Thursday, May 26, 2011

Victoria Police fudged official data to paint a rosier picture of crime

POLICE face a new scandal over misleading Victorians on crime statistics. A Herald Sun investigation has found the force fudged official data to paint a rosier picture of crime.

Police chief Simon Overland was already facing a probe over selective reporting of crime figures.

New data revealing increases in crimes in 2010 were bigger than portrayed last night sparked a war of words between force command and outgoing deputy commissioner Sir Ken Jones.

Police command claimed in February that "recorded crime across the state has dropped by 6.9 per cent - or 19,395 offences". But the Herald Sun has found the 19,395 fewer crimes is a fall of 5.2 per cent, not 6.9 per cent.

The gap arises because the percentage change quoted by police is based on the rate of crime per 100,000 people, not the actual number of offences. By linking the two figures police created the impression that increases in crimes were smaller and decreases larger due to the impact of rising populations on rates per 100,000. The same confusing link was repeated throughout the press release. It claimed:

* Assaults rose "0.8 per cent (904 offences)" but the rise in bashings was really 2.6 per cent.

* Robberies fell "4.6 per cent (93 offences)", but the 93 fewer robberies was in fact a 2.9 per cent decrease.

* Home burglaries fell "4.8 per cent (852 offences)". Actual fall: 3.1 per cent.

* Car thefts fell "8.8 per cent (1081 offences)" but the real fall in offences was 7 per cent.

* Property damage fell "10.9 per cent (5048 offences)". The fall was actually 9.3 per cent.

The Herald Sun obtained the data after a three-month battle with police command.

Detailed data for 13 selected crime categories for each local police area posted on the force's My Place website showed only crime numbers and changes per 100,000 people. In 26 cases, the raw data obtained by the Herald Sun shows that where crime reductions had been claimed, actual offences had either increased or not changed.

Assistant media director Charlie Morton said the force stood by the data. "The raw data in the February (press) release was added at the express request of Sir Ken Jones in the interests of greater transparency," he said. He said expressing crime rates per 100,000 allowed people to compare their crime risk to other places with different populations.

But Sir Ken last night blamed others for the confusion. Breaking his silence since being given his marching orders by Mr Overland almost three weeks ago, the deputy commissioner confirmed he had asked for raw data to be included in the press release announcing the selective data because "percentages do not always convey the situation in ways which people can take in".

"On seeing the early drafts I asked that actual raw numbers be included wherever percentages were used and expected that the raw data be matched to the percentages," Sir Ken said.

"Great care needs to be taken when presenting mixed data to ensure that the message is consistent. "This is the responsibility of those whose job it is to collate and audit the data."

But victims' advocate Noel McNamara said police had been fudging the figures for years. "It's all smoke and mirrors but really, why wouldn't you want to tell the public the truth?

Murrumbeena grandmother Joan Beaumont, 73, the victim of a robbery at an ATM last month, said police figures can't be trusted. "I don't believe people who do that (withhold information)," she said.


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