Crime statistics fluctuate according to a range of factors but like a lot of public data on law enforcement, corrections and public safety, they are also highly politicised and often subject to suspicions of deliberate fudging.
This week, the ABC’s national reporting team reveals two Queensland Police Service employees from the Gold Coast have alleged policing decisions are being driven by pressure to keep the reported crime rates down.
Police Minister Mark Ryan and Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk have both been made aware of the complaints via commissioner Ian Stewart, and the Queensland Audit Office and QPS Ethical Standards Command are both investigating, according to the report. QPS told the ABC they were making immediate actions in response to the some aspects of the audit, which is due to report in March.
The allegations include crime reports being inappropriately recorded as “unfounded” and others being marked down as not worth pursuing due to a “bar to prosecution” that did not exist, according to two of the ABC’s most experienced journalists. They also report the two whistleblowers said they went to the auditor-general after their complaints were ignored by superiors, and that two other regions along with the Gold Coast are being “looked at” for possibly employing similar practices.
The Palaszczuk government has a plan on the books to establish an independent body to manage crime statistics at arm’s length from the police, whose performance is directly linked to the figures. Ryan took the opportunity to declare he was well on the way towards establishing an independent entity like Victoria’s Crime Statistics Agency, which started reporting in March, 2015.
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Several years earlier, the establishment of such a body was recommended by the Victorian ombudsman’s office, which investigated similar complaints that the numbers could be manipulated for political reasons in 2011 and in 2009.
In the 2009 report, then-ombudsman George Brouwer rejected Victoria Police’s assertion that there was no link between its poor administrative systems, based on an ancient and complex IT setup, and under-reporting of some kinds of crime. Among a range of issues Brouwer found at the time in the way Victoria Police captured, recorded and reported the information, he uncovered practices very similar to the new allegations from the Gold Coast:
“I also identified that some police misuse the procedures for recording cleared crime to make it appear that more crime has been successfully solved than is actually the case.
“The way this is done is that when an offender has been apprehended and processed for certain offences, unrelated offences for which no offender has yet been apprehended or interviewed are added on to the file for the apprehended offender (without their knowledge) in order to ‘clear up’ more crime.”
The specific allegation at the time was referred to the Office of Police Integrity, which reported in 2011.
It said Victoria Police was “unable to produce accurate crime clearance statistics to the Victorian Government, the Australian Bureau of Crime Statistics and the Victorian community” — but blamed “inherent flaws” in the design of an early 90s computer system called the Law Enforcement Assistance Program and the “outmoded and flawed systems for entering data onto it, rather than the intentional wrongdoing of any individual”.
The OPI also noted these supposedly unintentional administrative failures tended to make it appear that less crime was occurring and that police were also clearing more of it. On the other hand, police forces are rarely, if ever, accused of over-reporting crime.