“If you believe that stuff about the statistics saying crime is going down, someone is missing something with reality.”
“Crime statistics have been manipulated to give the appearance that the crime rate is dropping. It doesn’t reflect reality.”
- James Lunney, Member of Parliament , Nanaimo-Alberni
The Actual Volume of Crime is Unknown and Unknowable
It is impossible to know with any precision the amount of crime which occurs in Canada – or any other nation for that matter. We have measurements to make approximations which are best at showing trends over time. For example, a bathroom scale may be inaccurate by 10 kilograms; so while your actual weight will never be correct, if you lose or gain weight, the scale will reflect those changes.
The amount of crime is unknowable because it’s often committed privately. There may be no victims when the parties are consensual (e.g., prostitution, illicit drug use, assisted suicide). The decision to define an act or omission as “crime” lies within the discretion of witnesses, the police, and ultimately, the Crown and judge.
Crime is best understood as a category imposed by people in authoritative positions, rather than a discrete, countable act. Homicide is not a crime if committed by soldiers in wartime, police in the course of their duties, or by negligent corporations such as Westray Mines in Nova Scotia (Bittle & Snider, 2006; McMullan, 2007).
Here’s what we know about crime in Canada, and how we know:
Crime Rates Start With the Police
As recorded by Statistics Canada, “crime” or the “crime rate” refers only to incidents which are reported to the police by the public, or that which the police discover themselves through enforcement (about 85% and 15%, respectively). Police complete an “Incident Report” which is then entered into a database used by Juristat (a division of Statistics Canada).
The police officer or clerical staff who completes the data entry for this step must make decisions about “what gets counted” from an Incident Report. Here’s an example of what makes this apparently simple step much more complicated:
Suppose the police arrest a man near a home where a break and enter has been reported by a citizen. Subsequent to a search of the suspect’s vehicle, the police discover house-breaking tools, stolen property, a small amount of marijuana and an open bottle of beer. As police are examining his vehicle, he tries to escape from their detention but is quickly captured.
How many crimes have occurred from an incident that transpired in less than 20 minutes? Here’s what the police can enter on the Incident Report if every possible crime is counted:
- Break and enter
- Possession of stolen property
- Possession of house-breaking tools
- Possession of marijuana
- Fleeing the custody of a peace officer
- Open liquor in an automobile (a provincial Motor Vehicle offence)
If all six offences are “counted” for the purpose of estimating our crime rate, then at a national level, the volume of crime would be very high, especially when decisions to interpret behaviour as criminal offences are within the purview of the police. As a bureaucracy dependant on public funding, the police have a vested interest in portraying crime as going up (“we need more resources”) or going down (“public resources are successful in fighting crime”).
The Most Serious Offence (MSO) rule
To avoid crime inflation or deflation, Stats Canada has developed rules about how crimes will be measured when they arise from an incident like the one described above. The Most Serious Offence rule (MSO) means that only the most serious crime is counted (the one which has the most severe maximum sentence attached to it). In the example above, break and enter to a dwelling house (S. 348) carries a life sentence so it is the one which is counted from the six listed on the Incident Report.
Importantly, the MSO rule does not tell us which crimes the Crown will use to prosecute the accused, in fact, the Crown might prosecute all charges in the scenario above if the evidence supports them, and if it is in the public interest to do so. Alternatively, the Crown may decide not to charge the accused but the incident is still counted as a crime for statistical purposes. In other words, assessing whether a crime occurred has nothing to do with later decisions of actors within the criminal justice system.
The MSO rule keeps the count of crime uniform across Canada which is why they are called Uniform Crime Reports (UCRs). While it is true that this filtered counting under-estimates all property crime in Canada, it is one which gives a relatively consistent picture of law-breaking behaviour on a year-to-year basis.
If these scoring rules – which are publicly available – are “manipulation” as MP James Lunney contends, then many nations are similarly deceptive. These are the same scoring rules used by the USA, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia. He’s also accusing the people who create those crime rates (the police) as being manipulative. The reality is quite the opposite: the MSO rule restricts police from manipulating the volume of crime and insures data integrity.
Do the Police Cause Crime?
Criminologist Dan Koenig wrote a chapter in a textbook entitled, “Do the Police Cause Crime” (Koenig, 1996). He noted that when Canadian police departments hired more police, the crime rate increased. As police departments acquire more human resources, they can enforce a greater number of laws which leads to detecting more crime. Familiar examples include “police crackdowns” on drug crimes, prostitution, drinking and driving, and various motor vehicle offences.
Crime appears to increase by expanding what behaviours get counted as crime. New laws against behaviours which previously escaped police attention include theft of intellectual property, downloading child pornography from the internet, “internet luring” of a minor, internet fraud, criminal harassment (“stalking”), and changing the level of blood-alcohol content to support a charge of impaired driving from .08 to .05 millilitres per litre. As Parliament passes more laws to criminalize more behaviour, the police can “discover” more crime, leading to more Incident Reports to be counted by Stats Canada.
Declining Homicide Rates
Mr. Lunney will have to explain to his constituents why the homicide rate in Canada has dropped steadily since 1976, which, by the way, was when capital punishment was formally abolished. If, as he claims, “crime is increasing”, then why hasn’t the homicide rate increased? This is an important question because homicides are much more likely to come to the attention of the police because they are difficult to conceal. Some criminologists regard the rate of murder in a society as a “barometer” of all violent crime (Marshall & Block, 2004).
People sympathetic to the Conservative’s view of increasing crime sometimes allege that the murder rate is dropping because paramedic and emergency care has improved over time. What may have been a murder 20 years ago is now counted as an “attempted murder”, or a Level 3 (assault causing grievous bodily harm). If that’s true, we’d expect to see the rates of serious assaults and attempted murders to increase over time. That trend is not evident in the data, mainly because most homicide victims are dead or almost dead before they receive medical attention (Andresen, 2007).
- Citizens and police are the gatekeepers of the process which counts crime. Their decisions influence the reported volume of crime because both groups have discretion in reporting crime which comes to their attention. For Mr. Lunney to allege that “crime rates have been manipulated”, he tacitly accuses Canadians and police of being dishonest.
- Mr. Lunney makes reference to “reality” but he has never given the public any evidence to support a reality which is different from that the data available from Statistics Canada.
- It stands to reason that MP James Lunney has a vested, political interest in portraying crime as more plentiful than is supported by the best available data.
Andresen, M. A. (2007). Homicide and medical science: Is there a relationship? Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice, 49(2), 185-204. doi: 10.1353/ccj.2007.0009
Bittle, S., & Snider, L. (2006). From Manslaughter to Preventable Accident: Shaping Corporate Criminal Liability. Law & Policy, 28(4), 470-496. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9930.2006.00235.x
Koenig, D. (1996). Do Police Cause Crime? In R. A. Sullivan, J. J. Teevan & V. F. Sacco (Eds.), Crime in Canadian Society (5th ed., pp. 82-89). Toronto: Harcourt Brace.
Mahony, T. H. (2011). Homicide in Canada, 2010 Statistics Canada – Juristat (Vol. Catalogue no. 85-002-XIE). Ottawa: Ministry of Industry.
Marshall, I., & Block, C. (2004). Maximizing the availability of cross-national data on homicide. Homicide Studies, 8(3 ), 267-310.
McMullan, J. (2007). Lost lives at Westray: official discourse, public truth and controversial death.(Westray Mine accident of May 9, 1992, in Pictou County, Nova Scotia). Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 22(1), 21.
 For example, one senior police officer told me that discovering a drunk in public with a head injury could be interpreted as a medical emergency or an assault, depending upon the officer-in-charge.
 The maximum sentence for break and enter has never been imposed.
 Homicide includes murder, manslaughter and infanticide.