Crime Statistics Ireland

Sat, Aug 18, 2012, 01:00

Since the economic crisis began in 2008, most crime rates have fallen. Yet robberies and violent assaults remain high on the media agenda and they fuel public debate. In the first of a week-long series, CONOR LALLYlooks at what’s happening on the streets and asks why fewer crimes are being reported to and detected by the Garda

IN A summer punctuated by high-profile crimes, one night in June stands out.

Dublin was buzzing the weekend after midsummer, with the normal city-centre weekend crowd boosted by tens of thousands of people out enjoying themselves after the Westlife concert, as Saturday night turned to Sunday morning. In the hours that followed, two people making their way home after meeting friends would be assaulted with shocking violence.

On the south side of the city, a 23-year-old woman was leaving a pub near Tara Street train station at 2.45am when she was attacked. A section of one of her nostrils was bitten off.

On the same night, another violent attack took place less than a kilometre away. Journalist Eugene Moloney (55) was punched in the head and fell to the ground on Lower Camden Street as he made his way home to Portobello just before 4.30am. He was pronounced dead after he was transferred to St James’s Hospital. A post mortem revealed he died of head injuries from a single punch.

In the days that followed those two city-centre attacks, radio chat shows were inundated with people anxious to share their experiences of street crime and random violence. One newspaper responded by launching a “Make Our Streets Safe” campaign.

Two days later, it was organised crime that dominated the news. Some 400kg of cocaine was seized in west Dublin, the third-biggest drugs consignment ever found here. Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan addressed the media in the press briefing that followed.

Less than two weeks later, a concert headlined by the Swedish House Mafia on July 7th hit the headlines, after a series of stabbings, fatal overdoses, robberies at knife point and drink- and drug-fuelled fights took place at Phoenix Park, where the concert was taking place.

A week later, a Co Wicklow antiques dealer and his partner were beaten and robbed at gunpoint in their home, while the following week a raid by Garda specialist units in Co Carlow saw seven men arrested for questioning in relation to a string of up to 70 robberies, some involving ATM machines being ripped from the walls of post offices and banks with stolen heavy-plant machinery.

It appeared for much of this summer like it was business as usual when it came to street violence and robberies by gangs. Yet the crime scene in the Republic has changed significantly in recent years.

The State’s crime statisticsare comprised of crimes reported by victims and those unearthed by gardaí themselves. Since the economic crisis took hold, the trends are substantially down.The most detailed crime data available, which is at the centre of a week-long series starting in The Irish Times today, suggests Irish streets are not as mean as they used to be.

In the year to the end of March, headline or serious crime had fallen in all but two of the 15 crime categories, burglaries and thefts from the person being the only categories to show an increase.

Interpreting crime statistics is a tricky business, as the CSO repeatedly warns. Published statistics only include crimes that “become known or are reported to gardaí”. The CSO says that whether a crime comes to the attention of gardaí depends on a number of factors including the “perceived seriousness of the crime, the financial loss involved and beliefs around whether the gardaí are in a position to do anything about the crime”. It estimated in 2007 that “about 30 per cent” of burglaries were unreported, as were nearly four in 10 incidents of theft with violence. Offences of a sexual nature and domestic violence are “grossly under-recorded”.

However, even with those caveats in mind, a look at how crime trends have developed since recorded offences peaked in the 2007-2008 period suggests a clear pattern.

By the end of last year, homicides had fallen by 52 per cent from a peak of 138 cases in 2007. Drugs offences have dropped by 24 per cent since 2008, with the specific offence of possessing drugs for personal use down by 30 per cent.

Cases of discharging a firearm have fallen by 49 per cent since peaking at 326 cases in 2007. Recorded cases of possession of a firearm have dropped by 35 per cent, from 457 incidents in 2008 to 297 last year. Public-order crimes peaked in 2008 at 61,822 offences, but have since fallen by 21 per cent. Assaults are down by 12 per cent, criminal damage is down by 21 per cent.

Burglary has bucked the downward trend by increasing by 15 per cent, and theft from the person is up 25 per cent. The cultivation of cannabis has doubled, as have prostitution offences.

However, even when spikes in those areas are taken into account, overall crime has fallen by 13 per cent since its peak in 2008, after increasing consistently for a decade and a half.

Garda sources and criminologists paint a complex picture that factors in everything from lower disposable incomes, to mass emigration by young people and reduced Garda resources.

At UCD’s Institute of Criminology, Prof Ian O’Donnell points to the repeated evidence thrown up by international research linking increased alcohol consumption to increased levels of public-order crime and other offences that people commit while drunk. “You would expect crimes linked to alcohol consumption, public order and so on, to fall back when there is less money around for excessive drinking by people out socialising,” O’Donnell says. He also believes the recession has been instrumental in curbing that area of crime referred to by the media as “gangland”.

Falling disposable income – brought on by unemployment, wage cuts and higher levies – has cut demand for drugs, particularly cocaine. “When the financial rewards are lower it reduces the risks that [drug dealers] will be prepared to take, both in terms of getting caught and in terms of going up against other rival violent gangs,” he says.

With a smaller and more financially strapped user market to sell to, O’Donnell believes the intensity of inter-gang rivalry has diminished because the financial rewards are lower.

He points to the booming cocaine trade as a main driver of fatal shootings during the boom. Subsequently, the depressed state of the cocaine trade has contributed to a fall in gang-related homicides in recent years. While the Garda seized cocaine with a combined value of well over €20 million annually during the last decade, that figure had fallen to €7.6 million in 2010. Last year, the value of cocaine seizures was up again, to €14 million. But that total was distorted by two large hauls, one of which the Garda believes was not destined for the Irish market.

Dr Paul O’Mahony, a leading criminologist who has recently retired as associate professor of psychology in the School of Medicine at Trinity College, believes the recession has influenced crime in many ways.

“We’ve had 70,000 young people in their late teens and 20s emigrating in recent years, and that age group is the one with criminal propensity and who are violence prone. So I think that has to be feeding into what’s happening with the crime rates.”

What is not captured by the figures, O’Mahony says, is the changed nature of street crime. “People didn’t kick other people in the head 20 or 30 years ago. There was an acceptance it was a dangerous and cowardly thing to do; that you’d have to be madcap to do it. But now, middle-class young people on booze and out of their heads routinely do it.”

Prof Dermot Walsh from the University of Limerick agrees that lower spending power linked to the recession is a major factor in the reductions in the official headline crime figures. However, he adds that crimes such as drug and public-order offences and a range of others are generally detected by the Garda rather than reported to them. The reduction in the Garda overtime budget and in the numbers in the force means fewer gardaí on the beat catching criminals compared to just a few years ago.

“We also see more demands on Garda time to investigate increasing thefts and burglaries now, and there has been a big push in recent years with road-traffic enforcement. So they’re all very big pulls when Garda resources are scarcer. Gardaí simply may not have the resources to go out and chase drug crime and other sorts of crime, and that may now be showing up in the reduction in those crimes; it could be a fall in detecting the crime rather than a real fall in the crime.”

The Garda overtime budget peaked in 2007 at €135.4 million. There was also an additional €20 million for overtime under Operation Anvil, a dedicated nationwide operation targeting organised crime, making a total overtime budget of €155.4 million. This year, the Garda’s overtime budget is €54 million, with no separate provision for Operation Anvil. That means Garda overtime has fallen by almost two thirds since 2007.

Meanwhile, with Garda recruitment now frozen, numbers in the force have fallen to 13,567 as of June 30th, from a peak of 14,400 in early 2011. That will be reduced further by the end of 2014 to 13,000 members.

For gardaí on the streets, the effect of the recession on the crimes they encounter has been mixed. There is still an extreme dimension to drink-related violence. Garda sources say the rise in thefts and burglaries is linked to petty criminals finding it harder to make money from small-time drug dealing. Some long-term unemployed young people are now also turning to crime.

However, most believe the contraction of the cocaine market has had positive results. As one source puts it: “The minute the recession hit, the whole cocaine thing just fell apart. Before, you had people so out of control and who did so much damage that you knew they had taken it, now you see that less often; [there is] less of that extreme force and violence.”

Other gardaí say small changes in discretionary spending can have a big impact. “People haven’t got €10 or €15 to catch a taxi into a town and back again, so more people are staying local and not travelling into towns as much as they used to,” says one garda. “It means the boozing is more spread out, in local pubs that are calmer places than big nightclubs. And people are also drinking at home more; I think that all leads to fewer problems.

“But then people being threatened on the streets during robberies and pickpocketing and burglaries are on the up because people are short of money. So there’s always something. Crime is still in business in loads of ways; big and small.”

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