Mark Twain once quoted the expression, “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” It’s very easy to cherry-pick data from statistics to prove one point or another, sometimes distorting the real picture. Such is the case recently with the City of Amsterdam’s crime statistics. Last week I had the chance to discuss Amsterdam’s crime situation with Police Chief Greg Culick, and he provided me with a wealth of data directly from the department’s database for the past seven years. Graphing the data provides a good sense of the direction of the trends. Please click either graph to enlarge it.
Larceny: taking of someone else’s property (theft)
Robbery: taking someone else’s property by force or by threat of force
Burglary: unlawfully entering a structure or dwelling with the intent to commit a crime
A couple of notes about these statistics: First, the numbers for 2014 reflect 10 months of data, not 12 as the other columns. Secondly, these are raw numbers of complaints to the police department. They differ from other published statistics that use Uniform Crime Reporting standards which categorize and evaluate complaints differently that what the APD uses for their database.
So what can we tell from this data? Obviously, if you want to key in one category of crime over one period of time, you can look at the number of reported larcenies from 2012 to 2013 and claim that there is a “rise” in crime in the city. But to do so is a gross distortion. If you look at the full timeline over the past seven years, you can see that larcenies peeked back in 2010 and have been down from that ever since. There was a minor spike in 2013, but the overall trend is still downward.
Burglaries show a clear downward trend over the past seven years. Robberies are up and down, but overall, show a slight downward trend. Assaults show a clear downward trend as well. Reported rapes and murders are so rare that I believe it is difficult to tell any clear trend with those statistics.
According to Culick, there is usually a spike in burglaries around Christmastime. So depending on how the rest of the year goes, we may see that category end up around the same level as last year. If the monthly average for larcenies continues, that category may be slightly up from last year.
I asked Culick if more patrol officers would help Amsterdam’s situation at all. He replied that it would definitely help, but wouldn’t solve the underlying causes of crime. Culick noted that his department has been down three officers since 2010. However, Culick said programs that teach good values and provide good role models for kids, such as the city’s youth recreation program and Creative Connections arts program, are examples of the types of efforts that are needed.
Even though crime statistics seem to be trending downward, there’s still much that can be done to improve the situation. And we certainly shouldn’t forget that certain neighborhoods might be experiencing elevated crime activity relative to the rest of the city. Back in 2011 we saw a breakout of youth fights around the Market Hill area. As part of my Neighborhood Watch group, we documented the reports and worked with the police department to crack down on the activity and a couple of years later, most residents told me the problem had improved a lot. Unfortunately, attendance at Neighborhood Watch meetings seems to have dropped off lately.
Finally, let me just point out that the 2015 election season has essentially begun. City residents need to be aware that even factual news reports can be biased toward one viewpoint or another. Our fear of crime is one that can easily be manipulated. Don’t be fooled. Make sure you get all the facts and see the big picture before you make a conclusion on any issue.