A cautionary note
The problems and limitations of official crime statistics are well documented. However, it is important to revisit those issues regarding uses and limitations that are particularly relevant to an understanding of the crime statistics presented in this report. For a full discussion of crime measurement techniques and problems see the committee’s report, benchmarking crime trend data from 1995–1996 to 1999–2000. Crime statistics, whether official or unofficial, are not and can not be a complete and accurate enumeration of criminal offending behavior. At best they are an approximation of the nature and extent of crime. Crime statistics represent merely the ‘known’ aspect of crime as opposed to what criminologists refer to as ‘the dark figure of crime’, or the proportion that remains unknown. That being said, not all known crime will necessarily be included in official crime statistics as:
◆ not all crime that comes to the attention of police will be officially recorded;
◆ not all crime that has come to the attention of victims or other members of the public is reported to police;
◆ not all crimes detected by police will necessarily be recorded.
The second effect of police operations in specific areas is the potential for crime displacement. An operational ‘blitz’ on crime in one area may simply drive criminal activity into other areas. Although recorded crime will decline in the area being targeted, this does not necessarily reflect a decline in overall criminal activity. Rather, it could be the consequence of such activity shifting in an attempt to avoid detection. This has been demonstrated in an Australian context by Maher and Dixon (1999). They found that the success of police crackdowns on drug markets in Cabramatta simply displaced these markets, along with the accompanying threats to public health and community safety, to neighboring suburbs. Both these factors further emphasize the need for caution when interpreting police statistics.
Interpreting victoria police statistics
In addition to the general concerns raised in the criminological literature and by the committee in relation to the limitations of official crime statistics, there are a number of specific issues that need to be understood when interpreting victoria police statistics.
◆ there are over 4,000 individual statutory and common law offenses recorded on the victoria police law enforcement assistance program (leap) database. These have been grouped into 27 broad offense categories.21 these categories have been further subdivided into four general classes: crime against the person, crime against property, drug offenses, and other crimes (victoria police 2001b, p. 5).
◆ victoria police offense statistical recording and reporting categories do not necessarily conform to legal offense definitions.22
◆ an extremely important point to recognize is that only the most serious offense in a distinct course of criminal conduct is recorded in official statistics, even though multiple charges may be laid for the one incident. For example, if an offender carrying a firearm commits an armed robbery and assaults a staff member, only the armed robbery is recorded although the offender would be charged with armed robbery, assault, and possession of a firearm. An offender who is in possession and admits using an illicit drug will have only the possession, the more serious offense, counted.
◆ the leap figures include all crimes, family incidents, and missing persons, brought to police attention in the financial year, regardless of when the offense actually occurred. Offenses are only included in the statistics when a crime report has been completed (victoria police, 2001b, p. 5).
◆ recorded crime can also reflect changes in community or business procedures. For example, reporting rates for a number of theft, burglary, and other offenses are clearly influenced by insurance company regulations requiring a police report of the offense before a claim is paid (walker 1994, p. 10; Mukherjee 1996, p. 77).
Issues in understanding the data
The counting of offenses can also vary according to time and location over the course of the criminal conduct. For example, if an offender presents three valueless cheques to a teller then only one offense will be recorded. If, however, the cheques were presented at different times or at different branches, then three offenses would be recorded (victoria police 2001b, p. 5). Offense rates per 100,000 population offense rates23 are not used in this report. The city of Melbourne has a relatively small resident population but a very large non-resident population during working and leisure hours. To establish the rates for offenses recorded in ‘a’ district, the relatively large number of offenses that are recorded within ‘a’ district is divided by the relatively small resident population estimates which produce a higher rate for this area than would be the case for a more densely populated area. We can assume that residents from other districts are committing a certain number of offenses, which are recorded in the ‘a’ district. This has the possible effect of artificially raising the crime rates in the city while lowering the crime rates of the offenders’ home districts.
The data obtained from victoria police required considerable cleaning. Often the specific street location of the offense was not provided. If streets were provided then sometimes there were no specific street numbers. Often it was difficult to ascertain if an offense occurred inside the property at the specific address or outside on the pavement. The committee has already placed on the public record its concerns regarding leap’s propensity to provide data that is inaccurate.