Crime's collapse masks the march of the cyber criminal

 
Clare Fraser

IN AN era of squeezed budgets and public services under pressure, the police service continues to defy expectations. Yesterday had more good news, with data from A&E departments indicating a dramatic reduction in violent crime.

A new study, led by professor Jonathan Shepherd at Cardiff University, found a 12 per cent fall in injuries due to violent incidents in 2013 compared to a year earlier. This is consistent with the latest figures from the Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW), which showed that incidences of violent crime have been falling steadily since their peak in 1995. Overall crime, as recorded by the CSEW, has halved in the last 20 years.

There are many competing explanations for this broad-based, and astonishing, trend. The authors of the Cardiff study attributed the drop in violent crime to a reduction in drug and alcohol abuse, related to a lack of disposable income in the recession. But it’s about more than short-term behavioural changes. It’s representative of a wider societal shift, in which communities are becoming increasingly resilient to crime.

The collapse in property crime, for instance, is partly due to the fact that citizens are getting better at defending themselves and their property, narrowing the opportunities available to criminals. Vehicle crime dropped by 56 per cent across England and Wales in the period between 2002-03 and 2012-13, as theft was effectively “designed out” of cars through the introduction of central locking, immobilisers, tracking devices and alarms.

Given that the CSEW still identified 8m crimes against households and adults in the year to September 2013, however, there is little room for complacency. To ensure that crime continues to fall, while police budgets remain tight, the public must become even more proactive in identifying potential threats and taking measures to protect themselves.

Progress has been made. The introduction of police and crime commissioners has made the police service increasingly accountable to local people and their policing demands. Technological developments mean the public is able to engage with the police service more quickly and easily. A free app developed by Witness Confident, for instance, allows citizens to directly report crimes without having to call an emergency number.

But while the overall figures are encouraging, looking at crime in aggregate masks a more complex picture – and not all crime is falling. Cyber-crime, not currently measured by the CSEW, is estimated by the Cabinet Office to cost the UK up to £27bn per year, with business the main loser. And police forces are not well-equipped to deal with these new forms of crime, nor are they seen as priorities for local policing. Earlier this month, a report by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of constabulary Tom Winsor found that only 25 out of 41 police and crime commissioners address the issue of cyber-crime in their policing plans.

The police service needs to adapt its methods to fight these new forms of crime, but it cannot be expected to tackle all of the challenges alone. The greater task will be encouraging and enabling citizens to protect themselves.

Clare Fraser is a researcher at the independent think tank Reform (www.reform.co.uk).