Counting on a copper-proof table: There are plenty of ways for the police to enhance performance figures, argues P A J Waddington. But it does not mean they're beating crime

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The Independent Online
LEAGUE tables for the police are not as new as the Home Secretary believes and the police pretend. In police jargon they are known as 'figures'. 'Getting figures' is a standard part of policing. Probationary constables need to demonstrate to their supervisors that they are 'active' by providing a continuous stream of arrests and summonses. Shifts may compete against each other to prove which is the more active. Squads, especially when threatened with extinction, 'get figures' to stave off that threat.

But do we really want an 'active' police force? Arresting criminals might seem to be the prime function of the police. In fact, they do it relatively rarely. Most of the incidents to which the police are called are interpersonal disputes, in which technically serious offences such as assault might have been committed, but which are trivial by any other standards. Would things be improved if, instead of quelling a fraught situation informally, the police started making arrests wholesale?

One consequence of this activity would be to take police off the streets, where the public wants to see them. Even the most 'poxy' arrest entails hours of paper processing in the station. One shoplifter will occupy an officer for half his or her tour of duty, and a juvenile prisoner may consume all of it. The product of all this labour would probably be a caution administered by a senior officer.

Another way of 'getting figures' is to avoid formally recording incidents that are likely to prove unproductive. This practice is known as 'cuffing' and 'talking out', and chief constables have sought to eradicate it in recent years in the interests of honesty. Paul Condon, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, points to the apparently huge rise in recorded offences in Kent as the 'cost of honesty'. Introducing league tables will renew the incentive to cuff.

There are other ways of massaging the figures. A few years ago the Home Office published research into the comparative successes of police forces in detecting burglary offences. There was, for example, a huge difference between Clapham in London (with an 11 per cent detection rate) and the comparable Chapeltown district of Leeds, which had a 65 per cent detection rate.

Were the West Yorkshire police nearly six times better at catching burglars than the Met? No; while the Met arrested 11 per cent of burglars, the comparable rate for Chapeltown was 18 per cent. The rest of the apparent difference was attributable to 'secondary detections': officers ask convicted burglars about other offences they may have committed, 'writing off' as solved those to which they admit. The Home Office will no doubt distinguish between 'primary' and 'secondary' detections when compiling its league tables, but many opportunities for exploiting procedures to put the best gloss on performance will remain. A 'copper-proof' system has yet to be devised.

There is a method of preventing crime and detecting offences. It has been carefully evaluated in the United States, where it is known as field interrogation; here, we call it stop and search. Lots of police aggressively stopping, questioning and, if possible, searching people at random, does suppress crime. The armed road blocks around central London seem to have deterred the IRA's Christmas blitz.

But was it not stop and search that was widely credited with alienating the police from young blacks in inner cities, sparking riots? That was the view of Lord Scarman, who also believed that law enforcement must remain secondary to the maintenance of 'public tranquillity'. Maintaining public tranquillity is not a performance indicator, but it is the real skill of policing.

The danger with police league tables is that they only measure what can be measured. The absence of crime and disorder through effective preventive action is more difficult to assess. League tables will encourage a more suppressive approach. As an inspector said the other day: 'If I am being assessed by the speed of response to calls, then I am not having my blokes walking the streets. I want them in cars.'

Is that really the kind of policing any of us wants, even Mr Clarke?

The author is Director of Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Reading.