How can we explain the 7% drop in recorded crimes?

Will Archdeacon,

Crime decreased by 7% in 2012, though the reasons why are puzzling 

One of the most memorable scenes of UK politics in 2011 was Theresa May being heckled during a speech to the Police Federation Conference against a humiliating backdrop that read “Cutting Police by 20% is criminal. 34,000 jobs, including 16,200 police officers, would go from the Home Office. It would be Christmas for criminals, the unions warned. The theory was simple enough: Crime dropped under economic booms and when police officer numbers swelled, crime increased in times of austerity and when police officer numbers dropped – under circumstances in which growth was flat and huge cuts to police numbers, crime would obviously rise. With this warning closely being followed by the 2011 England riots, it seemed as though the government had committed a major error and the Tory’s reputation on law and order would inevitably be drowned in a rising tide of crime. And yet, despite the number of police officers dropping to the lowest level since 2002, the number of recorded crimes dropped 7% in 2012. This was on top of a 4% drop last year.

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Cynics would argue that the statistics must have been fudged. Some would also claim that the cause for the drop has been fewer police able to record crimes. Thus, rather than crime going down, it was merely the state’s capability to keep up with criminals that was decreasing.

Luckily, recorded crime is not the only way of measuring the rate of crime in the country. The Crime Survey for England and Wales (previously called the British Crime Survey) is an annual poll carried out by BMRB, surveying 50,000 people’s experience of crimes committed against them. Through this, it seeks to include crimes that may have been committed but, for a variety of reasons, were not reported to the police. Its methodology has never changed, making it good for making comparisons over time. The BCS’ figures do not agree with the 7% drop in crime, in fact, it claims that there has in fact been a 9% drop! This drop would mean that, in spite of population growth, the number of crimes committed in the UK is at its lowest since the figures began in 1981, less than half the number committed in 1995.

Such a fact is a shock to many. In 2006, before the recession, the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair was warned that Britain faced a crime wave. A report claimed that 80% of the decrease in crime had been caused by favourable economic conditions. Such an estimate has clearly been proven false due to the fact that crime rates have continued to drop in spite of falling incomes.

The government has praised the police for this drop and has been wary to claim the figures as their achievement. Such a move is wise due to the fact that such figures are being replicated across the Western world.

Many small theories have been developed regarding the drops in crime in certain areas. A series of graphs from the Guardian shows that vehicle crimes have decreased 60% in just ten years whilst burglary is down by more than one-third over the same period. Both these decreases are almost certainly at least partly due to better anti-burglary systems in cars and homes.

Other theories are more unconventional and attempt to offer grand explanations that cover the drops in crime across the whole of society. Fans of Freakonomics will be aware of the claim that the legalisation of abortion since the 1960’s and 1970’s led to a decrease in crime. They argue that the greater availability of abortion led to fewer unwanted babies, who, they argued, were more likely to become future criminals.

Perhaps the most interesting theory so far has been that lower levels of exposure to lead during childhood is behind the drop in crime (or rather, higher exposure to lead in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s was the cause of higher crime during the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s). Rick Nevin, a consultant for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development during the 1990’s, argued in a 2000 paper that lead emissions from automobiles explain 90% of the increase in crime in America during the late 20th century. Whilst this theory has the potential to explain why crime rose in the past, it may be reduced to an interesting history lesson due to the fact that lead petrol and lead paint are already widely banned.

A more pessimistic theory is that due to the rise of payments through the internet, fraud and crime committed on the internet is becoming harder to track, even in the Crime Survey. Thus, rather than the drop in recorded and reported crime being evidence of less criminal behaviour, it is instead evidence of the evolving nature of a more elusive strain of criminal.  Nevertheless, such a view cannot detract from the notion that violent crime and homicides have dropped dramatically in the last two decades.

Whatever the causes, a drop in crime should be welcomed by all political shades. Whilst the causes will continue to be postulated, it is unlikely that any future decreases will come through enormous statist expenditures such as additional police officers, but rather through innovative policing techniques and community engagement.


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