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Geographical Analysis
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Geographical Analysis: Impact of crime statistics

crime-map

What do communities want?  Understanding how the publishing of local crime statistics impacts community reassurance

Funding source: Economic and Social Research Council (Grant RES-193-25-0011)

Dates: February 2011 - present

Since December 2008, police forces have been publishing crime statistics, using their own web-based crime mapping tools or via the national crime mapping facility (http://maps.police.uk/ and www.police.uk).  This has been for the purpose of improving engagement with local communities alongside other policy objectives (e.g. to improve the credibility of crime statistics, promote transparency).  To date, the National Policing Improvement Agency has completed research into the impact of this initiative, and some police forces have conducted their own surveys with local residents.  The UCL Department of Security and Crime Science (Jill Dando Institute) was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council to draw together the collective experience on the impact that publishing crime statistics has had on communities, to critique this against other research evidence, and to help identify future developments that would support improvements in the information provided to communities.  Please see the other tabs for further details about the activities and outputs from this project.

A paper on this research has been published in Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice:

Chainey, S.P. and Tompson, L. (2012). Engagement, Empowerment and Transparency: Publishing Crime Statistics using Online Crime Mapping

What do communities want?  Understanding how the publishing of local crime statistics impacts community reassurance

As part of this research, two workshops aimed at police and Community Safety Partnership professionals involved in crime mapping and data provision to the national site were held (in Manchester and London). These had two primary objectives:

  • To gather information on the impact of publishing crime statistics using crime mapping from Police Forces, Community Safety Partnerships and the National Policing Improvement Agency. 
  • To illustrate examples of developing practice that illustrate how measures that go beyond the national site can help improve community engagement, reassurance and the credibility of crime statistics.
9.45 - 10.15 Registration, tea and coffee
10.15 - 10.25 1. Welcome and introduction - Spencer Chainey, UCL
10.25 - 10.40  2. The publishing of crime statistics using crime mapping: a review – Lisa Tompson, UCL
10.40 - 11.30 3. Impact of publishing crime statistics using crime mapping: local evidence? – Group discussion (facilitated by Spencer Chainey, UCL)
11.40 - 12.00 4. Impact of publishing crime statistics using crime mapping: national evidence – Paul Quinton, NPIA
12.00 - 12.45 5. Where next for the national crime mapping site? – ACC Steve Mortimore, NPIA and group discussion (facilitated by Spencer Chainey, UCL)
 13.30 - 15.00  6. Developing crime mapping – going beyond the national crime mapping site
 
15.00 - 15.15 7. Closing comments
15.15 Finish

Rationale for publishing crime stats

What do communities want?  Understanding how the publishing of local crime statistics impacts community reassurance

In spite of substantial, and largely sustained falls in UK crime levels from the mid-1990s onwards, there was not a corresponding fall in the public’s fear of crime.  This led to the conception of a modern phenomenon, termed the ‘reassurance gap’, which relates to the counterintuitive relationship between fear of crime and the reality of crime.  As fear of crime is considered to directly impact on the quality of people’s lives, public reassurance thus became a prominent and enduring policy objective at the beginning of the twenty-first century in British politics and policing. The original definitions of ‘reassurance’ were intertwined with issues of confidence, public satisfaction, community engagement, and community empowerment.

It is with this backdrop in mind that the policy agenda to publish local crime statistics began to grow and was directly informed by a number of reviews and pledges that drove forward this agenda:

  • It was seen to be a vehicle to improve the presentation and credibility of crime statistics (Statistics Commission, 2006; Smith, 2006)
  • It stemmed from a desire to provide the public with a police service that is truly community focused (Casey Review, 2008)
  • It could help to support a more informed public, which in turn, was expected to foster a greater sense of engagement and confidence in policing agencies (Home Office, 2010; UK Statistics Authority, 2010)
  • It supported the drive to improve transparency and accountability in the police service (NPIA, 2011)
  • Labour and Conservative political parties adopted the idea as policy objectives (or in the case of Boris Johnson’s Mayoral campaign, as a manifesto pledge).  This culminated in the (then) Home Secretary, releasing the Policing Green Paper in 2008 which mandated that all police forces had to publish crime maps to the public by the end of 2008
  • The Coalition Government's ‘Policing in the 21st Century’ paper called for the requirement for crime data to be published to the street level by January 2011.

What’s the point in publishing crime statistics using crime mapping?

Summary

Since December 2008, police forces in the UK have published crime statistics using an online crime mapping tool (www.police.uk).  The drivers behind this were to help improve the credibility and confidence that the public had in police reported crime levels, address perceptions of crime, promote community engagement and empowerment, and support greater public service transparency and accountability.

Our research shows that many of the original objectives relating to improving engagement and empowerment have yet to be realised, poor cartographic presentation of crime statistics has led to misinterpretation and confusion, and that the initiative instead has primarily become a tool for promoting political transparency.

We recommend that future focus should be on improving the quality and content of the information that is published on the ww.police.uk, rather than simply going through an exercise of publishing more for the sake of it.  At present, we question the usefulness of the information that is published, and recommend that more consideration should be given to determining the purpose the information serves.  That is, more is not better; more relevant information would be better.

The impact of publishing crime statistics using crime mapping: a critical commentary

We offer five key points relating to the current practice of publishing crime statistics using crime mapping

· Failure to provide messages of reassurance and crime prevention alongside the crime statistics

· Passive information that does not sustain interest: its interesting, but not useful

· Poor and misleading cartographic representation of crime statistics

· A failure to recognise the inherent difficulties in recording where a crime took place and the issues this causes

· An emphasis that has become too weighted towards promoting political transparency, rather than supporting public reassurance and improving community engagement

1. Contemporary research has stressed that information provision needs to be relevant to the recipients, and should emphasise police responsiveness to local issues to chime with the public’s priorities.  If these criteria are met, the prospects for changing perceptions of crime and improving personal safety are greater.  At present, we believe that opportunities are being missed by police forces to tailor sub-neighbourhood reassurance messages alongside the publishing of the crime statistics (e.g. saying how little crime there is in your neighbourhood).  General messages of reassurance and crime prevention often fail to resonate.  This also underscores the need for tailored information that is actively passed on to local communities, particularly at times of heightened crime risk, which local residents can then use to minimise their own immediate risk of victimisation and improve local public safety.  In our review of the use of the national mapping site by each police force, few, if any, have been using the national crime mapping site in this active, reassurance way, or for targeting messages of crime prevention advice .

2. The current presentation of the crime statistics on the national website is very passive, offering little that will draw people back and keep them interested on crime trends and policing in their area, and that they can use to help minimise their risk of being a victim of crime.  A mistake we believe the NPIA made at launch was not requiring users to register their email address and home postcode so that this interested audience could be informed with information of local relevance by their neighbourhood policing team.  This could include specific, and tailored crime prevention advice regarding a known local crime issue (e.g. a spate of burglaries), directly promoting messages of reassurance, and used as a means to publicise police activity.  Evidence suggests that publically disseminating crime information engages the public and empowers them to get involved in their communities.  However, the crime information needs to be easy to interpret, relevant to personal circumstance, timely, and hold content that prompts the public to react in some way.  Potential exists for the national website to be an important local engagement tool, but the present content does not realise this potential.  The information it presents is interesting, but we question it use for effective engagement and public purpose.

3. The 2006 Smith review into crime statistics expressly noted that these statistics need to be presented clearly, and in an unambiguous manner, to generate feelings of trust in the data.  We argue that the method that is used on the national mapping website does not fulfil this specification.  We question the sensibility of using a ‘block point’ approach to display crime statistics on maps, that uses only two sizes of symbols (less than ten, or greater than or equal to ten crimes), and attempts to aggregate offences that have occurred in the surrounding area to a street-level representation of crime levels.  Crimes mapped as points make it difficult to interpret geographic patterns and at worse can mislead - crimes can be easily misinterpreted as having taken place at this specific location.  A ‘radar’ symbol[1] is used on the national mapping site to attempt to overcome this, but this then creates the difficulty of determining the areal coverage that the symbol is meant to represent.  If basic cartographic principles had been applied this would have led to the unit of analysis for the crime statistics (the street) to have dictated the street as the unit to visualise this information.  However, a large proportion of the crimes published on the national mapping site are not related to street crime, so an areal visualisation method that is commonly used by police forces (kernel density estimation) for visualising the geographic distribution of crime would have been more appropriate.  Good cartographic discipline would have ensured the data were represented effectively and communicated accurately, using a geographic visualisation that matched the aggregating unit.  The block point used on the national crime mapping site is inherently an erroneous cartographic method, increasing the risk of crime statistics being misinterpreted.

4. There is a weakness in the assumption that all police recorded crime data are fit for purpose for mapping at street level.  Crime data are characterised by several fundamental geographic anomalies, and pose many geocoding difficulties which are well known to practitioners who routinely work with these data.  If issues with geographic representation and geocoding inaccuracies had been more carefully thought through this may have circumvented the negative media headlines in February 2011, describing inaccuracies and confusion about crime levels in many locations - for example:

Daily Mail. It's Crimebotch UK: Outcry as leafy streets labelled crime hotspots on new Home Office website (which crashed as soon as it went live)

Independent.  The meanest streets – not ours say the people of Bury.

5. We believe that many of the initial reasons for publishing crime statistics have begun to be lost, with there being more of a focus towards it being an exercise in promoting transparency, rather than publishing data that can be used to support reassurance and improve community engagement.  This would be fine if there were evidence that this transparency prompted community action, but as yet there is little to suggest that this is taking place.

Recommendations

Principally, we believe that if the Home Office and NPIA applied a more considered and clearer definition to the purpose of publishing crime statistics - that stressed its purpose for supporting community empowerment and engagement for crime prevention - this would help to determine the type, content and precision of data to be included on the website.  At present, the policy appears to be that everything and anything should be published.  Instead, providing better quality information that the public can actually do something with to minimise their risk of victimisation, or use as a basis for dialogue with their local policing teams, appears a more fruitful route to take in our opinion.  To help this, we recognise the potential of integrating email communication and social networking functionality into the national crime mapping site in order to enrich local dialog.  This approach is currently being trialled in Hampshire, as a means of enhancing the publics’ consumption of published crime statistics.  The integration of Facebook and Twitter type technologies into the national crime mapping site stimulates prospects for improving community engagement by developing dialogues that are more relevant, targeted and tailored to personal circumstance and interest.

These findings have recently been published in Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice:

Chainey, S.P. and Tompson, L. (2012). Engagement, Empowerment and Transparency: Publishing Crime Statistics using Online Crime Mapping

[1] The radar symbol is depicted using a filled bold circle, surrounded by halos emanating around the edges of the circle to give the impression that it represents an areal coverage rather than a single location.

Page last modified on 31 aug 11 15:51