Statistics That Distort

The FBI recently released its 2009 statistics on crime in the United States. There’s a lot to read. If you dig into the material, you’ll find several statistics that indicate violent crime is decreasing. Property crimes, of interest to us in the security industry, declined for the seventh straight year (where the collective estimates for these offenses dropped below the previous year’s total).

This is good, right? To a certain degree, yes. We also need to remember that statistics are only useful when validly applied, and how they are being compared. For example, if property crimes had been committed at one of every thousand households seven years ago, and that was now one in every 1,100 households seven years later, that’s an improvement. A small one, but not significant. It’s good to see a positive trend, but it doesn’t explain to the reader, or the person analyzing the statistics, what it means. That’s for each of us to determine. We need to use critical thinking when reports like this come out.

Too often in the security industry, misleading statistics are used to paint us into a corner. One of our challenges is to develop the data, along with clear communications, to tell our story. The better data we accumulate, the better we’re able to explain to our customers and the public what that information means to them, the better off we’re all be. When we do that, we succeed.

One of the other telling points, and something for each of us to remember, is the FBI report is for 2009. We are nine months removed from that. It’s good the FBI puts this together and gets it out, but life has moved on. There are already new statistics occurring that tell the story from January through September of 2010, and they could be very different from 2009.

Remember, too, that this report, and others, is painted in broad strokes. It’s giving you a compilation of the United States. As members of the security industry know, what occurs in Omaha doesn’t always occur in Albuquerque. Each city has different trends. Unique circumstances face local officials. So, when we use data like this, be very careful. See what applies to your jurisdiction. Study it carefully. Know what you want to say. Be specific. It’s important for you, for us, and for those receiving your message.

In fact, here’s an interesting note the FBI ends the report with: “Caution against ranking—Each year when Crime in the United States is published, some entities use the figures to compile rankings of cities and counties. These rough rankings provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular town, city, county, state, tribal area, or region. Consequently, they lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents. Valid assessments are possible only with careful study and analysis of the range of unique conditions affecting each local law enforcement jurisdiction. The data user is, therefore, cautioned against comparing statistical data of individual reporting units from cities, metropolitan areas, states, or colleges or universities solely on the basis of their population coverage or student enrollment.”

Study reports closely. Then pick out what’s relevant. We’re all better off for it.


Executive Director of SIAC
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