Good Cop or Bad Cop? How should we assess the Police?

Onthebeat101 presents a guest post from our colleague James Pearson who is currently producing a radio documentary on the impact of crime statistics on policing in the UK:

This May for the first time Londoners will be voting for a mayor who decides the priorities and budget for the Metropolitan Police. Then later in the year in November the other 42 police authorities across the country will also have Police and Crime Commissioners directly elected by the public.

Public entitled to judge bobbies

The Coalition stresses that the public should be entitled to judge the performance of their bobbies; but how? In four years time, when the first wave of Police and Crime Commissioners comes up for re-election: will the public judge them on lower crime levels, on how safe they feel in their communities, on whether more people are being convicted of rape?

The solution the government seems to have put forward is the introduction of huge amounts of data about crime and policing into the public domain: in short putting stuff on the internet.

Crime maps a huge success

Last January saw the introduction of online street crime maps at These maps allow residents to enter postcodes or addresses and see the raw statistics of how many different crimes have been reported in their area. 15 months on and it’s seen as a huge success.

453 million hits

The Minister for Policing, Nick Herbert, claims there have been over 453 million hits on the site. This year it’s extended the information, giving more details about the types of crimes in a neighbourhood, and promises the next move will be to put statistics from the Ministry of Justice onto the site, giving details as to which reported crimes lead to arrests, investigations and convictions.

As a result the maps could have a huge impact of the jobs of officers and PCSOs on the beat. But should we be judging the Police by their crime figures? Do crime statistics give an accurate account of a neighbourhood’s perception of crime, of what policing priorities they want, or even of the true level of crime in the area? And what do the Police think of being judged like this?

Over the last month I’ve been working on a radio documentary looking at these questions. I’ve spoken to residents from boroughs across London, to criminologists, to police officers and PCSOs, as well as those at the top of the Met.  Here are some of the issues I’ve identified:

  • The online street crime maps are not an accurate view of the level of crime in many neighbourhoods. They reflect the police’s own statistics, and therefore measure only reported crimes. That may mean some crimes are accurately reported, such as levels of burglary, but offenses like muggings and assaults which are (pardon the pun) criminally unreported (the Home Office estimates 60% of street violence is not recorded) are not displayed accurately.
  • As a result, this inaccurate data does not reflect how residents feel about crime in their area. From meeting residents in different neighbourhoods, I know that many do not recognise the picture of crime that the crime maps paint. Because of this, concerns they have are not reflected in the data, and if the Police can’t at ward or beat meetings show how they’re successfully tackling a problem, then under pressure they’ll be forced to throw greater and greater resources at it.
  • Statistics, like the media or word of mouth, fuel a ‘fear of crime’ which does not reflect how much at risk people actually are. Areas with low burglary rates are just as concerned with burglary as those with high rates. In a significant number of assaults the victim already knows the criminal: so the wider public would not be at as high a risk.
  • Following targets and statistics could come at the expense of listening to residents about concerns in an area. Over the last five years, the Police have moved away from dealing primarily with bringing down particular crimes, and instead focus on improving public confidence in the job they do. This means that Safer Neighbourhood Teams (dominated by PCSOs) have engaged with residents more than ever before. If these teams are forced to concentrate on targets and specific operations then they may lose this hard won connection.
  • The Police themselves will not like to be judged on statistics. Whilst officers will naturally like to point out when crime maps show crime falling in an area, they don’t want to be hostage to them. If crime stays high in a neighbourhood other factors may be to blame as much as policing.

About our guest poster:

James is a broadcast journalist and friend of Onthebeat101. He is currently working on a radio documentary about crime statistics and policing.