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Friday, 22 September 2017

How police cheated the "recorded crime" figures, + more - The Guardian


Watching the detectives: how the police cheat in fight against crime

The process has its own private language, of 'cuffing', 'nodding', and 'write-offs'. Nick Davies details the rules of a system exposed in Nottinghamshire which practised deceit on politicians and public
 
Thursday 18 March 1999 03.43 GMT
  
The crime game has nothing to do with policing in the way in which the public normally understand it. It has little to do with reality at all. It is a means of pretending to win the war against crime, which allows criminals to escape unpunished and the victims of crime to be cheated of justice.

Like any other game, this one has its own private language - 'cuffing', 'nodding', 'secondaries' 'TICs', 'DNFPA' and 'write-offs'.
 
For years, it has been played by police up and down the country. When a veteran detective in Nottinghamshire, Detective Superintendent Peter Coles, blew the whistle on his own senior command, investigators from Bedfordshire in late 1997 found that the Notts officers had been playing a blinder. Now the game is out in the open.

The play falls into two halves. In the first half, the object is to cheat the system for recording crime so that for all official purposes and especially for the purpose of public statements the force can boast that fewer offences are being committed on its patch.
 
The main tactic in this part of the game is known to police officers all over the country as 'cuffing" because the crimes disappear up the cuff of the policeman's sleeve.
 
In Nottinghamshire, during the mid-1990s, police officers, working under intense pressure to deliver the figures which their senior command demanded, cuffed with diligence and imagination. They set up 'alternative recording systems". On the surface, they appeared quite innocent, simply records of minor damage, vehicle interference and domestic violence. Since they had been created in 1993 on the explicit instructions of the then assistant chief constable, they were used quite openly.
 
A householder would report to police that someone had tried to break into his home, there were jemmy marks around his back door. According to Home Office counting rules, that was an attempted burglary, which needed to be recorded and then detected. But according to the rules of the crime game, that was merely minor damage costing less than £320 to repair, not a crime at all for the purpose of official statistics.
 
Similarly, the motorist who found that someone had tried to break into his car was smuggled out of the records as a case of 'vehicle interference" - not a notifiable offence. It was the same with those who told police that they had suffered thefts of handbags or wallets or giro cheques in the post unless there was clear evidence of a thief at work, the crime was recorded as lost property.
 
Three of the nine divisions in Notts used an even more subtle system. Officially, they were supposed to assign each offence its own crime number and log it in the force computer, which was bad for the figures. These three divisions cuffed crimes by adding a letter - T or I or N - to the crime number so that they could record them without them showing up in the computerised figures.
 
The Bedfordshire officers found one internal memo from a detective inspector, who had evidently decided that his division had recorded so many real crime numbers in one period that, in the interests of his senior command, he had to put a cap on them. He wrote: 'No crime numbers should be issued until authorised.' It didn't matter what happened on the streets of the division, the total amount of crime recorded would stay the same.
 
The conclusion of the report produced by the Chief Constable of Bedfordshire was damning. Nottinghamshire's crime-recording policy, he said, 'was designed to have the effect of artificially reducing recorded crime to a more politically acceptable level'.
 
Nottinghamshire boasted that in 1996, they had cut recorded crime by 7,788. Bedfordshire detectives discovered that during that year, Notts officers had recorded a total of 9,175 incidents in their alternative systems and that 'the vast majority of entries were crimes and should have been recorded as such'.
When Det Supt Coles blew the whistle in autumn 1996, the senior command finally suspended the alternative records, which had been in place for three years, and agreed to appoint three detectives to review it. They concluded honestly, though euphemistically, that it 'may encourage incidents of a criminal nature not to be recorded as crimes'. They recommended that the practice should end, and finally introduced a new and clean policy in April 1998.
 
In private, police officers from many different forces will talk about cuffing as a routine fact of working life. In public, only a few have the courage. One of those few is Richard Wells, former Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who became chief constable of South Yorkshire and soon discovered 'Spanish practices which were uncomfortable for everyone.'
 
If a thief had gone down a street, stealing from every car he saw, officers would record the first theft and 'lose the others on the back of the sheet'. He told officers to change their ways. 'I thought "How can we tap the Neil Hamiltons and Jonathan Aitkens on the shoulder if we can't look in the mirror at ourselves?"
 
When the new Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw took office, he ordered a change in counting rules which makes some of this misrecording more difficult. Some police were logging assault occasioning actual bodily harm as 'common assault', a minor offence which did not have to be recorded as a crime. In the same way, attempted car theft was being logged as vehicle interference, also a 'non-notifiable' offence.
 
The new rules, which came into effect last April, plug the loopholes by making all these offences 'notifiable'.As a result, Home Office officials say, recorded crime in England and Wales is likely to soar by as much as 20 per cent.
 
In 1992, as the Home Office introduced 'performance indicators' to measure the success of police, cuffing took off.
To loud applause from Conservative home secretaries, the number of crimes that have been recorded nationally has fallen steadily since 1993. Last year, official police records showed a record drop of 9 per cent as 441,400 fewer offences were recorded by officers. The true picture - uncorrupted by cuffing - is simply not known.
 
In the second half of the crime game, the object is to provide the senior command with figures which will allow them to tell the public that they have detected ever more of this crime.
The key objective is to find criminals who will play the game with them. They may be found under arrest in police stations or serving sentences in prison.
 
With those who are being questioned in police stations, the game requires that officers should subvert the legitimate process of persuading suspects to admit 'TICs' - past offences which can be 'taken into consideration' by the court. It's easily done: reassure the suspect that the court will not use the TICs to increase his punishment, offer him bail or a good word in court, and then produce a list of several dozen offences for him to 'write off'.
 
The great thing about the game is that the criminal does not need to have committed the offences; indeed, in some cases, the offences need not have been committed by anyone at all, they can be fictitious.
 
The criminal is happy enough to admit them, because there is no risk of punishment and the promise of a small reward. Even if the criminal starts to become difficult, officers can simply pitchfork false TICs in his name straight into the computer, without his consent or even knowledge.
 
In Nottinghamshire, the Bedfordshire inquiry reported that in the mid-1990s officers using TICs were involved in 'a deliberate manipulation of facts to maximise detection figures'. For example, the inquiry came across the case of the two adult shoplifters who admitted that they had often stolen from shops in the past.
 
However, they stipulated that for various practical reasons, they had never done so on Thursday or Sunday. Officers persuaded them to write off 150 offences as TICs 28 of which occurred on the very days when they said they did not commit crime. Then there was the man who agreed to write off 37 burglaries - five of which were committed against people who insisted that they had never been burgled and five more of which occurred when the offender was in prison for other offences.
 
The Bedfordshire investigators were clear that this was not a case of one or two bad apples: 'It was apparent that the various practices were not confined to one or two divisions but were forcewide.'
 
Investigators found that the Central division, in Nottingham, wanted to claim that criminals had TIC'd a series of robberies that had never been reported by their victims. When they examined Central's files, they found that 91 per cent of them broke the rules. 'The TICs can only be described as fictitious,' they concluded.
Perhaps worst of all, the inquiry found that Notts officers were so desperate to deliver the figures, that they had been using children to play the game. They had arrested a 10-year-old boy for stealing sweets from a shop in the city centre - and during an interview at which one of his paretns was present he was persuaded to write off 71 offences of shoplifting.
 
 

Bedfordshire officers found that the details of all 71 offences had been produced by the police and not by the boy and, furthermore, that the officer responsible 'believed this was in accordance with force policy'.
 
This was not an entirely unreasonable view: five months earlier, other officers had done the same thing, persuading an 11-year-old girl interviewed in the presence of one of her parents to agree to to write off 80 offences of shoplifting, all of whose details were supplied by police without any evidence. One hundred and fifty one points in two simple maneouvres.
In the face of Peter Coles' complaint and protest from other senior officers, Notts police agreed to conduct an audit of detections that had been claimed by their Mansfield division. The auditors found that nearly half of the TICs - 48 per cent of them - failed to stand up to scrutiny; 95 per cent of the TIC shoplifting in Mansfield had never been reported by its victims. Similarly, they had used TICs to write off 27 sexual assaults, 12 thefts from vehicles and 157 burglaries - not one of which had ever been reported to police. But all of the 'detections' went into the computer.
 
The Bedfordshire inquiry found that in a single year, 1996, Notts officers claimed to have detected nearly 3,000 crimes in this way, by persuading suspects in custody to ask the court to 'take into consideration' crimes which had never previously been reported. This amounted to 7.3 per cent of the total crimes which the force claimed it had detected that year.
The game is played with prisoners in much the same way. The Home Office and HM Inspector of Constabulary allow detectives to visit prisoners within strict guidelines - which are ignored in the crime game.
 
The visiting officers are supposed to gather intelligence and information which may reassure victims; in fact, they use them to write off crimes. Unless there are exceptional circumstances, the visits are supposed to take place in the prison; the Bedfordshire inquiry found that 98 per cent of the prisoners whose files they examined had been taken out for the day.
With a virtual guarantee that he will not be charged, the prisoner enjoys a day out of his cell. The officers take him 'nodding': they drive round residential areas; the detectives point out houses which have been burgled; the prisoner nods; and the detectives ticks off an admission.
For Nottinghamshire, prison visits became a minor industry. One division, Arnold, bagged no less than 30 per cent of their total detections for an entire year by getting prisoners to sign write-offs. The inquiry found that in 1996, Notts police had used prison write-offs to clear up 5,293 offences - 14 per cent of the total which they claimed to have detected.
 
Within the private world of policing, there is no secret at all about the unreliability of secondary detections. The Audit Commission has ceased referring to them in its annual report. The Home Office are considering following suit.
Only four police forces have abandoned the search for secondary detections - Manchester, Northumbria, West Midlands and Cleveland. Manchester and Northumbria both disbanded detective squads whose sole purpose in life had been to visit prisoners for write-offs.
 
The Home Office recognises that sometimes police will genuinely have solved a crime but be unable to take it to court - if the accused dies, for example, or if the main witness refuses to give evidence. This can be recorded as a legitimate detection under the heading Detected No Further Police Action. But the Home Office imposes one strict condition: the police have to have enough evidence to bring a charge.
 
This inconvenient condition was left out of Nottinghamshire force's rules. The result was that their officers were writing off thousands of crimes as DNFPA without any evidence at all.
According to the official Notts police figures for 1996, their detectives cleared up 98.6 per cent of all rapes in the county. When the Bedfordshire team looked closer, they found that 60 per cent of rape detections across the force failed to stand up to scrutiny. With indecent assaults, it was even worse - 75 per cent of them collapsed under inspection. Armfuls of sex offences had been written off as DNFPA, crashing through the Home Office requirement for evidence to justify a charge.
 
The Bedfordshire inquiry found no evidence of corruption. But it was clear that although the senior command set the targets and failed to ensure that they were reached in an ethical manner, they never actively encouraged any malpractice. However, they made it clear that the senior command had good reason to realise what was happening.
 
As a result of the inquiry Nottinghamshire police have produced a new crime recording policy.
 
But ultimately, this is not a story about Nottinghamshire. The performance indicators which drove them into malpractice apply to all 43 police forces in England and Wales. According to reports by HM Inspectors, more than half of those forces lack the necessary audit systems to ensure that the targets are reached in an ethical fashion. The monitoring of the Home Office and HM Inspector of Constabulary has never exposed the malpractice, even in those forces where officers have subsequently been disciplined for their part in it.