Crime statistics often reflect political and managerial choices, rather than reality

December 03, 2021

Police officer completes paperwork in his car - photo by Beth Rankin, from flick. Cropped from original - used under Creative Commons 2.0 license

Police officer completes paperwork in his car - photo by Beth Rankin, from flick. Cropped from original - used under Creative Commons 2.0 license

Story by Rob Rombouts

The public does not understand how crime statistics are gathered, and this has many operational implications for police services, and political and social implications for the public.

“We drive policy in an information poor environment,” said Laura Huey, professor in the department of sociology, a lack of information with many causes, and few clear solutions.

“People have an idea that police officers are out proactively engaging in crime prevention and community engagement, but most police services in Canada today are overwhelming driven by calls for services,” said Huey.

There can often be a long line of unanswered calls for service. Additionally, people may not be reporting crimes against property, such as burglary, and these will not be reflected in crime rates.

Managerial practices lead to new issues

In an effort to be more transparent and accountable, police services implement managerial practices. Huey, along with co-authors Lorna Ferguson and Jacek Koziarski, examined how this often leads to issues including increased paperwork, higher staffing costs and poorer crime statistics.

The paper ‘The irrationalities of rationality in police data processes’, published in Policing and Society, is based on interviews from police personnel from two police services in Canada. When police do report to calls, they are required to complete a wide spectrum of reports, for their own purposes, as well as for use by other groups.

“Only a small portion of paperwork is filing cases,” said Huey, with other paperwork being used or requested by politicians, journalists, insurance companies and Ministries of Transportation. As an example, Huey described a four-page report for motor vehicle collisions under $2,000, which included questions about tire pressure for different vehicles involved in the collision, information used by insurance companies.

“When you sign up for a job going out fighting crime, engaging in the community and you spend all day filling out paper, it is demoralizing for police officers,” said Huey. There are also financial consequences for paperwork, as the highest policing costs is in salaries, and a significant portion of time is spent on filling out paperwork.

Public safety focus without setting boundaries

“Politicians have dumped down so many public safety issues on to police without setting boundaries,” said Huey. “Policing is ultimately a political job. The budget is set by city council, and if council says you have to measure tires, you will.”

If the public and politicians are interested in reducing policing costs, there must be consideration of everything police are being asked to undertake, said Huey.

“It has become part of the role because police are there, and we sort of expect them to be all things to all people,” she said. While these reports have been re-defined as a public safety issue, “police serve no purpose in taking the report,” said Huey. “They are not going to prevent future accidents by taking these reports.”

In the end, the paperwork and data collection do not necessarily meet the needs of either the police or the public. In many cases, several reports must be filed for different purposes, which can result in errors in reporting. This may create more work for crime analysts, who attempt to clean the data before it can be useful, or who may not be able to use the data.

Some data collected and reports prepared by police are not deemed as useful for community implications. This includes data on sexual assaults. Huey said that often the data collected is deemed ‘fit for police purpose’ intended to meet the needs and requirements of the police services, not for the public. This can lead to community concerns when case files are later examined by community advocates.

Addressing these problems will require a re-rationalization of the data collected by police, examining the reports and questions being asked, considering what the wider implications of reporting requirements are.

Huey is considering a research-based project focused on communicating about crime and criminal justice to the wider public.

“We have a lack of understanding of what is actually going on in policing; that is driven in part by how information is communicated,” said Huey. “Police services have vested interests in what happens, what works and what doesn’t. Many public policy decisions are based on the fact that people don’t know. Let’s take the research we have and develop better communication strategies, so people can make better decisions.”