Police Discretion In Recording Reported Crime

Burrows and colleagues (2000) assessed the recording policies and practices in 10 police forces. They then went on to investigate, in more depth is five of those forces, what happened when calls involving crime allegations were made to the police by members of the public, and whether they were recorded as crimes and, if not, why not. They found that there was no standard practice and that the way that a crime report originates varies between forces. Forces have different arrangements for dealing with telephone calls from the public, a crucial distinction being between forces which operate 'single tier' and 'two-tier' control rooms, i.e. whether all calls go to one central point or to a number of local points usually at the basic command unit level. Methods of creating crime reports varied, some forces have officers telephoning the details to a central in-putting bureau, others have the officer entering the details themselves on the force computerized crime-recording system. Burrows and colleagues found, however, that most forces still rely on officers preparing hand-written reports, which are subsequently put onto the crime-recording system by others, usually civilian inputers.

In some forces the police officer is able to assign a crime classification. In others this is restricted to a small number of people in a crime management unit. In two forces they found that it took days for a crime report to materialise, providing opportunities for data manipulation and consequences for crime analysis based on incomplete data. The guidance on the criteria to be applied to recording incidents as crimes is contained in the government's 'Counting Rules' published by the Home Office (Home Office, 1998). This is a massive and arcane document that defies comprehension by all except those individuals steeped in its usage. Most forces do not provide further guidance on what is to be recorded as a crime (HMIC, 2000).

Two models of crime recording were identified by Burrows that were described as 'prima facie' and 'evidential'. Forces adopting the prima facie model recorded details of the allegation without scrutiny. Forces adopting the evidential model require the details to be substantiated before a crime is accepted and recorded in their statistics, creating spurious significant improvements in these force's clear-up rates. When the evidential model is used, alternative crime recording systems can co-exist along with the one used for statistical purposes. Such systems are used to track the journey of an'incident' being recorded to it subsequently being accepted and recorded as a crime if it passes the evidential test.

The Home Office requirements for the counting of recorded crime are set out in Criminal Statistics Volume 1, Counting Rules for Recordable Offences (1998). In addition, there is a set of rules for counting 'Offences Recorded as Cleared Up'

contained within 'Home Office Criminal Statistics, Volume iv. Annual Miscellaneous Returns (1998)' which contains 12 rules. As long as one rule has been satisfied, any crime which the police are required to notify to the Home Office may be counted as 'detected' or cleared-up.

When Burrows tracked calls made to the police they found that only 47% of crime allegations, made by a member of the public, were eventually recorded as crimes. They also noted that changes to the counting rules, made in 1998, meant that a series of crimes against one victim would be recorded as only one offence, whereas the BCS would count this as a number of occurrences.

Previous research by Bottomley and Coleman (1981) had identified police practices used to reduce the number of crimes recorded. The practice is known as 'cuffing' of crimes. An example would be where a victim alleges that her purse was stolen but the police record the allegation of theft as lost property. The disparity in the recording practices between forces was examined by Farrington and Dowds (1985). They found that, in Nottinghamshire, there was a higher 'true' crime rate as indicated by the BCS than in two neighbouring forces. They found the main reasons for this was the greater number of crimes originating from interviews with offenders who make a number of 'coughs' or admissions, including those to offences of stealing property of very little value.

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