“We are taking 513 police officers off the streets. Targeting capabilities have been hit…There is a genuine, real increase in offending.”
Chris Weigh, acting chief constable, Lancashire Constabulary, 29 May, 2012
A cut in police numbers has contributed to a rise in crime, according to Chris Weigh, acting chief constable of Lancashire Constabulary.
At a meeting of the Lancashire Police Authority in Preston last week, the police chief suggested that a loss of resources – including police officers – owing to public sector cuts had led to a “worrying” and “significant” rise in some offences.
He was reported to have highlighted figures which suggested that domestic burglaries were up by 8.4 per cent, and that vehicle crime had increased by 6.4 per cent. Violent crime with injury also rose by 5.8 per cent, a reporter at the Lancashire Evening Post said.
Labour’s view is that this was a forgone conclusion, with the government demanding 20 per cent cuts in the police budget and a loss of 16,000 officers by 2015.
“Theresa May and David Cameron were warned they were taking a massive risk with public safety, and now we are seeing the results,” said shadow policing minister David Hanson after the news broke.
It’s not the first time we’ve heard an opposition party say “I told you so”, but it is the first time we’ve heard a senior police officer directly linking budget cuts with crime.
FactCheck looked into whether the police chief’s comments stand up to scrutiny.
But a spokeswoman did tell us that yes, police numbers within the force have dropped by some 14 per cent. She said that since April 2010, numbers of police had dropped by 513, out of a previous total of 3,659 posts.
We also looked into the police force’s figures for recorded crimes committed over the last year.
There was the rise quoted earlier – for domestic burglaries and vehicle crimes – but only when comparing numbers from April this year compared with April last year.
Taking figures overall across the year, such crimes have actually fallen, according to the Constabulary’s numbers.
Since April 2010, they dealt with an average of four per cent less domestic burglaries, and seven per cent less vehicle crimes.
Assaults without serious injuries fell by five per cent in the year before last, then rose again by 7 per cent last year.
Nationally, the two ways of working out whether crime has risen or fallen are through reported crime figures and the former British Crime Survey, now known as the Crime Survey for England and Wales.
The latter uses interviews with around 45,000 people about their experiences of crimes in the past year, whether they reported it or not, then extrapolates for a national figure.
But as the police chief was only using reported crime figures, FactCheck has decided to go for like-for-like.
In the reported crime bracket, nationally, burglary fell by three per cent, vehicle crimes by seven per cent, and violent crimes – with or without injuries – by seven per cent.
Theft bucked the trend. It rose by five per cent.
FactCheck is rather bemused by Chief Constable Weigh’s claims that taking bobbies off the beat has led to a “genuine, real increase in offending”.
His own figures across the year don’t back that up.
Nationally, when using reported crime figures, there’s been a rise in some crimes and a fall in others. We didn’t get into the Crime Survey for England and Wales, but that too suggests that some crimes – such as burglary and theft – have increased while others, including vandalism, fell.
There certainly isn’t enough evidence at this stage to suggest the Chief Constable’s claims that a drop in police numbers has led to a rise in crime – locally or nationally.
Which is ironic, as criminologists are beginning to come around to a view that there is a link between police numbers and crimes, although it’s a weak one.
The obvious example would be during police strikes when crimes do rise. But that’s something of an open-goal – the point is that it’s a very public demonstration that there are no police officers on at all, rather than a gradual decline over a wide area over a year or so.
Ben Bradford, of the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford, told FactCheck: “Looking at detailed evidence, it looks like you might be able to find that there is a link between increased numbers of officers and decreased levels of crime.
“But the problem is that we don’t know whether one is because of the other. For that, we would need to imagine that someone committing an offence is aware that there are less officers in that environment, and we don’t know that.
“And if there was a link, you wouldn’t expect it to happen straight away. You can’t say a decline in numbers have led to an increase in crime based on two sets of data.”
Not unexpectedly, the Home Office certainly doesn’t agree with the claim. A spokesman said: “The quality and effectiveness of policing is not only about numbers – it is about how well they are deployed.
“Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary have made clear there is no simple link between the number of frontline officers and crime levels.”
FactCheck thinks Chief Constable Weigh might be helped by going back to his casenotes.