Crime Mapping – Enabling Police Accountability


Saturday, April 26th, 2008. 1:49am

A response to the Conservative’s proposal on Crime Mapping:

We think every police force should publish the crimes committed in their area in a map form. It’s an idea that technology makes possible, that’s worked in the United States, and it’s absolutely key to dealing with the crime that blights our communities.

David,

I support the overall idea you have presented here to connect people with their local police force and to reinforce democratic accountability influence and control within British policing, but I think your proposals need to go further to have the desired effect.

Mapping crime is one way to improve how well informed people are about what is going on where they live. However I live in Cambridge where already every three months a local “Neighborhood Profile” (1) is produced, which describes local problems and trends and on occasion it is illustrated with maps. There is also an online database of crime(2). What you are proposing is not a significant improvement from this existing position. Despite the information we have available about our local police there are very few people using it to hold the police to account and improve service we get from our police. I think there are three main reasons for this:

  1. The information available on crime and policing is not sufficient.
  2. The mechanisms for influencing the police are not clear, publicised and effective.
  3. People don’t feel the police are working for them and are “on their side”.

What would represent a step-change over the current state of affairs would be ensuring the information presented is comprehensive, though no-doubt the police would cite privacy problems with that. The information currently published in my area appears limited to those crimes which come under the heading “Community Crime” which is tackled by “Neighborhood Police”, more serious crime is omitted. For example the police helicopter is burning up my tax money over my house most days (twice today), but I don’t find out why; assaults and drug dealing are examples of crimes which don’t make the public database. The map isn’t the key thing, it’s the data, as you point out in your detailed document if the data was made available the web 2.0 mashups would be made.

In addition to the information about crimes, if people are to become involved in holding their local police forces more effectively to account we need to know more about the choices the police are making, there are limited resources so we need to know the consequences of asking for a particular local problem to be dealt with. There is a lot of unnecessary secrecy surrounding the way the police operate which needs to be broken down to enable informed local input into the way they work. The vast majority of questions I ask of my local police are met by evasive answers.

An aspect missing from your speech is the mechanism by which better informed people are going to be able to influence their local police force. You have previously suggested local directly elected police authorities (3). I believe that at the moment we have enough elected representatives, and the level of participation in democracy is not high enough to support yet more elections to directly elect a police authority and an elected police authority without a significant mandate would be worse than the current position. An alternative you have proposed of electing an individual “commissioner”, or “sheriff” presumably from the ranks of the police (your policy is unclear) will I believe remove the element accountability, oversight and element democratic influence provided by the existing police authority.

I live in an area where my local City and County councillors do have mechanisms for directly influencing local police priorities, I believe they and other elected representatives such as a local MP, or Mayor are the best conduits for exercising democratic influence over the police. Putting the power directly in the hands of people at “beat meetings” as you propose opens the possibility of “mob rule” rather than democracy ie. those who turn up and shout loudest or argue persuasively will get the action they want, which may not be in line with the wishes of the majority. At the moment our councillors are reluctant to try and use the power they do have to set local police priorities, and the police are unwilling to promote public engagement in the process or otherwise support it. There is a culture where a local Liberal County Councillor Julian Huppert, who sits on a Council which appoints members to and receives reports from the police authority, and is a member of the group who set local police priorities can hold up his hands at a public “anti-social behavior” meeting and say : “We have no democratic control over the police in the UK”. I don’t believe things are that bad, but it illustrates the culture which needs to be changed.

The general state of police-public relations has to be in a reasonable state to allow people to consider the possibility of getting involved in setting police priorities. As we find ourselves living in a country which is in danger of becoming a “police state”, with stop and account, non-firearms police armed with TASERs, the threat of ID Cards and a national ID database, is it any surprise that even our elected representatives think that the police have gone beyond the point of democratic control and have stopped working for “us”, and have started to work for “the state”. Just look at the advice introducing the UK to the Masai who ran the London Marathon: “If someone was to see a thief and chase after him and, when they catch him they hurt him, then the person who hurt the thief would go to prison as well as the thief” , or the harassment of photographers due to “misplaced fears about terror, privacy and child protection”(5) for examples of how it often doesn’t feel as if the police are on our side.

Perhaps your new proposed crime maps could incorporate the outcome of any court case, or other penalties arising from each crime? Policing cannot be separated from the courts, I think there could usefully be more openness and accountability there too. A very small proportion of cases get reported in the press. Why can’t courts have websites where the results of cases, and statistics on the punishments given for crimes in particular areas available for all to read. To make that of use we would need to exercise effective democratic influence and control over magistrates and the judiciary, not just the police.

Richard Taylor

  1. http://www.cambs.police.uk/myneighbourhood/priorities.asp?teamcode=201
  2. http://www.cambs.police.uk/myneighbourhood/crimedata.asp
  3. http://www.conservatives.com/tile.do?def=news.story.page&obj_id=130821&speeches=1
  4. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=553756&in_page_id=1770
  5. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7351252.stm

See also the Conservative’s PDF on the Crime Mapping Proposal (The references to “Police Commissioners” suggest they’re either London centric or havn’t fully translated their proposals from those they’re mimicking in the USA).

I did try and post 500 words of this as a comment to the video above on webcameron.org.uk but it appeared to disappear into the ether.

2 comments/updates on “Crime Mapping – Enabling Police Accountability

  1. Colin Drane

    Originally from the UK, now living in the U.S.

    I think there is an argument to be made of having an independent repository of crime data. Open crime maps are not the panacea, however, it is an excellent start. The administrative cost to execute is minimal because the data is already being collected, and there exists companies like mine that will do it for free.

    Having google as a platform affords massive resources and sustainability. While other mapping systems may exist, it would seem the public will gravitate to a format that is common and familiar. Ease of use and access, should increase usage, awareness and sharing.

  2. Richard Article author

    The big white block at the top of the page is yet another example of the Conservatives not really getting modern online communication (trying hard but not getting it). It was an embedded video from Webcameron which has now disappeared.

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