Whenever you use police.uk's crime maps to look at incidents in your local area, you're looking at data gathered and reported by the police. In fact whenever you hear any crime figures relating to your local area, they've probably started out in the hands of policemen and women.
Today a committee of MPs concluded these numbers aren't reliable and shouldn't be counted on. They're distorted by a culture of target-setting across local police forces and they're not regularly verified by independent statisticians.
"The attitudes and behaviours which lead to the misrecording of crime have become ingrained, including within senior leadership, leading to the subordination of data integrity to target-chasing"
The Public Administration Select Committee said emphasis in local forces needed to be placed on data integrity and accuracy rather than the direction of recorded crime trends. Police leaders, along with the independent HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, needed to ensure this came about.
More significantly, it said elected Police Crime Commissioners should be told not to set performance targets based on police data, since this in itself creates incentives to distort the numbers.
Regular, independent audits
"The cessation of regular external audits of police force crime recording in 2007 was a mistake. We recommend the reinstatement of annual audits of crime recording practices."
We've pointed out previously how police crime figures start on the ground: they're gathered in the first instance by busy policemen and women day-to-day. Independent statisticians only enter the picture later on.
MPs said HM Inspectorate of Constabulary needs to conduct "a rigorous audit of crime recording integrity" every year, which makes sure the importance of honest recording is communicated to rank-and-file officers.
Officials need to be more thorough
Police crime figures were stripped of their quality mark by the UK Statistics Authority earlier this year, but the MPs pointed out that back in 2011 the watchdog gave the figures this status in the first place, in spite of the shortcomings present at the time. This raised "serious concerns" about the 2011 decision.
The Committee identified what it saw as a "long-standing failure" of a number of bodies to address how well the figures were being assessed, with both the Statistics Authority and the ONS failing to expose their unreliability in reviews during 2011.
The UK Statistics Authority must not, in future, grant quality marks to figures "where it has failed to verify whether the underlying data meets the standard required", and the MPs recommended the body urgently review other similar statistics which are collected by non-statisticians (Hospital waiting times figures, collected by NHS staff on the ground, is a recent example).
Crime is still falling, by the way
MPs still concede "there is no evidence to contradict this trend" using the police's figures, but it's now agreed there is "strong evidence" to show the police's numbers may have exaggerated the rate of decrease.
The Select Committee still says the Crime Survey is "no substitute" for police figures in measuring local crime trends, but suggests statisticians should look into whether the Survey could publish figures at a regional level.
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