Opinion: cultural change within An Garda Síochána is required to highlight the importance of robust data collection for crime statistics

Leo Varadkar took to Twitter to hit out at those who he claims forced the resignation of former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and the early retirement of former Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan. The Taoiseach has suggested critics should reflect on their judgement after the findings of the Disclosures Tribunal report "vindicated" the pair in relation to the smear campaign against Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

This is just the latest issue in a long list of scandals to have hit the Irish justice system following a number of allegations of corruption, misconduct and malpractice across An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice. The allegations include inappropriate cancellation of penalty points, falsifying breath tests and delayed reporting of crimes. These allegations are not isolated incidents, but have been widespread across the country pointing to systematic failures within Irish criminal justice system.

Many of allegations relate to the gathering, recording and reporting of Irish crime statistics. A recent paper in Economic and Social Review examining the social and economic determinants of crime in Ireland highlights some potential issues with Irish crime data.

"The collection, recording and reporting of reliable crime statistics is the minimal requirement for the development of effective evidenced based crime policies"

Firstly, the recorded counts of crime events often represent an underestimation of actual crime counts.  The reasoning for this is that some crimes tend to be underreported while counting and recording rules typically record only the most serious offence in any complex criminal transaction. Secondly, actual crime data may be incorrectly categorised or re-categorised which may distort the findings of particular studies.

Thirdly, the length of time between reporting a crime and the recording of the crime on is associated with data errors such as the accidental exclusion of crime data and mis-specifications of crime data. Finally, evidence suggests crime data in Ireland is often incorrectly labelled detected or invalidated. The crime detection rate is often used as a measure of the ability of police to solve crimes, or as a general indicator of police performance. The Central Statistics Office (CSO) found that 35 percent of the offences without a charge or summons sheet attached were incorrectly designated as detected, based on current Garda detection rules. This has the effect of reducing the overall number of detected crimes by 16 percent.

These issues have led to the CSO suspending the publication of crime statistics on a number of occasions. The CSO first suspended the publication of Recorded Crime statistics in 2014 following the Garda Inspectorate report identifying quality issues in relation to the recording of data on the PULSE system. Since 2015, further quality issues have emerged with regard to PULSE data and CSO took the decision in early 2017 to postpone further publication

From RTÉ Radio One's News At One, RTÉ Crime Correspondent Paul Reynolds reports on how the reliability of Garda crime figures from the CSO have been called into question

The new classification statistics "Under Reservation" has been applied to reflect the fact that there are data quality issues in the underlying sources used to compile these statistics. The Under Reservation categorisation will remain in place until such time as the CSO is satisfied that the level of accuracy and completeness of the underlying data is of sufficient quality.

The collection, recording and reporting of reliable crime statistics is the minimal requirement for the development of effective evidenced based crime policies. However, reductions in the number of gardaí coupled with reduced investment contributed to the issues in data collection during the period. The Garda Representative Association (GRA), the body representing rank-and-file gardaí, claimed that breath test figures were increased to fuel senior management’s chances of promotion. The GRA claimed that "data was utilised as a crude measure of productivity – and fed into a culture of competition among senior ranks to improve their promotion chances".

The Wire: "you juke the stats, and majors become colonels"

The process of "juking" the stats is neither novel nor effective as a crime prevention strategy. Any reader familiar with popular HBO television series The Wire will be all too familiar with the internal and external pressures on rank-and-file police officers to hit their evaluation targets. In one example, a group of Baltimore police officers are instructed by their superiors to artificially deflate felony and murder statistics or risk being ousted from their jobs. When discussing the reasons behind the strategy of juking the stats, cop turned teacher "Prez" Pryzbylewski asserts "making robberies into larcenies, making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels".

A recently published book by Jerry Muller entitled "Tyranny of the Metrics" highlights the dangers associated with the quantification of performance metrics in education, medicine, business and finance, government, the police and military. Some of these criticisms have been echoed by the GRA in relation to data collection exercises within the Garda Síochána and what does it purport to show.

These challenges are both complex and multidimensional requiring innovative solutions. Cultural changes within the gardaí coupled with extensive training is required to highlight the importance and benefits of robust data collection methods. The aim of these efforts is to provide greater transparency in crime statistics which facilitates the development of data driven, evidence-based crime prevention strategies.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ