19 December 2011

Beyond stranger-danger: Scotland's amicicide statistics...

Christmas. A time of family and friends. The doors and windows are shuttered against the frost and the cold.  A fire glows in the grate, and all sprites and goblins are shut out.  Traditionally, many people enjoy ghost stories around this time of year.  For those of us who follow them, the Festive season also brings with it the annual release of the Scottish homicide statistics, and their ghoulish and unhappy catalogue of human cruelty and folly over the past twelve months. Often as not, the data is only pressed into service to attack the government of the day and undermine claims made about the efficacy of its policies. It goes without saying, but behind these statistics lies great sadness, squandered possibilities, grave errors of judgement which can never be recalledThe data can never adequately capture that. 

What it can do, however, is challenge and surprise us in a range of ways.  Our public debates are saturated by haunting tales of stranger-danger, and often wildly inaccurate assumptions about the nature of crime. Take a few commonplace examples. Is gun-crime a significant problem in Scotland? Where are people killed, and by whom? Bleak thought it is, this Scottish Government data speaks to these issues in important (and I think for many in surprising) ways. In Scotland, aggressors and those killed are overwhelmingly male, with a substantial majority of folk dying in homes and houses and around them, often at the hands of their friends, family and those they are acquainted with, most on the points of sharp instruments, such as knives. This is a macabre litany, but I'm struck by the extent to which it deviates from dominant ideas of crime, of risk, and who is most at risk of serious violent crime and from whom. I forget the precise source for this thought, but after the police and the army, the family is arguably the most perilous (as well as potentially the most nourishing and supportive) social unit in our society. 

The most basic question is obviously, how many people were killed? In 2010/11, there were 95 cases and 97 victims of homicide, with 138 persons accused of committing them. Below, I put 2010/11 in the context of the preceding decade...


Geographically, a shocking 64% of homicide cases were investigated in the Strathclyde Police force area, with 27.3% of cases occurring in the city of Glasgow.  So who are these victims? The gender-divisions are sharp, both in terms of victims and persons accused...


And accused persons? Of 2010/11's 138 accused persons, 111 were male and only 27 were female...

A grim tale of predominantly male aggression and suffering. Yet vital context is absent. Are these unknown strangers who shank each other in the street? Brutal and drunken pub fights that idiotically send participants to their maker?. Generally speaking, not at all and certainly not predominantly. First, let's look at the relationship of the accused person to their victim. Thereafter, we'll come onto the geographies of homicide in Scotland.

As you'll have clearly discerned, last year over 68% of homicide cases involved friends, relations and acquaintances.  Given the close connection between most victims and their attackers, the geographic data becomes much less surprising.  While nobody was killed in licenced premises in 2010/11, the location data breaks down as follows...

We now have a little better idea about the who and the where of homicide in Scotland.  But how do people die? The figures by method of killing break down as follows...

Percentages can be a little bamboozling. I won't pluck out all every single macabre detail, but in terms of simple numbers rather than percentages, it is worth nothing the exceedingly small number of people killed using firearms in Scotland...

By way of contrast, across the last decade, significantly more people were killed by poisoning than died as the result of guns.

However, and most concerning, the pre-eminent method of homicide in Scotland remains by sharp-implements, including knives.  While 2009/10 recorded strikingly low levels of homicide-by-knife, the figures have shot back up during 2010/11, to the second highest number of homicides by sharp-instrument in the last decade.

How many, how, and who - but why? Causal explanations are always trickier. I don't propose further to explore the data, but the police have summarised main motives for killings, suggesting that some 48.5% of homicides in 2010/11 are accounted for between "rage and fury" (19 homicides) and "fights and quarrels" (28).  Strikingly, two deaths last year have been attributed to "contract killings", with eight apiece attributed to "jealousy" and "financial (theft or gain)".  Finally, data is collected on the alcohol and drug status of accused persons. I'm a touch unclear on the definitions being used (in particular, whether the term "drunk" denotes intoxication to a significant degree, or whether it denotes any degree of alcohol consumption).  That note of interpretation despite, these are our latest figures...


  1. It's a story to make you read & weep. Men, young ones, blading each other in a moment of rage.

    There is definitely something wrong with some young men's ability to express emotion other than in rage & violence.

    There is a problem there & it is a very deep rooted one.

    But, aside from that, the statistics are fairly positive. This is not the murder capital of Europe or a very violent land. There is a specific cultural problem affecting certain people in certain locations.

    Will the media report that? Will they hell.

  2. Who kills infants and young children? I was once told many years ago by an academic medic that his university would be unwilling to support his - and others similar - research proposals which could expose a rate of abuse and murder perpetrated by the non-biological partner that could be awkward. The medics believed that their blocked intentions could have had remarkable implications for the welfare of children but the reputation of university involvement in potentially claiming much human activity in genetic perpetuation is similar to that in the natural animal world - amongst many other tricky cultural and social findings and therefore complex political responsibilities.

  3. Observer,

    I didn't pull them out beyond the Strathclyde/Glasgow aspect, but it is instructive to look at how these events are distributed across the country. Certainly, I think far fewer people are killed than most people imagine. The gun statistics, in particular, are much smaller than most folk I talk to tend to guess.


    As it happens, when I was studying in the Netherlands, we did a course with a loopy forensic scientist in which infanticide in particular was discussed quite extensively. I was surprised to discover that it is often treated as a distinct crime from homicide/murder in many parts of Europe, with more lenient penalties being imposed on those who commit it.