Crime Rankings for Cities: A Fair Comparison?

February 10, 2010

There is a recent article in the New York Times addressing whether or not officers and command staff accurately recorded crime data.

The article by William Rashbaum states:

“More than a hundred retired New York Police Department captains and higher-ranking officers said in a survey that the intense pressure to produce annual crime reductions led some supervisors and precinct commanders to manipulate crime statistics, according to two criminologists studying the department.”

“The retired members of the force reported that they were aware over the years of instances of “ethically inappropriate” changes to complaints of crimes in the seven categories measured by the department’s signature CompStat program, according to a summary of the results of the survey and interviews with the researchers who conducted it.”

See http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/07/nyregion/07crime.html?ref=nyregion

The article cites additional cities where crime statistics have been called into question. We are aware of many more.

This post doesn’t question or support the New York Times article or allegations regarding other cities. We do believe (as stated in additional New York Times articles) that crime has gone down considerably in that city and that most citizens claim that they can see and feel the difference; a remarkable achievement that is the envy of most American cities.

More to the point, we simply note that the collection of crime data is part art and part science. Our concern is principally the use of crime data to compare cities.

We get frequent requests for crime rankings for cities. According to Google, it’s one of the most popular terms for crime related searches.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) collects crimes reported to law enforcement agencies through state collection agencies and releases statistics for the nation, states, metropolitan areas and cities twice a year.

The National Crime Survey from the National Institute of Justice releases crime survey data for the country and does not offer crime statistics for states, metro areas or cities.

The FBI frowns on using data reported to law enforcement agencies to make comparisons of one city to another, and for good reason.

Most crime is not reported to the police (thus the need for the National Crime Survey to get a picture of total crime) so there is a lot of room for error. Law enforcement agencies can affect the amount of crime reported through aggressive interactions with citizens.

The FBI and state crime data collection agencies try to enforce common definitions on what constitutes a crime, but individual officers can (and do) downgrade crimes where definitions are vague. For example, an overaggressive person (or people) asking for money could be guilty of panhandling or robbery; it depends on how you interpret the aggressiveness of the person “asking” for money.

As stated above, some cities have been known to downgrade crimes. The past is filled with documented examples. Some cities do poor jobs of collecting and analyzing crime data.

Most crime rankings are based on crimes per 1,000 residents which immediately creates an unfair playing field if you get thousands of tourists or workers per day. Those thousands of “outsiders” will inevitably commit crimes or inadvertently create opportunities for crime that would not exist in cities not getting a lot of tourists or daily workers.

So the bottom line is that crimes and crimes reported can and will differ for reasons having little or nothing to do with the quality of policing or crime control strategies.

Having said this, the warning from the FBI is routinely ignored by every newspaper in the country; all report on how their city or county or state ranks regarding crime.

So if you choose to look at rankings, please do so with an open mind. A city may have crime problems, but hundreds of thousands or millions of its citizens and tourists and workers move throughout their city in relative safety on a daily basis.

For city crime rankings, see http://crimeinamerica.net/city-crime-rates-top-ten-cities/.

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Andrea Schneider

This is definitely a can of worms! Having evaluated all the innovative Advancing Community Policing Grants for COPS there are so many ways to slice and dice data. On top of that it rarely is contextual data or qualitative in nature.
I was convinced that much more can go on in a city to reduce crime that may not show up in any crime analysis data. It is a shame not to tell those stories as part of the whole picture.
I am also unhappy to see the decline in emphasis on community policing on the federal level. It’s a mistake to not either replicate solid ideas or incubate new ones, or both.
There are law enforcement leaders who are leaders in community policing and we would be well advised to ask them what they see as the current state of crime statistics.
This is not a simple matter and often not something built into day to day law enforcement so I’m not surprised to see that good data is not so easy to find across the field.