Nigel Hawkes: How crime stats cast police as Hercule Poirots

Behind The Numbers

Share
Related Topics

Anyone who has been burgled, had their car stolen or been the victim of criminal damage knows from bitter experience that the criminal is very unlikely to be caught. The detection rate for these crimes runs at a piffling 11-15 per cent.

Yet every year police forces across the country publish statistics for crime as a whole that claim a much higher detection rate. It ranges from around 25 per cent to more than 40 per cent. When these documents drop through letterboxes, belief in crime statistics sinks a little lower. Are they lying to us?

They are not. The collection of crime statistics is tightly governed by the Home Office and there is no reason to disbelieve them. But that is not to say that they present a complete or wholly accurate picture.

Take Northumbria Police. In 2008-09 they recorded 105,458 crimes, and a 39.3 per cent detection rate. For burglary, vehicle crime and criminal damage, which represent almost half the crimes recorded in the area, the detection rate was 19.2 per cent – better than the national average but a long way below the overall claim.

So how does 19.2 per cent become inflated to 39.3 per cent? One reason is that some crimes are virtually invisible unless they are detected, so event and detection are almost identical. Take drug crime. Because there is no victim, drug crime is not reported at all unless it is detected. Northumbria Police claims a detection rate of 97.5 per cent for drug crime.

The same applies to shoplifting. People who steal from shops do not usually enter the crime statistics unless they are caught in the act. Northumbria claims a 78.6 per cent detection rate for shoplifting. And for harassment, Northumbria records a detection rate of 82.4 per cent.

These figures are largely meaningless, because the huge majority of crimes in these categories are never reported or detected. To claim such high detection rates is a sleight of hand, perfectly acceptable under the rules, but creating a misleading impression. If drug offences, shoplifting, and harassment are subtracted from Northumbria's figures, the detection rate falls from 39.3 to 29.6 per cent.

In fact, Northumbria recorded more than 143,000 incidents of antisocial behaviour in 2008-09, a larger number than all the crimes it reported. Nationally, Denis O'Connor, Chief Inspector of Constabulary, says the police received 3.6 million calls about antisocial behaviour, against 4.6 million about crime. "Members of the public on the receiving end of antisocial behaviour find it hard to distinguish from crime" he said.

Very few of these incidents even make it on to the crime statistics – 4,005 cases of harassment were the only examples recorded in Northumbria. But it's all above board. Crimes that everybody knows are commonplace are only recorded if detected, creating the illusion that the police outperform Hercule Poirot in tracking down drug-takers and shoplifters. If only they could.

Nigel Hawkes is director of Straight Statistics (www.straightstatistics.org)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Software Developer (Java /C# Programmer)- London

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global investment management fi...

Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CCNP, Cisco, London)

£65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CC...

Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, Cisco, CISSP)

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, C...

Senior Network Engineer-(Design, Implementation, CCIE)

£60000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(Design, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: The West flounders in the Middle East morass

Independent Voices
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition