Wednesday, 3 September 2008

The fear of crime

This post isn't directly about online journalism, but it's inspired by a Twitter conversation with Martin Stabe about the Met's new crime maps, so I'm going to let it sneak in anyhow.

Yes, today the Met officially launched their new crime maps. We've been on deadline today, so I've not had a chance to look in depth at how they've changed from the beta version, so I will reserve full judgement. But as they only plot burglary, robbery and vehicle crime, I doubt they will be of huge use to us. As Martin's former colleague Patrick Smith pointed out when they were released in beta, there's a huge discrepancy between the actual crime figures, and what appears here. In Croydon in July, the Met's stats say there were 2,916 total crimes. The map's narrow criteria only highlights 656. A big difference - and interestingly, my calculations say the map is still out, as those crimes total 779 according to the "detailed" figures.

As someone who's twice reported crime in the past few weeks (a bag snatch in Streatham, and a road rage attack which was classified as an RTA in Croydon), I'm not sure how useful I find this personally. I'm more interested in violence against the person and sex crimes.

There's loads more you can say about this (see this conversation on a local forum), but I'm particularly interested in how this ties in with the police's management of fear of crime.

In recent years, police have become increasingly obsessed with fear of crime. And the solution seems to be cut off the media's access to accurately report it.

My first work experience placements, at local radio stations, featured daily trips to the police station to talk to the duty sergeant about all the notable crime from the last 24 hours. By the time I was a trainee on a local newspaper, this had been replaced with weekly meetings - then weekly meetings with a press liaison officer who had no formal training or, incredibly, access to the crime logs (she relied on posters in the loos asking officers to tip her off, which they generally didn't) - and in Croydon, even those were recently cancelled.

We have been asking for weeks for statistics about stabbings in Croydon - and nothing comes back. But last night, a garbled version of those very stats was given by a senior copper at a Croydon Council knife conference. We're fuming!

That same copper also trotted out the same argument we've been hearing lots lately - reporting knife crime makes youths more likely to carry knives to defend themselves, which makes them more likely to commit, or fall victim to stabbings themselves.

Where to start? For starters, the police have provided no evidence of this at all. This also assumes kids won't hear exaggerated and inaccurate accounts on the rumour mill (which I imagine has a much wider and quicker reach amongst teens than the local paper). And, most Croydon stabbings are gang related - I sincerely doubt a news story about a stabbing is going to push kids into joining gangs - the opposite, if anything. I could go on, but it's well trodden ground.

As I've been writing this, BBC London has aired a report about the maps which interviewed people in Croydon. It didn't say much about Croydon crime, but it did make the point about limited stats, and about there being no clear-up rate included either. Maybe the day's other crime data announcement, the push to get court results put online, will help. But I can't help but fear all the information will be neutered and managed to fall in with the fear of crime agenda until it's next to useless.

I really hope I'm proved wrong on this.


Adrian Short said...

This sounds like another potential echo chamber situation. As information becomes increasingly available to people, how does that information affect attitudes and behaviour? This question has been asked in many contexts, not just in relation to crime.

A city which offered perfect, accurate, comprehensive and real-time crime data to the public would be a very odd one, and technology and social attitudes are moving us in that direction. Handled well it could be beneficial. Handled badly it could be very dangerous.

This is where the middlemen come in, whether they're news media or anyone else. The raw data is pretty meaningless. It needs to be contextualised and interpreted. People don't just want to be informed, they want to be enlightened. If you want to enlighten yourself, you should have the opportunity to do so, but most will rely on others with more time or expertise.

What we're seeing here is news media losing its role as exclusive intermediaries between sources and the audience, but as the amount and complexity of information increases, so do the opportunities for being the best to make that information useful to the busy reader.

I share your suspicion and frustration that the police seem to be adopting a role as gatekeepers of crime information rather than just working to prevent and detect crime.

Adrian Short said...

Incidentally, if you haven't already seen them I'd recommend How to Lie with Statistics and its unofficial companion, How to Lie with Maps.

Colin D said...

Even though I'm originally from the UK, I hadn't heard of Croydon until I started mapping the crime in and around London.

I understand that this data and the presentation has its limitations, but incident data can tell a truer story than grid statistics.