Crime Statistics and Public Expectations

Before I began work on my article, How to Lie with Rape Statistics, several local newspaper investigations turned up shocking evidence of systemic police undercounting of rape incidents in four cities across the country. In the mid-1990’s, the Philadelphia Inquirer caught the local police gaming the rape statistics sent to the FBI. The city police would regularly classify rape complaints as “investigate persons” without further inquiry. As a result, the city was able to announce lower violent crime rates based upon faulty data. In 2005, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch uncovered similar practices in St. Louis. There, the police used informal memos instead of written complaints to record allegations of rape. These memos were not counted in official crime numbers. The police even pressured victims to sign waiver forms releasing police from any obligation to further investigate their complaints. In 2009, the Times-Picayune and Baltimore Sun found large-scale rape data manipulation in New Orleans and Baltimore. The Baltimore police took advantage of the “unfounded” rule wherein police do not have to count criminal complaints deemed false. However, the department regularly used the category with little or no investigation performed. New Orleans police repeatedly downgraded offenses to crimes that were not counted in official stats.  According to the investigation, over half of New Orleans rape complaints were designated as “Signal 21” which was a non-criminal category where rape cases went to die.

Why would police engage in such blatant fabrication of crime statistics? The simplest answer is that the unrealistic goals of the public and politicians have left police in a no-win situation. Since the early 1990’s, the country has been in the midst of The Great American Crime Decline. Violent crimes, as tracked through the Uniform Crime Reports, have decreased at record rates throughout this period. And, yet, during that time frame, every Gallup poll except one indicated that the public believed crime actually rose from the previous year. On average, the polls showed that 61% of those surveyed believed that crime had increased from the previous year, 24% believed it had decreased, and 9% thought it had stayed the same. So, even as the FBI, police, and media were reporting record declines in crime, the public actually believed the opposite. In order to meet the unrealistic expectations of the public and their elected politicians, it is little wonder that some police departments resorted to less savory techniques to be able to report a decline in crime in their jurisdictions.

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2 Responses

  1. Police and politicians are always under pressure to show lower crime numbers. This leads to not only false reporting of crime statistics as you point out here but, also overzealous techniques in the prosecution of persons accused of crime. Prosecutors overcharge offenses, cops lie on the stand and experts are hired to “pad the truth” in order to pile up convictions. It should come as no surprise, then, that these same “powers that be” get “creative” in their classification of criminal activity for the sake of maintaining power and convicting the public that they are “doing a good job” and “getting tough on crime.”

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    It’s scarcely surprising that the public would think crime was constant, or even rising, even as it falls. The crime rate is low enough in most places that the only guide people have to crime rates is news coverage. And news coverage is nothing like a representative sample. It may even be getting less representative as time passes.