A property crime epidemic?

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A property crime epidemic?

At the beginning of this month, Policy Exchange, a right-of-centre think tank, published a report called “Taking Its Toll: The regressive impact of property crime in Britain.” The report is authored by the Rt. Hon. David Lammy, who has been the Labour Party MP for Tottenham since 2000. Putting aside the oddity of this kind of cross-dressing Policy Exchange is much better known for its development and promotion of the current government’s police reforms[1] – this report relies on too many truisms and unsupported claims (some of which are even contradicted within the body of the report itself[2]) to be taken seriously.

The report starts with a canter through the latest property crime statistics, pointing out that much property crime is never cleared up (we knew this already), that property crime disproportionately affects the most deprived (we knew this too) that its falling (nothing new), that some people are repeatedly victimised (nothing new here either) and that much property crime goes un-reported (again, nothing new). This section then concludes with the statement: “The property crime epidemic sweeping Britain is going largely unaddressed”, which looks like the perfect tabloid headline, not to mention an open invitation to prospective thieves and a slap in the face to those doing their best to sharpen their priorities in line with risk, harm and threat in the face of swingeing budget cuts. That Britain is facing a property crime epidemic is also, quite simply, untrue: the Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that property crime has fallen by over 60 per cent since the mid nineteen nineties and that even for the year ending 2014, theft offences fell by 12 per cent. The number of police recorded property offences fell from 4.8 million to 2.6 million between 2002/03 and 2012/13[3].

Ignoring his own conclusion of a property crime epidemic, the author goes on to set out the possible reasons for the long term decline in crime. Heconveniently homes in on the increase in security measures, such as the crime free car and the widespread use of CCTV, while ignoring altogether other possible explanations, such as the substantial drop in drug misuse[4]. This automatically leads to a recommendation for more security, rather than one which focuses on avoiding a future drug misuse epidemic, which might lead to the uncomfortable policy of decriminalisation, a well-known grave yard for aspiring politicians.

The author also suggests that career criminals have shifted their attention from burglary to shoplifting, which is particularly odd in view of the fact that the rate of police recorded shoplifting has, according to ONS, remained stable for the last ten years or, based on the Commercial Victimisation Survey, fallen by two thirds during this period, with the proportion of premises experiencing shoplifting halving. If the author had only noted the key role played by drug misuse in the fall in acquisitive crime (see above), he might have also noted the key role shoplifting plays in the funding of drug addiction: according to the British Retail Consortium, around 65% of shoplifters arrested test positive for drugs or steal to support their habit[5]. So if the aim is to reduce shoplifting, the most powerful means would be to decrease drug dependency. But this then takes one back into the tricky territory of decriminalisation.

At the end of his report, David Lammy makes 20 recommendations. Some are sensible and/or supported by the evidence (e.g. tighten regulations on private rented sector properties, define seriousness of shoplifting by victim impact rather than monetary value), but many are truisms (e.g. increase retail crime reporting rates, improve statistics on business crime and services for victims), or are already being done (e.g. establish a crime prevention Centre of Excellence the Jill Dando Institute and the College of Policing’s What Works Centre covers this). Some fly in the face of the evidence (e.g. introduce Compstat, which perpetuates short term, reactive policing at the expense of prevention) or would require legislation (e.g. the Home Office should take responsibility for leading crime prevention, which would require statutory changes to the responsibilities of Police and Crime Commissioners, if not their abolition altogether). Sadly, as a whole, they read less like a set of carefully thought out, evidence-based recommendations and more like a political manifesto, which given the impending election, is perhaps unsurprising.

[1] See in particular: “Going Local Who Should Run Britain’s Police” (Policy Exchange, 2003).

[2] So for example the report says that the CSEW measures all crime, but then says (on the same page) that it doesn’t include crimes that victimises businesses (such as shoplifting). Further on, it promotes the notion that the seriousness of shoplifting should be based on the impact to the victim (most particularly those least able to bear the financial loss) rather than the value of goods stolen, but then argues that thefts from businesses (which must on the whole be able to absorb the costs more easily than individuals) should be treated equally to thefts from the individual.

[3]Owing to a change in recording practices brought about by the introduction of the National Crime Recording Standard in April 2002, it is not possible to make long term comparisons of police recorded crime prior to 2002/03.

[4] Morgan, N. (2014). “The heroin epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s and its effect on crime trends – then and now”.Home Office Research Report 79.

[5] British Retail Crime Survey 2005-06: The Changing Face of Crime and How Retailers are Responding.