Victims of interpretation

Following the release of the most recent Victoria Police crime statistics, there’s been a lot of attention on doing something about the state’s “culture of violence”. Overall crime has dropped by 6.4% from 2008/09 to 2009/10, but in the same period the number of assaults has risen by 3.8%.

Naturally this has caused a lot of concern, with calls in the media for a reexamination of liquor licensing. And the still-new Baillieu government has been swift to respond with a crackdown on drunken louts:

“We promised to send a strong signal that drunken, loutish and threatening behaviour on our streets would not be tolerated and that people who engaged in such behaviour could expect a punishment that would hurt.”

But is this what the numbers really say? Are beer barns and young hooligans the real problem, or is something else going on?

Graph of percentage of assaults from family incidents in Victoria, rising from 11% in 2000/01 to 25% in 2009/10
Percentage of assaults arising from family incidents, 2000/2001 to 2009/2010 (Victoria Police)

Well, it’s pretty clear from the reports that the big rise in assaults is due to family violence, in particular violence against women.

Family incidents are included in the overall figure for assaults, but they’re also recorded in their own category so they’re easy to extract. And the number of assaults due to family incidents has actually gone up by 10.2%, compared to non-family assaults which have only risen by 1.9%.

Okay, so “only” may sound insensitive there, because we’re still talking about 476 assaults in the latter category. Those are real people, and we don’t want to deny their own suffering.

But when you’re trying to identify the real problem areas and form policy as a result, it’s important to examine the actual trends. And the discrepancy gets even larger when you take into account that Victoria’s population has also risen over the past 12 months. So even if the crime rate stayed exactly the same, you’d still expect the absolute numbers to have risen.

And when we do this proportional adjustment, we find that the non-family assaults have in fact fallen as a rate per head of population, by 0.3%. But the family assaults have still risen by 7.9%, even with this adjustment.

What’s more, when you look at who are the victims of these assaults, you find that the number of female victims has risen by 5.9%, whereas the male victims have gone up by 0.7%.

Now, it’s true that males still outnumber females as victims of assault – 17,781 to 13,132 – and family-related incidents account for “only” 25.1% of all assaults. But if you come to these figures asking the question “where are things really getting worse?”, the answer is not in drunken street violence as the media, politicians and most of the general public seem to believe.

Of course, if we’re talking trends here it’s important to not just look at one year where there may have been a statistical fluctuation; we should look at what’s happening over a longer term. And when we do that, we find that family-related assaults have risen from 2,546 in 2000/01 to 8,771 in 2009/10 – that’s an increase of 244.5%. (Over the same period, other assaults have also risen, but by a smaller rate of 38.0%).

But despite this clear trend, even when family violence is mentioned, the emphasis is still on alcohol-fueled street crime:

“Every weekend we have hundreds of police officers out on the streets, in licensed premises and in and around public transport corridors, actively working to address alcohol-related behaviour and violence.”
– Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe

Why is that? Is it because street violence is more visible, while family assaults happen behind closed doors? Or because drunken louts on the street make people feel unsafe, whether they’re getting worse or not? Or because it’s easier to do something by cracking down on liquor licences and bad language, rather than solving deeper problems of society? Or is there something more nefarious going on, and certain victims being systematically ignored?

Well, this is a science blog, and the actual politics is out of my area of expertise. But when the facts say one thing and the people acting on those facts say another, it’s clear there’s a problem.

It’s been said that there are “lies, damned lies and statistics”. But numbers themselves don’t lie – people do. And this close to International Women’s Day, I think we can do a little better.

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