Sunday, June 22, 2008

Chronicle oversells rise in burglaries from Uniform Crime Reports

When the latest Uniform Crime Statistics came out, I mentioned that because of the poor quality of the data and the lack of contextual information, one should be wary of promoting misinterpretations of the data by singling out one area that increased and claiming it represents a crime problem. That's the approach taken in an article in the Houston Chronicle today ("Burglary increase puzzles experts," June 22):

The burglary was among more than 29,000 reported in Houston in 2007 — an 8 percent increase from the year before, based on preliminary Uniform Crime Report numbers recently released. Burglaries also went up in other major Texas cities — by 14 percent in San Antonio, 8 percent in Austin and 4 percent in Dallas.

Though such crimes rarely make the news or draw the public outrage that accompanies homicides and carjackings, they have the potential to become just as dangerous. That was evident last week when a 74-year-old ranch owner, Floyd Nauls Sr., was seriously wounded by gunfire after surprising two intruders inside his northeast Houston home.

Burglars can also destroy a sense of security not only in the homes they target, but also in neighborhoods, said Dr. Bob Walsh, retired criminal justice professor and former associate dean at the University of Houston-Downtown.

Victims "just have a sense of vulnerability that comes over them," said Walsh, a former burglary detective. "That feeling is communicated with other people, and it becomes magnified."

Experts say they don't know why Houston's annual burglary numbers jumped up, even as the city's homicides, rapes and car thefts declined.

Population growth is not entirely to blame. Even when factoring in the surge of new residents, Houston's annual burglary rate still increased from 1,296 to 1,339 per 100,000 residents, amounting to an increase of slightly more than 3 percent.

I view these data as the equivalent of a ruler with an error rate of plus or minus 12 inches. Too many unknown variables make this data impossible to interpret as concretely as the Chronicle story attempts to do with it. E.g., did the number of burglaries go up, or for some reason were a greater percentage reported? Reporting rates for property crimes are so low a slight increase can make a big increase in the numbers.

Thankfully some of the experts quoted in the Chronicle played down the numbers and added some context to their interpretation:
The rise in burglaries does not mean a crime wave is coming, experts say.

"As a scholar of policing, I would not be at all concerned that this represents some kind of a serious jump in crime," said Dr. Larry Hoover, a professor at Sam Houston State University's College of Criminal Justice, who studies crime rates and trends. "You have to look at the other property crime in conjunction with it — larceny stayed even, and motor vehicle theft went down."

While crime uniformly went up across the country in the 1980s and dropped in almost all major cities from 1991 to 2004, the last three years produced uneven patterns with some areas showing unexplained increases and declines in certain types of crime — changes that Hoover describes as "baffling."

The Uniform Crime Reports occasionally will reveal variations in some crime rates of 5 percent to 8 percent for which no obvious reasons can be pinpointed, he said.

"Alarmists see this as a precursor to a new surge in crime," Hoover said. "Others see it as random variation — that we've driven crime to historical lows, and you're going to see spots of increase."

To Dr. Brian Lawton, another professor at Sam Houston State University's College of Criminal Justice, Houston's burglary statistics are not that remarkable.

Even so, the story was accompanied with a list of tips to keep their homes safe from burglars, which might have some pub ed use, I suppose, but flies in the face of the experts quoted in the article saying there's no cause for alarm. Indeed, to some extent the numbers showing increased crime may be due to extra Houston PD resources expended to address the topic:

HPD has tried to halt the rise in burglaries by educating the public, such as placing fliers on cars or homes where obvious security lapses are noticed, and assigning officers to concentrate in particularly troubled areas of northeast, west and southwest Houston instead of responding to calls on the radio.

The department's newly created Crime Reduction Unit, which has made nearly 3,000 felony arrests since its inception six months ago, has moved into places with the worst burglary trends, Mayor Bill White said.

HPD also has begun distributing 3,000 fingerprint kits to officers and cameras to supervisors so they can gather more evidence at burglaries instead of waiting for hours on a fingerprint technician to arrive, said HPD Executive Assistant Police Chief Charles McClelland.

"If we can take away the target, reduce the opportunity or apprehend the suspect," McClelland said, "we're going to reduce the crime."

For all these reasons it's a risky business to take Uniform Crime Reports and focus in on one narrow portion to say "Burglaries are increasing." With respect to the author of the article Peggy O'Hare, who's a good reporter, that's reaching to generate conflict when the data doesn't really support it.

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