Leading article: Airbrushing out the riots


Riots? What riots? As far as the authorities are concerned, this summer's disturbances were not only socially aberrant but also statistically so. As a consequence, they are being airbrushed out of the local crime maps launched with much fanfare as a boost to police accountability.

Leaving aside quibbles about the potential hit to house prices, online crime maps have much to recommend them. But they are valuable only as far as the data behind them is an accurate reflection of reality. If only. The crime figures for August recorded on the www.police.uk website give barely a hint of the fact that the worst rioting for decades was sweeping through many British cities.

The map for Reeves Corner, in Croydon, for example – where arson destroyed a 140-year-old furniture shop and surrounding businesses – records just one more crime in August than in July. In the St Ann's area of Nottingham – where youths went on the rampage, setting light to cars and firebombing a police station – the number of crimes reportedly fell. Even in Tottenham High Road, the epicentre of disturbances that raged unchecked for several days, crime levels rose to just 149. To anyone who watched the disorder and devastation on the news each night in early August, such figures seem laughable.

There are two explanations for the striking disconnect with reality. One is a technical issue. The crime numbers are traditionally put together on a per-victim basis, so mass looting of a branch of JD Sports, for example, only counts as a single crime. The second defence is that the sudden surge of criminal activity plays havoc with attempts to put together general crime trends, not only skewing this year's headline numbers with a one-off event, but also setting up false comparators with a hopefully riot-free 2012.

But these are the arguments of the statistician rather than those of the local resident looking for a snapshot of crime levels in their area. The riots may have been anomalous, but they nonetheless still occurred. To make believe that they did not – even in order to conform with historical data-gathering rules – is not helping anyone. Least of all police and politicians with a much-vaunted "transparency agenda".

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