselves feel they are accused of fraud when the officer they report to appears to do all they can to get them to admit that the offence didn’t happen at all or at least to alter their story so the officer can avoid adding to the force’s total by recording a ‘notifiable’ offence. It is similarly unacceptable that a young person who has their heart set on a particular career is deprived of the chance of gaining the qualification s/he will need because of the risk that, however hard they work, they might lower a teacher’s average attainment score or that someone whose quality of life would thereby be immeasurably improved cannot access the treatment they need because they are suffering from the wrong medical condition.

Little or no attention, though, is paid to the plight of the many individuals within the public services and even at the heart of government itself who do not share the ‘attitudes’ referred to by the Committee. Some, including middle-ranking and even senior police officers who have spoken to me, have taken steps to resist the political pressures on the service to do things which in their view are unethical, likely to be ineffective, counter-productive and in some cases all three; or they have at least done what they could to mitigate their impact. But most feel powerless to do so. They may be scandalised and even suffer personally at the hands of those who realise their career ambitions by cynically ‘playing the numbers game’. Where possible they will leave at the first opportunity, retiring as soon as they can even though they could have stayed on and are a loss to the service. Most, though, don’t have that option and find sooner or later that they have become players in their own small way – and often at the expense of the job they thought they had joined to do.