Statistics don’t support common crime fears | Editorial

Are you increasingly concerned about street crime?

Many people are. A 2021 Gallup poll showed that Americans are more worried now than they were before the pandemic about falling victim to a range of crimes, including muggings, car and home burglaries, theft of car, identity theft, terrorism and murder. More than a third of us say they have installed a burglar alarm or have a dog, in part to thwart crime. Twelve percent more people report having a gun at home for protection than in 2019, according to the survey.

All of this is fueled by some high-profile crimes and our own misperception of the resulting threat. This fear is not necessarily borne out by statistics. And the stats can be crafted to support just about any crime-related conclusion you might favor, as shown in a fascinating collection of charts and factoids recently released by CalMatters.

For example, if you watch a lot of TV news, you might think that retail theft and shoplifting are on the rise. There have been some brazen crimes in Bay Area stores and malls in recent months. They prompted calls for action from local politicians and even Governor Gavin Newsom, whose own wine store was robbed in San Francisco. Newsom pledged $300 million for law enforcement to target such crimes.

However, the figures suggest that property crimes have simply returned to pre-pandemic levels. Data from the California Department of Justice shows historic lows for most crimes in 2020. It looks like thieves honored lockdowns and demands for social distancing with the rest of us, and now they’re back at work.

Despite a recall effort largely focused on the perception that Newsom was lenient on violent crime, homicide rates — while a bit on the rise — are still near all-time lows. In 1993, nearly 13 out of every 100,000 Californians were killed by homicide. Today, the rate is 5.5 homicides per 100,000 people in the state. That’s an increase of more than 20% from 2019 levels, but still less than half the rate recorded in the 1990s.

Before drawing your own conclusions, be aware that the statistics are murky because they are collected by individual police departments that do not use standard assumptions. They can be used to justify increased spending on policing programs or to suggest that traditional law enforcement techniques are not working and should therefore be cut. Neither of these conclusions is fully supported by statistics.

The old adage says there are lies, fucking lies and statistics. But they can be confusing without being outright lies. The world is a complex place and there are many reasons for crime and perhaps even more for why we are so afraid. You might take comfort in knowing that we are no more likely to be victims of most categories of crime than before the pandemic. Keep that dog on a leash and your handgun locked.

— Lambert Clay