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Commentary: Faulty U.S. Crime Stats Make It Hard to Know What to Believe


by James Varney

 

Americans can be forgiven for suffering from whiplash regarding law and order.

In recent weeks the Biden administration and many news outlets, including USA Today and The Hill, have touted declines in violent crime statistics to argue that America is becoming a safer place.

“Right now, with 2023 figures and early 2024, the trends are all pointing down, in a positive direction,” Jeff Asher, whose New Orleans-based AH Datalytics is developing his own “Real-Time Crime Index,” told RealClearInvestigations.

Conservative outlets, including City Journal and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, assert that minor declines in headline grabbers like homicides fail to capture what is really happening in the U.S.

From 2017 to 2019, the U.S. had an average of 16,641 homicides a year. In 2021 and 2022, however, the country saw considerably more bloodshed, with an average of more than 22,000 annual homicides. Even if the 2023 number drops slightly, it will still represent a large increase over the recent past, before the pandemic and racial upheaval set in motion in 2020.

Many criminologists say this illlustrates one of the problems with the official numbers that are at the center of public debate: They give a distorted impression of true levels of crime. They note that crime stats have become notoriously incomplete in recent years. In some years many big cities did not report their numbers to the FBI, and there are such wide discrepancies in these tallies that the picture they provide has more blur than clarity.

Declining arrest rates and slowing police response times to 911 calls also help explain why polls show Americans believe crime is rising. The experts say the numbers only give some sense of lawbreaking, while most Americans – the vast majority of whom are not crime victims in a given year – are influenced by their largely media-driven perception of whether society feels orderly.

“There are social media videos of people walking into a CVS and walking out with a shopping cart full and there seems to be no consequences – that’s part of the problem,” said Jay Town, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. “And then you have people arrested a dozen times and they’re out with no bail. There are no consequences, and thus there are more criminals in the street.”

Americans may fall back on such perceptions in part because the official reports are incomplete and rife with error. “I don’t think with any crime statistics we can ever be precise,” said Asher.

For decades, the traditional gold standard for criminologists was the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, annual compilations by the Bureau of stats provided to it by state and local law enforcement agencies. The FBI’s data, which currently show declines in several criminal categories, especially homicide, provide the basis for many of the stories arguing that, in terms of crime, the U.S. situation is improving.

But the FBI statistics aren’t what they used to be, according to several criminologists who pointed to gaps in coverage and apparent errors. The problem began in 1988 when the bureau began to move toward a complex new system of reporting – the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). It promised to provide more comprehensive detail and enable authorities to pinpoint high-crime areas, criminals, and victims more accurately.

But the transition proved to be a herculean task, so much so that the FBI allowed departments to delay their full adherence to the program even after the feds doled out $120 million to agencies to assist with compliance. Still, in 2020, 2021 and 2022, either all or some of the biggest police forces in the U.S. — New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles — did not provide data.

There have also been problems with the data that was submitted, including the news in 2022 of major problems with the St. Louis Police Department data, and more recent revelations that figures for sexual crimes provided by the New Orleans Police Department were wrong.

In Baltimore, the Police Department and various news reports put the total for 2022 homicides between 332 and 336, but the FBI’s dataset puts the number at 272. Baltimore police officials did not reply to RCI’s inquiries about the wide spread in the reported numbers, and if anyone in the city’s police department had brought the matter to the FBI’s attention.

The Baltimore department acknowledges its numbers may not be the same as those it submits to the FBI, but states on its website that “any comparisons are strictly prohibited.

Similarly, the police departments in Milwaukee and Nashville did not respond to questions about divergences between their stats on robberies and those from the federal bureau. Milwaukee police reported a 7 percent increase in robberies in 2023, but the FBI recorded a 13 percent decline.

An FBI spokesperson told RCI, “It is the responsibility of each state UCR [Uniform Crime Reports] program or contributing law enforcement agency to submit accurate statistics and correct existing data that are in error.”

Criminologists cite other discrepancies in the official measurements they use to assess the situation. While FBI stats show declines in violent categories, the Department of Justice’s survey reports more people saying they have been victims of such crimes. The Centers for Disease Control figures for homicides, which have long moved in the same direction as the FBI’s, started exceeding the FBI’s in 2020 and the gap has widened since then.

“I wouldn’t say the FBI is cooking the books, but that the data they are putting out is half-baked,” said Sean Kennedy, the executive director of the Coalition for Law, Order and Security, which has pushed back against recent media reports that crime is falling noticeably in the U.S.

“So it’s not a conspiracy but a rush job, and it’s giving people a false picture,” he told RCI. “They infer something is true, and then because it’s politically expedient they don’t bother correcting it.”

A Sharp Decline in Arrests

Some criminologists say there is another, hidden dynamic within the crime statistics that helps explain why most Americans think crime is on the rise – the dramatic decline in arrests. Scouring FBI data, John Lott, the founder of the Crime Prevention Research Center, found that arrests for reported violent crimes in major cities fell 20 percent in 2022, from 42.5 percent in 2019 – the year before the COVID pandemic and BLM protests in response to George Floyd’s death while in police custody.

The percentage of murder and rapes cleared by arrests fell to 40.6 percent from 67.3 percent in those years; for rapes from 33.8 percent to 17.4 percent, and arrests for reported property crimes in major cities dropped to 4.5 percent in 2022 from 11.6 percent in 2019.

It is not clear how much of this decline is due to reductions in the size of many departments – New Orleans, for example, reportedly lost 20% of its force between 2020 and 2022.

“There are lots of issues here, and I’m in disbelief about some of them,” said Lott. “It’s mind-boggling to me – we already know many crimes have always been underreported and now it seems to be, ‘Why bother reporting a property crime’ to the police? The bottom line is our law enforcement system seems in some ways to be falling apart, especially in the big cities.”

Calling the Cops … and Then Waiting

The plummeting arrest rates contribute to the general sense of lawlessness, a feeling compounded by surging increases in response times to calls. Comparing data for 15 law enforcement agencies from 2019-2022, Asher found only one city – Cincinnati – that reduced its response time, and that by 0.7 minutes. In New Orleans, the average response time nearly doubled, from 50.8 to 145.8 minutes, while Nashville saw a rise from 44.2 minutes to 73.8 minutes and New York City a 33-minute increase.

Some cities are even worse.

“If it’s not a shooting or a stabbing we’re up to about two hours for responding to property calls,” Jared Wilson, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, told RCI. “As a result, we’ve seen a significant problem with reporting of crime right now.”

Wilson said auto thefts better capture the state of crime and perceptions of it: As thefts of essential registered property, they tend to be reported. In San Diego, Wilson said, those have risen year-to-year, with a whopping 27 percent jump in 2021, all of which contribute to people’s perception of increased criminal activity.

Betsy Branter Smith, a retired cop and spokeswoman for the National Police Association, said such issues contribute to a deteriorating relationship between citizens and the police. That unraveling, along with increasing hostility between police departments and district attorneys in some big cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles, has made…



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