We’ve all seen, heard, or read about crime stats and their comparisons to previous years, such as the number of homicides committed in 2018 as opposed to those committed in 2017.
These are the numbers used by elected officials, and others, when they tell concerned citizens not to worry about the latest killings and robberies in their areas because violent crime is down by, say … 15%, for example. Yet, Sally Sue is too frightened to go to the store because the medical examiner visits her neighborhood nearly as often as the post office letter carrier. So why and how is it that a city’s crime rate can be down by so many percentage points, yet crime is still as rampant as ever in some areas of town?
Before we address Sally Sue’s woes, let us first examine the official nationwide reporting system used by law enforcement.
Uniform Crime Reporting System (UCR)
In the late 1920’s, the International Association of Chiefs of Police started a system of crime data collection called Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR). The program was officially implemented in 1930, or so, and participation was voluntary. The National Sheriffs’ Association also signed on to the program and encouraged all sheriffs across the country to participate. To this day, UCR reporting by law enforcement agencies still isn’t mandatory. But most agencies do submit data.
UCR reporting is not rocket science. Data is gathered from police reports and subsequently submitted to the FBI for compiling. However, not all crime data is reported. Instead, it is the most “popular” and violent offenses (Part I Offenses) that receive the most attention—murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. These are the stats we most often see listed in our local papers and in travel guides (Sugarcoatville is Now the Safest City in America: Violent Crime Down by 87%).
Part II Offenses are also reported for inclusion in UCR data, and they include simple assault, curfew offenses and loitering, embezzlement, forgery and counterfeiting, disorderly conduct, driving under the influence, drug offenses, fraud, gambling, liquor offenses, offenses against the family, prostitution, public drunkenness, runaways, sex offenses, stolen property, vandalism, vagrancy, and weapons offenses.
Now, let’s go back to where the data originates, and we’ll start with the crime, such as a rash of B&E’s in town and the police haven’t had any luck catching the suspects. Therefore, a bad guy, feeling confident he won’t be caught, decides to break into a home to steal whatever he can find that’ll bring a few dollars at the local pawn shop. So Mr. Crook pulls out a window air conditioning unit (this, by the way, is like providing bad guys with a personal key to your home) and slips inside. Fortunately, a vigilant neighbor, Sally Sue, witnessed the incident and called the police who showed up in time to catch the thug in the act. Thanks to the quick-thinking neighbor Mr. Crook wasn’t able to steal anything, but he still committed a burglary, a UCR Part I offense.
But … the town has a chief who’s been in the hot seat with her mayor due to a number of unsolved crimes and angry residents who want to see a stop to the rampant crime spree. After all, the front pages of local papers are filled with stories of the local high crime rate. So, the chief decides to make her numbers look a little better before the next council meeting, and all it took was to record a few of the B&E’s (Part I crimes) as trespassing, a non-UCR crime and, abracadabra, hocus-pocus, the crime rate just went down.
Hmm … she thinks. Why not switch a few aggravated assaults to simple assaults, and what about changing a couple of larcenies to possession of stolen property? Remarkably, all it took was a few strokes of an ink pen to magically reduce the city’s violent crime rate by a few percentage points. No harm no foul, right? After all, checking a few boxes doesn’t seem too bad. There’s nothing to write. No narratives. No explanations. So it doesn’t seem like lying. Just a checkmark in a box.
The papers are now reporting a lower rate of violent crime. Citizens feel safer. The mayor is happy. Birds are chirping. Children are back playing in the parks. The sun is shining. Rainbows paint the sky with happy colors. More importantly, to the chief, she keeps her job. In the meantime, thugs are are still stealing, robbing, and assaulting. And Sally Sue and her neighbors must still step across chalk outlines of dead bodies on their way to the nearby Piggly Wiggly. But the numbers are down … Hallelujah, the numbers are down!
Of course, falsifying these numbers is a rarity, not the norm.
Another way low UCR data/crime rates offer the public a false sense of security is because the figures we see blanket an entire city. In other words, crime could be seriously out of control in certain sections while nonexistent in others. But, the data is compiled and averaged over the entire municipality.
If the ” low crime” areas saw a reduction in crimes committed (a bunch of bad guys moved out and were replaced by honest folks) while the high crime area numbers remained stagnant, the city would show a decrease in its overall crime rate. And this is while the residents of the high crime neighborhoods are still living in fear.
Those who don’t live in or visit the dangerous areas never see the troubles; therefore, they believe all is okey-dokey in the La-La-Lands created by a bunch of not-quite-so-accurate and slightly misleading numbers—numbers politicians often love to toss out as bones to voters (“On my watch, the city saw a 17% decrease in violent crime.”).
Remember, too, that UCR reporting is voluntary. Law enforcement agencies are not required to participate. I’m not sure of the exact number of departments who do not send data, but whatever the number, it could be enough to skew the data one way or another. Add that to administrators who don’t mind “fudging” the numbers a bit, especially during election years, and, well …
Again, changing a number here and there is not the norm. Not by any means. In fact, it’s a rarity. But, as we all know, there’s always a few bad apples who’re waiting to spoil the bunch. Fortunately, when these badge-soilers manage to slip through the cracks they do not remain in office for very long. Bad acts generally find a way to bite these folks in the place where the sun rarely shines.
For example, according to a 2016 article in the Tucson Sentinel, written by Rebekah Kearn, six officers Arizona State University’s Police Department testified in court that they were ordered to change crime statistics or otherwise falsify the crime statistics to make ASU appear safer, and to prevent local citizens from seeing the crime that occurred on or around the campus.
Kearn’s report also detailed similar actions of agencies falsifying UCR reports, such as an audit in 2003 that found 22,000 unreported crimes in Atlanta in 1996 during the Summer Olympics. New York City and Broward County, Florida were also mentioned in the article.
Kearn wrote, “In 1998, the Philadelphia police department was blasted for sitting on thousands of rape and sexual assault cases, choosing to handle them with ‘an eraser’ rather than investigation …”
The Fudge Factor
In 2012, former state and federal prosecutor Val Van Brocklin addressed the issue of falsifying UCR and other police reports in an article for Police One titled Fudge factor: Cooking the Books on Crime Stats.
In her article, Van Brocklin mentioned, of course, the incidents and departments addressed in the Tucson Sentinel piece, but she dug even deeper to include, for example, four New Orleans officers and a district commander were fired for downgrading hundreds of serious crimes. To rub salt in the wound, the fired commander won both quarterly and annual crime reduction awards offered by the department. He “cooked the books” to show a favorable reduction in crime in his district, and so that he’d win the top honor for the faux achievement.
Van Brocklin’s article lists several ways stats could be altered, such as simply not filing a report, undervaluing property so that the crime drops from felony status, shooting attempts not listed as attempted murder and are instead classified as criminal mischief, classifying burglaries as simple trespassing or merely misdemeanor theft, and on and on and on.
Murder Stats are Accurate
Still, UCR stats are most likely accurate regarding the number of homicides committed and the weapons used to carry out those crimes. This is so because those numbers are nearly impossible to hide. Dead bodies do not go away on their own, nor do the things that caused the death—guns, knives, fists and/or feet, poisons, etc. Besides, it would be extremely difficult to downgrade a murder to any other crime.
By the way, each year the FBI releases their UCR report data, such as the numbers I posted yesterday regarding the weapons most often used to kill.
National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS)
NIBRS differs from UCR in that details of each crime reported are expected—where the crime occurred, how it occurred, who was involved, characteristics of the perpetrators, time of day, gang involvement, drugs involved, or not, victim data, was the crime an attempt or a completed offense, relationships between victims and offenders, arrestees, and property involved in crimes, time of day, and whether the incident was cleared, etc.
NIBRS is scheduled to replace the UCR program in 2021. The transition includes a partnership with the Bureau of Justice Statistics on the National Crime Statistics Exchange, and working with advocacy groups whose goal is to ensure proper collection of and reporting of accurate data.
Hopefully, NIBRS will discourage or perhaps even eliminate the Fudge Factor.