Is policing getting better or worse? The Telegraph reduced its conclusions to a headline last week as it declared ‘Police arrest half as many people as they did a decade ago despite rise in crime’[1].

Statistically, this is correct. Home Office figures published in October 2017 show that that the arrests have fallen from almost 1.5 million in 2008 to 779,660 in 2017[2], whereas offences recorded have increased 13% from 2016 to 2017[3]. Things are clearly getting worse.

Before reaching this conclusion, note that The Telegraph headline compares arrests in the previous decade with recorded crime in the previous year. Considering recorded crime over the decade shows a reduction until 2014, followed by a sharp increase to 2017. The figures for 2007 and 2017 are in fact remarkably similar. To consider another data set, the Crime Survey for England & Wales (which relies upon crime as reported by the public, rather than as recorded by police) concludes that 14% of adults were victims of crime in the last year, compared with 24% in 2007 and an astonishing 40% in1995[4]. Things are clearly getting better.

Methodology changes and recording improvements over the last 20 years mean that it is all but impossible to make reliable comparisons. However, if we accept that crime has increased for at least the last three years whilst arrests have declined, what does this mean for victims and suspects?

Firstly and in fairness to the police, it must be acknowledged that arrest is not a prerequisite for a competent investigation. In many cases arrest is not only unnecessary but wholly undesirable, particularly given the consequences for a suspect who acquires an ‘arrest record’ even if he or she is never charged. As an alternative and stemming from the 2012 amendment to PACE Code G (requiring reasonable grounds to believe an arrest is necessary), suspects are increasingly dealt by means of voluntary interview, which avoids the stigma of arrest and detention at the police station.

However, it seems unlikely that 50% of arrests prior to 2007 were unnecessary. In its response to the recent figures, the Home Office refers to ‘other outcomes’ (although only community resolutions are cited by way of example) intended to prevent young people entering custody[5]. However, the link between such alternative disposals (which should be deployed only after the offence has been investigated) and the need for arrest is unclear. In the absence of other causative factors, the most obvious and unfortunate is surely the continuing dwindle of police resources, not least the much-discussed loss of 20,000 officers since 2010.

Further consideration of the data shows that, year-on-year, a smaller proportion of offences have resulted in a charge or summons (11.2% down from 13.8% in 2016). This may seem inevitable but is a disheartening prospect for victims. The picture is not helped by increases in the number of investigations discontinued as a result of the victim not supporting further action. Perhaps most worryingly, the number of victims not supporting further action in domestic abuse offences (where such withdrawals are most problematic) increased from 35% to 40% from 2016 to 2017, whilst the equivalent number of charges or summons decreased from 25% to 20%[6].

Equally important is the speed of disposal, where the interests of suspects and victims are aligned. Whilst in the majority of offence categories, the average disposal time has improved from 2016 to 2017, this should be considered by disposal type. Where an investigation resulted in a charge or summons, an out-of-course disposal or discontinuance due to evidential difficulties despite victim support (i.e. all investigative avenues having been exhausted), performance has deteriorated. Arguably these outcomes represent the more challenging cases which cause most stress for victims and suspects, and so should be targeted to prevent further decline. Also notable, particularly given the recent increase in historic allegations, is the increasing time taken to deal with reported rapes, such that the average case now takes 144 days (i.e. almost five months) to reach a disposal.

Whilst The Telegraph’s ire may be misdirected (arrests are not the be-all and end-all of criminal investigation), the data is worrying. As crime has increased, without corresponding resources to match, the police have become less effective, to the detriment of victims and suspects. The fact that this conclusion is obvious does not make it any less true or any less worrying.

This article was originally published in Criminal Law & Justice Weekly and can be accessed here, behind a paywall.