Yesterday the Office of National Statistics (ONS) released statistics confirming that crime has changed dramatically in recent years.Crime as we have traditionally understood it (assault, burglary, vehicle theft etc) has fallen by around two thirdssince its peak in 1995. Politicians and police chiefs have been quick to claim the credit.
However, the truth is more complicated than that.Crime has not so much fallen as changed character, and technology is the key to understanding that. The ONS is now officially adding 5.8 million previously hidden frauds and computer misuse offences to the totals in the crime survey. This number almost equals the 6.3 million traditional’ offences recorded last year.Notably we are now 20 times more likely to be a victim of fraud than of robbery. Interestingly whereas other recorded offences tend to vary according to where you live victims of fraud offences are more evenly distributed by police force area.
Headlines declaring that crime has doubled’ in light of these figures are inaccurate.Nonetheless, it is true to say that the scale of the fall in crime since the 1990s has been nowhere near as great as once thought.
As a new Home Secretary Amber Rudd gets her feet under the table, it is worth reflecting on the implications of these figures for policing.Gone are the days when the majority of crimes were committed by and against local people in public spaces. New threats take place behind closed doors. And those doors could be on the other side of the world. Most police officers are organised in 43 local forces, whose role in tackling cross border cyber enabled crime is unclear and increasingly coming into question.
But new research by the Police Foundation shows that technology is just one part of a wider set of changes the police face.With falling crime rates in traditional’ areas such as burglary and car crime, attention has moved to higher-harm’ offences, such as child sexual exploitation and domestic violence, which were previously more hidden from view but about which there is mounting public concern.Research has found that while overall crime counts between 2002 and 2012 showed a drop of 37%, weighting those crimes by their likely impact on the victim – or harm caused’ shows a drop of only 21%.The challenge for the police is that these are much more difficult crimes to investigate, demanding much greater resource, the involvement of many other agencies and the need to support often very vulnerable victims.
The characteristics of many offenders have changed too, with the causes of their offending becoming increasingly complex. Working with the police on a project to tackle violent crime, the Police Foundation found that a third of those involved in recurrent violence had a mental health need, a third used drugs, a quarter misused alcohol and one in five had housing needs such as homelessness. 37 per cent exhibited at least two of these factors.
Tackling these deep rooted problems cannot be done by the police alone. Other agencies such as housing providers and the NHS have key roles to play. But that is not what’s been happening. As cuts have affected these services collaborative working has tended to become more difficult. Although agencies are happy to come together, our research found that too much of work carried out through multi-agency partnerships is focused on processes such as sharing information between agencies rather than on tangibly improving outcomes for individuals. If solutions to complex problems are to be found, organisations need to work together, not just meet together, and focus on changing lives, rather than just managing risk.
If you were to ask a police officer what is the biggest challenge facing the police service, they would very likely say continued austerity.Indeed the 25 per cent cuts to force budgets in the last Parliament were unprecedented. But yesterday’s figures show that cuts are not the most significant challenge the police face. A far bigger test is the changing world the police inhabit.
The Police Foundation’s latest report Cutting crime in the 21st century: informed proactivity in the midst of social and organisational change was published on Monday 18th July.