Crime statistics involve technical judgements.

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Masud Khabeki

 The accessibility of public to news stories and crime statistics around the world has enabled people to formulate an opinion regarding the presence of crime in their neighborhood. Public trust in crime statistics can be undermined due to many reasons including presentations of statistics that are perceived to be in conflict with – or of no relevance to – the direct individual experiences of members of the public, secondly the presentations of statistics using categories or definitions that do not accord with public commonsense interpretations and presentation of conflicting statistics apparently open to widely differing interpretations as lack of coverage of significant areas of criminal activity and victims, perceived potential for police or ministerial interference in the production and presentation of the statistics.

 

Despite having a long history of reported and recorded crime statistics being used to judge police performance, such statistics have long been recognized as having a number of weaknesses. First, there have been regular claims that the police adjust their crime statistics to improve measured reported performance. Second, the processes and categories used by local police to record crime have historically had a significant degree of local variability. This has made it difficult both to make comparisons among local forces and to form aggregates to provide a meaningful national picture. Third, the picture that emerges from recorded crime is potentially distorted by the unknown and uncontrollable variability in the public’s reporting of crime to the police. The police recorded crime statistics are a measure of the amount of crime which is reported to and recorded by the forces. The recorded crime statistics do not include crimes that have not been reported to the police or that the police decide not to record. Police recorded crime covers all crime reported to, or discovered by, the police and then recorded – hence they are known as ‘notifiable offences’ or the ‘index crimes’. These notifiable offences or the index crimes are generally what would commonly be regarded as the ‘more serious’ crimes but were recently extended to include some of the ‘less serious’. Police recorded crime has the advantage that it covers the full range of crimes and are the only data that can be used to look at crime at neighborhood level. It has the disadvantage that it largely depends on the public reporting crimes to the police (about 60% is currently not reported) and on the police recording all the crimes reported to them. It can also be open to the suggestion that recording may be influenced by the demands of performance management regimes or due to many other reasons.

 

In the modern world where the use of technology has become common and information is found on the palm of people in the shape of smart phones. A shift in emphasis is required in the production and communication of crime information. The focus must shift from the publication, by the government, of the aggregate national picture to a system of communication which encompasses local data at local level between police and their neighborhood communities. Furthermore, both the scope and definitions of the national statistics that are produced need a radical overhaul. Significant groups of victims are not covered by current surveys and certain major current crime category definitions are confusing and misleading. Governance, management and organization of the police and interior ministry’s environments in which crime statistics are produced and reported must be revised to provide the public with complete assurance of actual and perceived independence and integrity of the statistics.

 

For example, if we compare the figures of crime recorded by the police in capital territory for the past few years, we have very satisfying picture as the crime has been reduced comparing to the previous years. The figures seem to be a contributing fact if we compare them with the portrayal of prevailing law and order situation by the media and the ground reality sensed by the residents. Total recorded crime showed a downward trend, while the media has shown some other picture of crime and the residents observed a heightened fear of crim. It is not surprising that most commentators are confused and frustrated about what is actually happening to crime trends. There are always going to be different sources of data about crime and it is always possible that the evidence will not unambiguously tell the same story. Those interpreting the data will therefore have to make judgements about what the data overall actually mean. This situation is not unique to crime and is equally the case for a great deal of other social and economic data. We recognize that the need to make judgements can never be entirely avoided in crime statistics.

Our crime statistics are currently produced by a team of statisticians working in the police department. People have concern about the management, collection and manipulation of these figures. During the period when the police recorded crime data and the media are showing different trends, statisticians in the government offices had to make judgements as to why the two trends were different. Essentially, they argued that the recorded crime never matched with portrayal of media, the trends have been exasperated by the media hype of crime trends. The media tend to produce the evidence that the crime is alarmingly on the rise while subtly encouraging the trend that crime figures have been meddled and official crime figures unable to present the true picture of crime thus leaving a question mark on the official recorded crime. Resultantly, the media portrayal of crime helped to tarnish the official statistics about the recording of crime data. Trust in such statistical judgements also depends on whether the government handles the reporting of possibly conflicting statistics in a carefully balanced way. Currently, the governments release the crime statistics together with a press notice, which usually includes a ministerial response and often also provides ministerial interviews. The criminologists believe that there is a serious problem with this arrangement. It does not clearly separate statistical comments and judgements from political comments and judgements and therefore contributes significantly to undermining trust in the independence of the statistics.

There have long been concerns on the part of key professionals, media commentators and opinion formers about the most appropriate organizational and governance arrangements to ensure the independence and perceived independence of government statistics as a prerequisite for establishing public trust and confidence. The critical views of key opinion formers will continue to fuel public skepticism unless these important concerns are addressed. The studies have revealed many facts including a vivid picture of a natural tension between relevance and independence in statistical work. The production and presentation of official statistics needs to be free from political interference, and to be seen as such, so that the objectivity and impartiality of statistics is assured.

Many ex-officials acknowledge that there is a real tension at the heart of the debate about the independence of government statistics and the work of government statisticians. It is the tension between being ‘relevant’ and being perceived to be ‘independent’. The former requires statisticians to work closely in government departments with policy makers and other subject matter professionals to ensure that statistical inputs are properly integrated into departmental management and policy developments. However, the latter would seem to require some kind of clear distance from the political influence and pronouncements that are central to the work of government departments. The resolution of this tension depends, at least in part, on having in place an appropriate line management and professional accountability framework within which those involved at a senior statistical level in the production and presentation of official statistics work.

 

Masud Khabeki is an Adjunct Professor Criminology,

Arid Agriculture University, Rawalpindi.