The Problem with Crime Statistics

The Problem with Crime Statistics

A recent post by Doug LePard, O.O.M., M.A. Policing and Criminal Justice Consultant prompted me to add my ten cents.

Doug makes extremely valid comments and I wanted to supplement this to both corroborate, and substantiate that there are wider considerations. I base my comments largely on my UK policing experience over 18 years working with community safety and crime reduction in hotspot neighbourhoods.

I also worked with crime data exercising great caution in consideration of my messaging. I focused on ensuring I couched media messages so as not to increase the fear of crime, but not at the expense of circumventing real risks and potential exposures to those risks. Far better to speak to problems as they are and then provide the public with considered options to mitigate personal risk.

It has always been, to quote Doug, “misleading to just look at overall crime trends and conclude from them that everything is basically fine” Crime statistics are shaped for presentation.

To factualize the fact the crime rates in BC are about as low as they have been for many years takes the headline data and ignores the grey areas that are unreported or unrecorded actual crimes. It is also reasonable to assert that such a statement may lull citizens into a false state of security, encouraging them into areas, on the premise that they are safer than the media or law enforcement presents. In so doing the outcome may well be the presence of additional targets for victimization, thereby increasing opportunities for crime.

Recorded crime bears no reflection on actual crime and current estimates of reported crime suggest the percentage is around 40% that is actually the subject of record. This means the numbers being spoken to that speak to a reduction in crime in BC are not correct, nor can they be while 60% are hidden from view. The more serious the crime, and particularly for crimes against the person, aside from some exceptions, the higher the likelihood of it being reported. A much higher proportion of lesser crimes go unreported and are therefore not part of any commentary and any statistical analysis. There are numerous reasons why this gap exists and many subjective assertions but with merit. I am going to offer some now. The inclusions are to give food for thought. They are also extremely easy to understand.

Many would take a look at the substantial list above and conclude that rectification is too much to handle. The cynic would conclude that pursuing an agenda directed to increasing the reporting of crime would be counterproductive and immediately assert that here is little motivation in authorities to actually seek to damage the statistical status quo significantly by acting ‘all guns blazing’ to increase the reporting of crime.

A further very valid point is that the business case to increase law enforcement and other public service capacity to close the supply and demand gap is also a closed door in the absence of actual crime figures. It’s a vicious resource shortfall cycle, a downward spiral. The appropriate redistribution of responsibility across public agencies and authorities is not possible in the absence of recorded actual offences.

Mark Twain purportedly famously said “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Its not manipulation of the numbers but how they are presented, and in a context that reflects them, in at worst a better light. I can recollect countless times where comments have been adjusted or tilted to shine a light on numbers rather than put them in the shadows. There is an unavoidable correlation between either deliberate misdirection with statistics, or a failure to delve deeply enough into the data and therefore to be able to plead ignorance. Headlines numbers that put disseminators in a positive light are a product of partisan politics or defensive public servants. It is encouraging to see front line reports are delving deeper, and in the interest of public safety, sharing. That is almost as far as I am prepared to go with politics.

Minister Farnworth in my view is almost entirely right when he says, “By people feeling safer in their neighbourhoods, by seeing a reduction in the kinds of random attacks that we have seen, by seeing a reduction in the situations where we’ve seen the break-ins into business and by the crime stats going down, by police being out there and doing what they’ve already been doing, which is enforcement, by the system working the way that it should”.  This is a strong and honest commitment. The only change I would suggest is the trading of the word ‘feeling, for the word ‘being’. One is subjective and the other objective. How we feel is dependent on so many variables and influences.

The front line and first-hand accounts in crime hotspots referenced by Doug LePard counter the low crime commentary, and actually reflect the experiences not only of the public service operators in these areas but also the real experiences of citizens in communities. The hope is that citizens trust their experiences and are not misled by the rhetoric. It is largely the lower scale crimes and nuisance happening day to day that erode communities.

The Signals Crime Perspective is a theoretical but eminently graspable practical model developed by Criminologists at Surrey University in the United Kingdom. It speaks to how we are influenced in terms of our movements and behaviours based on our exposures, media stories, hearsay communications, and authority commentary, with regard to crime, nuisance, and environmental decay. The fact is most of us make ‘footfall’ choices based on these influences and there are economic as well as social consequences that result. This correlates to how we feel and then act. Being safer is an outcome, feeling safer a personal thing. The increase in serious assaults and assaults involving weapons around the Hastings Street encampment in Vancouver is a fact and sharing that information enables citizens to make informed choices re their safety and security, is crucial. Making an informed choice will be dependent on the ability in the citizen to act having thought critically and having researched multiple sources. The news that focuses on “increases in racist graffiti and businesses having their windows smashed” is important news that needs to be factored into our choices. Informed by one authority source is not enough.

In conclusion full revelation and honesty is the productive route forward to deliver safer communities.

Mike Franklin

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