Thursday, March 28, 2013

Comparing England (or UK) murder rates with the US: More complex than you thought

Thoughts on the Gun Debate part 4a -- wherein I fix my oopsie in regard to comparing US and English murder rates... Oooops. It turns out that I was wrong.

This post edited after comments were reviewed on 3/29/2013.  Edits from that date will be noted with an Edit tag. 

First, lets get this out of the way.  I'm not going to fuss here about the terms "England", "The U.K", "Great Britain", "The Olde Country" or "The folks with those classy accents who live on some islands off the coast of Europe."  I'll be careful to cite things in the links, but don't chew me up on where I'm talking about.

On to the oopsie. I have frequently in this series referred to the English murder rates as historically low and currently very low compared to US murder rates.  I blandly accepted the murder statistics published by the UK Home Office as definitive.  I overlooked the details of what and how the English counted "murders." It turns out that was a big mistake.  (I was first turned onto my error by this post at Extrano's Alley.)

I fell into a definitions trap you may not be aware of. The shortest version is this. We count and report crimes based on initial data. The Brits count and report crimes based on the outcome of the investigation and trial. Yep, that says what I meant it to say.



In the US, the count of people murdered kept by the FBI is pretty darned straightforward. Got a body, not natural causes, not suicide? Must be murder of one sort or another. Count it.

So, if you ask the FBI, they will tell you that for 2011 there were 14,022 murders or non-negligent manslaughters.  On the same line of that chart, they tell us the population was 292,364,075 which gives us a "murder" rate of 4.8 per 100,000 population. Those counts are based on crimes reported by local police agencies.  They say nothing about the clearance rate, nor if anyone was ever identified or charged or convicted or whatever.  Body, not natural, not negligent, homicide.  Duh.

Now, on to England. It turns out that the Home office is very restrictive in what they report as "murders."  Still, looking at the detailed report for 2010/2011 the Home office tells us that in the reporting period there were 636 murders "provisionally recorded" for a murder rate of 1.15 per 100,000 --- less than 1/3 the murder rate in the US.  (See page 16 of the source document)

I've reported these numbers blindly many times, and quoted sources with many (sometimes silly) explanations for the lower murder rate in the UK. There's a problem with that as it turns out. What about all those murders which were not solved? The ones where a conviction wasn't gotten? The ones where the appeals are still on-going? Not only that, but when exactly were these homicides performed?  The nice folks at the Home Office tell us:

Homicides are often complex and it can take time for cases to pass through the criminal justice system (CJS). Due to this, the percentage of homicides recorded in 2010/11 (and, to a lesser extent, thoserecorded in earlier years) to have concluded at Crown Court is likely to show an increase when thenext figures from the Homicide Index are published in 12 months‟ time. 
But in any event, according to a report to a select committee of Parliment:
Since 1967, homicide figures for England and Wales have been adjusted to exclude any cases which do not result in conviction
Note that the numbers provided were for murders "recorded" in 2010/2011, not murders "performed" in 2010/2011.  The killing might have happened a decade ago.  As a matter of fact, when a serial murderer was found out and convicted of some 172 odd killings over the course of two decades, all his murders got counted onto one year! Quoting from the previously cited Home Office report:
Caution is needed when looking at longer-term homicide trend figures, primarily because they are based on the year in which offences are recorded by the police rather than the year in which the incidents took place. For example, the 172 homicides attributed to Dr Harold Shipman as a result of Dame Janet Smith‟s inquiry took place over a long period of time but were all recorded by the police during 2002/03. Also, where several people are killed by the same principal suspect, the number of homicides counted is the total number of persons killed rather than the number of incidents. For example, the victims of the Cumbrian shootings on 2 June 2010 are counted as 12 homicides rather than one incident in the 2010/11 data.  (Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2010/11 page 16) 
OOOoooooops.  We're not comparing apples to apples, we're comparing apples to meatloaf.

Wait!  I have a clever idea!  Instead of going to the Home Office crime stats, let us go grab the death register numbers! (Link to excel spreadsheet) (essentially the same as the US CDC wisqars data) That leads to some odd things... (See Table 2 in the linked spreadsheet.)

In 2011 329 people died from "assault", 27 by poisoning (not suicide or work related), 361 by strangulation (not suicide), 127 by non-accidental or suicidal drowning, 7 with guns, 2 with explosives, 20 by stabbing, 62 pushed from a high place, 21 run over, and another 198 of "other specified events in various places" .

I make that 1154 violent deaths of interest to the police which would in the US be reported as murders, and that doesn't include every death that might be a murder since the "cause of death" of a murder or manslaughter victim might well be an infection or other medical complication resulting from an injury during a crime or assault. That death would be classed as murder in the US but I can't pull it out from the causes of death numbers. Never the less at a minimum this gives us about double the number of "Murders" in England as was reported in the Home Office crime stats.   Edit  Quick math says that if 636 deaths was a rate of 1.15 per 100,000 then 1154 is 2.08 per 100k.  Still substantially lower than the US rate, but substantially higher than the Home Office number.

There is another data source. You would think that you could go to the UK's dept of Justice and look at the outcome of Coroner's inquests to find homicides. Yep, you'd think that, but over the last decade coroners have taken to producing "narrative" verdicts instead of calling something a homicide  Edit or an accident or negligent or whatever. It's a way of avoiding making a causal decision at the level of a cornoner's inquest.  This is due to two different forces acting on them.  First, the 1988 Coroner's act. Quoting from the decision in the "Middleton" case:
The 1988 Act recognises that a death which is the subject of an inquest may also be the subject of criminal proceedings, and also recognises the general undesirability of investigating publicly at an inquest evidence pertinent to a forthcoming criminal trial. In a departure from previous practice, section 11(6) of the Act provides:
    "At a coroner's inquest into the death of a person who came by his death by murder, manslaughter or infanticide, the purpose of the proceedings shall not include the finding of any person guilty of the murder, manslaughter or infanticide; and accordingly a coroner's inquisition shall in no case charge a person with any of those offences."
    Thus the inquest jury may no longer perform its former role as a grand jury. Section 16 of the Act (and rules 27 and 28 of the Rules) make provision for the adjourning of an inquest when criminal proceedings are or may be pending on certain specified charges or in certain specified circumstances (but not solely because any criminal proceedings arising out of the death of the deceased have been instituted: rule 32 of the Rules). After the conclusion of criminal proceedings the coroner may resume the adjourned inquest "if in his opinion there is sufficient cause to do so" (section 16(3)). Section 17A makes provision for the adjourning of an inquest when a public inquiry into a death is to be conducted or chaired by a judge. A coroner may only resume an inquest so adjourned "if in his opinion there is exceptional reason for doing so", and then subject to conditions (section 17A (4)).    (Highlighting above is mine.)
The second force is the Middleton decision itself...  which I'll let you read. From an American's perspective, it's very odd.

Sorry about the long aside, back to murders. Remember that 657 number from the Home Office? The Coroners only called 229 of the cases they determined a cause of death on a homicide, and in 4400 cases they filed a "narrative verdict" describing the cause of death in a narrative manner without putting it in a category. If those 4400 cases are what we would normally call murders  Big Edit starts here that would suggest that the correct number of "violent deaths of interest to the police" is on the order of 4700 for 2011, then the UK murder rate is 8.5 per 100,000 or about 177% of the US murder rate. Now, honestly, we don't know what conclusion as to cause the coroner would have reached if they weren't using  It's entirely possible that very few of them would have been classed as homicides. We don't know.  My point here isn't that the English death rates should be quoted from the highest available but rather, no matter which source I attempt to use, I can't actually get an apples to apples comparison.  The data simply isn't available.  

In the comments, Cam found this interesting link on the effect of narrative verdicts on mortality statistics from 2010.  Cam helpfully runs the numbers to suggest that using this percentage breakdown of the narrative verdicts would increase the UK murder count by 308.  So, we have the "original 657 plus the "reconstructed" coroner's number of 308 giving 965 potential homicides.  This is about 200 less than I got from the cause of death numbers, but I think these numbers are for England only and don't include Wales, where the coroner's system is different. (Lots of countries and lots of legal systems in a very small space. The entirety of England, Scotland, Wales and both Irelands would fit comfortably in Kansas and Nebraska with lots of space left over.)  So I think this analysis is confirming.  

So, essentially, I conclude that the English murder rate, when analysed using the same criteria as the US murder rate, based on inputs rather than outcomes, is on the close order of  double the Home Office rate of 1.15. 

In the first version prior to edits of this post I noted that I had English Journalism sources which cited a much higher number of approximately 4700 deaths in 2011 which would be called "Violent deaths of interest to the police" which would generate a murder rate of nearly 8.5 per 100,000.  Sadly, my original sources have disappeared into the link-rot common on commercial web sites.  I am searching for, and if I can find printed copies of those sources, or alternate sources of the same information, I will put those links into a future Blog post.    End of Big Edit

I know, I know, there's no way I'm going to get most of my friends to read this, much less get people like Piers Morgan and his ilk to believe it much less repeat it, but still, here's the short version:

The murder rate in the UK is either equal to or higher than the murder rate in the US.  (Sources not available. See reduced conclusion instead.) 


The murder rate in the UK according to US standards is double or higher than their reported rate. It may be impossible to produce an actual apples to apples comparison number from official sources.  It is not 15% of the US rate.  


Note also that this is the MURDER rate, irrespective of the METHOD of the murder.  I utterly refuse to get into the discussion of "gun violence."  A death is a death.

Closing note:  Thanks to the excellent commentators for additional sources and for math error catches.  You all are great. -_ Rick
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