The Dark Figure of British Crime

Despite government reassurances, Britons feel under siege—with good reason.

Spring 2009

Just before midnight on January 12, 2006, Tom ap Rhys Pryce, a 31-year-old lawyer, left a London party and telephoned his fiancée to say that he was on his way home. He emerged from the tube station at Kensal Green about 20 minutes later and began walking toward their apartment. That was when two teenage gang members attacked him. Donnel Carty kicked Pryce in the back, sending him flying to the ground, and Delano Brown kicked him in the face. When Pryce tried to defend himself, the attackers stabbed him in the legs, hands, face, and heart. Then they took his cell phone and public-transportation pass, the only valuables in his possession, and ran off, leaving him dying on the ground. The paramedics who strove unsuccessfully to revive him found his wedding vows strewn on the pavement.

The British press, particularly the tabloid press, carries stories like this nearly every day—lurid accounts of drunken vandals, teenage murderers, child abuse, knifings, and gang violence. “After bingeing on lager, vodka and cocaine, twisted Jobson launched a frenzied attack, stabbing Samantha TEN times with an eight-inch blade,” the Sun reported this past November 26. DRUNKEN YOB WHO LEFT TEENAGER WITH PART OF HIS SKULL MISSING AFTER PARTY ATTACK GETS JUST ONE YEAR’S DETENTION, cried the Daily Mail on the same day—about a different incident. Collectively, these reports paint a portrait of a nation terrorized by vomit-spewing, tattooed thugs. And according to polls, British citizens also consider crime an exceedingly grave problem.

But here the British government is strikingly at odds with both the press and popular opinion. Supported by Britain’s most prominent criminologists, the government insists that the country has, in fact, been experiencing the longest period of falling crime since record-keeping began. Indeed, it says, the rapid and sustained rise in crime that began in Britain in the late 1950s has been entirely reversed: crime reached a peak in 1995 but has since dropped by 48 percent. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has declared herself “extremely pleased” by the dramatic improvement in public safety.

Someone in this story is wrong. But who? Have the British people succumbed to mass hysteria? Or is the government’s methodology flawed?

One shouldn’t discount the possibility of mass hysteria. Such things happen. At various points in history, large numbers of people have convinced themselves that they faced a witchcraft epidemic, a Martian invasion, or a high risk of date rape on an American college campus (see “The Campus Rape Myth,” Winter 2008).

Defenders of Britain’s official statistics commonly say that public worry about crime constitutes just this kind of hysteria—and that it’s the media’s fault. “Great lies, bold, bare-faced and unapologetic, are relayed every day by every orifice of the media in ways that would make Kim Jong-il proud,” writes Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. In her view, the press is peddling these lies to discredit the Labour Party, in power since 1997, and to boost the fortunes of the Tories. But the idea of a media conspiracy is inconsistent with the evidence: Technicolor headlines are by no means confined to the anti-Labour press. Toynbee’s own Labour-boosting newspaper, for example, regularly relays from its own august orifices such headlines as: I WAS DRUNK. THE BLADE WENT STRAIGHT INTO HIS EYEBALL.

Government officials are generally too sober to peddle such conspiracy theories but tend nonetheless to blame the press for the public’s alarm. Crime sells papers, they say. But any journalist knows what’s wrong with this argument. You cannot sell a story that no one will believe. If stories of crime seemed radically unconfirmed by anything in readers’ experience, no newspaper could print them, over and over and over, and hope to stay in business. Even if I could find the odd sad-eyed, swollen-bellied, malnourished American child, I couldn’t make a living by writing story after story warning that Americans are eating too little. So why would the media be able to generate hysteria about rising crime when, if the government is right, the rising British crime rate is as mythical as the American malnourishment crisis?

Another standard explanation for Britons’ crime worries looks not to the media but to psychology. As criminologist Richard Garside puts it: “It is a criminological commonplace that crime anxieties are in truth anxieties about a broader range of issues, from whether you can trust your neighbors to whether your children will get ahead in life; from whether your job is secure to whether you’ll be stuck next to a leering sexist on the 7.32 AM out of Basingstoke.” This may be a criminological commonplace, but it is not a self-evident truth. No reasonably perceptive observer of human nature would deny that people often displace their anxieties—but generally, they displace them for a reason. It seems rash to embrace Garside’s conclusion unless we are sure that the government’s crime figures are robust.

But it is hard to be sure, for here is another, less advertised, criminological commonplace: criminologists do not know how to calculate the crime rate with precision.

The problem was first described in the 1830s by Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian mathematician and sociologist and the founder of modern scientific statistics. The real crime rate, which he called the “dark figure of crime,” could not be revealed by official statistics, he argued: “Our observations can only refer to a certain number of known and tried offenders out of the unknown sum total of crimes committed. Since this sum total of crimes committed will probably ever continue unknown, all the reasoning of which it is the basis will be more or less defective.” The problem has plagued criminology for nearly two centuries.

To understand why the dark figure of crime escapes exact measurement, realize that for a crime to be officially recorded, three things must happen: someone must be aware that a crime has been committed; someone must report that crime; and the police must accept that a law has been violated. But each link in the chain is easily broken. People may be unaware that a crime has been committed because they view it as normal or trivial behavior: in some neighborhoods, it would seem perfectly natural to settle a dispute with a good brawl, while in others, this would be seen as assault. Other crimes may go unrecognized because the victims are unaware that they have been victimized—either because of the nature of the crime, such as fraud, or because the victims are drunk, mentally ill, or otherwise incapable of understanding what has happened.

Even when victims recognize that a crime has been committed, they may not report it. Think of children, or of immigrants who don’t speak the language well enough to explain what happened to them. Rapes can go unreported because the victims are ashamed. So-called victimless crimes involving sex and drugs also go unreported, of course, because the criminals have no motivation to inform the police that they are hiring prostitutes or shooting up. Crimes can also go unreported because victims fear reprisals. Above all, crimes can go unreported because victims feel no confidence in the police and see reporting a crime as pointless.

Even if a crime is reported, it will not necessarily be added to the official statistics. The police may conclude, for example, that there is insufficient evidence to believe the report. Moreover, poorly performing police departments have an incentive to stop recording crimes: it makes them look more successful than they are. For these reasons and many more, criminologists commonly posit that the dark figure of crime is far larger than the official figure—perhaps by as much as an order of magnitude. And there is good reason to believe that in Britain, the dark figure is unusually high.

The British government derives its rosy estimates of the falling crime rate from two separate sets of statistics. The first, Police Recorded Crime, does indeed show a recent fall in the total number of crimes recorded in England and Wales—from 6.01 million in 2004 to 4.95 million in 2008. But the long-term trend is quite different. It shows just 2.69 million crimes recorded in 1980, a number that rose steadily until 1992, when it reached 5.59 million. After a decline in the nineties, it began rising again, until 2004, when it hit that all-time high of just over 6 million. While the recent drop to 4.95 million may be welcome, it is still high by anyone’s standards: to find the last year that the British police recorded fewer than that, you have to go back to 1999.

Defenders of the statistics counter that changes in crime-counting rules kicked in during 1998, pushing the number of recorded crimes up. Perhaps—but that doesn’t account for the even grimmer picture painted by police records of violent crime. Sure enough, when the rules changed in 1998, the total number of violent crimes recorded jumped from 231,000 to 503,000. But then, even after the switch, it continued to rise sharply, hitting a peak of 1.06 million in 2006. That number has since declined only slightly: in 2008, the number of police-recorded violent crimes stood at 961,000. When it comes to violence, in other words, Police Recorded Crime actually confirms the public’s general view.

Further, the recent decline to 4.95 million total crimes recorded could well mean that the public has lost faith in the criminal-justice system and no longer believes that reporting crimes will result in the punishment of the perpetrators. Support for this hypothesis comes from a British Federation of Small Businesses poll indicating that 60 percent of businesses in London had been victims of crime in the past year. But proprietors reported to the police only half of the burglaries, vehicle thefts, and assaults that they suffered—and not a single case of arson. They didn’t think that the offenders would be caught and punished, they explained. Going to the police just wasn’t worth their time.

A typical comment on the website of the Daily Mail makes the same point: “A few years back I saw someone slash 4 tyres on a car. I did not report it to the police. I am a female, living alone in a rather isolated location. I knew that tyre slashing would probably warrant no more than the police having a word with the perpetrator and leaving it at that, maybe a fine, while the perpetrator would most likely have taken a more robust approach to me.” Another writer to the website says: “I had my car broken into in the Palmers Green area of London. I called the police to obtain a ‘crime number’ but was asked to call back a week later as they were inundated with such requests. When my car was broken into again the following year I didn’t bother reporting it.” If this attitude is widespread enough, the dark figure of crime fades to black.

Police-recorded crime statistics are an imperfect guide for another reason. Perhaps the number of muggings in a particular district really has gone down. But could it be because citizens no longer venture out of their homes at night for fear of being mugged? If someone needs to restrict his activities more severely and purchase more elaborate security equipment just to be as safe as he was ten years ago, his sense that crime is rising may be more significant than the bare fact that crime is falling. Even the murder rate may not be a particularly sound measure of criminality, because advances in medical technology have ensured that more victims of attempted murder survive.

Recognizing the limitations of police crime figures, governments have begun to supplement them with a second kind of statistic, the victimization survey—a poll that asks whether respondents have been the victims of crime. British government officials are fond of saying that the rigor of the British Crime Survey (BCS), an annual poll of about 50,000 homeowners in England and Wales, ensures that British crime statistics are the world’s most reliable. The BCS suggests that the dark figure of crime is extremely high: last year, for example, it indicated that some 10 million crimes had been committed, far more than the police-recorded 4.95 million. Still, the government points triumphantly to the 16–18 million annual crimes that the BCS indicated in the mid-1990s. Since then, officials say, the figures have come down steadily.

But the BCS suffers from shortcomings, too. Crime sampling is a classic problem in epidemiology and resembles, in many respects, efforts to track the spread of HIV. You won’t necessarily gain a useful sense of the percentage of the population that, say, shares needles by calling 100 households at random and asking whether the respondents have recently shared a needle, for the people most likely to share needles are those least likely to have a household. Similarly, victims of crime are more likely than average members of society to be poor, homeless, mentally ill, or distrustful of officious bureaucrats who call to ask complicated, intrusive questions. Indeed, those most fearful of crime are those least likely to open their doors to pollsters. Criminologist Marian Fitzgerald argues that the survey doesn’t capture the extent of violent crime in Britain because of information-gathering problems: “The people who are most at risk of crime and serious violent crime are young men in inner cities. For the last decade social surveys have found it difficult to get into these areas.” And even if you can locate crime victims and ask them questions, they are likelier than average members of society to lie when they answer—since they are likelier, by the mere fact of being victims, to be related to criminals or otherwise associated with them.

Note, too, that the BCS polls homeowners, not renters. This immediately skews the results by deflecting attention from poorer neighborhoods, which are the areas likely to have the highest crime rates. And the pollsters have only been sampling children under 16 since January 2009, so crimes against youths haven’t been recorded. If you read the British press, you will see that youth crime is what has the public most concerned. A 2007 Freedom of Information request to Britain’s police forces found that 40 percent of all muggings were committed by kids under 16, many doubtless against other children. In January 2008, the Daily Telegraph obtained figures from the Ministry of Justice indicating that in the three years prior, violent crime committed by youths, measured by convictions in court and the issuance of formal police warnings, had increased by 37 percent; robberies committed by youths had risen by 43 percent. Of course, a rise in convictions does not necessarily indicate a rise in crime; it may indicate instead that the government is cracking down on crime, and indeed this is how the government explains these figures. But it is suggestive that there has been no commensurate rise in adult convictions and warnings. The most plausible explanation for this is that the government has been cracking down on youth crime disproportionately because it is rising disproportionately.

Nor does the BCS poll the victims of sex crimes, drug crimes, crimes against commercial premises, or (obviously) murder. In 2003, David Green of the think tank Civitas attempted to calculate the number of crimes in some of those missing categories. The BCS that year estimated that about 13 million crimes had been committed, but using the Home Office’s seldom-publicized estimates of police underrecording of significant crimes, Green concluded that the true number was nearly twice that.

The BCS has other weaknesses. If a respondent claims to have been the victim of a particular crime more than five times in the past year, the pollsters are instructed to enter the number as five. For instance, if a homeowner in a high-crime area reports that feral youths vandalize his property every week, his report will enter the database as five crimes, not 52. In 2007, researchers Graham Farrell and Ken Pease concluded that if one refrained from “truncating the long statistical ‘tail’ of victimization,” the overall number of BCS crimes would be at least 3 million higher.

Are the revised crime estimates significant? It is “true but trivial,” says Mike Hough, a criminologist at King’s College London who has helped design the BCS since it began in 1981, that if you include all crimes, “an astronomical amount of crime is committed.” Surely nobody is really in a panic about petty crimes, he adds. But not all the repeat crime is petty: according to Farrell and Pease’s study, if calculated correctly, violent crime would be 82 percent higher. The BCS figures, on their own terms, show substantial drops since 1995 in “acquaintance” and “domestic” violence, but “stranger” violence and muggings—the kind of violent crime that really terrifies people—remain at their extraordinarily high mid-nineties levels.

And an astronomical number of petty crimes is far from a trivial problem. As New Yorkers remember all too clearly, a city suffering from rampant vandalism, shoplifting, petty theft, commercial fraud, drug dealing, and public streetwalking is a low, vulgar, ugly, dishonest, and menacing place to live. Might this ambient climate explain the British public’s concern about crime? It’s more plausible than positing a media conspiracy to dupe a nation of credulous hysterics.

As for the downward trend in the BCS, as with Police Recorded Crime, it may reflect a real shift—in this case, a drop in victimization among homeowners who have grown cautious and more aware of crime—while completely missing a huge spike in youth crime and repeat crime in certain disorderly urban areas. Victimization studies also show that the crime rate in Britain is far higher than in most other European countries. Comparative analyses show England and Wales at the very top of the European crime leagues—and well above the U.S. as well.

Upon close inspection, the official crime statistics hardly suggest that the concerns of the public and press should be dismissed. I propose a counterhypothesis: the media’s treatment of crime, while obviously no perfect measurement, may well be a better guide to what’s really happening in Britain, or at least an equally valid one. The media, unlike the government, are responding in real time to market demand. The market in Britain for stories about ultraviolent juvenile delinquents is insatiable; perhaps the people who buy these newspapers are, in effect, responding to a better-designed survey than criminologists have been able yet to construct.

Why might Britain be suffering such high levels of crime? It isn’t hard to guess. Officials at every level of the British criminal-justice system—detectives, judges, prison officials, probation officers—complain that too few criminals are caught and that those who are caught rarely receive sentences that will function as a deterrent. Lack of resources and a massive bureaucracy hamper police efforts: the average time to process an arrest in London is over ten hours, and the number of forms that must be filled out averages about 35, according to various analyses. Home Office figures released in 2007 show that police officers in England and Wales spend only about 13 percent of their time on patrol—and 20 percent on paperwork.

One London cop in the Criminal Investigation Division blames the police’s ineffectiveness on the unintended effects of community policing. “There was a perception that there weren’t enough beat cops—people who knew the local area,” he remembers, which led to sending extra cops to problem spots. “But in practice, they ended up going to community meetings and liaison. They’re not actually dealing with minor crimes. If they were answering emergency calls and dealing with minor crimes instead of doing community liaison, that would indeed take a huge load off the system, but they’re not. So in practice, what this means is that when I started working as a police officer, there were 25 people on staff answering 999 calls”—the British equivalent of 911. “Now there are 15.”

Perhaps as a consequence, more than two-thirds of burglaries reported to the London police are never investigated, according to police figures released under the Freedom of Information Act and obtained by the Daily Telegraph. Under 10 percent result in an arrest. And even if an arrest leads to a conviction, it’s unlikely to include real punishment. The London policeman adds that it’s common for a burglar to be arrested 30 times a year, taken to court 20 times a year, and punished with nothing more than a fine—“which is meaningless, because they can’t pay. There’s no chance that with minor-level crimes you’ll go to prison.” A London magistrate clarifies: “It’s not that they can’t pay, it’s that they won’t—and the system doesn’t push the point.” Theodore Dalrymple, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former prison doctor, tells me that he recently met a burglar on his 57th conviction. The burglar was fined 50 pounds, to be paid in five-pound installments—considerably less than someone in a legitimate business, making a comparable amount of money, would pay in taxes.

Juvenile criminals can be particularly confident that if they commit a crime, it is unlikely to carry any serious consequences. During the seventies and eighties, the government passed legislation making it much harder to impose long custodial sentences on minors. The London policeman mentions a schoolgirl in his borough who was recently arrested and found guilty of committing “grievous bodily harm”—which means that “bones were broken, someone’s life was seriously affected; usually GBH implies surgical follow-up.” She received a 12-month supervision order. “Essentially, just reporting in for a year. Kids see this and say, ‘What the hell, what can you do to me?’ ”

Also during the seventies and eighties, the government introduced new forms of noncustodial sentencing, including community service and early-release schemes even for career criminals. In 2008, figures from the Ministry of Justice indicated that some 5,000 criminals who had already served more than ten jail sentences had received noncustodial sentences. Not surprisingly, a third of prosecutions in London collapse because witnesses won’t testify: they know all too well that even if convicted, the criminals will be walking the streets terrifyingly soon.

The situation in Britain, then, resembles that of 1980s New York, whose crime problems were routinely called insoluble. What the British government fails to understand is that the majority of serious crimes are committed by a small cadre of criminals, who are also, disproportionately, the authors of minor crimes. If you lock these criminals up—reliably, and for a long time—crime will drop precipitously. The reason Broken Windows policing works is not that it is inherently important to jail every petty thug who breaks a window; it is that the window-breakers tend to be muggers, rapists, burglars, and murderers as well. If you get them off the streets, the rate of serious crime will fall. To dismiss as “true but trivial” the finding that “an astronomical amount of crime is committed” in Britain is only half right. The British people know this full well, even if their government does not.

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