The police have a mantra they like to repeat when the papers run stories about paedo rapists on the lam, or Jon Venables up to no good. "Listen," they say, "of course there is the odd incident, but the big picture is that violent crime has dropped off dramatically over the past decade." I say it, too, to my right-wing pals who bore on about south London being no safer than Lagos, and dear old Gordon mentioned it repeatedly this week in a muddled rant about law and order.
And I'd like to keep believing it's true – that despite everything, people are getting nicer all the time. But I've begun to doubt it.
The story that seeded the doubt was about a pair of 77-year-old pensioners, Kath and Albert Adams, who lived on a sheltered housing estate with 34 other elderly men and women in Rugby, Warwickshire. Two years ago a gang of kids began to torment the community – swearing, jeering and throwing things. A few weeks ago Albert stood up to the kids and last weekend someone set fire to the mobility scooter parked outside his front door. The flames soon spread to the house and both Kath and Albert were taken to hospital where they died – first Albert, then Kath. On Monday another mobility scooter was torched in the same complex as if to say, "So they died. Whatever. You next."
But it's not this couple's death that worried me (awful though it was) so much as the comment from the man in charge of the investigation, a Detective Chief Inspector James Essex. "Although there has been speculation about the incident being linked to anti-social behaviour in the area, at this stage we have no evidence to substantiate that," he said. "No calls have been made to us, no members of the public have come forward to us to confirm this supposed link."
Supposed link? What on earth could he mean? Did the chief inspector suspect that the mobility scooters might be possessed and are exploding spontaneously? No evidence, DCI Essex – then why not investigate? After all, Kath and Albert's neighbours spoke freely to the press about teenagers ripping up their fences and threatening them.
The more I've thought about the chief inspector's statement – and it's been playing like ticker tape across my mind all week – the bleaker the picture it paints.
No evidence appears to mean no police in the area, stopping to check all's well, making a report – not once in two years. No calls seemingly means that despite years of trouble, none of those 34 frightened, elderly people thought it worth informing the police. "We just thought, what's the point?" said one of Albert's friends. "They won't do anything."
So, you understand my worry. Are Chief Inspector Essex and his ilk really presiding over a new pacific era? Is this really the sort of kick-ass policing that's cutting crime nationwide? What if, God forbid, violent crime isn't falling, but just going unreported or lurking out of reach of the stats?
To my horror, over the past few days, I've found there's reason to believe this is a feasible explanation. There are two sources behind that reassuring mantra about falling crime: there's the police figures themselves and the British Crime Survey which collects data from a sample of 50,000 people. But the police figures are deeply flawed because they depend on recorded crime – and it's not just the Adamses who see no point in dialling 999.
More than half of all violent crimes happen to the same 1 per cent of the population (on housing estates and in tower blocks) and it's exactly these people who have learnt not to bother with the cops. As for the British Crime Survey, it questions only adults, so great waves of crime drift under its radar. All child victims are invisible to the BCS, as are crimes against commercial victims (banks, say, or shops).
So look, here's one way crimes can just seem to disappear. In the 1980s junkies used to nick car radios – remember? Then car security improved, so desperate crack addicts switched to shoplifting and – Paf! The crimes became invisible to the BCS.
But there's another, more sinister magic trick the police can employ to ensure violent crime falls. It's called "cuffing" – the black magic of making offences vanish up an officer's sleeve. In July 2000, HM Inspector of Constabulary reported that in the 11 forces his team had checked, about a quarter of all crimes had been mis-recorded, through incompetence or a desire to conceal the facts. A quarter of all crimes!
By a strange coincidence, on Thursday night, a friend told me a story about a form of cuffing he'd experienced. A few years ago, he said, when he worked in a nightclub in a northern city, the local chief inspector had called all the pub and club owners together for a meeting. "Listen," said the chief. "Word from on high is that violent crime has to go down and I'll tell you what that means. It means that none of you are going to report assaults, and if you do we'll make sure you lose your licence. Got it?" They did.
I'm not for a minute suggesting that DCI Essex has anything in common with that crooked chief inspector, but just that if he ever feels aggrieved that the public doesn't appreciate the drop in violent crime; if perhaps that's what stops him from putting in the extra effort, he might consider investigating the statistics himself.
Let's hear it for an actress not in thrall to awards
Hooray for fabulous Mo'Nique (nominated for the best supporting actress Oscar for her role as the mother in Precious), above, not just because she so completely acted the socks off every other contender for any Oscar but because of her uplifting disregard for the whole irritating awards industry.
While other stars treat Oscars and Baftas like VCs, and give horrible, mock-humble speeches, Mo'Nique treats show business like any other business and mostly refuses to show up, or quite sensibly demands cash to make an appearance. My one hope for tomorrow night is that she wins but sends a flunky to pick up the award who simply takes it and leaves silently without any speech at all.
I'm a bored teenager – get me out of here
Young people are leaving the countryside in droves, it was reported this week, not because of a lack of jobs, or even a lack of Topshop, so much as a lack of a reliable mobile phone signals. I believe this completely. On Eurostar last week, coming back through the tunnel of death, I queued up for a hot chocolate in a buffet car stuffed with teens, all looking so jittery I assumed they were fellow claustrophobics and gave them fond smiles. Twenty minutes later, I realised my mistake. As we popped out into the light they began whooping with relief: "Hey man! I've got signal again – thank God! That was, like, awful. I couldn't call anyone for ages."
No one's laughing
On Question Time this week, Boris Johnson began his usual comedy routine, but he spoke into an icy silence until a schoolgirl asked: "Why can't you admit it when you don't know something instead of waffling on?" I don't worry for Boris – Bojo will never lose his mojo – but if even he can't raise a laugh, the Tories really are in very serious trouble indeed.Reuse content