Police forces across the country have been taking part in a huge fiddle in which they have pretended to detect tens of thousands of crimes and have wiped from the records a mass of other petty crimes, a Guardian investigation has revealed.
The fiddle has left an uncountable number of crime victims cheated of justice while criminals have been allowed to escape unpunished. Senior officers, most of whom claim to be unaware of the malpractice within their forces, have benefited from crime figures which credit them with a bogus success. Home Secretaries have repeatedly claimed false glory.
The investigation by the Guardian, with Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, has obtained detailed evidence of the malpractice in one force, Nottinghamshire, in the mid 1990s. Officers repeatedly persuaded criminals to ‘write off’ lists of offences, regardless of whether or not they had committed them.
In some cases the crimes were pure fiction, invented simply so that they could be listed as detected. The criminals were virtually guaranteed that they would not be prosecuted. Some of them were rewarded with day trips out of prison, free meals and visits to girlfriends.
The evidence also shows that Nottinghamshire officers were routinely ‘cuffing’ petty crimes – recording incidents in such a way that they disappeared from official records. In a single year Nottinghamshire officers lost 9,175 incidents, the vast majority of which should have been recorded as crimes. This left their victims bereft of police attention but cut the rate of recorded crime in the county by more than 6 per cent.
The former chief constable of South Yorkshire, Richard Wells, told the Guardian: “It would be a brave chief constable who said ‘It doesn’t go on here.’ I don’t think you could be on the same planet and not be aware that it is an issue for all police forces.” He said he felt passionate about the malpractice: “Everybody is cheated, and it is absolutely pointless.”
The editor of Police Review, Gary Mason, calculated, on the basis of his daily contact with detectives around the country, that three quarters of the police forces in Britain were probably involved in the abuse.
The Home Office is investigating what it calls ‘statistical variations’ in police work. Police officers have said that the fiddle has been part of police work for 30 years but has recently been boosted by the Home Office decision to set performance targets for police.
In the past two years, individual officers have been suspended for the malpractice in the West Midlands, Devon and Cornwall, and Lincolnshire, but the case of Nottinghamshire for the first time proves that the abuse has been taking place on a force-wide scale.
The evidence emerged after the most senior operational detective in the country lodged a complaint that his entire senior command was guilty of “organisational dishonesty”. In 1997 his complaint was investigated by the chief constable of Bedfordshire, Michael O’Byrne, who cleared the senior officers of corruption but found evidence of malpractice throughout the force.
Mr O’Byrne found that during the mid-1990s, in their efforts to satisfy their senior commanders’ thirst for better figures, Nottinghamshire officers had pretended to detect numerous offences of shoplifting, car theft and burglary, sometimes using children of only 10 and 11 to record bogus admissions.
Other officers had logged phony detections for serious offences such as rapes and sexual assaults on children. Repeatedly the real offenders had been allowed to escape, and crime victims had been conned. “The true picture of recorded and detected crime,” he concluded, “was being suppressed and distorted.”
Despite the scathing conclusions of the Bedfordshire report and the detailed examples of dishonesty, the Nottinghamshire police and the county’s police authority made public statements which suggested that the force had been cleared.
The assistant clerk to the Nottinghamshire police authority, Steve Jackson, told us explicitly that Bedfordshire had found no evidence of any malpractice by any officer of any rank. He went on to claim that Bedfordshire had made no recommendations for change. In truth, they made 59, as a result of which Nottinghamshire police have produced a new policy.