The truth about crime, policing and politicians

'Visible policing, like people's fear of crime itself, seems not to be a matter of reality at all, but of perception'

Here's a true story I've nicked from The New Yorker. It goes something like this: when they were questioned recently by polling organisations, most Americans thought that the country's international-aid budget should be cut.

Here's a true story I've nicked from The New Yorker. It goes something like this: when they were questioned recently by polling organisations, most Americans thought that the country's international-aid budget should be cut.

But the enterprising pollsters, for once, did not leave it at that. Those who wished to slash the monies going to Botswana and Bangladesh were then asked what proportion of the budget - in their judgement - should be ploughed back into tax cuts for the middle classes, or whatever the issue of the moment was. Some said half, some said as much as 80 per cent.

You could hardly have a clearer message; vox populi, vox dei (even if it is a horribly selfish deus). Or could you? The polling organisation then asked the slashers to estimate, to the next billion dollars or so, how much the budget for aid actually was. Almost universally, they believed it to be 10 to 100 times larger than the real one. In other words, even those most opposed to the aid budget were theoretically in favour of a level of spending that was far, far higher than that currently undertaken. Except - of course - they wanted a cut.

We seem to have the same situation here in Britain when it comes to crime. The reality of crime is - as far as we can tell - that it fell in the two years between 1997 and 1999. These figures, from the British Crime Survey - collected from 20,000 respondents - are regarded as being far more reliable than the official statistics, since they include unreported crime and are not vulnerable to whatever might be the latest Home Office or police fashions for counting crime. Of course, some crimes have come into vogue and some have left it. But the hard facts appear to be that many fewer of us have been burgled, had our cars nicked, or - if we stayed home on Saturday night - have got our faces pushed in by strangers. The percentage of adults living in a home affected in some way by crime fell, in 1999, to the lowest level since the 1983.

And yet most of us believe, according to the same survey, that exactly the opposite has happened. At the same time as our cars and homes haven't been broken into, we think they have been. We walk the streets in unjustified fear and lock our doors with unnecessary trepidation. If we were asked what would constitute a significant improvement in our quality of life, we might well reply that a cut of, say, 10 per cent in crime, would make us much happier. But, alas...

Take rural crime. Last April, in the backwash of the Tony Martin affair, we were treated to a classic scare. The Martin case was symptomatic (no, emblematic) of rural crisis, with crime rates soaring through the ink-black, unlit, country skies. The populations of entire shire counties were barricaded into their isolated farm-houses, like settlers in Apache country, awaiting the 2am crunch of gravel and the sound of a jemmy in the outhouse door. Ann Widdecombe and William Hague rose like Texan senators to demand the protection of the 7th Cavalry. Even today, on its website, the Conservative Party is claiming that "rural crime is rising dramatically" - a consequence (naturally) of Labour's failure to comprehend the needs of country people.

But rural crime isn't rising dramatically. It isn't rising at all. It's falling. Or, as the Widdecombite Daily Mail admitted (albeit as unobtrusively as possible): "Crime rates in the rural areas have fallen as quickly or even faster than in towns." The average put-upon country-dweller is half as likely as the townie to have her car swiped, her home burgled or her husband walloped. So why do country people believe the opposite?

And there is another problem contained in the figures, another conundrum for those what likes their policies to be of the common-sense, kitchen-table variety. This fall in crime has coincided with a drop in the number of police officers on the beat. Now, I personally would not conclude from this that if we abolished the police force, then crime levels would plummet to zero. Falls in unemployment, increased police effectiveness and changes in demography may also play a part, but at the very least it constitutes an argument against the more cops/less crime platitudes of Government and Opposition.

However, visible policing, like people's fear of crime itself, seems not to be a matter of reality at all, but of perception. The motto of the media age is: We perceive, therefore it is. I used to think that - outside periods of political madness - it was not possible for people to believe what was not true. Their own daily experiences would undermine the false version. But these days I wonder. It is far easier to have an informed opinion about perception than it is to have one about fact. If the perception is Z, why waste your time evaluating A to Y? God alone knows, "perception" saves many of us journalists from an awful lot of digging round in dry statistics.

Back, a moment, to reality. The crimes that have risen in incidence seem to be of two main types: the mugging of teenagers and Saturday night mayhem. A decade or so ago, there was a spate of street robberies aimed at depriving youngsters of their very expensive trainers - now its their mobile phones. Sooner or later, phone security or cheaper phones will render this crime less attractive.

Drunken crime is more of a problem. At happy hour in Cardiff town centre, you can buy a quart of vodka and Red Bull for £2.75. When I saw this the other day, I was instantly reminded of Hogarth's Gin Lane, "drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence". A publican who advertises vodka and Red Bull might just as well put up a sign saying "Teenager? Come and get completely obliterated. Who knows, you may even have a fight."

In the local hospital, the surgeons believe that they have witnessed a "steady and inexorable increase in assaults requiring hospital treatment" between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, linked to increased alcohol consumption and an equally increased tendency to enjoy violence. Anecdotal evidence from friends suggests a growing tolerance of the use or threat of violence on the part of both young men and their girlfriends.

There are, apparently, some quite straightforward things that could be done. More fights happen where there is an absence of seating. Like in football grounds, the seated yob tends not to be a yob at all. So it would make sense for there to be an Ann Widdecombe "sit down to drink" initiative. But it doesn't quite have the same ring as "zero tolerance", does it?

And suppose that what the Cardiff publican had been advertising was not vodka but a happy-hour bargain bongful of Red Leb or Surinamese wobbleweed? Then the gutters would be full, not of bloodied, glassed casualties, but of recumbent boring philosophers speculating on whatever happened to Opal Fruits. According to the Prime Minister, however, we cannot permit this - not because he believes that cannabis is as bad as alcohol, but because it would "send the wrong signal".

So there we go, it is perception not reality again. Personally, I'll take reality every time. At least I know where I am with it.