Judith Collins, police minister at the time, has serious questions to answer after the Herald on Sunday's disclosure that hundreds of burglaries were taken out of crime statistics over a period of years in part of the Counties-Manukau police district. Foolishly, Ms Collins has assumed the disclosure came from the Labour Party and dismisses the subject as "politically motivated". Her assumption was simply wrong, not that the source of the information matters nearly as much as its substance.
A police internal investigation found that about 700 burglaries in the Counties-Manukau south area had been recoded as incidents that would not appear in crime statistics from 2009 until 2012. The inquiry concluded 70 per cent of them were burglaries. Five staff, including the then area commander, were "sanctioned".
Ms Collins, police minister until December 2011, admits she had been told "something about the stats" but said nothing publicly. She did not even tell her successor, Anne Tolley. Ms Collins did not pass it on to the new Police Minister, she told the Herald, because, "I didn't have details". Asked why she did not seek details, she said, "because it was very historical". It was not very historical in late 2011.
The Government went to the election that year basking in a drop in several categories of crime. Homicide and related offences were down 23.8 per cent on the previous year, drug offences had declined by 14.6 per cent. Total recorded crime was down 5.8 per cent and the Counties-Manukau district beat the national average with a reduction of 6.1 per cent. A year later, October 2012, police reported that burglaries were following the trend, down 3.4 per cent nationally and 2.6 per cent across Auckland, though not in Counties-Manukau where, it now turns out, figures for the previous years had been falsely low.
The police ought to have made the deceptive coding publicly known as soon as their inquiry was completed. The fact that their report has taken so long to come to light can only cause people to wonder whether other divisions of the police have been subject to similar suspicion and investigations that the department has kept to itself.
The statistical decline in crime in recent years is a subject many among the public find difficult to believe. It does not accord with anecdotal evidence, particularly for burglary and theft. No doubt the police did not want to feed this scepticism with an admission that one of their areas had been redefining break-ins so as not to include them in the statistics. In fact, the credibility of the rest of their figures would have been enhanced by the immediate admission of errors in one area.
Clearly Ms Collins, as minister, was made aware of them and, just as clearly, she did not want to know any more. She could easily have made it her business to know. Crime statistics are not an operational matter off limits to ministers of police. They are a matter of legitimate political importance. Ms Collins' successor has treated the subject much more responsibly. Mrs Tolley told the Herald on Sunday she was "extremely disappointed" and wanted to reassure the public the statistical deception was an isolated incident.
She needs to do something to provide that reassurance. She could invite independent research of any category of offences reported to the police, to check that they are not being systematically downgraded in order that they disappear from the statistics. The drop in crime, if true, is a welcome trend, reflected in comparable countries. But many already take the statistics with a grain of salt. Ms Collins, now answerable for the courts, gives the public no confidence in figures she accepts.
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