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Is police detection of crime actually falling?

Figures released by the Ministry of Justice in July 2019 (here) revealed that the number of people being either prosecuted or handed out-of-court disposals has fallen to its lowest level since records began, despite a well-publicised rise in crime.

Home Office data revealed that the total proportion of “crimes” which resulted in a suspect being charged or summonsed had fallen to 7.8%, down from 9.1% a year ago. The figure dropped to 7.4% for robberies, 5.7% for thefts and 1.5% for rapes. Many commentators raised alarm bells.

The Chair of the Bar Council, Richard Atkins, responded by saying ‘These statistics make for grim reading. However, the state of the criminal justice system is far worse than the figures show. Criminals are going about their business unchallenged: fraud goes virtually unpunished….’

It is perhaps old-fashioned to remind readers that the total figure should really be called “alleged crimes” and not “crimes”.  A crime did not happen simply because somebody told the police so. To understand what is really happening, we must wade a little deeper into the report.

Indeed, there is a growing proportion of alleged crimes where the reason they were not proceeded with is “evidential difficulties”. The “evidential difficulties” outcome is distinct from the category where no suspect is identified. This fast-growing category is where a suspect (or suspects) have been identified, but the evidence is still deemed insufficient to take the case any further. For all alleged crimes in 2017-2018 this outcome was at 30%. In 2018-2019, this outcome rose to 35%. To be specific, it happened in 1.68 million out of a total of 4.79 million reported “crimes”.

This means that in 35% of all reported crimes in 2018-2019, no formal action was taken simply because of perceived evidential problems, and even though a suspect had been identified. These are the pure statistics. What remains to be explained is why the police struggled to build a strong enough case against their suspect on 1.68 million occasions. Nevertheless, it is unfair to infer that police have either ignored the report or failed to detect a suspect or suspects. In blunt terms, police believe they know who did it, but feel they cannot prove it in court. On a purely statistical basis, this trend does not encourage guilty parties to offer early confessions.

There is another striking outcome statistic within reports of fraud. Since January 2016, police have adopted an outcome category called “further investigation to support formal action not in the public interest”. This outcome saw a striking rise over the last year 2018-2019. It was applied in 6,186 allegations of fraud. Again, this is separate to the “no identified suspect” outcome. It means that on 6,186 occasions police received a credible complaint of fraud, identified a suspect, but decided it was not in the public interest to investigate further. Overall, reports of fraud rose by 9% in 2018-2019 compared to the previous year, but the proportion of those charged or summonsed actually fell by 9%.

These statistics were followed by The Times undercover expose of Action Fraud earlier this month which showed large numbers of fraud allegations not being investigated at all (£). Responding to the report, a City of London police spokeswoman said: “Action Fraud receives 50,000 reports of fraud a month. In an ideal world every case would be investigated. Unfortunately this is just not possible, so our resources are focused on the reports most likely to present an investigative opportunity and those that present the most threat and harm to the victim, or victims, concerned.”

Who is making these decisions to stop fraud investigations, and how are they applying the public interest test - if at all? Why was it deemed not in the public interest to fully investigate 6,186 cases of fraud? Purely on a statistical basis, those accused of fraud ought to think carefully before giving an early confession. There is a probability that police will eventually give up trying to build a case against them, and that probability is rising.

With fraud, as with crime in general, it seems unfair to say that the suspect/s have not been detected, or that police have just sat on their hands. It seems reports of crime have been listened to, and initial investigations made. What is striking is the way more of these investigations are then running out of road. The Prime Minister's recent pledge of 20,000 new police officers is welcome, but the impetus seems to be 'front line' policing rather than detecting and prosecuting criminality as a whole. Of course, time will tell whether these new officers materialise, and exactly how they are deployed.

Is it currently the case that a lack of police resources is hindering proper enforcement of the law? Is this lack of financial firepower also being disguised, within the figures, as “not in the public interest to proceed” or even as “evidential difficulties”?

Whatever is happening, it is not difficult to see why fraud remains the crime of choice for the discerning crook. And, for those less discerning, the chances of being prosecuted are now slimmer than they have been for some time. Concerning times, indeed.


Legal Disclaimer

Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.