Joining the dots: Which leads to less crime – zero tolerance, or removing lead pollution?

PSO at Richmond station

Our state government in the past has cited New York City zero-tolerance policies introduced by Rudolph Giuliani as inspiration for measures like Protective Service Officers, which will eventually see two armed guards on every metropolitan railway station after 6pm:

Mr Ryan said he was intent on establishing a Giuliani-style zero tolerance approach in Victoria, and rebuilding public confidence in community safety.

He wanted to knit together the various individual initiatives already undertaken, such as increased police numbers and more protective service officers and transit police patrolling trains and stations, into a “holistic policy for the community at large”.

Herald Sun 23/3/2012: Peter Ryan is ready for a new mission

Those who have read Freakonomics will know there is considerable doubt over whether zero-tolerance policies were actually the cause of the drop in crime in New York City.

This new article notes the problem with assuming zero-tolerance is the solution:

… it’s not just New York that has seen a big drop in crime. In city after city, violent crime peaked in the early ’90s and then began a steady and spectacular decline. Washington, DC, didn’t have either Giuliani or Bratton, but its violent crime rate has dropped 58 percent since its peak. Dallas’ has fallen 70 percent. Newark: 74 percent. Los Angeles: 78 percent.

…and it goes on to point out research has shown a very strong correlation, not just in the USA but across the world, between the removal of lead from petrol (known to inhibit brain development in children) and later drops in crime:

If childhood lead exposure really did produce criminal behavior in adults, you’d expect that in states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime would decline slowly too. Conversely, in states where it declined quickly, crime would decline quickly. And that’s exactly what she (graduate student researcher Jessica Wolpaw Reyes) found.


Nevin collected lead data and crime data for Australia and found a close match. Ditto for Canada. And Great Britain and Finland and France and Italy and New Zealand and West Germany. Every time, the two curves fit each other astonishingly well. When I spoke to Nevin about this, I asked him if he had ever found a country that didn’t fit the theory. “No,” he replied. “Not one.”

It goes on to speculate that a great way forward in crime prevention is to continue to clean up lead contamination from urban areas.

It’s a fascinating read, highly recommended: America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead.

The government can probably argue that PSOs on all stations after 6pm is about improving perceptions of safety, and confidence for passengers. Given statistics have repeatedly shown little crime at most stations (and about half of that which does occur is before 6pm), it would have a harder time convincing me the PSO rollout is actually going to make us safer — particularly if the justification is reliant on shaky “zero tolerance” reasoning.

Lock up your motors

Unlucky pictogram manMy neighbour Bob had his car broken into this morning. He said he heard noises outside and went out to find a bloke smashing up the steering wheel and console, apparently trying to hotwire it.

When the bloke realised Bob was out there he shouted “I’m coming out mate, I’m coming out!” He did so, pushed past Bob and ran down the street. Sounds like the bloke wanted to avoid a physical confrontation.

Bob says he inadvertently left his car unlocked overnight, and suspects the bloke was just an opportunist. He also thinks he may have been affected in some way by drugs, alcohol, or something else.

I’d have to assume a pro could have hotwired a car in seconds, and not made enough noise to rouse people. Bob’s got an older Commodore — perhaps it doesn’t have an immobiliser, though it’s unclear if the bloke would have known that.

The police CSI team came and took fingerprints, but one would guess they won’t have much luck finding anybody… more likely they might pin that on him if they find him for something else.

I thought nobody would try and break into a car in a driveway, because the assumption would be that somebody’s home. The Lady Cop said you can never assume your car in your driveway is safe. Some people will notice an unlocked car and grab gold coins from the coin tray — you wouldn’t even know anything had happened.

Bob’s okay… he was just a little shaken. But his car will need some repairs.

It reminds me that although Bentleigh is a pretty safe, low-crime suburb, it’s good to take care. I sometimes leave my car open, windows down, doors unlocked if it’s a hot day and I’m expecting to go driving somewhere. The lesson I’ll take from this is to at least ensure the doors are deadlocked (which should also activate the immobiliser, hopefully preventing hotwiring) whenever the car is unattended.

Crime and punishment

The barber the other day was having a rant about crime (as well as a number of other issues), and claimed that white-collar criminals almost always get caught (specifically, he reckoned they get caught 95% of the time), but muggers and others who commit crimes against the person almost never get caught (he reckoned 95% of the time get away with it).

It sounded pretty unlikely, and frankly I was relieved when his ranting got onto more hazy, less provable (or disprovable) ground. I think he’s been listening to too much tabloid talkback radio.

So what are the real figures?

The Victoria Police publish statistics on crime, including “single year clearances”. From page 14, and quoting the 2010-11 year:

Category Offences recorded Offence rate per 100,000 population Single year clearances
Crime against the person 48,511 868.5 78.0%
Crime against property 252,417 4519.1 29.5%
Drugs 14,789 264.8 98.3%
Other crime 43,362 776.3 92.3%

I’m going to assume that the clearance rates for the bottom two categories are so much higher because they might generally be reported as a result of proactive police action, whereas the others are generally reported by members of the public, and then investigated after the fact.

On the face of it, the opposite to the barber’s claim is true: you are more likely to get caught for a crime against the person than for a property crime such as theft. (Presumably some crimes are cleared after more than a year, bringing the figures up a bit further.)

I like the barber, but I suspect his ranting that the carbon tax will ruin the country is equally wrong, and I’m not entirely sure about his theories on what the CIA’s up to can be trusted either.

Other stats

There’s some other interesting stats in the VicPol document, such as the temporal trends (pages 103-112), which show that crimes such as assault are more likely on Friday and Saturday nights, there appears to be a spike in homicides on Mondays around midday (hmm. Could be the small sample size skewed it?)… and burglary (residential) is most common on weekdays during the day (eg when people are at work) — which makes me think the home insurance people should ask if there’s a car in the driveway on weekdays, and give a discount for it.

Burglary: time of day/week

Page 114 covers the locations of crime. More crimes against the person occur in residences than anywhere else (18,568 out of 48,511, or 38%). In contrast, 1,873 (3.8%) occurred on public transport. There’s also a figure of 1,180 for “other transport” — I’m not sure what this means — people beating each other up in their cars? There were no homicides on public transport, but one on “other transport”.

Page 116 has figures on the relationship of the victim to the offender. For most types of crime against the person, the victim was known to the offender. No relationship was recorded in 25.6% of cases.

Some interesting figures. Well worth a read.

Armed guards at stations

The debate around armed Protective Service Officers on stations is heating up.

The Police Association, the Rail, Tram and Bus Union and the Public Transport Users Association want a high-level meeting to develop the best way of tackling crime and safety problems.

Support for the armed guard plan is evaporating.

There now appears to be no organisation other than the Government that supports the proposal.

Herald Sun: Fears mount on guard plan

Armed guards on stations at night is one of those things that at first glance sounds like a good idea. Stations at night are scary places. Crime probably happens. Guards would make it safe.

But the more you look at it, the more problematic the plan appears to be. Stations at night sometimes look scary, but that’s most often because the lighting can be poor, the building design has nooks and crannies and concealed spaces, and many stations have no staff (at any time of day). It doesn’t mean they’re all a cesspit of crime.

For me the clincher was a PTUA study of assault statistics for the whole of 2009. The key findings were:

  • 45% of reported assaults occur at just ten stations: Flinders St, Dandenong, Broadmeadows, Footscray, St Albans, Ringwood, Bayswater, Frankston, Southern Cross, and Thomastown.
  • About half the assaults occurred before 6pm when the PSOs would be on duty. (186 daytime, 199 at night)
  • For the year there were 385 assaults reported at 85 stations, with 116 stations (eg most of the network) having no reported assaults at all.

Other issues that have come up include whether the officers will have toilet facilities (6pm to 2am is a long shift); where would the guns be stored; would they have jurisdiction in neighbouring areas such as bus interchanges; and would they be able to board a train if there’s trouble occurring?

As John Silvester wrote in a superb the Age on Saturday, the numbers don’t stack up. You’ll have 940 armed officers in a bid to prevent 199 assaults per year, and 232 of those officers at the 116 stations where nothing ever happens would be twiddling their thumbs.

I reckon you’d get a better result in terms of crime prevention by putting them on every CBD corner all night every night.

Instead, what about staffing every station from first to last train (you know, with people who can actually tell you which train you have to catch, help you with the ticket machines, and may deter some incidents, or be able to call for assistance for others), with fulltime police at those hotspots that do have genuine safety problems, and enough resources for regular police to quickly attend where needed?

I reckon that’d probably cost less, and be a better result for train passengers.

I should note that from what I’ve seen around the courts and Parliament, the PSOs do a good job. But that doesn’t mean putting two of them on every single station after 6pm is a good idea.

Update Thursday 13/4/2011: Premier Ted Baillieu has an interesting opinion piece in today’s Herald Sun. The article is well worth a read — he makes some good points about the training and professionalism of PSOs. But he doesn’t address the issues around the planned railway station deployment — that at hotspot stations, much crime occurs before they would be on duty, and that at quiet stations, they would have nothing to do.

Through others’ eyes

If you think with the traffic, sprawl, crime and the crowding the city’s going down the toilet, just check this almost hopelessly optimistic, positive report on Melbourne from 2005 for the Johannesburg Star.

After spending five days in Melbourne and the state of Victoria, it’s easy to see why Australia so appeals to South Africans and why it so successfully hosts cricket and rugby world cups, Olympic Games and now the Commonwealth Games. There’s order; laws are obeyed; it’s clean; and there is no crime. Well, very little of it anyway.

We walked the streets by day and night, backpacks over our shoulders, cameras and cellphones in our hands, and not once did we feel crime was lurking around the next corner. That’s life in Melbourne.

Actually I don’t really have an argument with that. Crime is not really that common in most areas, and I struggle to think of a single instance when I’ve felt unsafe while walking around, even at night. Though maybe I stay out of the troublespots.

Little Bourke Street

It’s a beautiful city: the streets are lined with trees, pavements are wide enough for people to walk freely, and there are no hawkers, beggars or vagrants. While many people in the suburbs own cars, most city dwellers, living in CBD apartments, get around by taxi, train and the city’s state-of-the-art tram system. Many also use bicycles and they are rarely even locked with a chain when left unattended day or night.

heh. Well I don’t think for a moment that’s all quite true.

… and most don’t seem interested in things materialistic.

The houses (minus high walls and razor-wire) are neat but far from lavish.

No arguments on the lack of razor-wire, but I guess like many tourists, these guys didn’t go out to see any of the McMansion suburbs.

Many will say there are too many rules, laws are enforced too strictly (there are police officers in plainclothes all over the place fining motorists, jay-walkers and litterbugs) -but isn’t that what we all strive for – order and peace?

An interesting perspective on the claims of Victoria turning into a “nanny state”. Plainclothes police issuing all those fines? I find that hard to believe. The closest I’ve seen is Authorised Officers/Inspectors on trains and trams.

Perhaps to those from Johannesburg, Melbourne seems like a Melburnian might see Singapore?

You can read all of it here.