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How accurate is police recorded crime as a way to measure crime?

Updated on March 8, 2017

AO1 - Knowledge

Police recorded crime:

This covers all of the crime statistics that the police collect in England and Wales from over 43 police forces, (which includes the British Transport Police). The Home Office is responsible for collating the statistics. The statistics would only include crime that has been reported by the police/public, and then recorded. The statistics are collected each year and can give an official account of the volume of crime and can look for trends, especially in relation to who the criminals actually are e.g. gender, age etc.

The dark figure of crime:

The police recorded crime do not represent the total number or volume of crime that actually occurs. There is the, “dark figure of crime” or “The hidden figure of crime” which refers to crime that is unrecorded and might not even be know about. Some crimes are more likely than others to be hidden, or are more likely to be classed as the “dark figure of crime.”

AO3 - Evaluation

The statistics are cheap and readily available. The Home Office publishes them annually and anyone with an internet can download the data and have access to lots of statistics. (+)

The data is immense and is collected by the Home Office; it is seen as being very valid and up to date (measuring what it set out to measure). (+)

Some crimes are not recognized as crimes by the victim, and are not reported e.g. identity fraud. Therefore these crimes do not appear in police recorded crimes. (-)

Whether a crime has been committed depends upon the perception of the individual e.g. social constructs. When does it become apparent that a fight turns into assault? (-)

AO1 - Knowledge

Police recording practices:

Crimes need to be serious enough in order to gain the attention of the police in the first place. Sometimes crimes might be labelled as, “too trivial” or “not having enough evidence” to be recorded, and therefore will not make it into the police recorded crime statistics.

We might also find that different police forces have different police officers who all might have a very different outlook on how they record crime. An example is that in 1981, Nottinghamshire appeared to be the most criminal area in the country, but this was because they counted theft as stealing a money value of £10 or less. Other police forces were more lenient and only recorded a crime if a higher value of money was stolen).

The Home Office provides guidelines to the police about, “counting rules” when counting how many crimes have been committed. Statistics should indicate the number of victims of crime rather than the number of criminal acts, e.g. if a person has been assaulted five times, this would equate to one victim, but 5 criminal acts, however, only the most serious of the assaults would be recorded, (which would give a count of one).

AO3 - Evaluation

The statistics can be easily compared with previous statistics and their quantitative nature can allow emerging trends and patterns to be established, especially when looking at who commits crime (criminal profiling). (+)

Many crimes are not reported to the police, even if the victim is aware that a crime has occurred. Reasons include that the victim might not want to report the crime, the proximity of the police station might be far, the person might want to take the law into their own hands, the person might feel the police might not do anything anyway etc. Due to insurance companies needing reference numbers to make claims for loss, many people might be more willing to over report crimes such as vandalism and car and property thefts. The dark figure of crime also means that police recorded crime might not be very accurate at all. (-)

Data can be checked (in terms of statistics from the past) and therefore the data is seen as being very reliable. (+)

AO1 - Knowledge

Coughing: This is when an offender is encouraged to admit to committing many offences in return for being charged with a less serious offence and a lesser sentence. This helps the police force because they have a higher, “clear up rate” whereby they manage to solve crime and find out which criminal committed which crimes (solved the crime). Sometimes criminals are even encouraged to admit to committing crimes that they have not committed! The criminal may get a lesser sentence if they admit that they are guilty (even though they did not commit the crime).

Cuffing: This refers to crimes which have been reported and initially recorded, but are then removed from the statistics at a later date. This practice is referred to as, “no crime.” This could be because the police officer did not believe the victim, or after further investigation no crime was believed to have taken place. Some police officers might remove some crimes from the statistics inappropriately (the statistics should stay on the system, but are removed for trivial reasons), sometimes police officers even persuade victims to withdraw their allegations

Skewing: This involves some police forces putting their resources into some areas/locations rather than other ones. This could be because some areas have a high crime rate, or some areas might be measured by performance indicators (how much the crime rate has reduced). Therefore the crime statistics tend to be skewed in some areas.

AO3 - Evaluation

Many crimes are not recorded by the authorities, and some people are guilty but are not in prison. Conviction rates are not a good guide to how much crime has been committed. Police officers have more need nowadays to arrest more people due to league tables being introduced, (called “coughing and cuffing). (-)

Official statistics are governed by social constructs, and in the end the statistics are unreliable and invalid as they do not give an accurate picture of crime, but a misleading one that is dependent of many decisions including the fact that someone has to report the crime, and then it also needs to be recorded by the authorities. (-)

Marxists would criticise the use of police recorded crime and say that this is a tool used to control the working class and to justify their control and oppression. Police statistics are used to scare the population about crime and justify the use of extra policing. (-)

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