Measuring peace

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Measuring peace

Yesterday witnessed the launch of the UK Peace Index, which offers an analysis of the levels of peacefulness within the UK in the last decade. The findings, including a league table ranking the most violent places in the UK, attracted heavy media coverage.

The Index combines five indicators to assess which areas are the most, and least, peaceful. The first three homicides, violent crimes and weapons crimes per 100,000 people are fairly straightforward. The use of the fourth – public disorder offences per 100,000 people – as a proxy for perceptions of crime and/or fear of crime is difficult to justify. How can public disorder offences, which include such a wide range of offences (ranging from threats, insults and abuse to incitement to religious hatred), constitute a sensible proxy for perceptions of crime and/or fear of crime?

But it is the fifth indicator the number of police officers per 100,000 people which is most concerning. Does it suggest that an absence of police officers computes to an absence of violence? If so, it would be assuming that the allocation of police officers to forces in the UK is strictly based on demand and that officers are allocated equally across local authorities within forces. This is clearly questionable.

I wonder also whether it’s tenable to compare Lewisham (a part of London), which comes out as the most unpeaceful’ place, with cities like Manchester (number 18) or Birmingham (19)? Even though they’re all local authorities, it’s really comparing apples with pears. If Manchester was compared with London, things would look very different. Include Kensington and Chelsea or Hampstead and London suddenly looks much more peaceful. Moreover, by relying almost exclusively on recorded crime rates, the Index ignores issues such as underreporting and variations in recording practices.

One or two of the explanations given in the report for why violence has been decreasing also look questionable. It is easy to see how improvements in private security systems (e.g. car alarms) may have helped to reduce property crime, but why should it have done the same to violent crime? And how do they justify including burglary – a property crime – in their calculations of the cost of violence?

While any attempt to build up a more sophisticated picture of crime in the UK is welcome, and parts of the UK Peace Index report are genuinely interesting, it’s important that new evidence in this sensitive area is rigorously compiled and stands up to scrutiny. It’s worth considering whether parts of the UK Peace Index report pass that test.