Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A statistical crime

A similar title has very probably appeared on this blog before, no doubt in relation to questioning some aspect of policing or the crime statistics, or whatever. Thus hardly original, but then neither are the issues alluded to.

This post was originally planned following recent news articles reporting that crime had again fallen in Scotland and was now at a zillion-year low (or suchlike) but was put on hold in view of last week's events. Indeed, the subject matter has perhaps taken on a greater resonance in the past few days.

But let's not dispute the overall downward trend in the crime figures, or the minutiae of their construction, the latter point being well beyond the scope of a blogpost authored by a mere member of the public.

However, in broad terms how do the police decide what's pursuable as crime and to that extent what's recorded as such? For example, police have significant discretion as regards the pursuit of more minor crimes such as speeding, whereas they have less latitude when it comes to more serious offences.

But the Courier recently reported that Tayside Police recorded eight (sic!) cycling offences last year, including "one instance of dangerous cycling, three cases of careless cycling and cycling whilst unfit, and an episode of failing to comply with a traffic sign"(!).

Moving on swiftly, and slightly further up the scale of criminality, it was recently reported: "A police officer failed to arrest a convicted thief because she "could not be bothered", a court has heard. Constable Michele Selby confiscated tools from a man who claimed he was fixing the door of the Moon River Chinese restaurant in Kirkintilloch, Glasgow at 5:30am. [...] But the job that Selby claimed she had to rush to was not a 999 call but delivering letters to another police station."

And apropos the recent public disorder, when a couple of thousand Polish football fans effectively commandeered the streets of Dundee recently only four arrests were made, although as compared to last week's events south of the border this was all pretty low level stuff, albeit pretty intimidating for those affected.

And continuing the fitba theme, some of the debate surrounding the SNP Government's clampdown on sectarian crime points out that there are laws currently available to tackle the problem, but which simply aren't enforced.

Things appear to be little different further up the food chain, although because this is more out of the public view it's not so obvious that offences aren't pursued, unlike in relation to cyclists (say) where it's self-evident to all that many/most cyclists ignore the law with impunity, and the Tayside Police figures quoted earlier ably demonstrate the lack of enforcement action.

However, one high profile case which is perhaps illustrative of the general principle as regards less public offences arose in relation to the News International phone hacking scandal, when the then Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner John Yates said he didn't pursue the investigation because the News of the World "failed to co-operate".

By the same token, many informed commentators appear to be of the opinion that the failure to pursue criminal charges in relation to many of the MPs caught up in the expenses scandal appeared to be due to reasons other than impartial enforcement of the law.

And as regards an even more contemporary example, it's now of course well established that police in effect turned a blind eye to some of the disorder and looting during the earlier stages of the riots in several English cities last week, a course of (in)action which even Lib Dem (and former senior Met officer!) Brian Paddick claimed may have caused the action to escalate. If police had managed to contain the early disorder then events might not have spiralled out of control.

Of course, there may be good reasons for this kind of inaction (which will be examined in a subsequent post), but this brief and unscientific survey of some recent news items - both very high and very low profile - surely demonstrate the fundamental lack of integrity as regards crime statistics, particularly when it comes to more minor offences.

Moreover, the kind of issues outlined above go to the heart of the whole debate over the future of policing rather than the mere statistical, and some of these issues will also be addressed subsequently.

Naturally some reading the foregoing will be questioning why the discussion includes examples from both north and south of the border, but as pointed out in a previous post examining police inaction in relation to anti-social behaviour, there seems little to suggest that Scotland and England are fundamentally different as regards this kind of debate.

By the same token, some of the partisan reaction to last week's riots and the difference between England and Scotland as regards what happened has verged on the ludicrous. For example, some have suggested that a more prevalent community spirit and greater sense of national pride north of the border explains why we didn't emulate England last week. Thus SNP MSP Joan McAlpine cites a Facebook page saying "Not rioting in Scotland, too proud of my country", but does not mention messages on similar social media attempting to incite public disorder in Scotland.

However, perhaps the worse example of this kind of false dichotomy was provided by Duncan Hamilton in last weekend's Scotland on Sunday, where he said:
With England deep in tortured introspection about what kind of country it has become, Scotland is about to start its own reflection on what kind of country it can be. The obvious difference, of course, is that the change coming in Scotland is peaceful, consensual and constitutional. While English thugs steal televisions from Dixons, our desire for "control over broadcasting" is altogether more subtle.
Of course, it's an indisputable fact that the public disorder emanating from London a few days ago into other English cities didn't quite make it to Scotland (and indeed in England itself was probably as irrelevant to a much larger population as it was irrelevant to Scotland as a whole), but otherwise this kind of gloating and schadenfreude (things that many nationalists are keen to accuse others of when they point out the economic failings of other countries, for example) completely misrepresents England and Scotland as regards their respective crime problems, and in effect amounts to an insult to those in the latter who suffer at the hands of murderers, rapists, thieves, the violent, the drunken and the anti-social. Who, of course, don't normally consider things like community spirit and national pride when doing what they do, so presumably these factors wouldn't have been a consideration as regards whether or not they decided to follow the English example and riot.

In the grand scheme of all things criminal the English riots represent little more than a statistical blip, and should not fundamentally change how we compare the two countries' respective crime problems. Of course, there are differences between the two, but surely these are primarily of nuance rather than fundamentals. And even if this is disputable, what's surely not in doubt is that the rhetorical nonsense presented by the likes of Duncan Hamilton simply misrepresents the situation for partisan ends.


The Aberdonian said...

I do somehow recall the British press schadenfreude during the press riots and the projection by the UK media that France was going to hell in a handcart.

As Private Eye put it in its "Street of Shame" column: British Press on the Paris riots "Ha-ha, look at the frogs burn. Ha-ha" or something to that effect-----

By the way, why were the riots of Northern Ireland of old and new not called UK riots. Paddybashing mebbes.

barbarian said...

Joan McAlpine is typical of the SNP hardcore supporter in that she will never mention anything that is negative about the SNP.

For example, I have yet to hear her thoughts on John Swinney making a net profit of some 60 grand from the sale of his second home, subsidised by the taxpayer. Yet the SNP hardcore support quite happily (and correctly I must add) rip into the other parties.

Nor do we hear from Ms Cunninghame - a most dedicated republican - squeaking about Brian Soutar's knighthood. You can bet if it was for a Labour donator she'd be up in arms.

Crime rates may be dropping, and it is welcome news. But Scotland has not suddenly turned into a crime free zone. A visit to Bellshil on a Friday night may prove my point!

Stuart Winton said...


Indeed, and I certainly wasn't claiming that schadenfreude was peculiar to the SNP - indeed it's just part of life - but it's the usual case of the pot calling the kettle black etc.

As for the Troubles and NI, it would clearly be ridiculous to attribute them to the UK, but given that last week's events covered a substantial part of the UK or Britain then it wasn't wholly inaccurate to describe them as such. Certainly *more* accurate than calling a uniquely Scottish problem British, say, but certainly not *wholly* accurate either.

Onyway, as regards the tourist issue and the like, I always thought that they tended to equate England and the UK/Britain and saw Scotland as a separate entity, and to that extent attributing the riots to the UK/Britain wouldn't be a problem in that regard, but then I'm no expert on tourism.


Yes, and as John Swinney said on Newsnicht, all the parties are at it, so that's OK then!