Pubdate: Fri, 25 Jul 2008
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Copyright: 2008 The Ottawa Citizen
Author: Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen


As a long-time student of crime policy, I didn't predict that 
national crime statistics released last week would show a substantial 
drop in most categories of crime in most parts of the country.

Predicting long-term crime trends is hard. Predicting year-to-year 
variations is pretty much impossible.

But when the news broke, I did predict the reactions. That's dead 
easy. Follow three basic rules and you can't go wrong.

. Rule No. 1: Responsibility for crime trends depends entirely on 
whether those trends are good or bad.

When national crime stats decline, everyone rushes to take credit. 
The mayor boasts his new initiative is working exactly as he said it 
would. The police chief proudly declares that the strategy he 
implemented is a great success. Social service agencies insist their 
new programs are responsible.

And so it goes in city after city.

The only thing that varies is the identity of the initiatives, 
strategies and programs said to be the cause of the crime drop. In 
one city, they're A, B and C. In another, it's D, E and F. And so on.

Which suggests pretty strongly that all these claims are empty. Or at 
least it would suggest that if anyone noticed how blatantly 
contradictory these claims are, which they don't.

My favourite reaction to last week's news was the line worked up by 
some spin monkey in the office of Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien: "New 
chief, new mayor, new approach. It works." Of course, this is utter 
nonsense -- not only did crime decline in cities across the country, 
the decline in Ottawa was actually less than the national average -- 
but Mr. O'Brien is a politician and in politics neither logic nor 
modesty is a virtue.

Naturally, a quite different analysis applies when crime statistics 
go up. Rising crime does not mean the initiatives, strategies, and 
programs which would have been responsible for a decline in crime 
didn't work. Not at all.

It means that crime is driven by deep social trends that are far 
beyond the very limited control of mayors, police chiefs and social 
service agencies. Only a simpleton would blame local officials for 
national trends.

Credit them, yes. But blame them? Ridiculous.

As John F. Kennedy said, "victory has a thousand fathers but defeat 
is an orphan."

. Rule No. 2: The reaction of the justice system's critics to crime 
statistics depends entirely on the direction in which those 
statistics are headed.

If statistics show crime is rising, the statistics are a perfectly 
accurate reflection of the frightening reality.

If they suggest crime is falling, they are so transparently flawed 
that only fools, Liberals and criminologists would believe them.

This rule explains Prime Minister Stephen Harper's complicated 
relationship with crime data.

When serious violent crime rose a couple of years ago, Mr. Harper, 
then the opposition leader, waved the statistics about like a bloody 
shirt. Homicide is up 12 per cent! Guns, gangs, and drugs are out of control!

But then the stats turned around and Mr. Harper started warning 
people not to be bamboozled by numbers. "Some try to pacify Canadians 
with statistics," he scoffed in a speech earlier this year.

"Your personal experiences and impressions are wrong, they say; crime 
is not really a problem."

Mr. Harper made the same case a month ago. Numbers don't matter. Just 
listen to the tragic stories of the victims.

"These men, women, and children are not statistics," he declared. I 
didn't actually hear Mr. Harper give this speech but I imagine his 
delivery left the word "statistics" dripping with scorn.

Living in his self-imposed bubble, Mr. Harper is never pressed to 
explain why the statistics are valid and important if they point in a 
politically useful direction but misleading and useless if they don't.

Other critics of the justice system have been a little more refined: 
People don't believe the justice system can actually accomplish 
anything, they say, so victims don't bother reporting crimes to the police.

Thus, if police-reported crime rises, you can be sure the situation 
is getting worse. But even if police-reported crime falls, crime is 
actually getting worse.

There's something to this. Victim surveys do find that a large 
proportion of crimes are not reported to the police.

But what the critics don't mention is that when people are asked why 
they don't report crimes, the most common answer is "didn't think it 
was important."

Not surprisingly, the unreported stuff tends to be very minor. 
Critics also ignore the fact that while non-reporting rates are, 
indeed, rising for several crimes, they are flat for others, and 
falling for assault. Which provides little support for the 
hell-in-a-handbasket hypothesis.

Finally, critics faced with positive crime statistics sometimes fall 
back on what I call the Homer Simpson defence: Scoff and say, as 
Homer did, "Facts? You can prove anything you want with facts."

"The wonderful thing about statistics is that they can prove 
anything," writes conservative columnist Claire Hoy. Hoy was incensed 
by a banner headline in the Toronto Star -- based on data in last 
week's StatsCan release -- which read, "We're Canada's Safest City."

"Mind you," rejoined Hoy, "one in five homicides in Canada occur in 
Toronto but hey, when you count murders as a percentage of the 
overall population instead of counting them as dead bodies, it's easy 
to brag about how 'safe' the city is."

Mind you, by Hoy's logic, a village with a population of 50 in which 
one person goes on a rampage and kills the other 49 is safer than 
Toronto because the hamlet's body count is lower. I suspect the 
population of the village would dispute that interpretation. Or they 
would if they weren't all dead.

Which just goes to show that while statistics cannot prove anything, 
they can be used to dress up a wide variety of incredibly dumb statements.

. Rule No. 3: Following a major, violent incident, discussion of 
negative crime data increases; following a major, violent incident, 
discussion of positive crime data ends.

Toronto enjoyed its good news for a couple of days. Then three gang 
members were murdered. The statistics vanished. The image of a city 
under siege returned.

"Given the number of bullets flying around the streets of Toronto," a 
letter writer in Wednesday's Globe and Mail quipped, "I'd think the 
city's bureaucrats would be more concerned with preventing lead 
poisoning than skin cancer."

Responding to the release of the StatsCan numbers, Toronto police 
chief Bill Blair urged people to pay attention and let the data 
inform their sense of reality.

"Unfortunately," he noted, "people's perceptions are often created 
around a single incident or a series of incidents over a short period of time."

It was the smartest thing anyone said all week. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake