Why Crime is Not Easy to Measure and How Crime Data is Affected by More than Crime

by Scott Richter and Dr. Patrick Jones

Crime statistics are not like other statistics found on Spokane Trends. First, to better their odds of “getting away with it”, most perpetrators will do their best to cover their tracks given enough time. It could be a simple as waiting in the shadows to make sure no one will see the crime take place, casing a joint, or even running away from the scene.

Consider if other data, such as per capita personal income (PCPI) or taxable retail sales, were collected the same way as crime data. It would take the PCPI  or Retail Sales Police actively seeking out this information, and relying on the community to report income or retail sales numbers not for themselves or their businesses, but for random people and businesses they just happen to interact with for a few moments. Therefore, crime statistics are inevitably lower than the true frequency of crime.  

The comparison is corny, but the substance of it is real. The FBI estimates during 2018, total collective financial loss to property crime victims in the U.S. was $46.4 billion.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation measures crime throughout the nation in the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program. The UCR measures seven broadly defined crimes: four violent (murder-non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) and three property crimes. While property crimes are considered less severe than violent crimes, they occur at a much greater frequency and are more likely to not be reported to law enforcement.

As defined by the U.S. Department of Justice, UCR property crimes include:  

  • Burglary - “the unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or theft.”
  • Theft / Larceny - (excludes motor vehicle theft) “the unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession or constructive possession of another.”
  • Motor Vehicle Theft - “the theft or attempted theft of a motor vehicle.”

While the UCR is broad enough to provide a national standard, it has limitations. First, during a multi-crime event, only the most serious crime is counted. Example: someone badly physically assaults you and steals your car, just the assault is counted. Second, the UCR counts only crimes known to law enforcement. Unless law enforcement witnesses a crime, or discover new crimes while investigating others, someone must report a crime.

In Spokane County, the two most common ways for people report crimes are by calling 9-1-1 (when a crime is in-progress), or Crime Check 509-456-2233 to report anything regarding crimes that previously occurred.  crimes not in-progress, to report crimes or new information about previously occurred.

The UCR does not include drug crimes, simple assault, weapons violations, counterfeiting, or human . Other crime reporting systems, such as the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) do. NIBRS measures over 50 different crimes in three categories and will replace the UCR in 2021.

Law enforcement agencies in Washington State use NIBRS and report their crime statistics to the Washington Association of Sheriff’s and Police Chiefs (WASPC). WASPC then collectively reports all crime data collected by all law enforcement agencies in the state to the UCR. For comparison, UCR and NIBRS crimes are listed here (pgs. 2 & 3).  

Looking at the Total Property Crimes indicator on Spokane Trends, at first glance, we can observe that 2018 was sort of a middle-year for property crimes. The rate per 1,000 residents has been traditionally higher than the state and U.S. benchmarks and this relationship continued through 2018. In Spokane County overall, 47.1 property crimes were known to law enforcement compared to 29.9 in the state and 22.0 nationally.

The breakdown for 2018 reveals 18,080 larcenies / thefts, increasing by 59, or by 1.45% from 2017. Burglaries and motor vehicle theft were both down from 2017 and lower than their averages from the start of the series in 1995. More specifically, there were:

  • 3,477 burglaries, decreasing by 301, or by 7.97% from 2017. From 1995-2018, the average annual number of burglaries was 4,777.
  • 2,376 motor vehicle thefts, decreasing by 157, or by 6.20% from 2017. From 1995-2018, the average annual number of motor vehicle thefts was 2,423.

While true law enforcement simply can’t show in person or investigate every incident reported, they track type and frequency of crimes so they can respond accordingly where it’s occurring most often. This is the reason law enforcement agencies, including those in Spokane County, want people to report crimes they are aware of to create a more accurate view than if fewer people reported.

This influences crime statistics too. Just as an example, if actual crime stayed the same but more people are reporting than during previous years, an increased number of crimes will be known to law enforcement. So, statistically crime increased, yet actual stayed the same. What if the opposite occurred where fewer people reported crimes?

A Spokesman-Review article dated October 3, 2005 describes when major changes occurred to well-known ways residents could report crimes, including changing the phone number and reducing from a 24/7 service to 12-hours during weekdays, 9-hours on Saturday’s, and no service on Sunday’s.

The result, at least statistically, were significant decreases apparent in the middle of the Property Crimes graph on Spokane Trends. But, did actual crime go down? Not likely, and perhaps arguably even created an environment better suited for criminal activity. What happened statistically from 2004 to 2005 per 1,000 residents in:

  • Spokane County was a decrease 18.5 from 62.6 to 44.1.
  • Washington State was an increase of 0.3 from 48.5 to 48.8.
  • The U.S. was a decrease of 0.8 from 35.2 to 34.4.

More specifically in Spokane County: larcenies dropped from 19,020 to 12,660 (-33.4%); motor vehicle theft increased from 2,680 to 2,697 (+0.6%); burglaries dropped from 5,323 to 3,952 (-25.8%). It then took four or five-years for crime statistics to get back up to the same levels as before Crime Check was eliminated.

While crime statistics are important, by nature they cannot be definitive, but this doesn’t mean they are subjective. Safety, on the other hand, is subjective since people living in the same neighborhood, city, or county will respond differently based on personal perceptions and experiences.