“Making robberies into larcenies, making rapes disappear… you juke the stats and majors become colonels.”
One of the recurring themes of The Wire, the landmark 2000s-era television series on Baltimore’s drug-addled plight, is how the police fix crime statistics.
Do our police fix the stats? Recent revelations suggest they might. In November, whistleblowers told a select committee of MPs that they did. And in January, the government's top statistician downgraded the police's numbers – they are no longer counted as a 'national statistic'.
Today's release of the yearly crime figures for England and Wales have reignited the debate. The police's figures suggest there has been no change in crime.
From March 2013 to March 2014, crime fell by 0.4 per cent – its smallest decrease in a decade.
This seems discouraging. But it may actually mean these stats are the most reliable in years.
The problem with police numbers is the people that produce them are the same people who are judged by them. As The Wire showed, there is a crippling conflict of interest at the heart of the process.
This encouraged the Office of National Statistics to create an alternative crime measure in 1981. Their survey, of around 50,000 households, has been collected yearly for more than a decade – and has become the more reliable measure of crime.
According to the ONS, crime fell by 14 per cent in the past year.
Their data may be more accurate – but it also allows us to judge the police’s numbers. If there is a big difference between the number of crimes the ONS is reporting and the police are recording, that may indicate the police are producing ‘soft’ stats.
It appears that may have happened throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. The ONS’s survey consistently reported more than three times as many crimes as the police. But after a reporting change in the late 1990s, the difference came down.
By the early 2000s the survey was only reporting twice as many crimes as the police. In recent years that ratio began to creep back up towards a three-fold difference. But, thanks to the fall in the ONS’s measure, the difference has fallen back down to the level of the early 2000s.
Simon Jenkins, the one-time crime reporter and long-time national journalist, recently argued that "police statistics have been a conspiracy against truth for decades". "The only crime figures that should count are those of the BCS."
That may be so. But comparing the two sets of numbers can give us an indication of how unrealistic the police numbers can be.
While big falls in crime make good headlines, we should be more concerned with the legitimacy of the numbers we are fed. If today’s figures are an indication of better stats, they should be welcomed.