Force records violent biscuit crime

File image of police officers
File image of police officers

A police force at the centre of a row over recording minor incidents as crimes said it had no discretion in the matter and did not always seek to arrest or prosecute the alleged offenders.

Norfolk Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Stephen Bett described examples of incidents his county's police were having to record as violent crimes - such as a man being hit with a biscuit and a child being brushed with a stinging nettle - as "jaw-dropping".

He recently asked the county's Chief Constable to explain a 14% rise in crime as he suspected there was more to the figures than the bare statistics and was told that due to a change in the way the force had to record certain crimes, numerous incidents were now falling into the violent crime category.

He said: "You could not make this up - it's jaw-dropping. I am sure people will find these examples of what the police are having to record as violent crime hard to believe to say the least. I frankly couldn't believe what I was reading. Is it any wonder we have seen a rise in recorded violent crime in Norfolk if these types of incidents have to be logged?

"The last thing I want to do is to trivialise any incident where there is a victim, but I am struggling to see how someone being hit by a biscuit or brushed by a stinging nettle fits anyone's idea of a violent crime. I think people will also be surprised that text messages are 'violent'.

"There is a danger that when people see a raw headline that 'violent crime is up in Norfolk' the fear of crime could rise. That is why I feel it is important to highlight this issue and make people aware."

Biscuits: Dangerous weapon in the wrong hands
Biscuits: Dangerous weapon in the wrong hands

He gave examples of incidents police had to record as violent crime in the last 12 months such as:

:: A member of the public reported seeing a mother slap her three-year-old child on the hand as they left a shop. The police investigated and it transpired the child had taken a bar of chocolate from the shop and hidden it in their clothes. The mother gave the child a single slap on the hand and made them return the chocolate bar to the shop. The police had to record this as an assault by the mother on the child and shoplifting by the child.

:: A young child was bought a boxing glove by his parents. He was swinging it round and caught his small sibling with it. This was recorded as actual bodily harm (ABH).

:: A woman threw a biscuit at a man which hit him leaving a small red mark. This was recorded as ABH.

:: Two children were playing together and one brushed a stinging nettle across the other's arm. This was recorded as ABH.

:: The police used to deal with "malicious communications" as non-crimes. They relate to any offensive text or letter sent to people and now an extra 183 offences have fallen in to the volume violence band since April. The vast majority of these involve people sending texts. This could add more than 1,000 violent crimes a year in Norfolk.

Norfolk Police Deputy Chief Constable Charlie Hall said: "Following HMIC inspection last year, Norfolk ensures strict compliance with the National Crime Recording Standards that determine which incidents must be recorded as crimes.

"These rules require us to record certain incidents as crimes and, rightly, do not provide professional discretion as to whether or not to record these. Some of these may appear to be quite minor issues the public would not normally associate with being crimes.

"We take a measured approach to how we deal with such cases. Just because we record these as crimes, it will not always be appropriate to arrest or seek to prosecute the alleged offenders. It is very much dependent on the individual circumstances of each report."

National Police Chiefs' Council lead for crime recording, Chief Constable Jeff Farrar of Gwent Police, said: "The Home Secretary has set out a very clear commitment to ensuring that the accuracy and integrity of police recorded crime is a priority.

"Since conducting an inspection of police crime recording in 2013, Sir Tom Winsor, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, has also reiterated that forces will be held to account by the standards set out in the Home Office Counting Rules.

"This, in turn, has meant that many forces have put in place direction and systems to ensure that reports of crimes are recorded at the earliest opportunity without initial investigation.

"This has left little room for further assessment or the use of professional discretion which may have historically taken place.

"Consequently a number of forces have seen a sharp rise in some offences such as assault without injury, criminal damage and public order."

Mike Penning, minister of state for policing, crime, criminal justice and victims, said: "This Home Secretary has done more than any other to ensure that crime statistics are independent, accurate and can be trusted by the public.

"This includes making previously hidden and under-reported crimes a priority, commissioning Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) to inspect the quality of crime recording and holding forces to account on delivering accurate statistics.

"It is the responsibility of individual forces to accurately record crimes in accordance with strict Home Office counting rules - and HMIC inspects forces to ensure they are recording crimes appropriately."

Heather Robbie, local manager for the independent charity Victim Support, said: "Victims need to have confidence that when they report a crime it will be recorded accurately.

"If it's not, there is a knock-on effect through the criminal justice system - crimes may not be properly investigated and victims may miss out on getting the help they need and deserve.

"The police must be able to build an accurate picture of what crimes are being committed in each area so that they can prioritise their work effectively.

"Our charity offers free, confidential help and support to anyone affected by crime and we would encourage any victims to contact us regardless of when the crime took place or if the police are involved."

A spokeswoman for Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary said: "HMIC inspects against police forces' compliance with the Home Office's established rules on crime-recording. In its November 2014 inspection report, HMIC found that the national average of under-recording of crimes was 19%, and for violent offences the rate of under-recording was a third. Victims and communities deserve much better than that.

"Crimes fall across a spectrum of severity, from the very minor to the very serious. All but a very few crimes require criminal intent; in the main, accidents are not crimes.

"When a crime has been committed, it is necessary that it is recognised as such by the police. If on investigation no crime has been committed, the crime record is cancelled. This is a simple process.

"Professional discretion is not inhibited when it comes to making an arrest or charging someone with an offence. And of course children under 10 cannot be charged even if they do commit offences."