Fear and loathing…and Police Maps

The publication of all English crime data on the Police Maps website has perhaps not led to quite the reaction that the government expected.

Indeed there has been a lot of anger from people who are finding that their locality, rightly or wrongly, has been indicated to be a crime hotspot. This is not just about the technical issues, but also about the public perceptions of their community.

Publishing information to aid transparency over the use of public finances is, of course, a good thing. Better decisions can be made with more information in front of people.

However in this case information can play strongly to people’s emotions. People might be more fearful and also angry, when their permission has not been sought to display the information that directly affects them, their locality and even potentially the value of their home.

So could this issue have been presented better? We would argue yes.

The Government transparency agenda is very comprehensive and could drive efficiency and better value for money in the public finances. Private contractors and senior public servants are in receipt of public funds and should be held accountable for their receipt of it. Hospitals and schools deliver a public service and their performance can be measured too, in order to assist the public when it comes to making important life choices.The Police should be measured too, but is their performance better measured by things such as clear-up rate and percentage of time spent on the beat?

The problem with crime maps is that they are not just a measure of the performance of the police, but also a measure of the community the crime occurs in. Crime maps are not just a league table of the Police; they are also a league table of communities! Members of the public are, in general, not in receipt of public funds and their permission has not been sought as to publishing the measurement of crime in their community.

People’s values would have counted when considering reactions to this site. The Government’s provision was presumably aimed at responding to those with safety and security values – who have a strong fear of crime and might perceive an area in decline and wanting good old-fashioned policing to tackle it. The Government was presumably working on the assumption that providing information, along with the new electorally accountable Police Commissioners would respond to their fears and enable them to use their vote to in future influence local Policing priorities.

Those with inner directed values, might have seen the information as interesting to know, but it would not drive their overall reaction to crime in their area. Often they already dominate many community bodies and will be networked into others who are regularly involved in Police engagement forums and thus will already have some access to information sources.

Where the government may have angered people, is those who hold outer directed values. For them the choice of community they live in is important to how they view themselves. If that community is tarred as a crime hot-spot, they may see it as a criticism of the choices they made and an attack on their esteem.

Thus the problem is that the communicating of maps has been to one segment of the community, but may have angered another.

What could have been done to avoid this problem? A more phased approach might have gone like this:

1. The website could have been established with local authority level data as well as comparison between each Police force. After all future elected Police Commissioners will need to be measured as to how their force compares to others.

2. As well as mapping crime the Police should have looked at their fear of crime figures and mapped them too down to local community level too. In addition, mapping the values of communities would illustrate where certain values are most likely to be fearful of crime. It would also enable them to map concentrations of those who would hold values regarding how their community is perceived. This could have enabled local Policing not just to be targeted on crime hotspots, but also in a more effective reassurance to those who fear crime. It would also have enabled them to communicate more effectively to those localities where perceptions of the area count too.

3. The Police now have a vast resource of Safer Neighbourhood Teams in every local government electoral ward in England. These could have engaged with their local community, to see how much local data they actually wanted and at what level the information should be in the wider public domain outside that community. This approach would have then seen the localism the government claims it wants to see put seriously into practice. An example of a more evolutionary approach that was also launched this week is the new Who Owns my Neighbourhood site, which should help with the Government’s new Community Right to Buy process. Instead of all the data being added at once and overloading people, the information here will be build up by local people themselves.

Communicating transparency as well as budget driven change is not just a challenge for national government. Local government will bear the brunt in saving money in a very high profile way in the coming months. Many laudable things will be done to save money so frontline services are preserved and the public are not directly inconvenienced.

However in the rush of enthusiasm to show this, there are likely to be some public relations disasters. Let me show you a recent example from Redditch, where the Council are proposing to heat a swimming pool from the heat generated by a crematorium. For some people this might seem a very rational and objective thing to do to save money. Some with inner directed values might argue there is a good environmental case to do this and indeed we might need to find more ways to reduce our use of carbon.

However one can easily see that for many who hold different values, this might seem like a huge affront. Death in the family is a relatively rare thing as well as being very emotional. Thinking that a ritual to help people to come to terms with a loss of a loved one was being used simply to save money for a Council, is likely to anger some people who might have been recently bereaved.

This again illustrates the need to understand the values within a community. As I have blogged previously difficult messages do need to be communicated to the right people in the right way, often to simply reassure some people that the tough decisions many Council’s will make are the most appropriate one in the current circumstances.

Charlie Mansell is the Research and Development Officer at The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.

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