Police concern over falling clear-up rate for crimes: Figures show a dramatic fall in detectives' success in bringing offenders to justice. Terry Kirby reports

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'IN sixteen years in the force, I have never known the numbers of crimes we are detecting actually drop,' says Detective Chief Inspector Bill Gaskins, head of CID in Cheltenham. 'Even if the percentage dropped because of the rise in crime, we still detected more. Now we clear up fewer.'

A dramatic slump in the clear- up rate for crimes - as expressed in both percentage and crude numerical terms - is causing serious concern to detectives like Det Ch Insp Gaskins, whose force has seen a clear-up rate of 39 per cent in 1988 shrink to 24 per cent last year, a fall from 16,500 crimes in 1991 to 14,200.

But Gloucestershire has also seen dramatic rises in crime in recent years - 32 per cent in 1991 and 25 per cent 1992 - and Det Ch Insp Gaskins accepts that as the numbers rise there is an affect on the clear-up rate because of the demands on police time.

According to the Criminal Statistics for 1991, published last week, a large number of forces suffered dramatic drops in clear- up rates: Cheshire, 50 per cent to 41 per cent; South Yorkshire, 44 per cent to 36 and West Mercia 46 to 35.

Gloucestershire is one of 10 forces which have seen the pattern continue into 1992, with large decreases in its clear-up rates over the past year. As more 1992 figures for other forces are published over the next few weeks, the picture is certain to be repeated around the country.

Out of the 23 forces contacted by the Independent, eight have smaller drops of two or three percentage points; the remainder are static or have minute increases. The actual figures, show that even in forces with relatively small crime increases for 1992 over 1991, clear-ups are dropping.

In Cumbria, the number of offences rose from 42,702 to 43,100 but the clear-ups dropped from 17,195 to 15,749, a fall of nearly 3 percentage points. In Hertfordshire, reported crimes rose from 56,800 to 61,100, but detected crimes fell by 8 percentage points from 15,300 to 12,600; in Dorset, while crime rose overall by only 1.3 per cent, the detection rate dropped by 9 percentage points,falling in crude terms from 21,000 to 16,500.

Some forces - Avon and Somerset and Northumbria - have seen their clear-up rate drop below 20 per cent to the same level as the Metropolitan Police.

Figures for the Metropolitan Police are not due to be published until later in the spring, but it is accepted the force is facing a large drop in arrests, likely to be reflected in the clear-up rate, which at 17 per cent has traditionally been the lowest in the country.

An internal report concludes that the drop is due to restrictive effects of legislation, such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and the time taken up with pre- trial procedure and disclosures to defence lawyers, introduced in conjunction with the Crown Prosecution Service as a result of recent miscarriages of justice.

Such measures mean that in Cheltenham one of Mr Gaskins's two detective inspectors is currently in the middle of an estimated two to three months spell assisting the prosecution on a rape trial which, in the past might have occupied perhaps only a week or more of his time.

Mike Bennett, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation said: 'If everybody is asking us to spend more time on paperwork and more time on evidence gathering, then quite clearly we are not going to be there to do the job out on the streets and that is why the numbers of arrests are dropping.'

In Hertfordshire, arrests increased by 30 per cent in 1992. Baden Skitt, the county's Chief Constable argues that although the police remain efficient, suspects are now more antagonistic towards the police and less likely to offer 'TICs' - further offences taken into consideration at trial and therefore added to the clear- up rate.

Since many forces rely heavily upon prison visits - in some cases for more than a quarter of all 'clear-ups' - some observers argue that ending the practise, as chief constables in Cheshire and Northumbria have done with consequent dramatic affects on their clear-up rate - together with reducing the numbers of TIC's, could ultimately provide a clearer picture of the true numbers of crimes solved by police.

A spokesman for Cheshire police said that when prison visits were removed its 'primary detection rate' was the best in the country.