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Police chief calls for better crime communication

Guéniat says the number of people murdered in Switzerland has reduced significantly and is stable and at the lowest level for the past 30 years RDB

Harmonised federal police statistics have been available for the past four years but the data remains extremely hard to decipher, and conflicting messages are sent out, warns Jura police chief Olivier Guéniat.

“It’s really serious…a massive con,” mutters Guéniat.

What’s up? Pickpockets in Porrentruy? Has a group of watch thieves slipped through the net over the border into France?

The police chief is angry about a “forgery” published recently in a couple of Swiss newspapers, which referred to Switzerland as “European burglary champion” based on a European comparison of statistics.

“They used poor methodology,” he goes on. “Switzerland should be in the middle.” Instead of 926.7 burglaries per 100,000 residents as stated in their articles, the correct figure should be 450  –  half the published amount. “This is quite serious what they did. The journalist still hasn’t got back to me.”

Police statistics and their interpretation is Guéniat’s field of expertise. The criminologist has closely followed this issue over the past 17 years. He was a member of a federal police statistics working group and gives a “decrypting criminality” course at the University of Neuchâtel.



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The statistics

Following the annual publication of crime statistics, the Jura officer regularly appears in the press to explain – and decry – the difficulties of communicating crime figures in a country of 26 different cantonal police forces. And this year is no exception.

He says the messages sent out by the Federal Statistics Office and cantons lack context and long-term analysis. Consolidated annual figures have been available for the past four years but it is possible to go back further.

According to the 2012 annual report on crime statistics, released at the end of March, there were 750,371 offences committed in the country last year. That’s 52,026 more offences, or nine per cent more, than in 2011. Thefts, particularly burglaries, drove up crime rates, says the Federal Statistics Office.

While the rise from one year to the next seems alarming, Guéniat puts the numbers into perspective: “By comparing one year to the next you can have a 20 per cent increase in burglaries but when you look over ten or twenty years the number of break-ins in 2012 was slightly less than in 2004,” he declares.

Switzerland recorded 110 murders in 1990 but there were 47 last year, he points out. Burglaries increased by 16 per cent between 2011 and 2012 to reach 61,128 incidents, according to the Federal Statistics Office. But when you know that in 2005 there were also 61,194 burglaries, and even as many as 83,416 in 1998 and 71,300 in 1982, what is the message? asks Guéniat.

The Jura official believes there is also a problem with the official methodology.

“We count crimes per 1,000 inhabitants, but when there is a break-in we count three crimes: a theft, a violation of domicile and damage to property. So if you have an increase of 1,000 break-ins your total figure increases by 3,000,” he comments.

Also, the full picture is blurred by some incidents being carried over into the next or following years.

“We reduced some numbers for 2011 and added them to 2012. Some cantons are three months late with the statistics. If you register something now which dates back to 2010 or 2011 it counts as 2013. So, when we communicate we communicate the wrong situation or not the real picture of the criminal reality, and this is not taken into account in the police message,” he declares.


Looking ahead

Guéniat would like to see the creation of an independent national crime observatory to improve analysis and avoid contradictory messages.

“Right now we’re giving a false perception to the population and the politicians talk about things they don’t have the full grasp of – it’s very complex,” he bemoans. “I’m in favour of reactivating the federal statistics working group to look at how to give a better overview of the situation.”

He admits that society’s attitudes towards violence do not help interpretation.

“Paradoxically the tolerance of violence has reduced enormously these past 30 years. The limit is a lot lower. We talk a lot more about violence even those which don’t affect us like in the US or Australia. Stories about violence have taken a huge place in the media alongside sport and celebrities,” he comments.

“And while the levels of tolerance have dropped, the levels of anxiety are affected by communication. The reactivity to violent acts has increased. When fear is installed it evolves in a negative fashion and it’s impossible to rationally counter as it’s emotional.”

After Guéniat’s recent appearance on a national TV programme comparing current crime rates to those of 20 to 30 years ago, he was criticised by Vaud’s police minister Jacqueline de Quattro as the “last Swiss police chief to still make such angelic remarks”.

But this does not dissuade him one bit.

“I’m not angelic. I don’t know why it disturbs people when I say that the number of homicides, people murdered, has reduced by half and is stable and is at the lowest level for the past 30 years, or that the number of cases of grievous bodily harm have reduced and armed hold-ups have reduced.”

“We live in a society that is less violent but the way the data is presented make it appears more violent. I always adapt my language in accordance with the indicators. I will always refuse to cry wolf to get voters or budgets. I prefer to tell the truth on security without negating the problems and trying to explain them,” he declares.

Police started collecting statistics on crime in 1982, with each canton developing its own collection and collating methods.

In 2006, the government, federal police and cantons decided to define a single method to collate data on criminality. Cantonal police then unified their IT systems to improve the traceability of criminals throughout the country.

Harmonized crime statistics from across Switzerland have been collected and published since 2010.

Olivier Guéniat was born in Porrentruy in canton Jura in 1967. He studied for his doctorate at the School of Criminal Science at Lausanne University.

1992-1997: head of the Jura police forensic unit.
Since 1997: head of criminal police of canton Neuchâtel.

Since 2011: head of police of canton Jura.

He gives a “Decrypting criminality” course at the University of Neuchâtel and also teaches at the School of Criminal Science at the University of Lausanne. He has published three books on youth delinquency, cocaine and heroin and suspect interrogation techniques.

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