Safety in numbers

July 13, 2005

THE TOUGH-on-crime mayor of Baltimore and his police chief got a jolt recently when the FBI reported that violent crime in the city last year had risen compared with 2003. They were flummoxed because the FBI report is based on crime statistics provided by the city, which has been heralding a steady drop in all violent crimes but murder. After much explaining by the city, it seems that the FBI report wasn't a full or accurate portrait of crime in 2004. But the flap illustrates the shortcomings of crime statistics, the methods by which they are recorded and the impact of crime rates. A spike or drop in crime is relevant to the city's public safety image, but its impact on residents' sense of personal safety is not easily quantified.

The FBI's reported 4 percent increase in violent crime in 2004 compared with 2003 conflicted with the city's figure of a 4 percent drop. The variation was due, in part, to the different methods used by the city and the FBI to record the city's crime and to the timing of the federal report. Adjusting for about 1,218 aggravated assaults that should have been included in the FBI statistics for 2003, city police say the FBI report should reflect a 1 percent decrease in crime in 2004. That's in the right direction for City Hall, but shy of the O'Malley administration's 4 percent decline. What likely accounts for the difference is the way the FBI counts crime: The robbery and assault of a family of four would be recorded as the more serious crime, assault.

But we would suggest that how the average citizen views the rate of crime has less to do with the local crime blotter than whether or not he or she has been a victim of crime. Proximity matters. A neighbor assaulted while walking his dog counts in a way that a rash of burglaries across town doesn't. Perceptions of what constitutes crime also vary. In some West Baltimore neighborhoods, crime is assessed by corner drug activity. In North Baltimore, break-ins and car thefts may be the measure.

Although federal surveys show that most crime is not reported, murder is an obvious exception. In Baltimore, murders are primarily concentrated in a handful of east and west neighborhoods and among people with previous arrests. But after police increased their presence in high-crime mini-districts in east, west and northwest Baltimore this year, the areas showed double-digit declines in violent crimes - including murders, police say.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who challenged a previous administration over crime reporting, has instituted a data-driven crime mapping system to identify trends and better police the city. That system also reports crime based on the number of victims, not only incidents - a hedge, staffers say, against underreporting crime. Police routinely review crime numbers for accuracy and will step up that function on a monthly basis. But statistics are only one measure of crime's impact. A safe city also depends on citizens to report crime and prosecutors, juries and judges to ensure that the guilty are not set free to break the law again.

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