Thursday 29 June 2017

Flawed data paints false picture of crime battle

Rises and falls in types of offence skewed by individual offenders

Jim Cusack

Jim Cusack

A FEW years ago, the number of burglaries jumped by over 100 per cent in a coastal garda district in Co Clare which had one of the lowest crime rates in Ireland. The overall figure for that year was 38 burglaries; and after the guards arrested two young men, the subsequent year showed a total reversal and burglaries returned to the traditional dozen or so.

Another garda district in prosperous south county Dublin should, on the face of it, be one of the most peaceable and law-abiding areas in the country, but it has an unusually high number of arrests for disorder, criminal damage, theft from shops and other public order offences. It is almost entirely down to the problems of one local man who suffers from schizophrenia, and when he fails to take his medicine and drinkshe becomes a public menace.

The quarterly national statistics released last week -- a quiet enough news week -- attracted a large amount of reportage and debate, but the figures are virtually meaningless. They show large swings and falls. But they are only a comparison of reported crime in one three-month period with another three-month period last year. Seasoned gardai say that virtually nothing of value can be extrapolated from such figures, and some wonder why they have been released at all.

An instance given by one garda last week was that in the Store Street district of Dublin there was a 300 per cent increase in theft from the person -- that is, mugging -- on the previous quarter. What happened was that a gang of teenage boys from a block of flats in the area had almost all become addicted to the "head shop" drug mephadrone. The guards arrested the gang members repeatedly, the head shops were closed and the level of mugging dropped dramatically.

The statistics that would accurately show how crime affects society are never released. They are available on a weekly basis to garda management, but kept from the public view. These are the station-by-station stats, drawn up for all garda districts and divisions, and show where the concentrations of crime are and how the gardai are coping.

The publicly issued statistics for murder, the most serious offence on the books, don't differentiate from a professional assassination ordered and paid for by a crime boss, and a stabbing arising from too much drink and drugs at a house party -- or a man or woman in extremis who murders his or her spouse.

About half the murders in Ireland each year are now gangland killings, and the garda success rate in solving these crimes is very low -- only about one in 10 leads to a conviction. However, when you mix these "professional" murders with the "domestics", where the perpetrator is often arrested at the scene and confesses almost immediately, you get a very skewed picture for detection rates. The gardai can, and do, claim to have a remarkably healthy "detection rate" for murder in Ireland and an obedient media often accepts and reports their figure of around 40 to 50 per cent. Take out the "domestics" and you see that gangland murder is out of control and the gardai don't seem to be able to do anything to stop it.

Division-by-division and, better still, district-by-district, crime stats would show us where crime is worse and where garda resources should be concentrated. Kathleen O'Toole, head of the Garda Inspectorate, reported earlier that the allocation of garda resources needs to be examined closely. Her report on the Inspectorate website gives a picture of crime and policing that is absent from any other official document -- including the Commissioner's annual report, which now contains page after page of colour pictures of gardai but virtually no information on crime.

Crime statistics that attempt to give any indication of what is happening in society and how the police are functioning, or not functioning, have to be over a far longer period than year-on-year quarterlies.

Traditionally, the best barometer of crime is burglary -- so long as the figures are represented honestly.

In 2004, there were 24,430 recorded burglaries. Over the past five years there has been a rise in 2005 and 2006, then a dip for 2007 and 2008, and then the figure rose again to 26,079 for 2009.

"Aggravated burglary", where violence was used, shows a steady rise from 282 in 2004 to 369 in 2009.

Murder shows a steady rise, due almost entirely to the number of gangland killings. There were 30 murders in 2004 and 55 last year.

One of the encouraging aspects of the crime statistics relates to the overall fall in fatal road crashes. The numbers of people charged with dangerous driving leading to death was 53 in 2004 rising to 68 in 2006 and then declining -- in line with our record lows in road deaths -- to 28 charges in 2009. Irish people, mainly men, still show a remarkable resistance to obeying the drink-driving laws. Random testing was introduced in 2007 and in that year there was a record 19,822 people charged with driving a vehicle while over the legal limit. The number charged with drink-driving in 2004 was 12,168. Yet despite the introduction of random testing, the number of people prosecuted last year still showed a rise to 13,775.

Despite the quarterly figures showing a rise in robbery of cash or goods in transit, the five-yearly figures show that this type of crime is significantly down since 2004. There were 61 such crimes recorded in that year compared with only 24 last year. Gardai say that this is almost entirely due to a series of successful operations targeting the gangs mainly responsible for this type of armed robbery.

"Theft and related offences" show a steady rise over five years from 72,201 in 2004 to 77,040.

"Attempts/threats to murder, assaults, harassments and related offences" show a steady increase from 13,277 recorded in 2004 to 18,308 last year

"Controlled drug offences" show an increase from 9,868 in 2004 to 21,991 in 2009 but these figures are predominantly about people being caught simply in possession. Only 46 people were prosecuted last year for importation of drugs. The number of people charged with possession for sale or supply almost doubled from 2,196 in 2994 to 4,032.

The figures show what almost everyone knows: Ireland is steadily becoming a nastier and more dishonest country. The real question is whether or not we are getting value for money from our multi-billion euro criminal justice system.

Sunday Independent

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