Stan Hall: Running the numbers on crime



The FBI released its latest crime statistics last week. Even as someone who daily deals with the cases that these statistics are born from, I was actually surprised at the headlines that the report offered. The report stated that the crime rate in our country, from 2009-2010, had experienced a 6% decline. My first reaction was that I wondered if the same people who had prepared the Atlanta Public Schools testing results had also had a part in the math results of this report. A 6% decline just didn’t seem to feel right with everything that I have seen during the last year or so. I actually thought we would have seen an increase.

I checked with some of my cohorts to get their reaction to the report and they, too, were skeptical about whether these numbers had any semblance of the reality that we see up close and personal. I checked the numbers of our office and while there did not seem to be a dramatic increase, I could not find a 6% decrease. Our numbers seemed to be fairly static over this reporting period. The report also talked about the steady decline during this period of violent crime. The report went on to say that since 2001, violent crimes have dropped an amazing 13.4%. From a media perspective, and if you believe what you see every night on the news, it seems that the local police in the entire Atlanta area are actually quite busy. I don't recall this many bank robberies since Bonnie and Clyde were wreaking havoc in their heyday. We have had our share of shootings involving some fairly violent acts that seem to have no rhyme or reason as to why they occurred. Smash-and-rob incidents have been so rampant that our financial advisors are suggesting that glass repair industries might be a smart bet for investments. I would suggest that all of these types of crimes should probably be considered as violent.

So what are we to believe? Is the crime rate truly spiraling downward as this report would suggest? I suppose we should put perception aside as we try and dissect these numbers to get the real picture of crime in our country. First of all, where do the numbers come from? These statistics are compiled based on police reports that are supplied to the FBI by approximately 18,000 of police departments across the nation. In defense of the FBI, these numbers are only as good as what are presented to them. According to the FBI report, these changes do not include explanations as to the changes by the contributing departments.

The report stated that murders were down by 4.2%, aggravated assaults were down by 4.1%, rape was down 5% and robbery was down 10%. In trying to justify my suspicion as to whether crime was actually down or not, and if violent crime was truly down, I wondered if my doubts were based on an increase in non-violent crime. The report also negated that. Non-violent crime is allegedly down 2.7%, with auto theft and arson down more than 7%. The report even went on to boldly state that it appears that 2011 numbers will be down as well, and that the economic factor, unemployment factors, and housing issues have had no effect on the crime rate. Really?

As I continued to read, I wondered if I was completely off-base with what I perceived the crime rate to be. Maybe I was completely wrong. Maybe I was just imagining the endless number of defendants who were sitting in our jails. Maybe I was wrong about the number of defendants on court calendars and the number of trials that we have seen. Maybe I'm just wrong about the number of people who are victimized each year by criminal activity -- which, according to the National Victims Center, is one every 1.6 seconds. Maybe I was wrong that every 35 seconds, one person is murdered in our country. And, maybe I am completely hallucinating to believe that a robbery occurs every 1.3 minutes and a sexual assault occurs every 4.2 minutes. What was I thinking? These are just numbers.

The report goes on to say that while the FBI offers no explanation for the reported decreases, several independent criminologists and academics cited an aging population, stepped up community policing, and local and federal programs targeted at youth and recently released prison parolees. Well, that explains it. Why didn't they just say that to start with? I feel safer already. To heck with all the news about robberies and shootings and so on and so on. Poppycock!

I am, however, reminded of our State of the Union speech that we hear each year, that is also heavily influenced with numbers and statistics that remind us, despite what we may be experiencing in our lives, about how great things are. Jobs are up, the economy is up, business is booming. Each year, after hearing about all of this good news, my first thought is ... what country was he talking about? Surely someone gave him the wrong speech. After having read the crime report, I had a similar feeling.

I must say, however, that I truly hope I am all wrong and that that the statistics are accurate. If we ever needed a little good news, the crime rate in our country is an excellent target. A decreasing crime rate would go far to bolster so many other things in our lives to make them much more positive as it applies to our overall quality of life. But I am also reminded about what Andrew Lang once said about statistics; "A forecaster uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts, for support rather than for illumination."