Lies, damned lies, and police statistics

Police would do better to focus on why its standing with public is in the sorry state it is, and work substantively to improve it.

Police officers old city cool 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Police officers old city cool 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Israel Police seems blissfully satisfied with its own performance. On Tuesday evening, when releasing its comprehensive 2010 report, it praised itself profusely and awarded itself top marks for “significantly improving” its service to the citizenry.
Here are some sample stats: The number of files opened has dropped to 50 per 1,000 people – the lowest ratio for 30 years (presumably indicating lower crime rates); the likelihood of apprehending miscreants is up by 37%; and there has been a 41% decrease in car thefts from 2006, a 36% decrease in burglary incidents and 22% less reported violence.
In all, according to the police, things are looking up regarding public safety and property protection. Furthermore, the police claims successes in its battles against drug dealers, organized crime and corruption. It gauges these successes thus: a 67% increase in the number of cases opened by its narcotics squads, 89 indictments in the organized crime category during 2010 (versus only 31 in 2008) and 180 bribery investigations during 2010 alone, 69 investigations against “public figures” and 32 against mayors.
Additionally, it says, its homicide sleuths are nabbing more killers. For the first time in five years the police solved more murder cases than were left unsolved (81 closed cases as against 64 still open).
BUT ARE things indeed as upbeat as the top brass seems to suggest? The data it presented is open to contradictory interpretations. Without wishing to rain on our constabulary’s parade, we must nevertheless note that the marked decrease in the number of cases opened can also be read as being other than a sterling success.
It may, instead, point to exasperation, if not outright despair, with the police. This is particularly pertinent in the realm of the unglamorous, far-from-the-headlines, grinding struggle against what is loosely described as “minor crime” – the sort of crime which ordinary citizens are likelier to encounter in daily life.
It is here, in the popular perception, that the police’s crime-busting record is hardly impressive. All too often, policemen don’t visit, much less collect fingerprints, at burglary scenes. This is a considerable disincentive for calling the cops. Car thefts are likewise low on the list of police priorities, again dissuading many crime victims from phoning the station.
Hence, does the lower number of files attest to less crime or merely to less reported crime? It’s an open question.
Another issue is the time-frames chosen for purposes of statistical comparison. There is too little consistency for comfort. On occasion current figures are juxtaposed with those of many years ago; elsewhere, the comparisons are more recent. The suspicion is that the choice represents whichever backdrop best enhances the police image.
A case in point is the police assertion that there is a 37% higher probability that crimes will be solved today than was the case early last decade. Yet in comparison to the past three years, there is a drop in the success quotient, not a rise. According to police statistics, moreover, there was a 7% drop in murders during 2010 in comparison to 2006. But this is decidedly not so in comparison to 2009. No fewer than 139 individuals were murdered in 2010, while in 2009 the number stood at 126. The choice of 2006 as the statistical baseline rather than 2009 cannot be dismissed as incidental or meaningless.
The identical numbers-game was played in reference to traffic accidents and traffic fatalities. The police report claims a 25% drop in accident numbers between 2006 to 2010 and a corresponding 15% fall in the number of fatalities. Yet when compared to 2009, we find a 7% rise in the number of accidents and an increase from 370 dead to 394.
To be sure, not all circumstances can be controlled by the police and numerical fluctuations can frequently signify very little of substance. What is troubling is the sense of an attempt to spin these numbers for the sake of better PR. The police would do better to focus on why its standing with the public is in the sorry state it is, and work substantively to improve it.