The Politics of Numbers: Police Racism and Crime Figures

The Politics of Numbers: Police Racism and Crime Figures


Written by: CARF

The police forces of Britain are currently waging a public relations battle to regain credibility after the Macpherson Inquiry.

Crime figures, produced by the police and released to the media along with the police’s interpretation of the figures, are playing a major role in it. The picture they give is one in which whites are as likely to be victims of racism as anyone else, young black males are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime, and criticism of the police is hindering the detection of criminals. Like the figures for unemployment, crime figures seem to provide an objective scientific measure of what is happening in society and, for this reason, they can appear to offer an apparently irrefutable picture of reality. The time has come for anti-racists to destroy the apparent objectivity of crime figures once and for all and expose just how the police use them to further their own public relations agenda.

Redefining racist crime: the example of Oldham

As an example let’s consider some recent events in Oldham. For four years, Gulfraz Nazir’s family in Limeside, Oldham was subjected to racial harassment by gangs of up to thirty racist youths armed with crowbars and hammers, who tried to attack their shop. Whenever the police were called they failed to turn up in time to make a difference. Finally Gulfraz organised with friends to defend his family from the gangs. The result was a running battle on the streets between armed white youths and Asians. The Q Division of Greater Manchester Police, which operates in Oldham, has a history of indifference to racial attacks by whites in the area and Asian youths are themselves regularly harassed by the police (recently a young Asian boy was seriously wounded when, having already surrendered to the police, he was mauled by police dogs). Consequently, there is little faith in the police’s ability to tackle white racist gangs. Gulfraz Nazir is not alone in feeling the time has come to organise self-defence.

These days when a racist gang attacks an Asian, its members can themselves expect a revenge attack from an Asian gang. But, whereas an Asian victim of a racist attack is unlikely to report the crime to the police and if they do it may not be recorded as racially motivated an attack by an Asian gang on a white will most likely be reported and recorded by the police as a racial incident. It is easy to see how this situation would result in misleading police figures for racial incidents which would suggest that whites were the main victims of racially motivated crime.

Oldham’s chief superintendent, Eric Hewitt, regards incidents such as the Nazir case as nothing more than gang violence. He released figures last year which stated that out of 250 incidents in one year, the majority involved violence on whites by Pakistanis. He then used his figures to argue that the real problem was not racial attacks against Asians, but crimes committed by Asian gangs. The local press lapped it up; the Lancashire Evening Chronicle ran a front page story with the headline ‘violent racial crime rockets: three out of four victims are white’ while the Oldham Evening Chronicle had ‘fears growing over plague of racist attacks by Asian gangs’. In the article itself chief superintendent Hewitt offered his own ‘spin’ on the figures: ‘There is evidence that they are trying to create exclusive areas for themselves Anyone seems to be a target if they are white. It is a growing polarisation between some sections of the Asian youth and white youth on the grounds of race, manifesting itself in violence, predominantly Asian.’ The image conveyed is one of territory wars between rival race gangs, with Asians the worst perpetrators.

At a time when there is for once a move to tackle police racism, the image of gang warfare provides a useful alternative story, one in which the real problem is not racism against Asians but gang violence. The police can then present themselves as caught between two rival gangs rather than, as in the Lawrence case, appearing to be themselves part of the problem.

But behind the headlines about Asian gangs lies a whole history of racism and social exclusion. In 1993, Oldham Borough Council was found to have been operating an unlawful segregation policy in its housing allocation, which ghettoised Asians onto a rundown estate, while whites were given homes in a more desirable area. Two years ago the local racial equality council was shut down, while the council itself currently has no race relations or equalities officer. Meanwhile Combat 18 and the BNP have both had bases in the area. When the police published their figures of racial incidents, the BNP paper, British Nationalist, reported on Oldham with the front page headline ‘Ethnic Cleansing in Britain’ and organised a leafletting campaign in the area.

London policing going soft?

In a more direct response to the Macpherson report, Scotland Yard released figures to the press at the end of April which claimed that police stop-and-search operations in London had been reduced due to heightened criticism of police racism and, as a result, muggings had increased. Under headlines such as ‘muggings soar as police tread softly’, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard quoted Glen Smyth of the Police Federation claiming a ‘definite link’ between the reduction in stop-and-search operations by one third and the one third rise in ‘muggings’, as compared to the previous year. The figures were said to bear out the warnings by police officials that the Macpherson report would deter officers from stopping and searching black suspects. The police are now apparently ‘fearful of being branded as racist’.

However, since the statistics from which these figures were produced are confidential, there is no possibility of an independent assessment of their interpretation. Even from the figures which have been published, we know that the proportion of stops which led to arrests has also risen in the last year, which might suggest that the stops were being more intelligently applied. Furthermore, since the proportion of crime which is detected by police use of stops is so small, it is unlikely that changes in police use of stop-and-search would have had a significant impact on crime rates over a one-year period. It is also worth remembering that since the police control the process by which crimes are recorded (see next page), it is possible that a rise in figures for street robberies could be as much the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy by police officers, who warned that black crime would rise following Macpherson’s accusations of institutional racism.

Linking race and crime

The release of these figures also serves to fuel the myth of the ‘thin blue line’ holding back a tide of crime, which is implicitly understood to be black crime. This myth, and the implicit link between race and crime, has been cemented in the public imagination by the regular release, over a period of more than two decades, of racialised crime figures. But, in fact, as recently as 1972, chief constables were reporting to the home office that the African-Caribbean population was a low crime group. However, by 1976, following a series of political confrontations between police and black communities, the Met claimed to have statistical evidence to support the view that black people were more likely to commit crimes, in particular street robberies or what the press liked to call ‘muggings’. The emotive reporting in the media of unpublished so-called statistical evidence by the police became a key mechanism by which the police were able to legitimise their criminalisation of black communities generally. This process continued after the Scarman Inquiry in the early 1980s, when crime figures which purported to identify young African-Caribbean males as responsible for most muggings became part of the police’s successful campaign to win new powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. And in 1995, Metropolitan Police chief Paul Condon wrote to a number of community leaders claiming once again to have figures to prove that ‘very many of the perpetrators of muggings are very young black people’ and asking for support in a major operation to target black youths. Again the figures were based on internally conducted unpublished studies. Again, the press reported the police figures uncritically.

Crime figures as public relations

Whether it is racial incidents in Oldham or muggings in London, police figures fail to convey the full complexity of the actual situation. But the inaccuracy of police crime figures does not simply lie, as is often thought, in a combination of under-reporting of crimes and the necessary simplification of reality which statistics introduce. Recent investigations into the Nottinghamshire force suggest that the recording of crime figures is routinely skewed by forces to control how their daily operations are presented to the outside world.

The particular malpractices revealed arose with the introduction of performance targets for police forces during the 1990s which brought strong pressure ‘from above’ for measurable results. Much effort has gone into recording and analysing crime figures so as to assess performance. But, as has now become clear, the actual crime figures produced have borne little relationship to reality. Various techniques have been devised by police forces to enable them to give the impression that fewer offences were being committed in their areas so as to suggest improvements in performance. For example, by changing the category under which a crime is recorded its apparent seriousness can be reduced; or secret files of crime records, which are excluded from the published figures, can be employed to lower the apparent crime rate. Other techniques have been used to doctor the figures for detection, such as persuading those in custody to admit to other unsolved crimes in return for favours.

These revelations show that police paperwork can be massaged to give whatever impression is needed and therefore crime figures become less an accurate measure of real crime and more an instrument of public relations. When a major element of police public relations has to do with defusing claims about racism, we should not be surprised to find that police figures are also skewed with regard to race.

Race, crime and the academics

The myth of a causal link between race and crime has been a recurring theme of police public relations offensives. But academic research has also given support to this view. For example, research by David Smith, Professor of Criminology at Edinburgh University, was recently featured in the Evening Standard. Smith has argued that there is reasonable statistical evidence to prove that African-Caribbean males are disproportionately involved in crime; he also believes that there is a causal link between African-Caribbean culture and family structure and higher rates of offending. He believes that, for this reason, the police are right to target black people. For him, stereotyping by race is a legitimate policing technique.

Smith’s method is to start with the disproportionate number of African-Caribbean people in prison. The question for Smith is to what extent this disproportion is a result of racism in the criminal justice system and to what extent it is a result of actually higher rates of offending. To this end, he analyses the statistics on every aspect of the criminal justice process and finds the evidence for racism unconvincing. In particular he argues that were racism the explanation then we would expect to see similar numbers of Asians in prison, which is not the case. Having discounted racism as a factor, Smith concludes that the disproportionate number of African-Caribbeans in prison must, by a process of elimination, be due to West Indian culture and family dysfunction.

The ‘raw material’ of crime statistics consists of a whole range of information about categories of offence, convicted offenders, suspects, victims, their age, area of residence, type of housing, their race, class and gender and how often they go out in the evenings. From data, criminologists attempt to establish patterns and correlations. But in order to establish a correlation between race and crime, race has to be isolated as an independent variable from all the other data collected about the social and economic background of the offender. And to do that is to reify race and treat it as a discrete, mechanical object. Because there is no real scientific basis on which to justify looking at race in this way, the myth about black culture is wheeled out to provide an explanation instead.

The result is that this kind of academic research offers a mirror image of the police’s own racism, thereby legitimating it. The police stereotype black people as criminals; the crime figures therefore support this view; the academics then use the figures to endorse the myth of a mechanical link between race and crime which then, in turn, reinforces police stereotyping. The ideological effect of this research is to suggest that black families should stop complaining about racism since they are themselves the cause of black criminalisation.

It would be silly to argue that there was not a problem of crime in African-Caribbean, Asian or any other community resident in Britain. Clearly there is and society needs to tackle these problems. It is also the case that particular sorts of crimes are over-represented in particular areas of particular towns.

To leap from these obvious facts to suggest that, therefore, police are justified in stereotyping whole racial groups would be entirely wrong. First, because there is no general correlation between racial groups and particular sorts of crime; second, because, even if there was a statistical pattern of divergence in the crime figures between different racial groups, it is unlikely that such statistics would be of any help in targeting police operations to detect crime; third, because to do so would be an injustice to black people, and ultimately ends in the disproportionate number of black people who die in police custody or who face illegitimate brutal policing on the streets.

Related links


Miscarriages of Justice UK

National Civil Rights Movement


The Monitoring Group

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.