Annual crime statistics are simply not credible anymore and it’s almost impossible to work out how much of the ‘crime iceberg’ lurks beneath the surface, writes Tom Wood.
It’s that time of year again, when the annual crime stastics are published allowing us to judge whether we are winning or losing, safer or more at risk. It’s a reality check, when we can hopefully reassure ourselves that contrary to our worst fears, we are not slipping into a pit of depravity. That’s the theory anyway and there was a time when the hotly anticipated data was picked over by teams of investigative journalists, keen to tease out the most salacious facts and figures. No more. Publication of the annual crime statistics for Scotland this September went virtually unnoticed, justifying only a few hundred words in some newspapers and not a mention in the broadcast media. Since srime and anti-social behaviour always figure highly in public concerns, the question must be why?
Well, there’s a number of reasons. First, having spent more time than is healthy trying to analyse crime statistics, I can tell you it’s no fun. I could never decide whether all the charts and graphs were designed to be impenetrable or it just turned out that way, but whichever, they were never a light read. Add to that the modern practice of drip-feeding crime figures as the year goes on and it means the annual stats are not the ‘Big Bang’ they used to be. The almost complete disappearance of the investigative journalist as a species is another factor, but the main reason is an old and familiar one. Crime statistics are simply not credible, not trusted because it’s virtually impossible to compare them like for like and, in any case, there is such a large lump of unreported crime that it makes recorded stastics of dubious value.
It may be logical to change definitions and recording practices, but it makes comparisons impossible, while ‘the dark figure’ – as it is known in academic circles – has vexed criminologists forever. Many a turgid university essay, my own included, has been penned trying to explain and quantify ‘the dark figure’, the part of the ‘crime iceberg’ that lurks beneath the surface . Of course, there is no answer, like crime itself there are too many variables. Crimes like domestic violence have always been vastly undereported and many crimes like drug offences are recorded mainly because of enforcement. Cut back the effort and the figures fall. As home insurance in high-crime areas becomes more expensive, many cannot afford the premiums – and what’s the point of reporting your telly stolen if it isn’t insured? Property stores in police stations across the country bear witness to this – full of valuable property, certain to be stolen but never reported.
It’s understandable that petty crime goes unreported, but less easy to fathom why serious crimes remain hidden. Yet this is an issue, with the new head of Scotland’s Violence Reduction unit recently speaking of his concerns over the under-reporting of some very violent crimes, such as assaults and street robberies. The truth is that for many victims any involvement with the criminal justice system is a no-no, better to lick you wounds and move on.
So for all these reasons the detail of crime staistics has to be taken with a large pinch of salt. Far more reliable are the underlying trends, the direction of travel. Whether it’s the rise in cyber-crime or people-trafficking, these trends affect us all directly or indirectly and they are worthy of note. Closer to home though and much more relevant to most of us is the local picture.
So instead of downloading hundreds of pages of charts and graphs, get along to your community council when your neighbourhood Constable gives their rundown on local crime. Pay particular attention to housebreaking, drug activity and any clusters of violence or indecencies – these are crimes that matter and you may find you have more to contribute than you think.
Tom Wood is a writer and former Deputy Chief Constable of Lothian & Borders Police