Debunking Misuse of Statistics

New Swedish Crime Report: Almost All Crime Decreasing or Unchanged

Crime trends

The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention has recently published a new report on crime trends in Sweden. It features an introductory chapter and then separate chapters devoted to the different major crime categories being measured in Sweden, from lethal violence and physical assault to drug crimes and drunk driving. Each chapter exhaustively identifies data sources and synthesizes their information while being careful to consider both strengths and limitations of different data sets. The report can be read in full by going here and a cached version of the document is available here.

Many politicians and media activists want to instill fear, uncertainty and anger into people in order to gain attention and votes. They often make the claim that crime is on the rise and that only they have the willingness and power to take this alleged problem seriously. In reality, crime is generally decreasing across Europe and the United States over time.

The general crime trend found in this most recent report is clear: almost all crime categories are either unchanged over time or decreasing and this trend can be seen in many countries in western Europe. Some crimes like bank robberies or car thefts have substantial collapses (decreasing between ~75%-80%). Other crimes like lethal violence have had a long-term decline since the 1990s whereas others like robberies are more or less constant over time. The one key exception is fraud. The proportion of the total population that have been the victim of fraud have increase from 3% to 3.5% of the population during the years 2005-2015. About 80% of frauds are either Internet-based or involve the use of debit or credit cards. The clearest reason for this is likely the rise of Internet crime since so many more people are now using the Internet to buy things or make transactions.

Let us take a closer look at each of the crime categories discussed in the report and highlight some important facts and arguments:

Lethal violence: the number and per capita cases of lethal violence has declined over time in Sweden since at least the 1990s (Swedish murder rate is currently less than 1 per 100 000), just like in many other countries in the world. The decrease is most obvious outside the three largest cities in Sweden, where it has dropped by between 25-50% since 2000, but substantial year-to-year variability and geographical differences and the fact that the absolute number of murders in Sweden are so few makes it hard to make too radical conclusions besides the fact that there is a clear decrease overall. The police can tie a suspect to a murder in about 80% of the cases and this figure has increased over time. The length of prison sentences have also increased over time, in contrast to the believe that murderers get off a lot easier now than before.

Physical assault: the number of people who say they have been the victim of physical assault has decreased somewhat since 2000 and this trend is supported by hospital data (decrease from ~3% to ~2% of the population). In contrast, the number of police reports have increased. This is due to improved police methods, increased tendency to report physical assaults and a lesser tolerance of physical assault. Most forms of physical assault occur in public places between strangers under the influence of alcohol.

Robbery: the proportion of people who report in crime victim surveys to have been victims of robberies have been unchanged since 2005 at about 1% of the population. The most consistent change is probably a substantial decline in robberies against banks and against cash transports. This is thought to be due to improved security, the usage of so called “closed systems” and a general decline in the use of cash in society. Many criminals who use to commit these kinds of robberies are either in prison or have moved on to more lucrative forms of crime.

Sex crime: over longer time periods, sex crimes (including rape) is either decreasing or roughly constant as measured by crime victim surveys. A short-term increase in the last few years has been observed in crime victim surveys and those related to less severe forms of sex crimes, likely du to increased attention given to non-consensual sexual touching at summer festivals. This is further supported by the fact that hospital data does not show an increase in people seeking medical attention after being subjected to a sex crime. However, because of a lot of year-to-year variation and the dangers of over-fitting short-term noise, it is difficult to ascertain what is a real increase and what is due to these other factors.

Threats and harassment: since 2005, the per capita incidence of threats and harassment have been largely unchanged according to crime victim surveys, but some degree of year-to-year variability. When it comes to unlawful attempt to influence government personnel, harassment are much more common than threats. The number of police reports on threats and harassment have both increased over time.

Fraud: this is the category where there has been a discernible increase since 2005 as measured by crime victim surveys and about 40% of crimes occur on the Internet and about the same proportion of cases involve debit or credit card scams. In 2005, a little less than 3% of the population were victims of fraud, whereas the figure for 2015 is around 3.5% and there is a clear upward trend over time. In particular, fraud that impacts legal persons like corporations have become more common. Reasons for this increase is thought to be due to more business being done on the Internet, such as ordering products or making transactions. Since Internet fraud can also hit a lot of people, each person that suffer from it gets a separate police report if they chose to report it to the police.

Theft: the proportion of people who have been the victims of thefts have decreased over time. In particular, car thefts have decreased the most (~80% decline from 2000 to 2015 in crime victim surveys and other crime statistics) due to improved electronic theft protection due to EU regulations. Theft from houses are roughly constant over time. The long-term decline in theft during many decades is thought to be due to a cultural counter-reaction to the crime type, that young people commit less crime, and that the “opportunity structure” has changed due to improved security in homes, cars and stores.

Drug crime: this category is strongly dependent on police surveillance and the figures differ depending on how much effort the police put towards these kinds of crimes. Survey studies done on any drug use among students in junior high school and high school have been roughly constant since the early years of the 21st century. Other surveys carried out by The Public Health Agency of Sweden on people aged 16-25 show that the proportion of people who has ever tried cannabis has varied between ~15-18% since measurements started in 2004. Most drug crime is probably committed by heavy users and those have increased during 1979-1990. Since 1990, the development is more uncertain, but due to the lack of frequent research and also because subsequent studies have used different methodologies. There is no data available after 2007. Other data sources, such as drug mortality rates, health care data and an apparently increase among treated and convicted young people could be an indication that the rate of heavy drug is increasing. The largest increase in police and custom seizure of drugs has been cannabis (roughly doubled since 2000) and prescription drugs (also about a doubling since 2000).

Drunk driving: multiple data sources indicates that the drunk driving rate (alcohol) has decreased until 2010, whereas the change between 2010 and 2015 is somewhat unclear, but appears to be roughly unchanged. For driving under the influence of drugs, the existing data indicates that it is relatively unchanged over time, but because there is a lack of sufficient studies, this cannot be known with any great confidence. Data sources relied on for this crime category include police reports, data on alcohol consumption in the population, yearly surveys from The Swedish Transport Administration, stationary police controls and data on the number of drunk drivers who died in car accidents.

This ~370 page report on crime trends in Sweden is a much-needed special study that highlights and clarifies the fact that crime is generally decreasing in society or unchanged. There are a few cases where this is not true, such as fraud, but that might be due to the increased reliance on the Internet for shopping and transactions. These facts are in stark contrast to the lies about crime trends told by ideologues in an effort to gain political power. Their claims are in many cases intentionally engineered to make people afraid and angry and they take every opportunity to jump on very short time periods that appear to vindicate their stance, just like climate deniers who pick out intervals from a warming trend in an effort to make it appear as if there is no warming. When people are afraid and angry, they may be more likely to take political decisions that they would not otherwise be so keen on taking.

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