Police force 'tricks' to 'fiddle' crime figures by David Barrett
The techniques – dubbed "gaming" – are used to create the illusion that fewer crimes are being committed and that a bigger proportion are being solved. Rodger Patrick, a retired Detective Chief Inspector, claimed that the methods are tacitly approved of by senior officers, police watchdogs and the Home Office.
The claims will reignite the debate about the validity of crime statistics after recent figures suggested that crime fell four per cent in the second quarter of this year, and following the admission by a police watchdog that some forces are failing to record violent crime properly.
The techniques identified by Dr Patrick include:
- "Cuffing" – in which officers make crimes disappear from official figures by either recording them as a "false report" or downgrading their seriousness. For example, a robbery in which a mobile phone is stolen with violence or threats of violence is recorded as "theft from the person", which is not classed as a violent crime.
- "Stitching" – from "stitching up", whereby offenders are charged with a crime when there is insufficient evidence. Police know that prosecutors will never proceed with the case but the crime appears in police records to have been "solved".
- "Skewing" – when police activity is directed at easier-to-solve crimes to boost detection rates, at the expense of more serious offences such as sex crimes or child abuse.
- "Nodding" – where clear-up rates are boosted by persuading convicted offenders to admit to crimes they have not committed, in exchange for inducements such as a lower sentence.
The academics call this 'gaming' but police officers would call it fiddling the figures, massaging the books or, the current favourite term, 'good housekeeping'. It is a bit like the police activities that we all thought stopped in the 1970s.Serving police officers confirmed that the tricks were being used and gave examples of how they had been implemented. In one case, an offender shot at another man at close range but missed and broke a window behind his target. The offence was recorded as criminal damage rather than attempted murder. In another example, a man robbed in a city's red-light district – an area he had been innocently passing through – was told by officers they would be unable to record the crime without informing his wife he had been the area, leading to the complaint being withdrawn. One detective, who declined to be named, said: "Name any crime and I'll tell you how it can be fiddled." Simon Reed, vice-chairman of the Police Federation, which represents front line officers, said:
This research demonstrates that senior officers are directing and controlling widespread manipulation of crime figures. The public are misled, politicians can claim crime is falling and chief officers are rewarded with performance-related bonuses.Last month Denis O'Connor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, published an official report into the way police record violent crime and admitted the figures may be skewed by "perverse incentives" around government performance targets. Dr Patrick's research highlighted figures from his own former force, West Midlands, which reveal what happened when senior officers cracked down on one of the gaming techniques.
Rank and file officers were told in 2002 that informal police warnings could no longer be counted as a detection for common assaults. Within 12 months the number of recorded common assaults dropped from 22,000 to 3,000 while thousands more crimes switched to the category "other woundings". "Such a rapid adjustment indicates the organisational nature of the phenomenon and suggests some form of co-ordination and direction by management," the research said."The scale of the 'gaming' behaviours measured in this thesis ... suggested senior officers were either directly orchestrating the behaviour or turning a blind eye to it."
Dr Patrick believes other gaming techniques are still being used in forces across the country. The report also warned that the use of "stitching" was "significant", while "cuffing" had continued after the introduction of Home Office rules which were supposed to guarantee and standardise the way crimes are recorded.
"Cuffing" can involve a situation where a victim of crime is accused of making a false crime report, and is therefore treated like a suspect rather than an injured party, Dr Patrick said. "You cannot have members of the public who have been victims of crime coming to the police for help and being treated like suspects. That is not right and it will erode confidence in the police," he said.
Dr Patrick found that watchdogs such as Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) and the Police Standards Unit had a "general tendency to underplay the scale and nature" of gaming. He was scathing of HMIC's failure to tackle the problem, noting there were no examples of chief police officers being publicly criticised by inspectors for this type of crime figure manipulation. HMIC tended privately to refer examples of widespread gaming to the Home Secretary or the police authority rather than "hold the chief constable to account" because of the risk of political embarrassment, he said. Dr Patrick concluded that HMIC inspectors should be made accountable to Parliament rather than the Home Office, and suggested they should be drawn from other professions rather than solely from senior police ranks.