Cllr Paul Mercer is a councillor on Charnwood Borough Council and is the Lead Member for Housing in the Cabinet. He is writing in a personal capacity.
One of the more obvious ways of assessing police effectiveness is to look at crime statistics. Although, as the police are quick to point out, they do not necessarily reflect the amount of crime; only the willingness of the public to report crime.
There are some exceptions to this rule. Very few murders go unreported, and because insurance companies require a crime number, householders will also report burglaries. As a councillor representing a ward in the centre of a town, crime is one of the key issues for many residents. Over the years, we have found the easily-accessible data on the police.uk website a useful tool. It could be used both to put pressure on the police to deal with certain types of crime and also report on the success that they have had.
Until 2017, police.uk contained data going back to 2010 but the first five years were then deleted. Nicky Morgan, our MP at the time, raised the matter with the Home Office and, after a long delay, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, explained that the Data Police Application Program Interface (API) had been modified so it only presented data from the previous 36 months. “The decision to retain data for no longer than three years after receiving it from police forces was made in consultation with the Information Commissioner’s Office”, she explained, “and forms part of the Data Processing Agreement between the Home Office and their suppliers”. She further noted that “data should only be retained for as long as it is necessary and it was felt that three years was sufficient time to allow the complex and lengthy police investigations to result in final court proceedings so the outcome to the crime can be recorded accurately”.
The crime reports accessible on police.uk only indicate an approximate location and contain neither personal data nor identifying information. As such, there is no obvious reason why the ICO was involved given that its role is to protect personal data. On this basis, the ICO could credibly argue that electoral data should be limited after 36 months and nobody would know who had ever been elected. What was also not explained was why it was necessary to go to great lengths to record the data accurately and compile it, only to erase it after such a short period.
The Home Secretary helpfully added that although it had been decided to “retain data for no longer than three years” it was still possible to obtain this data via the archive which contains historic data back to 2010. This completely negated her point about not retaining data although, unhelpfully, there appears to be no reference to this archive on the ‘explore crimes’ section of the police.uk website.
In order to keep our residents aware of the crimes that were taking place in our ward in Loughborough, we would access police.uk, define its boundaries, and then take a note of the crimes which had occurred. However, when we last attempted to do this, we were informed that the service had been suspended in order to “prioritise providing access to key policing services to support the response to covid-19”. It would apparently be restored at some indeterminate time in the future. It is difficult to see how maintaining an API is taking manpower away from frontline policing.
The police.uk site does not state very clearly who owns and operates the site. The actual domain name is registered to Vodafone and it is only when you dig into the terms and conditions that it states that the ‘brand and the content’ is ‘owned’ by MOPAC. There is no link to this mysterious organisation which turns out to be the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime – part of the Greater London Authority.
In analysing the crime statistics over the past decade it was also apparent that, midway, the police decided to change the criteria by which they recorded statistics meaning that many of the older statistics were no longer relevant and it was difficult to make a proper comparison over a period of time. Although there were doubtless ‘operational’ reasons for this change it conveniently makes it difficult to make an objective comparison of how efficient or inefficient police forces are over a period of time. In terms of statistical significance many years of crime data are required in order to differentiate long term trends from short term factors.
The police.uk website proudly announces on its homepage that it exists to enable the public to “explore the latest crime statistics, find the force responsible in any area, read about how they are performing and what’s being done to tackle crime”. The website does contain a lot of useful information about the police and how they operate but it is failing to provide accurate crime data to enable the public and politicians to make objective long-term comparisons.
Rather than allowing access to this data to be controlled by the Mayor of London it would make far more sense for the Home Office to host a site which contained accurate data for the whole of the UK which could be easily accessed for the whole of the 10 years for which it is available. That way, it would be possible to make a formal objective comparison about how police forces are performing.