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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).

10 Responses to “Why the police are against crime mapping – and what it tells us”

  1. Stuart Says:

    I think Evan Davies meant “pawn shop”, not “porn shop”.

  2. Rich T Says:

    Isn’t the Today Programme not a program but a programme?

  3. Burns Says:

    The problem with opening it up to the public is that – as a whole – we’re not qualified to analyse the data. We know nothing about how the police system works and so we’re likely to jump to the wrong conclusions.

    We might assume that by increasing X we can reduce Y, yet historical data we’re not aware of, or experience from the past might show that Z affects the equation in a way we couldn’t have imagined.

    Then the Sun jump on board and before you know it mob mentallity has forced there to be a rule/law that requires the increase of X only for there to be a massive increase in Y due to the Z we haven’t considered.

  4. hugh Says:

    @burns: luckily, if the data is available and public, we will all see that Y increased due to the unaccounted for Z, and so we can start implementing 1 and 2 to help with the situation.

    if the data is not available, then all we know is what we’re told, which, if the UK is anything like Canada, often has less to do with finding real solutions and more to do with any number of other things, such as: money, power, politics, ideology, incompetence, malfeasance, bumbling etc.

    and, out of curiosity, how good a job do you think the police force is currently doing combating, say, violent crime?

  5. Burns Says:

    @hugh: What if Z is something that isn’t documented, how are we supposed to know about it? I agree that in an ideal world everything would be transparent, but in a world where the News of the World controls the minds of the masses and report stories to stir emotions to sell papers, I think it can be a dangerous thing. Most people don’t care or aren’t capable of taking everything into account and making a balanced decision.

    Regarding the police, I’m slightly biased as one of my mates is a copper and the impression I’m given is that the cops lock the robbers up and the courts fail to put them in prison, so they’re back on the street committing again.

    I don’t know whether that’s to do with soft judges or lack of space in prison, but it certainly seems to be a problem. How do you combat violent crime if your only deterent is a night in a cell and a date at court?

  6. Charles Arthur Says:

    @Burns – we’re not talking about giving addresses of people alleged to be paedophiles. We’re talking about maps of locations where crimes have been notified. The US does lots and lots and *lots* of them: Google News search for “crime map” and you see dozens in the US. I don’t see any reports of them being blamed for causing more problems; in the Today clip, the US correspondent says they can even be helpful.

    Sure, for the police it would be nice if they spent less time on efforts that didn’t then seem to go to waste. But that’s entirely separate from crime mapping. Please don’t try to concatenate them.

  7. Michael Cross Says:

    The argument that data should be withheld because the public are not qualified to interpret it disturbs me. It goes to the heart of what I believe this campaign is about, which is more than just ensuring that agencies like Ordnance Survey play fair. Sure, free data will be abused by conspiracy nutters, populist newspapers and demagogues, but they’re out there already. The way to combat them is with more information, not less.

  8. hugh Says:

    “What if Z is something that isn’t documented, how are we supposed to know about it?”

    if that’s the case then the cops are no more aware of Z than the public is, and are in no better position to decide how decision X is impacting it. the suggestion here is that whatever data is collected ought to be made public; and the likelihood is that if an engaged public can assess the data, they can also suggest that Z be tracked – since clearly the authorities are neglecting Z to start with, if they aren’t collecting any data on it.

  9. colin Says:

    I’ve noticed the argument that the public is not qualified to analyze crime data, however, it is my company’s ( that basic crime data does not need much analysis. Using a Google crime data mashup, one could look at any of our cities and immediately ascertain where the crime is happening.

    Additionally, if you accept the wisdom of crowds argument, why wouldn’t a group of lay people be better able to assess the crime data than a few professionals?

    I see very little argument for not sharing crime data with the public.

  10. GeorgeOfTheJungle Says:

    Crime mapping. Is complicated. Is tied to demographics and cluster statistics in GIS. The police in the UK are not intelligent enough to fully utilize crime mapping in a GIS. In Canada, this GIS Master’s student developed this amazing GIS routine that would be able to point to the almost exact location of a murderer/rapist who had committed a number of crimes that were classed as “multiple”. Did the Vancouver or BC RCMP use it, or encourage the use of the program? No – not on your life. The cops were so afraid of being shown for the moronic idiots that they were, and were so scared of their fortress and politics and corruption and greed that maintained their “fortress” mentality that they literally drove the poor guy out of the country! And you’re asking crime mapping to be available to the public?!! The cops here would be scared witless at any sophisticated information that would show what a poor and despicable job they are doing. They are more interested in politics, male-bonding, and political correctness.

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