A robbery is not the same as a murder: Why the U.S. needs better crime statistics

Crime: on balance, bad. Image: Getty.

President Donald Trump has long focused on Chicago as a hotbed for American crime. This came up yet again on 8 October, when he said that he had directed the Justice Department to work with local officials in Chicago to stem violence in a city overwhelmed by its high rate of violent crime.

With 24.1 homicides per 100,000 people – more than four times the overall U.S. rate – Chicago certainly suffers from serious problems. But, as of 25 September, St. Louis, my hometown, is called by the FBI the most dangerous city in America with over 6,461 violent crimes reported in the city limits in 2017. That’s an increase of more than 7 per cent from the previous year.

St. Louis only ranks third for homicides in the U.S. by rate, but it’s the No. 1 most dangerous city. So by what metric does the government measure “most dangerous” – and why is Trump’s focus concentrated on Chicago and not St. Louis? As a statistician studying how people can manipulate numbers, particularly crime data, it is clear to me that the way crimes are currently counted in the U.S. can easily confuse and mislead.

Crime statistics

Since 1929, the FBI has managed the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), a project that compiles official data on crime across the U.S., provided by smaller law enforcement agencies. For example, in Missouri, data is provided directly to the state by both the county police departments and the smaller municipalities. This information is then sent to the FBI.

With 18,000 different law enforcement agencies providing crime data to the FBI, there must be a standard metric of reporting. So all crimes are classified into only two categories: Part 1 and Part 2.

Part 1 crimes include murder, rape, robbery, larceny-theft and arson – the serious crimes. Part 2 crimes include simple assault, loitering, embezzlement, DUI’s and prostitution – the less serious crimes.

Okay, makes sense. But here’s the catch: none of these crimes are weighted. When a “beautiful, innocent 9-year-old child who was laying on the bed doing her homework” is murdered in Ferguson as a retaliation killing, it counts just the same as when an individual is arrested for shoplifting $50 or more from the Dollar Store. This flawed metric allows for incredible confusion.

Take this example. You live in a nice neighborhood with a Kmart on the edge of it. “Serious” crime includes all the shoplifting from the Kmart; let’s say 150 incidents in a year. It also includes all the murders and rapes; call it 20 incidents in a year. The Kmart closes. All of a sudden, your crime rate has gone from 170 to 20: an 88 per cent decrease in crime.

Chicago mayoral spokesman Matt McGrath criticised Trump’s comments to the Washington Post, saying, “Just last week, [the Chicago Police Department] reported there have been 100 fewer murders and 500 fewer shooting victims in Chicago this year, the second straight year of declines.” And really, I crunched the numbers; all serious crimes are only up 6.88 percent since 2014.

But it isn’t the serious crimes that make me look under my bed before I go to sleep at night. It’s the violent crimes. Those are up 24.27 percent in Chicago between 2014 and 2017. Murder is up 59.53 percent. (Researchers are still trying to figure out what’s caused the spike.)

This metric can be misleading. Former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay touts “small gains” as overall crime numbers drop. Sure, the number of Part 1 crimes has actually dropped by 0.4 per cent since 2014. But violent crimes in the city of St. Louis have increased 24.04 per cent.

People can also get confused by the way crimes are sliced geographically. For example, in 2016, the city of St. Louis had a homicide rate of 59.8 per 100,000 people, while St. Louis County, which is separated from the city by a street, had a homicide rate of about 3.2 per 100,000. What combination of the two making up greater St. Louis gets reported in the news? Depends on the day.

New measures

Here’s what I know: the U.S. needs a better metric. How we measure crime has been contentious since the original FBI crime reporting document was released in 1929.

There are even issues with the counting itself. The FBI website removed data from Chicago’s crime statistics in 2013, because the FBI deemed it to be under-reported.


Hopefully, a more accurate metric comes in with the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, scheduled to roll out in 2020. For example, if a criminal assaults someone in their home and steals jewelry as well, that’s only counted as an assault under the UCR system. Under NIBRS, both the assault and theft would be counted.

But this system doesn’t seem to address the key issue: weights. Murdering a child cannot possibly count the same as stealing from the Dollar Store. It is inconceivable that raping someone can count the same as illegal gambling. You serve different amounts of jail time based on the severity of the crime – why wouldn’t crimes also be weighted?

Cities like Chicago and St. Louis most certainly have issues with crime. But how the U.S. measures “dangerous” must be made clearer. It does a disservice to our police and our communities by allowing this misrepresentation of the facts. Until then, politicians will be able to use this confusion to confuse the public, intentionally or unintentionally.

The Conversation

Liberty Vittert, Visiting Assistant Professor in Statistics, Washington University in St Louis.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.