What’s Really Going On With Crime Rates

Crime stats are used to judge the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies, but hardly anyone is questioning their validity or accuracy.
Published: October 21, 2013

Here’s an interesting overview of the ways crime statistics are gathered and recorded by traditional law enforcement agencies. It appears as though municipalities don’t receive the kind of scrutiny that colleges and K-12 districts do regarding the reporting of incidents.—the editors of Campus Safety magazine.

“Ethics.” The emphasis placed on the subject and its inclusion as part of many a law enforcement academy’s curriculum is understandable; our profession seeks to bolster a character trait that, in theory, already inhabits its men and women. And as ethics, according to its Wikipedia entry, seeks “to resolve questions dealing with human morality and concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime,” the ethical ideal is as coveted an entity within the profession as the moral one—perhaps, more so.

Modeling this concept in reality, however, can be a more difficult task for law enforcement than one might expect. For all its censuring of personnel for on-duty trysts and off-duty DUIs, the profession pays curiously little attention to an ongoing transgression perpetrated within it: stat fudging.

History of Lies

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Misreporting statistics about crime is not a new phenomenon. The practice may well predate the inception of the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) in 1930.

Developed in the 1920s by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Uniform Crime Reports program was designed to collect, classify, and store a variety of crime data in a uniform manner to allow comparisons across the nation. The FBI took over management of the UCR program the following year, and currently works alongside over 18,000 law enforcement agencies that voluntarily provide crime data to the program. The statistical results from this data are available in four annual publications: Crime in the United States, National Incident-Based Reporting System, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, and Hate Crime Statistics—that are widely used by criminal justice scholars and law enforcement and government leaders.

The UCR is extremely valuable and often the foundation of media stories on crime rates rising or falling. It is also flawed. There has long been a notion that some of the data provided by individual agencies may be inaccurate, either through human error or human intervention.

Related Article: It’s October. Have You Submitted Your Clery ASR?

When purposely committed, the impetus for such statistical “errors” may be a strategic feint, an attempt to create an illusion of vulnerability, or strength, depending on one’s agenda. Within law enforcement agencies, that feint can be the illusion of success, particularly in metropolitan areas where a desire to attract the dollars of citizens, visitors, tourists, and businesses trumps concerns over the welfare of that patronage.

Elsewhere, creating the impression of a crime problem can have its benefits, as well.

“It could go either way,” notes Debra Littlejohn Shinder, IT security specialist, former police officer, and academy instructor. “The environment in which the police work can be made to look worse than it is in order to convince management, legislators, and/or the public that the budget needs to be increased and more personnel need to be hired. In extreme cases, a concerted effort on the part of the troops can make administrators look bad in hopes of instigating a change from above.

“Then there are numerous ways that individual police personnel or police agencies can ‘pick and choose’ when it comes to statistical analysis, to create the outcome or interpretation they desire. A common way of misleading with statistics is sampling bias (for example, presenting statistics based on only a particular portion of the geographic area where crime information is not typical of the entire jurisdiction).”

The decision to input this, delete that, or gloss over all is a conscious one. It can be an action taken by underlings acting in accordance with the desires of those above them; or of those still higher up the food chain. As such, it is a collaborative effort that takes place throughout all levels of law enforcement.

Cooking the Books

While sawing crime statistics in half and making the paper trail of real victims disappear often entails sleight of hand at the keyboard, the means by which a department may inflate or deflate the numbers comes down to initiative, creativity, and acts of prestidigitation that extend well beyond computerized Magic Markers.

And so felonies may become misdemeanors; misdemeanors, infractions; or vice versa.

Related Article: Your Campus Incident Reporting Cheat Sheet

Such statistical subterfuge was witnessed by retired police officer Mark Cirone during his 20 years with the Geneva (N.Y.) Police Department. “For instance, if someone reported a larceny of something off their front porch, the reporting officer correctly listed the appropriate larceny charge—petit larceny,” Cirone says. “The offense would later be changed to ‘police information.’ Burglaries would be reclassified to trespasses. Even attempted burglaries with smashed windows and damaged doors would be changed to criminal mischief. This prevented corresponding stats for the Uniform Crime Report and gave wiggle-room for the chief to tell the public that property crime was down across the city.”

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Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series