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Crime Statistics Don’t Tell The Whole Story

Clipped from the Welland Tribune newspaper

At first blush, there seems to be a paradox at work.

Each year, Niagara Regional Police brass approaches Niagara Region with an ever larger police budget. This year, the NRP is asking taxpayers to fund an $111-million budget, a historic high.

At the same time, crime rates remain in decline.

According to NRP statistics, Niagara’s overall rate of offences was about 6,300 per 100,000 residents in 2006. That is up slightly from the year before. While 2007 stats are not yet in, they are not expected to vary much from 2006 figures.

These numbers are part of an overall downward trend in crime in Niagara since 2001 – when the rate was 7,264 crimes per 100,000 people. Moreover, the crime rate in Niagara is well below the national rate.

But when asked about the steady fall of the region’s crime rate, Niagara Regional Police Deputy Chief Gary Beaulieu doesn’t get excited.

“Certainly, we don’t want to see the crime rate go up, and these statistics can be a valuable snapshot for us,” he says.

“But they don’t tell the whole story.”

The paradox is only apparent.

While it’s true the number of criminal incidents is falling, sometimes even the most dramatic drop on paper can be deceptive, Beaulieu says.

Take homicides, for example. In 2006, the number of homicides dropped 71 per cent from 2005.

While Beaulieu says that’s a positive development, it doesn’t reflect what police deal with from year to year.

“2005 was the year we had 14 homicides, which was a record number,” Beaulieu says.

“That was an extraordinary year, and after that we returned to our usual rate of about four or so a year.”

There’s also more than meets the eye regarding the numbers of attempted murders. NRP statistics show a drop of 16 per cent in 2006 from 2005. In reality, that was a reduction of one case.

“In some of these cases, the number of actual incidents are very low, so a change one way or another can appear as a dramatic shift when in fact things have remained basically static,” Beaulieu says. Several categories of crime saw significant-looking percentage shifts that were only minor changes in case numbers.

Because statistics on criminal acts can change wildly from year to year, they are often not the best indication of police workload.

Instead, NRP brass looks to the data on calls for service to gauge how busy officers are.

While crime rates can be mercurial, calls for service are more constant, Beaulieu says.

Since 2000, the NRP has responded to about 130,000 calls a year.

Not every call results in a criminal investigation, but each call requires time and “there is much more for us to do at each call now,” Sgt. Neal Orlando says.

“As a police officer today, your office has four wheels and four doors.”

Orlando, recently promoted and now head of the NRP community services unit, spent eight of his 14 years as a police officer on the road.

Unlike when he started, nearly everything today is done by computer in the police officer’s car, Orlando says, and in the past few years the NRP has fitted its cruisers with computer systems for that purpose.

The only exception is reports on traffic accidents. Officers make their report to the NRP on their computers, but have to fill out paper reports for the provincial Ministry of Transportation.

“So if you have a call that results in an arrest, you have to input that information right away,” Orlando says.

“Even if it is a call that didn’t result in an arrest, you have to clear that call. So that might just be a single sentence, but you still have to do it.”

Other calls can get “stacked” in the computer system, allowing the officer to respond to another call before filling out paperwork.

But at some point during their shift, an officer will have to park his cruiser and catch up on those reports, Orlando says.

The amount of data inputted by officers has also grown with the new technology.

“The reporting requirements are way more stringent than they used to be, and I know some guys don’t like it,” Orlando says.

“It does take more time to do, but look, it’s worth it in the end. The more detail that is in there, the easier it is to put the bad guy away.”

Statistics also do not show the increasing complexity of criminal investigations, Beaulieu says.

The technology race between criminals and law enforcement is escalating. Sexual predators use the Internet to lure unsuspecting children.

Thieves can steal your banking information at a debit terminal without you knowing. And even the most sophisticated forms of identification can eventually be faked.

“It’s a constant struggle to keep up,” Beaulieu says. “The technological demands on law enforcement now are tremendous.”

Investigations take more time and are harder to do now than they were even a decade ago because of technological changes, never mind the costs of equipment and upgrades to stay current.

“We also don’t know how much crime goes unreported,” Beaulieu says. “I don’t have any statistics to support this, it is more anecdotal. But I think some people do not report crimes, particularly what they might regard as a more minor crime, because they think nothing will be done about it.”

The stats are not useless, however, and can help police brass decide where best to focus its resources.

“Robberies,” Beaulieu says when asked if there is a shift in the crime stats that catches his eye. “Robberies are up and that is a cause for concern.”

Some stats on crime are a direct result of police activity. If police increase the amount of hooker sweeps they do in a given year, the statistics for prostitution will climb. That doesn’t mean there are more hookers, just that police made more arrests.

However, stats on a crime like robbery are harder to predict and prevent and are less influenced by police activity. As a result, a spike is more likely to reflect real increases, which means more victims.

And in 2006 there was a significant increase in robberies, jumping 24 per cent above the previous year. Violence, sometimes with weapons, always accompanies robbery and that potential for serious injury is what has Beaulieu concerned.

Caveats aside, the fact is statistics in Niagara, as with the rest of the country, show crime rates falling for at least a decade.

However, that has apparently not reassured the public, Brock University criminologist Voula Marinos says.

While crime rates continue to decline, surveys have shown the general public feels less safe, often believing crime is on the rise.

“I think part of the reason is where people get their information from and most often that is the news media,” she says.

Newspapers and television news programs tend to focus on individual criminal events – a recent murder, or a rash of break-ins – and more often than not do not place them into the large context of crime trends.

“At the end of a story on a murder, you aren’t going to write, ‘Well, it’s important to remember that murder has actually gone down in the last four or five years,'” she says.

As a result, people may conclude crime is getting worse.

Marinos says personal experience also has an impact. Someone who has been a victim of crime, or knows someone who was, is more likely to regard crime as a growing problem.

The disparity between the statistics and the perception of crime affects politics as well.

Marinos says it’s common to hear politicians use a “get tough on crime” message. But that message implies they have to get tough on crime because it’s getting worse. The statistics don’t enter the equation.

It works the other way as well, she says, referring to the case of 14-year-old Stefanie Rengel of Toronto who was fatally stabbed on New Year’s Day.

“In the discussion surrounding that, you didn’t hear much, if anything, about violence directed at girls or women. What you did hear was that the Youth Criminal Justice Act had to be tougher.”

The problem, she says, is the law is not a cure-all and what the statistics do not show are the causes of crime.

“The law is limited in what it can do because crime often has social causes it does not address,” she says. “The challenge is going to be to make those causes politically salient.”

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One Response
  1. what great information…thanks for the info

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