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Thursday, July 16, 2009 

Your yearly crime stat porn post.

It's that time of year again when the press, politicians and fools like me with too much time on their hands try to make sense of the 195 page Crime in England and Wales document (PDF), which contains both the results of the British Crime Survey and the police's own records. For those unfamiliar, the two compliment each other: the BCS ensures that offences not reported to the police are still recognised, while the police's figures are especially authoritative when it comes to the most serious crimes, as well as providing a snapshot, in these New Labour days of targets, of what they're currently being ordered to focus on.

As always, the figures have thrown some curveballs. After seemingly inexorably rising, murders dropped by a quite astonishing 17%, from 784 to 648. A Home Office statistician suggested that this might be to do with advances in treatment, but if that was the case then we would have expected attempted murders to have either risen or remained stable; instead they dropped too, from 621 to 575. It's worth remembering that the larger American cities often have homicide rates between 300 and 500; New York last year saw 516. The claim only a couple of weeks ago, remember, was that the UK was the most violent place in Europe and also more violent than the US and South Africa.

Both the BCS and police figures, predictably then, show a decline. Violent crime fell by 4% on the BCS, although it was not statistically significant, while it fell by a further 6% according to the police figures, accelerating the falls of last year. As for those all important knife crime figures, apart from a statistically insignificant rise of 1% on the BCS where knives were used in violent incidents, it fell again on all the main measures with one further exception, as it did last year, despite the media coverage which gave the impression that every teenager walking the streets was tooled up and waiting to shank the first person they came across. Murders involving knives declined from 270 to 252, although attempted murders went up slightly from 245 to 271. Robberies involving knives similarly declined from 17,058 to 16,701. Admissions to hospital as a result of assault by sharp object, recorded by the NHS, also fell by 8%. Likewise, gun crime also declined, according to the police figures, by 17%. Firearm injuries also fell by 46%.

Crime as a whole, depending on which you prefer, has either remained stable, according to the BCS, or declined by 5% according to the police's figures. The most interesting differences, and perhaps most revealing, are on burglaries, theft from the person and robbery. Most presumed as a result of the recession that such "property" crime was likely to rise, with those who were previously just making ends meet perhaps being forced into far more desperate measures. Instead, if you were to rely just on the police figures, the only very slight confirmation of that "known known" was that burglaries rose by a not statistically significant 1%, although across the country the figures vary massively. The BCS however, while confirming that burglaries remained stable over the past year, found that there was a 25% rise in theft from the person, compared to a 12% decline in the police's figures, with robbery also down by 5%. The figures on bicycle theft perhaps explain the difference: the BCS saw a 22% rise, while the police figure remained stable. It seems that most no longer expect the police to do anything about the theft of a bike, and that they'll also expect they'll never see it again regardless, hence they don't bother to report it. Other explanations are that some don't report the likes of pickpocketing because they're too embarrassed to do so, or by the time they realise they've been robbed think there isn't a point in doing so. Clearly however this is a cause for concern: it's these life affecting sort of thefts that most influence a person's view of crime, and if people don't believe the police can do anything about them their entire faith in the system is liable to break down.

As last year, the impression of the public when it comes to crime is hugely at odds with the statistics. 75% this year believed that crime had increased nationally, while only 36% thought that it had increased locally. Similarly, 51% thought that they lived in an area with lower than average crime, 39% thought they were about average while only 11% thought the crime in their area was higher than nationally. Even more striking were the figures when it came to knife and gun crime: 93% thought the former had gone up nationally, incredibly unsurprisingly, while 86% believed the latter had. In fact, as we have seen, both had fallen, but you can hardly blame anyone for thinking the opposite when there was so much attention on the number of youth murders in London, which now seem to have been a blip (although the schools only break up this week), however distressing and troubling a blip.

All of this just reinforces the fact that when tabloids, especially the likes of the Sun portray the country and especially the cities as places where the "yob" is in charge or "mob rule" pervades, all they do is make people ever more fearful for no good reason. The chances of becoming a victim of crime remain historically low, even though it increased this year from the lowest since the BCS began of 22% to 23%, down from 40% at its peak. While we shouldn't be complacent, it remains the case that unless we want even more radical policies, either liberalisation (i.e. drug decriminalisation) or an increase in draconian punishments, the crime rate now looks likely to have stabilised, and the scaremongering accordingly ought to be brought into touch.

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High quality, excellent stat-pr0n.

"Murders involving knives declined from 270 to 252, although attempted murders went up slightly from 245 to 271."

One slight quibble, if the rise is slight, then so's the decline.

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