A police watchdog has raised concerns that Police Scotland has failed to adequately learn lessons on recording crime.
The force’s accuracy and compliance with national recording guidelines is “generally good”, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) Gill Imery found in her latest audit, but recurring errors date back to 2013.
Her team tested crime recording accuracy and standards compliance by analysing more than 10,000 crimes, incidents and crime records for the Crime Audit 2020.
They found that Scotland-wide, 90.8% of crime was counted and classified correctly, down from 4.3 percentage points from the last audit in 2016, while 91.4% of incidents were properly closed, down from 92.7%.
A total of 91.1% of crimes were recorded within 72 hours of being reported to the police, a marginal rise from 90.8% in 2016.
The force failed to meet its 95% compliance target and the overall figures were found to mask performance variations across divisions, ranging from the lowest on the 72-hour limit at 70.7% in Dumfries and Galloway to 98.6% in the Highlands and islands.
Lanarkshire was the only division to perform above average in all areas.
The report found “scope for improvement” in recording sexual and violent crimes after a fall in standards, but praised compliance rates in recording domestic abuse, with 10 out of 13 divisions achieving more than 95%.
The lack of a national crime recording system “continues to limit the extent to which there can be consistent processes and resources to support accurate crime recording” and until this is implemented crime recording “cannot be managed as effectively and efficiently as possible”, the report states.
In the report, Ms Imery said: “Whilst we commend the excellent work of regional crime registrars and their efforts to revise and improve the Scottish Crime Recording Standard and its application, we were concerned to find many of the same errors recurring from HMICS audits in 2013, 2014 and 2016.
“There seems to have been insufficient organisational learning from our audits, as well as from Police Scotland’s own internal audits over the past seven years.”
She said recorded crime statistics “go right to the heart of public confidence and it is essential crimes are recorded accurately and ethically”.
She added: “The public use the data to determine if their local area is safe and if crime is decreasing or increasing.
“The police use them to monitor trends and variations, enabling them to ensure that resources are deployed appropriately.
“Our results show there is a need for improvement in many local policing divisions for Police Scotland to meet its own target of 95% of records filed accurately.
“For a national police service aspiring to provide the same quality of service to communities across the country, it is disappointing to find wide variations in compliance with recording standards at local level.
“Progress towards standardisation may be limited until there is a national crime management system in place.
“One area in which Police Scotland consistently performs well is in the documenting of domestic abuse incidents and this reflects the investment which has been put into training and understanding of domestic abuse, including new legislation.
“It is important therefore that learning from this area is considered when new legislation or improvements to practice are introduced.”
She made six recommendations for improvement including revising the Crime Recording Strategy to focus on effective implementation, to ensure internal crime recording audits are publicly reported and to develop a comprehensive approach to learning and training in this area.
Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable Judi Heaton said: “We value independent inspection which identifies our strengths as well as areas for improvement to help us maintain high public confidence.
“This inspection took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic which brought unprecedented challenges as we worked to keep our communities, staff and officers safe. It recognises our very strong performance across many areas.
“We are committed to ensuring that our crime recording meets our high standard of completion and accuracy, and we will continue to seek improvement in the small number of areas identified by HMICS.”
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf welcomed the report, saying it is important for “ensuring police continue to maintain best practice and make any necessary improvements”.
He added: “Of course, while the vast majority of cases are counted correctly, not all mistakes represent an undercount of crime – in some instances crimes have been over-counted.
“By all main measures crime, including violent crime, is now considerably lower than a decade ago, with fewer victims.”
A Scottish Police Authority spokesman said it will consider the report and track any related recommendations.