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News - 3 January 2013

Those crime reduction figures, police cuts - and technology

The UK Crime Survey shows crime levels are lower than ever - and police's own figures agree. The government is delighted: it has always claimed that cuts to police spending don't have to impair police effectiveness. The Police Federation say that 'Christmas for criminals' has simply been postponed. In fact the reduction in crime levels is by no means all to do with government or police.

Latest evidence indicates that crime has come down by at least 10% in 19 of 43 force areas in England & Wales in the last two years. Some of the largest drops were recorded in Nottinghamshire (21.7 per cent), Northumbria (17.6 per cent), West Midlands (13.3 per cent) and Hertfordshire (13.6 per cent). Crime rose in only one area, Devon and Cornwall, where it increased by just 2.2 per cent.

It has to be said that these figures are only the latest in a series dating back to the mid-'90s which have demonstrated a strong and almost constant decline in reported crime and, more recently, the fear of crime.  So the government's scramble to take credit, and the Police Federation's defensive response that 'Christmas for criminals' has simply been postponed, are both somewhat, and unsurprisingly, self-serving.

In truth, few seem to be paying credit where it is mostly due:  to the impact over the last three decades of widespread crime reduction technologies which are now ubiquitous throughout almost every aspect of our lives.

First there was the impact of low-cost electronics. The spread of domestic alarm systems, starting in the '70s, saw a gradual but substantial decline in household burglaries that really kicked in in the '90s. Likewise the advent of CCTV has seen a gradual but massive impact on crime, from the late '70s until, today, CCTV cameras are as much a part of retail and night-time economies as the shops and pubs themselves.

Another important technology-based crime reduction initiative was the installation of car alarms and immobilisers, again dating from the late 70s, made compulsory for manufacturers in the '80s, and now a feature of virtually every motor vehicle on the road. And more recently the use of automated number-plate recognition systems has clearly had a significant impact on car-based crime.

These four developments have more than just technology in common. Each has had a far greater impact in terms of crime deterrence than in crime detection; each has started modestly, and has only slowly and gradually become as ubiquitous as they are today; and each  has evolved outside the conventional area of policing: alarms, CCTV, car immobilisers and ANPR systems have generally been pioneered, developed and implemented by organisations other than the police.

Of course policing reforms and reorganisations from the mid-'90s through to the mid- 'Naughties' did much to put more Bobbies - or PCSOs - on the beat, representing for some a return to old-fashioned policing, where the emphasis, rightly, was on deterrence - to stop crime before it begins. And the Labour government's introduction of ASBOs and other initiatives at local level made a very real impact on anti-social behaviour problems.

And it has to be said that the willingness of commercial organisations to rely on private security services rather than on the police helped reduce crime figures too - although not necessarily crime.  The staggering growth of the private security industry including man-guarding and the spread of private 'door staff', has effectively diverted low-level crime management from the police into other management systems such as local business crime reduction partnerships, pubwatches and shopwatches.

These three factors - new technology, effective government action and the growth of the commercial security industry - have had a growing, cumulative impact on the level of crime in the last 30 years.  But of these, technology has played the greatest part in achieving substantial and real reductions in crime in the UK (and, of course, in every other developed economy in the world too).

A continuing openness to new technologies is a key component of modern policing, both inside and outside the police force itself. If the government can do anything useful to help reduce crime and the fear of crime further, it is to encourage the adoption of technology further and faster, while ensuring the personal freedoms of the people it serves.


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