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.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.