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So why are the West Midlands Police’s detection rates so poor?

So why are the West Midlands Police’s detection rates so poor?

🕔02.Oct 2012

“What about the crucial matter of detection rates?” asked Paul Dale in his more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger piece on last week’s Police and Crime Commissioner hustings.

Paul had been underwhelmed – by the would-be commissioners’ dearth of passion and conviction, and by their generally platitudinous responses to questions. He was particularly irked, though, by their shared reluctance to criticise the performance of the West Midlands Police, given the range of serious concerns for which they themselves would become answerable, were they to be elected in November.

Hence the semi-rhetorical question about detection rates – semi-rhetorical, because Paul went on to quote some of these rates, from the Police Authority’s 2011-12 Annual Report.

It was, he suggested, a “paltry” picture:  fewer than 9% of vehicle crimes solved, 11% of domestic burglaries, 21% of robberies, 32% of serious sexual offences – exacerbated by the fact that in most cases even these detection rates fell short of the “hardly challenging” milestone targets the Police Authority set for itself.

Paul’s guess is that, with none of the major players – the police themselves and the candidates of at least the major political parties – seeing it as being in their interests to shine too critical a light on such contentious topics, they will remain unaddressed. Well, not in these columns, hopefully – which is why I thought I’d add my two penn’orth in the hope of keeping the ball rolling.

Crime statistics generally are tricky blighters. There are two main sources – police recorded crime (PRC) and the annual Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW). They differ significantly: neither is a comprehensive crime count, and both have their strengths and weaknesses. Nowadays, it is widely accepted that both sources need to be used together.

The problems with PRC statistics are fairly obvious. If crimes aren’t reported – because victims can’t be bothered, don’t trust the police, or were themselves partly involved in the crime – they can’t count. If the police don’t record them, they can’t count. If recording practices or priorities change, so will recorded numbers, making them difficult to compare over time.

The CSEW is a face-to-face victimisation survey, in which a large, statistically representative sample of people living in households are asked about their personal experiences of and attitudes towards crime, regardless of whether any experienced crimes were actually reported.

It is not, however, intended as a complete crime count, and excludes, for instance, people living in group residences, victimless crimes – including drug possession and, inevitably, murder/manslaughter – crimes against businesses, and crimes committed more than 12 months before the CSEW interview.

The police naturally prefer their own statistics. An estimated 60 per cent of CSEW crimes go unreported, so PRC figures are dramatically lower, and recently have shown crime falling every single year, whereas CSEW results fluctuate rather more.

The police would also prefer, judging from the quantities of data they produce, that we focus on their recording of crime rather than on their detecting. Detections are offences ‘cleared up’ by the police, normally through the offenders being formally sanctioned – charged, cautioned, reprimanded, but not necessarily convicted. Convictions refer to offenders, several of whom may be involved in a single cleared-up offence, and separately counted.

Detection rates, though, are what concern us here, and, as Paul Dale suggested, those in the West Midlands don’t on the face of it seem very impressive. To judge just how unimpressive they are, though, we need to compare them with those of other apparently similar police authorities, as in the police force area tables in the latest Home Office Statistical Bulletin on Crimes detected in England and Wales, 2011/12.

The overall crime detection rate in England and Wales has increased from 19% in 2002/03 to 28% in 2011/12 – hardly brilliant, but at least improving, though not around here. The rate in the West Midlands Police Authority (WMPA) declined over the same period from 26% to 22%, or 39th equal out of the 44 English forces – the only conceivably positive feature of which is that in 2010/11 it was equal last.

Many of the English forces are shire county-based and obviously face very different pressures and demands to those with which a large metropolitan force has to deal. As with all the comparative figures that follow, therefore, I have deliberately selected only those forces that would seem to operate in conditions most resembling those facing the WM police.

Most of these forces actually started the decade with poorer detection rates than the WM, but their direction of travel has been such that they passed it several years ago. Thus, Greater Manchester’s rate has improved from 16% to 27%; Merseyside’s from 21% to 32%; South Yorkshire’s from 19% to 28%, and West Yorkshire’s from 17% to 25%. Even the Metropolitan Police, currently sharing the WM’s 39th place, reached it having started from a 2002/03 detection rate of 13%.

The force in bottom place in 2011/12, incidentally, was Warwickshire, with a detection rate that managed to fall by 5% in the past year to just 18% – for reasons that would certainly be worth interrogating, but not here, not now.

It would be surprising, given the WM’s overall record, if any of its detection rates for specific crimes were creditably high and seemed to buck the trend – but it’s hard to find any that do so significantly. Its 2011/12 detection rate for violence against the person was 35%, higher than the Met’s 32%, but still 41st out of the 44 English forces. The national rate was 43%, Greater Manchester’s 45%, Merseyside’s 53%, those for South and West Yorkshire 48%, and even Warwickshire managed 37%.

With the national detection rate for burglary being a rather depressing 13%, you might think it would be quite hard to do much worse. But the WM figure for 2011/12 was just 9%, or equal 37th of the 44 English forces – higher than Merseyside’s 8%, but below Greater Manchester’s 13%, South Yorkshire’s 17%, West Yorkshire’s 14%, and even the Met’s 10%.

I’m not a criminologist and I don’t really know how much importance one should attach to these detection rates and similar performance measures. However, the Home Office and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary clearly regard them as important, or they wouldn’t collect and publish them.

More to the point, if I were standing for election as a Police and Crime Commissioner, I’m absolutely certain that I’d want to know both the Police Authority’s interpretation of them and what was being done to reverse the trend of the past ten years and improve them. As it is, I’m only a voter, so I’ll just have to hope that some answers arrive by 15th November.

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