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Page last updated at 10:21 GMT, Tuesday, 26 August 2008 11:21 UK

Will crime maps work?

West Midlands crime map
West Midlands' Police maps allow more detailed analysis

By Michelle Martin
BBC News

Last month the Home Office announced that everyone in England and Wales will have access to crime maps of their local area by the end of this year. But will they help cut crime, or could they have unforeseen consequences?

Today the world is at your fingertips and so is your neighbourhood. Five minutes spent Googling can reveal a whole catalogue of information that you didn't know about your local area. Typing my neighbourhood into Google spills out 136,000 hits for everything from the rugby club to the local sewage station.

Whilst some results are clearly of niche interest, there's one subject that everyone wants to know about - crime. So it's not surprising that both Labour and the Conservatives have outlined plans to make crime maps of England and Wales available online.

If you're buying a new house, or wondering whether it's safe to walk home at night, having access to a map showing how many assaults or burglaries occurred last month in your area could be vital information.

Crime Hotspots, presented by Nick Ross, is on Radio 4 on Tuesday, 2000 BST
Or catch up at Radio 4's Listen Again site

What's more, says Crime and Policing Minister Tony McNulty, the new websites will help to foster a closer relationship between police and the community. "The maps will show what happened last month and what the police have done about it," explains McNulty, "and I think this will be a significant advance."

Labour is keen to reassure us that despite newspaper headlines, crime is actually going down. This year's British Crime Survey showed the risk of being a victim of crime - for those aged 16 and over - is at its lowest level since the survey began in 1981.

In fact, it's a trend that transcends Britain. The International Crime Victims Survey shows that crime rates are falling in most developing countries. Hence one of the goals of the recent Casey report, commissioned by the Home Office, was not only to come up with ways to reduce crime, but also to reduce the "fear of crime".

Real picture

The government hope that local crime maps will help to allay our concern. For the vast majority of people, their neighbourhood will probably be safer than they had feared.

But the problem underlying such maps, which hasn't been addressed by police or politicians, is that they will not show the real picture of local crime.

The maps will only display offences that are reported to the police, and reported crime figures are notoriously unreliable. According to estimates, at least 60% of crime goes unreported, and some critics think the figure could be much higher.

New York police officer
Crime maps have been notably used in Chicago and New York

Most reported incidents are "volume crimes" - robbery, burglary and criminal damage - which tend to need to be reported in order to file insurance claims.

But reporting rates for crime vary dramatically across Britain. According to criminologists, areas with the most serious crime problems have the lowest reporting rates.

"What gets reported to the police is skewed," argues Prof Marian Fitzgerald from Kent University. "There will be many high crime areas where people don't report to the police because they don't trust the police and they just sort it out between themselves."

So when this unreliable data is mapped and published, it could be very misleading.

Low reporting

Perversely, safer areas may appear as hotbeds of crime. On a visit to West Midlands Police, who already publish local crime maps, we were told that neighbourhoods containing police stations will always show up as hotspots. "If an offender is brought in and asked to empty their pockets," their crime analyst explains, "and drug paraphernalia is found, then that's the location of the crime."

West Midlands Police have been at the forefront of crime mapping both as a source of intelligence for use inside the force, and as a source of information to the public.

Criminals will gain access to an encyclopaedia of where to go out and commit crime
Clive Chamberlain
Police Federation

They launched last October and hope that the site will help to address the problem of low reporting rates. As well as local maps, the site contains the names and contact details of every neighbourhood police officer.

Perhaps the ease and apparent anonymity of logging crime incidents over the internet, rather than in person, may encourage more people to report crime.

But perversely, if reporting rates go up, crime maps will look worse. A policy designed to reduce the fear of crime could have the opposite effect. So it's difficult to say whether crime maps will reduce our fear of crime.

But could they help to cut crime?

According to Police Federation spokesman Clive Chamberlain, the answer is no. He fears that it could even make matters worse because it will be easy to spot areas that have fewer police officers. "I don't think this is going to tackle crime at all," he says. "Criminals will gain access to an encyclopaedia of where to go out and commit crime because they know that the police are vulnerable because they don't have the cover in some areas that they like to."

Initial flurry

The use of crime maps in Chicago first brought the concept to wide attention, and their use in the US has inspired British politicians.

Boris Johnson, in the lead up to the London mayoral elections, announced his plan to publish "New York-style" crime maps of London, which have just gone online. New York has seen a dramatic fall in crime - over the past 10 years homicides have dropped by over 75%.

Debates have raged as to whether the drop in the city's crime is due to more accountability within the police force, improved economic conditions, or addressing their crack cocaine problem. However, there is no evidence that this fall in crime is in any way related to publishing crime maps.

Perhaps when your local crime maps appears you'll go online and have a nose at your local crime rate. But after this initial flurry of activity, many of us probably won't look at it again.

But by placing crime data onto a map showing your town, your neighbourhood and even your street, the statistics suddenly start to hit home.

Whether these maps will have sufficient caveats explaining why they may not show the real picture of local crime, and whether busy online visitors will have the time to really get to grips with statistics, remains to be seen.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Who doesn't know where the crimes are in your local area? I can name a few places in Coventry that I would not walk in daylight, let alone in the night. Such maps would play into the hands of the "poor" estate agents. Prices will inflate in safe areas, and imagine if you try to sell a house in a bad one...
Mike Lee, Coventry

How about offender's home locations maps. There are loads of burglaries in the suburbs where I live so it'll look like a crime hotspot but the area isn't rough. If a map was published of the city showing where the offenders lived it might help focus attention and help on the areas where the crime comes from and sort it out from the grass roots.
Mark, Bristol, UK

Potential muggers could obtain a crime map and choose an area where not much crime is taking place. Unsuspecting victims, richer pickings, more chance of holding on to your ill-gotten gain and less police.
Andy, London

Crime maps will hopefully give everyone a more accurate picture of offences being committed and should be broadly welcomed. However, in my experience many people simply don't understand the difference between a robbery and a burglary for example. I trust the statistics (as unreliable as many often are) will evolve to include a brief explanation to enable the reader to interpret the figures and give them real meaning.
Andy Thomson, Streatley, Berkshire

It seems to me a crime map would be of interest to house buyers and that it would be a good addition to the HIP. Perhaps it could be incorporated into the Home Condition Report (HCR) that should be part of the HIP anyway. The HCR contains most of the information a buyer needs about the property and the addition of a crime map would not be difficult.
Michael Bulgin, Bridport, Dorset

I have had my car scratched. My father in law has stones regularly thrown at his windows (85 years old). None of these are reported as the police usually take three days to arrive and then say there is nothing they can do without further information - so it ain't reported!
Vic Anderson, Arbroath

I find it fascinating that, although to begin with Westminster appears in one of the highest crime rate zones in London, as you zoom in further it suddenly become a low crime zone. Obviously white collar crime, ie the intentional theft of millions from the British public, is not considered in the proverbial sense the same as working-class committed theft. Interesting to note, however, that Downing Street is still part of one of the highest crime rate zones.
Amy Soyka, Dereham, Norfolk


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