Thursday, December 14, 2017

Figuring out the real crime rate

Express editorial logo470

Mark Fraser

 Many citizens would react sceptically to the claim by Acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams that serious crime in Trinidad and Tobago is now at its lowest in 29 years. 

Mr Williams made this revelation on Saturday during a commendation ceremony for the officers of the Northern Division of the T&T Police Service (TTPS), but simultaneously acknowledged a cynical reaction by specifying the term “reported crime” and noting that the public’s barometer for crime reduction is the murder rate, which continues to be high. So the issue is whether serious crimes are actually down or if citizens so lack confidence in the TTPS that they simply don’t report many criminal acts.

Last year, the total number of serious reported crimes was 13,146. In 1985, the total was 13,979. That year, however, marked the first jump in such crimes, since in previous years the total averaged 11,000 serious crimes annually. 

While serious crimes include acts like murder, manslaughter, rape and wounding, the category also includes vandalism, burglary, and narcotics. 

In this last category, the detection rate is always 100 per cent, since the crime can only be “reported” when the police seize illegal drugs. If, however, more drugs are being trafficked while the number of seizures remains the same, then crime would have increased but reported crime would remain the same.

This is particularly important because, despite the over-used adjective, murder is rarely “senseless”. Rather, there is usually a motive and, in T&T, that motive is often related to profit and therefore at least partly to drug trafficking. Ergo, if the murder rate is high, then drug-trafficking is also high and so, too, related white-collar crimes like money-laundering. Given all this, any decline in serious crime is merely apparent.

Law enforcement authorities have long been aware of this problem, and there are research and statistical methods which are used to figure out the actual crime rate, as distinct from the reported crime rate. If, therefore, the CoP wants citizens to believe his statistics, he needs to commission a survey on non-reportage, or work with the Ministry of National Security and the Central Statistical Office on such a project. 

This kind of research would also serve as a gauge of public confidence in the TTPS and, more importantly, tell the police if their strategies are actually reducing crime. After all, despite Mr Williams’ view that the public’s barometer is less realistic than the police statisticians’, the criminological fact is that a rising homicide rate and a declining serious crime rate is an unlikely social phenomenon.

Citizens would surely like to accept the Commissioner’s statistical reassurance. But the TTPS needs to be more methodologically rigorous before that can happen.