Fall in crime rates may have been exaggerated because of pressure on police not to record lower-level offences

Downward trend in offences questioned by statisticians as police grapple with cuts

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The continuing fall in crime rates may have been exaggerated because police officers were under pressure from their superiors not to record lower-level offences, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The latest figures showed levels of crime recorded by police was down by 7 per cent in a year, with falls in almost every category, including murder, gun crime, knife crime and robbery.

Crime has been dropping for more than a decade in England and Wales – and across much of the western world - and the decline is continuing despite the economic downturn. To the surprise of statisticians, yesterday’s figures – for the year ending

September 2012 – even suggested the fall had accelerated in recent months.

However, while there is no doubt about the general trend, the ONS expressed concerns that the police had decided not to list 400,000 offences over the last five years, opting to treat them instead as anti-social behaviour.

The discrepancy arose when the ONS compared the official police figures with the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), which asks members of the public about their experience of crime. The ONS found that offences recorded by police were dropping twice as fast as suggested by the CSEW results.

Statisticians and criminologists said the falls could have inflated by officers being pressed to achieve targets to cut crime, while Labour suggested they were linked to cuts in police numbers.

The Police Federation, representing rank-and-file officers, said officer numbers had been cut by 9,000 in three years and added that the closure of police station meant victims were less likely to report minor crimes.

John Flatley, head of the ONS crime statistic and analysis division, said: “Police recorded crime appears to overstate the true rate at which crime has been falling.

“[With] some lower level crimes, there is a judgment call to be made as to whether the incident attended to by the officer is actually a crime in law or a low-level incident that would not get into the crime figures. It is possible in an era of targets to cut crime and pressure on officers to see a reduction in crime that their judgment will sway more to including that in the lower level category.”

Mike Hough, co-director of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, London, said: “There is probably less pressure than there was two or three years ago for the police to record [complaints] absolutely fully.”

But he stressed that it was important to focus on the bigger picture, showing that crime rates were dropping by all measures.

Today’s police figures showed 551 murders were committed in England and Wales last year, the lowest total since 1978. Gun crime was down by 17 per cent, knife crime down by 11 per cent and violent attacks down by 5 per cent.

There also fewer robberies (down 11 per cent), fewer burglaries (down 11 per cent) and less car crime (down 8 per cent).

The most serious sexual offences, which include rape, fell by 6 per cent. A blot on the figures was a six per cent rise in street crime, with a surge in thieves snatching mobile phones and iPads and in pickpocketing. There was also a rise in thefts from sheds and garages.

The latest CSEW painted a similar picture, concluding that crime fell by eight per cent over the last 12 months. The Crime Prevention Minister, Jeremy Browne, said: “Police reform is working. We have swept away central targets, reduced bureaucracy and these figures show forces are rising to the challenge of doing more with less. Many have achieved significant reductions in crime with reduced budgets.”