A law unto themselves: Evidence that police are under-reporting crimes to meet performance targets only adds to the case for radical reform


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The Independent Online

Trust in the integrity of the police is already at an unacceptable low. Yet the rate at which evidence of poor judgement, skewed priorities and institutional self-interest continues to pile up shows little sign of diminishing.

The latest criticisms come from MPs. Indeed, the conclusions of a parliamentary investigation into UK crime figures, published today, could hardly be more damning. Not only does the House of Commons Public Administration Committee commend our official statistics agency for stripping the gold-standard “national statistics” designation from the police-produced contribution to crime figures (leaving only Crime Survey information from the public); it goes further in explicitly accusing forces of deliberately misrecording data.

The central culprit here is the top-down performance target, which presents officers with “a conflict between achievement of targets and core policing values”. Too often, it seems, they choose the former – rendering the PRC’s contribution to the crime figures downright misleading and putting the core role of protecting the public second to an easy life. It is very alarming that the figures for sexual offences appear particularly open to manipulation, as officers with one eye on their targets pressurise victims into withdrawing their claims. Hardly less so is the notion that senior managers were either not aware of the problem or complicit in it.

The implications could hardly be more serious. First, there are practicalities to consider: if forces’ internal crime data is unreliable, resources cannot be effectively deployed and services efficiently delivered. Far worse, though, is the suggestion that law enforcement may be, once again, putting the job of policing second to the institution of the police.

The good news is that, when it comes to cleaning up the crime statistics, there are some obvious solutions at hand. As the Public Administration Committee recommends, all numerical targets should be scrapped; measures to penalise officers who record inaccurate data must be swiftly established; and a Home Office investigation into forces’ disparate “no-crime” rates for sexual offences must be instigated forthwith.

But the problems run deeper than bad management and perverse incentives. Misreported statistics may seem a far cry from the persistent accusations of gross impropriety– from the Hillsborough cover-up, to the death of Ian Tomlinson, to the Plebgate affair (to name but three) – that have worn public confidence so thin. But the central issue is the same. While the majority of officers continue to merit our utmost respect and gratitude, the culture of the service as a whole has become prejudicially inward-looking, obfuscatory and a law unto itself.

Although the Coalition has started to shake-up the police, there is still a long way to go, not least in beefing up independent complaints procedures. Ultimately, however, the cultural overhaul will need to come from within as well as without. As is clear from the latest ructions at the Police Federation – where both the chairman and general secretary are stepping down amid internal rows over reform – change will not be easy. But forces need to understand that there is no alternative. Britain deserves better than this.