How to spot misleading crime reporting

11th Sep 2018 | Abbas Panjwani

Last year the Labour Party said that reported crime in England and Wales was rising under the Conservatives, which we factchecked at the time. While it’s true that police are recording more crime, the claim suggested that crime overall was up. The evidence wasn’t good enough to be sure of that, and crime was down over the long term.

The reason for this is because in England and Wales we have two main sources of crime data—the crime data that gets recorded by the police, and the responses to the Crime Survey—which tries to measure certain kinds of reported crime AND unreported crime.

We’ve written more about these data sources here—and there are pros and cons to using each—but both have their place in informing us about what is actually happening with crime.

It can be difficult to work out whether crime stories have real substance to them, but there are some steps you can follow to help.

What type of crime is being talked about?

Ideally every committed crime would be reported to the police who would log it in the police recorded crime statistics. But you don’t need any statistics to realise that that isn’t the case—there are lots of crimes (especially things like sexual offences and theft) that just don’t get reported in all cases.

So sometimes  when ‘recorded crime’ goes up, it’s actually just down to more people reporting things that are happening just as often as before.

In other cases, the systems the police themselves use to record and categorise crimes aren’t applied consistently over time, which again makes it hard to judge when a trend is genuine.

That means it’s important that anyone reporting on these sorts of crimes uses data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales as well as overall crime trends. If you see someone claiming that, for example, sex offences have increased and they’re using police recorded statistics, don’t take the report at face value—go and seek out the Crime Survey figures instead (after letting us know about the dodgy claim first, of course.)

But the Crime Survey isn’t perfect either.   It’s a survey of individual victims of crime, so it won’t tell you about crimes against businesses, drug offences or homicide, for example. It’s also not good at picking up changes in crimes that don’t happen very often, or for local-level breakdowns. In those cases, the police data is the better choice.

Criticisms of police recorded data

You may have heard criticism of police recorded crime statistics, with some saying that they should never be used, in favour of Crime Survey figures. Some of the criticism is valid, and in 2014 police recorded crime statistics lost their “national statistic” badge , a quality hallmark, while the Crime Survey statistics are still classified as such.

However that doesn’t mean that police recorded figures are useless. They just need to be used appropriately, and in line with guidance from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) which publishes the data. Similarly, the Crime Survey figures also have limits—for example data on fraud and computer misuse has only recently started to be regarded as reliable, and so the ONS says long term trends about these crime types can’t be made yet.

You can find out which data is the better source for which crime here, as well as all the relevant caveats and limitations.   

What’s the time period?

Crime levels will inevitably change from one moment to the next. There’s no way that the number of crimes committed of any type could stay exactly the same from month to month or year to year.

So if an article talks about an increase or decrease “since last year”, it’s worthwhile looking at two things to see whether there’s actually a story:

  • What is the overall trend? Is this a random jump following years of decline, or part of a more consistent trend upwards or downwards?
  • What is the scale of the increase? – Not all single year jumps are irrelevant, but it’s worth checking how big a reported increase or decrease is. Last year there were around 130 more firearm offences than the year before. That might sound large, but it equates to about 2%—not as many in the wider context.

Is population change factored in?

When the ONS publish crime statistics (whether from police records or the Crime Survey) it talks about the number of offences and how that number has changed.

That’s usually fine for reporting crime over short time periods (because the population doesn’t change much from year to year), but is problematic for long time periods. Just because a crime is going up doesn’t mean we’re individually more likely to fall victim to it, as the population is also increasing.

For example, imagine a story that said that the number of homicides in England and Wales has increased by almost 50% in the past 40 years. That’s true. In 1977 police recorded 482 homicides, and in the year ending March 2017 they recorded 709—a 47% increase.

But what that fails to consider is how the population of England and Wales has changed over that period. If you take that into account, the number of homicides per person has increased by 24% over that period. 

Are the figures outliers?

Another thing to bear in mind—especially with fairly rare crimes—is that the figures reported may be outliers—particularly high or low figures that don’t fit the overall trend. That doesn’t mean it’s incorrect to report them, but they might affect what your overall understanding about a crime trend is.

Take the earlier example that the number of homicides is up by about 50% in the past 40 years. One thing you notice from the historical data is that 1977 was a bit of an outlier year – the number of homicides was considerably lower than the average for the period. So comparing the change in homicides from 1977 to 2017 shows the increase at its worst. For example, if you used data from just a year earlier, the number of homicides increased by 25% between 1976 and 2017. Per person that equates to a 6% increase.

If you want to have a look at these things in more detail, you can use our crime data finder to locate exactly what you’re after.  

Geography

One thing to note is that crime figures are published separately for each UK region by the ONS (England and Wales), Scottish Government and Northern Irish government and police service.

Usually UK-wide reporting on crime focuses on the England and Wales data, but be aware that that data doesn’t cover Scotland and Northern Ireland. It’s also worthwhile making sure that any claims about “UK” crime do stitch together the data from all the regions.

Overall crime level

Finally, to return to where we started, sometimes reports will look at crime in its entirety (e.g. “crime is up under the Conservatives.”) Frankly the data—whether it comes from the police records or from the Crime Survey— doesn’t really tell us that much. An incident of shoplifting and a murder would both be recorded in the same way. Overall crime trends can tell us how many times people are breaking the law, but not the more useful insight about the safety and security of the country.

The ONS, for example, says that over recent decades we have seen a fall in overall crime, but rises in some theft and higher-harm types of violence. It has recently started to publish an experimental statistic called the “Crime Severity Score” which tries to take into account the severity of crimes when looking at overall trends.

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