The only thing we have to fear is dodgy crime reporting

Run, don’t walk. stuart anthony, CC BY-NC

Two newspaper headlines from a single day illustrate the contested interpretation of crime statistics as we approach polling day. “Recorded crime figures fall to level not seen since 1981” the Guardian said. “Rapes fuel first rise in crime for a decade”, the Times told its readers.

To be fair to both newspapers, they attempt to provide some kind of contextual understanding of the ostensibly conflicting data collected by the British Crime Survey and the police-recorded figures. But, like King Canute, their efforts are puny against the tide of misinformation and fear-mongering which rolls relentlessly off the presses in the UK.

If fear of immigration is a highly marketable commodity for politicians and sections of the press, so is fear of crime. It enables them to make claims, and devise policies which have no foundation in evidence.

For a while under New Labour the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions adopted the fear of crime as one measure of best-value performance. On what basis? Surveys of the public, which asked broad-brush questions such as: “Are you ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ fearful about crime levels?”.

Leaving aside the real possibility that surveys themselves generate exaggeratedly “fearful” responses, criminological research indicates that “fear” (or perhaps, to be more accurate, “concern”) is not a constant factor, even among those who say they are fearful – and that to devise policies based on that small minority for whom fear of crime affects their quality of life is wholly misguided.

In a number of general elections it was an article of faith with politicians of all stripes that public fears could be allayed by the sight of “bobbies on the beat”. While it is true that the exigencies of public sector austerity have put paid to the bidding war between Labour and the Conservatives to fund “record” numbers of uniformed officers, it is interesting to note that Labour’s 2015 crime and justice manifesto contains a commitment by shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper to find the money to “safeguard” more than 10,000 neighbourhood police posts over the next three years.

Where is the evidence that this will help reduce crime? Indeed, where is the evidence that it will even reduce fear of crime?

Feel better? FaceMePLS, CC BY

In 2003, researchers at Leeds University tested out the proposition that visible policing necessarily has a beneficial impact on fear of crime by analysing an experiment in which the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust funded extra policing cover for the village of New Earswick in York. The researchers (Adam Crawford, Stuart Lister and David Wall) found that residents’ perceptions of insecurity increased – as the report notes: “both crime and the fear of crime increased during the implementation of the project and residents’ satisfaction with the local police service declined”.

Of course, it would be absurd to extrapolate from one small-scale experiment to the whole of England and Wales, but when has a politician raised the spectre of an “expectations deficit” when talking up the value of neighbourhood or community policing?

In common with most recent elections, crime has featured very little in campaigning in 2015. But risk and fear are inherent in the two major issues – the economy and immigration. On April 19, the Observer carried the results of a survey by Opinium Research which asked 1,019 voters whether immigration had a positive or negative effect on crime: 11% said positive, 60% negative.

The respondents were not asked to justify their answer – but politicians should be; the election is the best chance we have to hold them to account for the evidence behind their promises. More than 25 years of analysing and reporting on crime has taught me that the twin enemies of sound governance are misplaced certainty and a lever labelled: “criminal justice policy” which few home or justice secretaries can resist the temptation to pull.

If Sense About Science’s campaign, Making Sense of Crime, can persuade them to take even a micro-second to think first and examine the evidence, it will have been successful.