What can we, the public, learn about crime by critically considering the official statistics in the British Crime Survey and Police Recorded Crime
To begin with I will explain what both lots of information provides us with. Firstly the British Crime Survey is a study which is undertaken on behalf of the Home Office. The survey is given out to people aged 16 and over and whom live in England and Wales. About 50,000 people are asked about crimes they have experienced over the previous year.
The British Crime survey is conducted to mop up some of those crimes which have been experienced by people but which may have not been reported to the police. The public sometimes do not report crimes as they feel that the police may not do anything about what has happened, or would be unable to do something about it. It also gathers information on peoples feelings towards crimes.
The Police Recorded Crime is exactly that; those crimes which have been experienced and then reported to and recorded by the police. However, this works out to be only about 50% of actually experienced crimes. There is a shortfall in the amount of crimes reported to the police which are then recorded as such. The reason for this is that sometimes certain incidents are reported to the police but are not viewed by them to be serious enough to be followed up as a criminal offence (for example neighbour dispute) this is then not recorded as a crime.
The two sources are used together so as to try and give a more true and in depth look into the crimes that have been experienced by the public as a whole. This will still not be an exact log as only 50,000 people are surveyed and only about 80% reply, so not everyone who has not reported a crime to the police will be picked up in the British Crime Survey. However it can confirm that increases and decreases in certain crimes are definitely taking place.
With regards to the information contained in the two sets of information we also need to consider what information is missing from these. To be able to critically look at the information we need to consider that we are not looking at the full picture..
Within the records provided by the Police, certain policing departments like the British Transport Police, Ministry of Defence Police, etc are not contained within these figures. These departments have recorded about 80,000 offences per year (Maguire, 1997, p.149) We then have certain other offences like tax evasion which would only be included in figures if the cases are taken to court. This certainly skews the figures that come through for the police records.
Within the surveyed information provided by the British Crime Survey we have issues with certain crimes also not being covered. Victimless crimes like drug taking will not be covered and also crimes that affect businesses like fraud will not be included as the surveys are undertaken by individuals. Also those people who are affected by crime but do not have a fixed abode, homeless people who are living on the streets for example. The figures received from those completing the surveys can be further skewed by where people live if they are in higher crime areas or in extremely low crime areas. And then how many people return the surveys from these particular areas.
Not only this but the ???British??? crime survey actually only covers England and Wales so to look at the complete picture for Britain we need to look at similar surveys which cover Northern Ireland and Scotland.
The British Crime Survey also asks about peoples feelings on crime. Certain fears of crime can be exacerbated depending on the age and or gender of those completing the survey Also what they may have recently been made aware of i.e. their neighbour was burgled.
As the public we need to look at both of the statistics supplied by these two sources. The government uses the information to gauge how well they are doing on their crime prevention work and what area they need to concentrate on next. The media use the same information to scaremonger so as to provide a shock to the nation, for them to sell more newspapers or more viewers for programmes. This could be to tell us that murders are up or violent crime is on the increase. So why are there two different sides to the same supplied information Well that is to do with the types of questions that are being asked and which side is supplying the answers! The course literature gives a very good example of this by saying that the same information of 250 burglaries per 10,000 can be conveyed as; there is a burglary every minute throughout the country, or every one person in 40 is at risk of burglary, or you are at risk of burglary once in every 40 years.
The crimes themselves are categorised in to quite general groups for those recorded by the police;
??? Other property offences
??? Violent crime
??? Other theft
??? Vehicle crime
??? Other offences
If we look at the information recorded by the police in England and Wales in 1997 (Source: Home Offic, 1999, p.4.) It details that the above are given the following percentages; Burglary 23%, Other property offences 20%, violent crime 8%, Other theft 23%, vehicle crime 25% and other offences 1%. From this information we can say that crime against property is 91%. The actual crime we are fearful of which is crime directly against ourselves, mugging, rape, murder, etc is minimal at only 8%. Even if we reduce the crime rate by the percentage of burglary as some victims find this a direct attack at them this still sways toward the non direct crime being more common.
Within the British Crime Survey for the same year we have the following details;
??? Burglary at 10%
??? Other thefts 31%
??? Violent crime 20%
??? Vehicle crime 31%
??? Other vandalism 8%
So even when we take the details from the survey then we find that violent crime although it has more than doubled to 20% it is still comparitively low towards common crimes. If we again add the burglary to the violent crime due to some peoples feelings this then levels the amount out to the 30% mark. However this would not include murder.
If we look at both of these sources of information then we can see that the crime statistics collected by both sources have quite a difference. The BCS does have issues with sampling error, therefore if a survey is returned from a high crime area, then when this is calculated to be an average across the country we will have a higher rate than the actual recorded crimes could ever be even if all were recorded. The police recorded crimes can show us a better picture per county as they have the direct results of crimes reported to each police force.
Neither of these sources will ever give a complete picture of all crimes that have taken place in the country, as I have discussed certain crimes are omitted from either one or the other sets of information. Also those crimes that could be picked up in the BCS may still not be admitted to as the party would not want to view themselves as a victim, these crimes then remain hidden.
Some crimes are not perceived by some to be so. Taking stationery from the cupboard at work for home use, or making private phone calls using the work telephone are not viewed by some to be crimes. However these are classed as theft and can bring about fines or dismissal from work. Also some workers may not see themselves as a victim of crime through work when their health and safety rights have not been upheld.
Rises in crime may not be because more crime has been committed but instead because more people have decided to report the crime. It could be because more man power has been given to the police to deal with crimes and therefore their recorded crime rates will have increased.
We may have a fear of certain crimes for certain reasons, these fears can make us feel that we will be more susceptible to certain offences. Reading the newspapers can make us feel that we need to be wary of every foreign man wearing a backpack. Or that from watching certain programmes that going to quiet villages will most certainly put us at more risk of being murdered. Although these are not a common fear for some many peoples fears are based on the types of books we read and programmes we watch. Even when we are told that we are at a low risk of being a victim this still does not alleviate our fears.
Steven Box asks us to look at what people we should be fearful of (Box, 2007, p.272) He explains that we have been told to look at those people who have been convicted and imprisoned for their crimes. This shows us though that certain sections of society are over represented in jails but this does not mean necessarily that they commit more crime just certain types of crime. He also discusses what acts are covered by criminal law so that criminal assault is only assault if someone has decided it to be so. Therefore many more events which we may have been involved in may affect us in a detrimental way, but are not seen to be criminal and therefore no crime has been committed. When this is the case would we report this incident to the police or even recognise it as an issue that we would bring up in a survey. The answer is probably not.
The information provided within these statistics cannot be used to be a definitive report on who commits what and to whom as there are too many variables to include everything. Also with many crimes being hidden from both public attention and that of the police there is no way to get a complete picture. To top that with many incidents not being considered a crime, no-one can fully see what threat of crime they are truely under.
So to answer the question of what we can learn from the official statistics. There are many things to learn from this information we are provided with. It is for us to view the data that is provided by both the BCS and Police recorded crime and take it on only as a national average. We can see from the figures what common crimes are increasing or decreasing nationally.
However for us to know what threats of crime we personally are under; we need to look instead to our local experience of crimes and then for for us to make our own minds up on the amount of crime that is prevalent in our society. Instead of taking by face value the information given to us by the government or media. If we look towards these localised crimes and prepare ourselves for these (for example if we have a lot of burglaries make sure we have extra locks).
We could become less fearful of certain crimes (i.e. Murder), when we realise that our risk of becoming a victim of these are far less than we are led to believe. This can be confirmed not only by the local information on crime but also from the BCS and Police Recorded crime.
1. The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, 2nd Edition, Oxford, Clarendon
2. The Problem of Crime, 1996, Open University, Muncie, McLaughlin
3. Criminological Perspectives, 2nd Edition, McLaughlin, Muncie & Hughes (Reader Article 23)