Public policy: Are we safer now?

There is great debate over whether falling crime rates in the US and UK are due to smarter policing, generational change – or bad statistics

Five years ago, residents of Heathfield Crescent in the northeastern English city of Newcastle were woken by an exploding petrol bomb. A feud was raging once again on the Cowgate estate, an area notorious for violent altercations where police had logged 632 thefts, attacks and other crimes in just 12 months.

Cowgate’s street names, such as Whitethorn, Deepdale and Meadowdale, evoke the beauty of the Northumbrian countryside, but in reality the estate is a drab, claustrophobic group of red-brick houses. The closure of the school, the estate’s garage and its grocery shops give the place a forgotten feel. Desperate families sometimes stole presents from under their neighbours’ Christmas trees, and disputes between residents would quickly turn rough.

Yet there is reason for optimism at Cowgate. Order has been restored on the estate and crime in and around Newcastle is down 54 per cent over the past decade. Lindsay Boyle, 35, has lived in Cowgate all her life, and says she never expected such a dramatic change.

“It had the reputation where nobody wanted to come and live here and when people even heard the name Cowgate they were scared off,” she says. “One bad family would move into an area and that would start to bring the whole street down.”

Today, with “barely any crime”, everything is different. “There’s actually a waiting list for people to come here,” Ms Boyle says. Her parents, who had moved off the estate decades ago when it became too edgy, have even moved back to spend their retirement there.

Such dramatic transformations may be rare but Cowgate is a stark example of a wider trend against violence that is being replicated across the UK, western Europe and the US. As crime falls, hitting a 30-year low in Britain this year and reaching a four-decade low in the US, police and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have been eager to take the credit. Today, new data from the Office for National Statistics are expected to show yet further evidence of declining criminality.

But criminologists have struggled to explain the decrease, leading to the flourishing of conflicting theories. Some say that advances in policing have tamed criminal behaviour, while others suggest a new generation of youngsters, who drink less, take fewer drugs and apply to university in droves, is increasingly uninterested in criminality. Alternative hypotheses link the fall to the legalisation of abortion – a controversial idea that fewer unwanted children has led to a drop in crime – or to the declining use of lead in paint and petrol, which are thought to have an adverse effect on the developing brain.

Others offer a different explanation: that crime has not decreased nearly as much as we think. According to this theory, the act of stealing has simply changed from a physical action on the street to fraud carried out online – which does not usually show up in official statistics. Criminologists note that crime began to fall in the mid-1990s, just as the internet was taking off.

But that argument does not explain why violent crime has decreased significantly over the past 30 years. Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, suggests that the western world’s “three-decade binge of crime” starting in the 1960s was itself an aberration in a longer-term trend of society slowly “civilising” over thousands of years. If the decline in violent crime is a long-term societal trend, as he suggests, it challenges the notion that government policies or better police practices are behind the improvement.

Police have consistently argued that crime is down because officers are targeting criminals in a smarter way – concentrating on the five to 10 per cent of people who commit over half of all offences. Bill Bratton, former New York police commissioner, pioneered computer-assisted “Compstat” policing in the early 1990s, using detailed crime data to deploy officers to where they were most needed.

Mr Bratton, who became a high-profile proponent of the zero-tolerance approach to crime, says: “What I tested – and I had the biggest police force in America as my laboratory – was the idea that you can change behaviour by controlling behaviour. The major change in American policing was when we began focusing our attention on the prevention of crime, focusing on the people who were committing it.” In New York City, there were 2,262 murders in 1992, at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. In 2012, there were 417.

A similar strategy led to the first police breakthrough in Cowgate in 2008, when officers collected enough evidence from residents of Heathfield Crescent to evict what they considered to be one of the estate’s most troublesome families. Graham Ward, the neighbourhood inspector at the time, describes the “real, absolute slog” of convincing the community that the petrol bomb attack was an opportunity to get rid of the family for good. Mr Ward deployed a team to patrol the 20 yards of pavement outside the perpetrators’ house day and night for four weeks, providing reassurance that those who co-operated with the authorities would not suffer.

Max Chambers, head of crime and justice at Policy Exchange, a right-leaning think-tank, says that the UK, like the US, has also reduced crime by simply keeping more criminals locked up – evidenced by a doubling of the jail population to 86,000 between 1993 and 2012 in the UK. In the US, the number of people behind bars has nearly doubled to about 2.2m over the same period, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. “The incapacitation effect this has had is real and proven,” he says. “That’s the sort of thing that governments can legitimately take credit for.”

Others, however, reject the notion that public policy has made a significant dent in crime. Marian FitzGerald, visiting professor of criminology at the University of Kent, accuses the UK government of manipulating the crime data to boost its law and order credentials. Prof FitzGerald argues that the last Labour government set targets for crime reduction in domestic burglary and vehicle crime theft – which were already falling in the late 1990s – while deliberately ignoring new online crime trends.

“Developments in technology meant criminals were moving out of traditional types of crime and into other areas, starting with card fraud,” she says. “Yet most card fraud wasn’t reported to the police and increasing use of the internet also resulted in more scams and frauds . . . weren’t being picked up by the British Crime Survey either.”

In 2005, when the BCS began asking respondents whether they had been affected by credit card fraud, the data showed this crime to be three times more prevalent than muggings or other thefts. Including these findings in government crime statistics would have pushed the numbers “way off the scale”, Prof FitzGerald says.

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Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, the EU’s crime-fighting agency, agrees that criminals are becoming more technologically sophisticated. He adds that the European black market has thrived since the financial crisis began in 2008.

“What we’re seeing is, certainly among the smartest criminals . . . they in a very businesslike way are changing their modus operandi along the principle of where the highest profit and lowest risk margin can be found,” he says. “The traditional criminal activities like breaking and entering are probably not worth the business investment these days compared to something which is very easy to do and to generate huge profits online – so why would you do it?”

When asked why these cyber thefts do not appear in the data, Mr Wainwright expresses sympathy for the government bodies. “I think it’s a big problem, actually, and we have some statistics but they’re all from industry,” he says. “I do think it’s a problem that we can’t get to grips with the size of the [cyber crime] economy.”

Defenders of the crime survey also point out that internet crimes, such as the 2011 PlayStation hack that led to the theft of the details of 77m people, would be difficult to quantify. Was it also a crime against millions of people? And where would the crime be recorded?

Capturing online offences is made more difficult by the fact that victims of internet fraud are often unaware they have been attacked. Some scams, such as a £5 Oyster card skim operating in the London transport network, take small amounts from a large number of people. Other criminals target internet users who are themselves involved in illegal activity, such as those paying for child pornography, who will not go to the authorities if their transaction fails.

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Internet technology is affecting the way theft is carried out and the way it is tracked. But the effects of new technology on violent crime are also a matter of fierce debate. Mike Ward, professor of economics at the University of Texas at Arlington, published counterintuitive research linking increases in sales of violent video games with marginal suppression of violent crime – a so-called “cathartic” effect.

These results challenge the received wisdom that violent video games encourage aggressive behaviour. But Prof Ward says that parents have always known that anger needs an outlet. “When I was a kid that’s why my mother wanted me to play sports – because I would get all my violence out on the field,” he says. What the professor calls the “rocketing” of games sales in the past 15 to 20 years would help to explain the falling crime rate over that period.

There remains, however, a much longer-range theory to explain decreases in violent behaviour – even reductions as dramatic as those seen in some large US cities.

Prof Pinker, whose book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that violence has declined gradually over millennia, says the sudden rise in violence that began in the US in the 1960s was an aberration. Political and social factors, including the anti-establishment rebellion of the baby-boomer generation, sent crime higher. A return to calmer streets is therefore not a “real” fall in crime, he says, but a return to the norm.

A shift in criminal behaviour from the street to the internet – if this is what is happening – would represent “enormous progress”, he says.

“I would rather that someone stole £100 from my credit card account than that they confronted me in the street with a knife and threatened my life if I didn’t hand over £100 from my wallet,” he argues.

While social problems – traditionally considered the root causes of crime – still prevail, violent crime does not have to happen, he says. “We still have inequality, poverty and racism but fewer people are getting raped and murdered.”

Nowhere is this more true than in Cowgate, where petrol bombings and murders appear to be receding into the past, but the community is still isolated by poverty. On Heathfield Crescent, a woman sits outside her house in the early afternoon in pyjamas and a dressing gown – jobless, perhaps, but safe from attack by her own neighbours.

As Prof Pinker says, society has adapted well to a feeling of greater safety. “People have got used to a lower rate of crime and they quite like it. They are unlikely to tolerate a wild reversal again.”

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Narcotics: Online highs make drugs hard to track

It is not only crime statistics that are potentially skewed by online activities: cyber space is also making it harder to assess drug use.

While recent figures show that illicit drug-taking in the UK is at its lowest level since records began 20 years ago, the figures are based on police seizures and arrests of people with banned substances. As a result, a fall in police detection of drug dealing could easily be misconstrued as a drop in drug abuse.

Another explanation for the apparent decrease is the growing popularity of “legal highs” being bought and sold online – which are by definition outside the police’s interest and harder to track even if they do become illegal.

According to 2012 research by survey site drugsmeter.com, 53 per cent of those who took legal highs purchased them on the web, as opposed to 43 per cent who bought them in person at so-called “head shops”.

One such shop owner who runs a spin-off site has estimated that 1m doses of Benzo Fury – a psychoactive compound banned last month – were purchased in the UK in the past year alone. This could explain declining instances of cannabis use by British youngsters, which has led some criminologists to suggest, perhaps mistakenly, that recreational drugs were simply going out of fashion

As for the effect of drug-taking on crime levels, Fiona Measham, professor of criminology at Durham University, says illicit use can have “a really small” effect on crime levels, particularly in “quick grab” thefts. But even as drug use appears to have reduced, mugging – known in UK crime terminology as “theft from the person” – is the only crime type to have increased. According to statistics released in April, street thefts of items such as smartphones and tablets is up 8 per cent since last year.

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