Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens

Why the police are against crime mapping – and what it tells us

The BBC’s Today programme reported this morning that the Information Commissioner has, at least temporarily, held up the plan by the new London mayor Boris Johnson to introduce crime mapping to London. Crime maps, you’ll recall, were one of Johnson’s manifesto pledges. (Note: I can’t find anything to this effect on the ICO news page – anyone got a link?)

Apart from wondering why the manifesto pledge wasn’t taken for a quick spin by Johnson and the Tories past those who might have an interest (such as the Information Commissioner), the justification given afterwards by Brian Paddick, a former deputy assistant commissioner at the London Metropolitan Police (and the Liberal Democrat candidate for the mayor’s job), was illuminating. Why? Because it showed how deep the thinking that “we know better than you” runs inside British administration.

(You can hear the clip here; requires Real Player.)

Paddick said that the police already use crime mapping internally, and that from time to time the police chiefs for various areas would be called together to account for why they weren’t doing so well.

And how effective were those meetings in getting anything done? “It depended who was chairing them,” Paddick said. Good chair = police chief shamed, or driven, to do something. Bad chair = not much happens.

So why was he against it? “There are signif downsides to that [public crime mapping] process, potential to stigmatise areas, to create ghettos… and to make underreporting ofcrime even worse – people not reporting.”

The following is a rough, first-pass transcript.

Q: But it’s just telling people where crime happens.
Paddick: But we should be focusing on wht will improve efecti of police. The New York success of accountability didn’t come through making the crime data available to the public, but to Comstat, where police commanders were compared to their peers in open forum. We have tried that in London wher have half dozen commanders – asked those who do better what the secret is so they can tell the others…. The police already use crime mapping data themselves, using it in a sophisticated way. The only difference between what happens and what Boris Johnson is suggesting is that of making it public.

Q So the police already have mapping street by street to decide where to deploy resources – all Boris Johnson is suggesting is to make it public.
Paddick: yes… there are systems to hold police commanders accountable though meeetings. Making crime maps available down to street level is a lot of pain for very little gain.

Q But if we do what New York did, why might we not get better results?
Paddick: It has to be said that Comstat process – that is, holding local police commanders to account in one room and account for why crime had gone up or down – whether or not that worked depended who was chairing the meeting. It’s not a very British thing to hold people to account in front of their peers. It had mixed results depending on how the chair held them to account. (Emphasis added – CA.)

Q I thought it was about using it in clever ways, overlaying demographics, the location of porn pawn [thanks Stuart in comments] shops, to lead to more effective deployment of police?
Paddick: …. yes there is potential to use crime mapping more effectively to deploy resources, but the basic principle is available to the police and they are using it at present.

Well, wouldn’t the court of public opinion possibly be quite a good chair for the biggest possible meeting? Accountability is an uncomfortable process, yes. We see again and again that organisations dislike it. MPs don’t like having their expense claims made public – and when they are, they fight against them. In the same way, the police probably don’t like the idea that their full-time (one hopes) efforts to stop and solve crimes might be overlooked by the people to whom it’s actually happening.

But the fact is that this is a process that is happening in society, and any organisation that tries to ignore it does so at its peril because it loses the trust of the public. Journalism (which is a topic I know about) is going through this process: readers can cross-check what we write, point out where we make errors, bring new information we didn’t have. The principle that I try to work on with blog posts like this one is that when I write it, I know more than the average reader. But that implies that half the readers know more about the topic already – and if they can be encouraged to pitch in (as, happily, people do here) then we all benefit, because we have even more information.

The police may not like the idea that their work is made visible, and some people may feel uncomfortable with the idea of knowing about crimes being reported in their vicinity. (Then again, house prices are falling fast enough anyway. Crime maps won’t make a difference.) But the idea that the police are smarter about crime and criminal patterns than all of the population who might be looking at a crime map is, frankly, insulting. The average police officer is probably much smarter about crime than most of us. But it’s that group of the wider population that can find patterns that they can’t who they should be recruiting. If getting police commanders together in a room makes them o better, try making the room so big it covers the country. Then we’ll see some change.

Postscript: Wait, what’s this? In a story from earlier this month, with Gordon Brown pushing all sorts of policy initiatives, we find this:

Mr Brown will say: “My aim is to ensure we utilise all the innovation at our disposal to improve public services in this country and to give more power to those who use them.”

He is to praise government “successes” such as introducing broadband into every school, electronic border controls and electronic data records in hospitals.

There will also be pledges to push ahead with neighbourhood “crime mapping”, video identification of suspects, electronic school report cards, and online GP appointment booking.

(Emphasis added – CA.)

Oh, and a bonus link from Heather Brooke’s website (for she it is who has fought so hard to get MPs’ expenses made public): Police PR spending:

We found that police forces across the UK are spending £39m each year on press and PR – enough to fund an extra 1,400 full time officers and more than enough to cover the annual police pay rise withheld by the Government. The force at the top of the league (Police Service Northern Ireland) spends eight times more per person on PR than the lowest (Derbyshire). Meanwhile, forces spend nearly ten times more on PR (what police want us to know) than on FOI (what we want to know).

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