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Friday, July 18, 2008 

Crime stat porn and thoughts connected.

Try as they did, opposition politicians yesterday were fighting a losing battle in trying to get some sort of advantage out of the latest crime figures. With the apparent rise in knife crime and teenagers killing each other in record numbers in London, it ought to have been a reasonably easy task. The figures though told a completely different story, and one which is also increasingly difficult to dismiss: after stabilising over the last couple of years, the large falls once again accelerated in 2007/08. Crime as recorded by the British Crime Survey (PDF, references are made throughout the post to the relevant pages), more authoritative because of its huge over 40,000 survey sample showed it to have fallen by 10%, while police recorded crime fell by 9%. In fact, the only figures to show a rise were homicide, which rose by 2% from 759 to 784, drug offences, which were up 18%, mainly because of the continued, possibly soon to end confiscating and warn policy on cannabis and gun offences, which also rose by 2%. Everything else, as recorded by both the police and BCS, either remained stable or fell.

Dominic Grieve, David Davis's replacement as Tory shadow home secretary tried to claim that violent crime had risen by "80%" under Labour, but this ignores the fact that violent crime as measured by the BCS has fallen by an astonishing almost half since 1995, 48% down. Because of the way the police recorded crime changed in 2002/03 figures are now not comparable prior to then, but while the police recorded a 25% rise in violence against the person between then and 2005/06, this has since fallen by 9% to 0.96 million offences (page 21). Where Grieve got his 80% figure from is a mystery.

It was instead left to the tabloids to shriek about the figures which previously they hadn't much cared about. They mostly played down the collected for the first time figures by the police in which knives were used in a crime (attempted murder; wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm (GBH); wounding or inflicting grievous bodily harm (i.e. without intent); robbery of business property; and robbery of personal property) which totalled 22,151 attacks or offences in total (page 75), which showed that more than 55% of police recorded crimes involving a knife took place in either London, Birmingham or Manchester, while in large areas of the country there were by comparison a tiny number, such as in Cumbria where there were 73, North Yorkshire in which there were 66, Norfolk 67 and Dorset 47 (the Guardian has a handy interactive map), to instead look at the BCS figures on violent crime involving a bladed instrument.

The BCS in total recorded 2,164,000 violent incidents against adults in England and Wales in 2007/08 (page 62). Of these, 6% involved a knife (page 63). Extrapolating from this, this is where the headlines and leading paragraphs of around 130,000 offences involving a knife came from. Further distorting and potentially worrying people, this was then broken down to 350 a day or to a "knife attack" every four minutes. It doesn't matter that these figures are essentially meaningless when you can't get a full rounded figure in the first place from 6% of 2,164,000, they nonetheless occupied the front pages and screamed about the reality of life in "Blade Britain". What few of the papers bothered to go into was the caveats that are involved in these figures which help greatly in understanding that these are simply not instances of people getting stabbed or even attacked. For example, just over 51% of all violent incidents resulted in no injury whatsoever (page 72), while the most common injuries that were suffered were minor bruising or a black eye (28%), severe bruising (15%) and cuts (13%) (page 73). In only 12% of violent incidents was any form of medical attention sought, with 9% seeing a doctor and just 1% requiring an overnight stay in hospital. Of the 2,164,000 violent incidents, around a third were incidents of stranger violence (page 71), while another third was, more surprisingly, acquaintance violence. Domestic violence accounted for one in six violent incidents. The overall risk of being a victim of violent crime was 3.2% (page 70). The overall risk of being a victim of any sort of crime was 22%, the lowest since the BCS began in 1981.

It wasn't even as if the tabloids could claim there had been any huge rise in knife crime, as the statistics in fact mainly show the opposite. The use of knives in the 2,164,000 violent incidents was actually down 1% to 6% from the 2006/07 survey, although the figure was not stastically significant (page 76). The figure involving knives used in violent incidents has also stayed broadly stable since 1995, hovering around or below 8%. Also interestingly, the Metropolitan police, which have been collecting figures with crimes involving knives separately from other forces also recorded a fall. The Met recorded 10,220 knife enabled crimes in 07/08 (page 76), 16% down on last year, figures which were 4% down on the previous year. As korova on Mask of Anarchy points out, mostly ignored but also in the figures is the fact that 7% of violent incidents involved a blunt or "hitting" instrument, which can do potentially as much if not more damage than a knife, but which have been lost sight of in the current atmosphere. We are not then suffering from a knife crime epidemic. The reality according to the figures is that we're experiencing a stabilising effect and no real rise in knife crime. What is happening without question is that young people, especially in the cities are carrying knives, and are increasingly prepared to use them, as the latest terrible death of a teenager shows. That's the main reason why we're currently having such potentially adverse and over the top media attention, along with the fact that alongside the mostly black victims, three of those who have died have been white, middle class, and either had telegenic, hospitable and eloquent parents or semi-famous relatives.

The problem is, as we all know, that fewer and fewer people believe the statistics. Two-thirds believed that crime had risen over the past year, but as often seems to be the case, only 39% believed that crime had risen in their area. The same pattern seems to apply to those who think that the NHS is nationally getting worse even while they think that their local services are actually fairly good. It's hard not to link this directly with media coverage: faced with the number of young deaths in London, who wouldn't after all believe that crime is rising? With all those front pages this morning, again, who wouldn't believe it also, even if they read the articles in detail, where most do make clear that according to the statistics, if they care to believe them, that crime has fallen apparently spectacularly? This is where Louise Casey's recommendation for a independent statistics board might help, but only if it potentially has teeth which can challenge the media picture.

Also related but also without an answer is exactly why crime is falling so significantly, again, if we are to believe the statistics. This incidentally isn't just happening here but across the Western world, so unless everyone's on the fiddle it's an almost global picture. The Guardian's editorial suggests the reason is that we've all gotten richer but that we've also gotten older, and crime, as the BCS itself shows, is predominantly a young man's game. Criminologists themselves admit that don't know, which in itself is refreshing; others point towards better security. The government's policies also have to be considered; perhaps the record numbers in prison have contributed to the fall in crime? If so, that itself puts those of us on the left who think there are already too many people in prison, let alone without adding more capacity, especially when those inside cannot get adequate treatment for the drug problems and mental health issues which so contribute to crime, in a difficult position.

In summary, there is no knife crime epidemic, or at least one isn't reflected in the statistics. Crime itself is at its lowest point for a generation, and again, although it doesn't feel like, Britain is now probably the safest it's been overall since the early 1980s. The real difficulty is in convincing the public themselves that this is the case, and not exaggerating the real problems we do have into a picture of a broken society. The biggest difficulty of all is that we don't seem to have any answers whatsoever.

Related posts:
Richard Garside - Knife crime: perception vs reality
Little Richardjohn - I live in Peckham. I feel safe.
Cassilis - You can't just ignore the inconveinent numbers

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There are a couple of techniques the media use to make figures look more shocking.

The first is to lump two things together in the format "X or Y: n incidents". If X is nowhere near equivalent to Y in severity, but happens much more often, it creates a far worse impression than reality. People interpret it as the worst scenaro in all cases. For example: "killed or injured", "overweight or obese", "raped or sexually assaulted" etc.

The second, related, technique is to use vague words instead of specific ones because the vague words encapsulate a very broad spectrum of events and make things appear worse than they are. 'Paedophile' is much better for the papers than child abuser as it includes people with unwelcome desires who would not harm anyone as well as actual abusers. Incidents of 'knife crime' or 'gun crime' can include incidents of ownership or carrying a weapon even if no one is attacked, but will be interpreted as the number of stabbings or shootings.

They've quickly tried to do the same with youth alcohol consumption figures. It seems we are unable in this country of simply accepting, within reason, a study's findings.

Meanwhile, the police with nothing better to do over react in telling a 15 year old girl to pick up a piece of litter, and cause an over reaction by members of the public which leads to violent disorder and arrests for assault...

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