Explanation: Interpreting California Crime Statistics

Crime statistics are a loaded weapon.

They can be pointed in any direction, to mean anything: for law enforcement, increased crime usually means that police departments need more officers or that sentences prison sentences are not heavy enough to deter crime. AT criminal justice reform advocatesthe same statistics could show that, in context, crime is down and long-term legislative changes to the Criminal Code are working.

So how do we interpret crime statistics in California? What does a spike in homicides in 2020 mean? Why did property crimes decline in the first year of the pandemic? How many years of data do we need to create a responsive policy?

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The answer, according to those who study the issue – and don’t run for office or feed a political agenda – is: don’t jump to conclusions.

For one thing, the way crime data is collected in California and across the country is inconsistent and doesn’t always provide a clear picture of how much crime is happening, who is committing it, and who is behind it. victim. Law enforcement agencies themselves report their crime data to the FBI, which publishes annually Uniform Crime Reporting Survey. The California Department of Justice then produces statewide reports from these numbers.

But not all departments publish their statistics. And among those who do, some do not declare all their data — or report information differently. Some jurisdictions record every incident; others only report crimes that lead to incarceration.

Then there are the circumstances that go beyond the limits of each jurisdiction. In data from 2020, the first year of pandemic shutdowns, some police departments and state sheriff’s offices made fewer arrests for lesser crimes. Fewer people were incarcerated, and a number of people incarcerated in prisons and jails were granted early release.

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Researchers are also wary of sweeping conclusions drawn about so-called spikes in homicides or other violent crimes, when long-term data may reveal much less alarming trends.

Overall, the reporting of crime figures is a snapshot of self-reported data, subject to human error and misinterpretation. It can also be deliberately manipulated, as claimed by whistleblowers in New York and Los Angeles police services.

“As long as police services have any influence over the reporting or recording of crime, even independent and accredited bodies will fail in their efforts to collect and publish accurate accounts,” wrote Professor Carl Suddler of the Emory College. in a Brookings Institution report.

It is impossible to know which crimes were missed by the police or miscounted. But from the available data, here’s a look at crime in California.