Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ogden’s Crime Rate Has Decreased, But Hype Is Misleading

A new analysis of 25 years of crime statistics

By Dan Schroeder

Ogden’s crime statistics have been in the news again lately, mentioned in connection with the departures of Mayor Godfrey and Chief Greiner.

When Greiner was dismissed, the city issued a press release giving him credit for reducing Ogden’s crime rate by 33% between 1999 and 2009, “almost 50% more than the national average for the same period.” The Standard-Examiner had already printed the 33% statistic on November 27 in a list of Godfrey’s accomplishments, and printed it again on December 29 in an article about Greiner. The Salt Lake Tribune similarly reported that there was a 33% drop in Ogden’s crime rate between 1997 and 2009.

It’s been more than three years since this blog took a thorough look at Ogden’s crime statistics, so an update is in order. How has Ogden’s crime rate changed during the tenure of Godfrey and Greiner, and over the longer term? Is the 33% statistic correct?

These questions might seem relevant only to historians who want to assess the Godfrey-Greiner legacy. But the answers could also be of interest to potential clients of Godfrey’s new consulting firm, who have a legitimate interest in knowing his actual crime-fighting record. It’s also important that we not hold the new mayor, and the new police chief, to an unrealistic standard.

Fortunately, there’s quite a bit more data available now than there was three years ago. Of course, we now have data for three additional years: 2008, 2009, and 2010. (Data for 2011 won’t be available for several more months.) In addition, the FBI recently put some older data on its web site, available through its new UCR Data Tool. Finally, with the 2010 Census behind us, we now have a more reliable figure for Ogden’s population (which comes into calculating the crime rate, e.g., the number of crimes per 1000 residents).

Before getting into the numbers, I should explain that when we read about crime statistics in the U.S., those statistics almost always come from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program, which dates back to 1929. The advantage of the UCR system is that it is well defined and widely used. But unfortunately, it counts only certain types of crimes: so-called “violent crimes” (murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault), and “property crimes” (burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft). The UCR statistics omit all other crimes including simple assault, fraud, drug crimes, traffic crimes, and so on. (Arson is sometimes included as a property crime in UCR statistics, but is not included in the data used for this article. This omission has very little effect on the overall numbers and trends.)

The UCR data can also be inaccurate or misleading in other ways. Local law enforcement agencies gather and report the data, and these agencies may not always interpret the FBI guidelines consistently. Some agencies might even misreport the data for political reasons. Even if the agencies’ reporting practices are perfect, they cannot report crimes that citizens never report to the police. And of course, the data tell us nothing about the causes of crime and of crime trends, which are extremely complex.

With these limitations in mind, here is a graph of Ogden’s UCR crime rate that goes back to the earliest available online data (1985). The rates for Utah and for the entire U.S. are shown for comparison.

The most striking feature of the graph is Ogden’s steadily decreasing crime rate over the entire time period shown. The occasional increases in the crime rate appear to be mere short-term fluctuations, superimposed on the strong decreasing trend. The Utah and U.S. crime rates have also been decreasing steadily, though only since about 1995 and 1991, respectively.

But the decrease has not been as steep as Mayor Godfrey and the newspapers have implied. If we average over the short-term fluctuations, the decrease from 1999 to 2009 was only about 24%, not 33%. Similarly, the decrease from 1999 to 2006 was only 17%, not 23% as Godfrey claimed during his 2007 reelection campaign. You can, of course, obtain either higher or lower numbers by cherry-picking the starting and ending dates to take advantage of short-term fluctuations. Perhaps coincidentally, if you look at the long-term trend since Greiner became police chief in 1995, the decrease is almost exactly 33%.

Furthermore, the decrease since 1995 has been entirely consistent with state and national trends. For example, between 1999 and 2009 the Utah and U.S. crime rates decreased by 30% and 19%, respectively, compared to 24% for Ogden (according to the long-term trend). While the Ogden Police Department obviously deserves a great deal of credit for working hard to keep crime rates down, there is no evidence that Ogden is anomalous in any way or that the mayor and police chief have somehow worked miracles. The only possibly significant discrepancy between Ogden’s crime rate and the state and national trends was actually in the late 1980s, when Ogden’s crime rate decreased while the Utah and U.S. crime rates were increasing.

The graph above also shows that Ogden’s crime rate has remained significantly higher than the state and national rates. But this difference is entirely expected, because crime rates are almost always higher in cities than in suburbs or rural areas. There are far more opportunities to commit crimes in cities, where many suburban residents regularly go for work, shopping, and entertainment.

The vast majority of UCR crimes are thefts of various types. Here is a breakdown of Ogden’s UCR crimes:

To a first approximation, the UCR “crime” rate is really just the larceny rate—with significant additional contributions from burglary and motor vehicle theft.

To get beyond this focus on theft, analysts often quote just the “violent” crime rate. This statistic is dominated by aggravated assaults and robberies, with a smaller contribution from forcible rapes and a still smaller contribution from murders and nonnegligent manslaughters. Here is a graph of Ogden’s violent crime data since 1985, again showing the Utah and U.S. data for comparison:

The most striking aspect of the Ogden data is its increasing volatility in recent years, with large upward and downward fluctuations. Any long-term trend is hard to discern: One could argue either that the overall trend has been flat throughout this time period, or that there was a gradual upward trend for the first decade followed by an even more gradual downward trend since the mid-1990s. The state-wide data do show a gentle rising and falling pattern of this type, while the national violent crime rate has risen and fallen rather dramatically (with a somewhat earlier peak).

While Ogden’s violent crime rate was below the national average through 1997, it has been above the national average most years since 1998. But this is because the national average has fallen—not because Ogden’s violent crime rate has risen.

In any case, we again find no evidence of any miraculous decrease in Ogden’s crime rate. The sharp decline in violent crime since 2007 has mostly just canceled out a sharp increase during the preceding three years.

There is one more law enforcement statistic that Ogden residents have occasionally heard over the years: the number of new police officers recently hired. For example, in 2007 Mayor Godfrey claimed that Ogden had hired 18 new police offers during his first two terms, and promised to soon hire six more. But data from the FBI web site (which ultimately come from the Ogden Police Department) do not support these numbers. Instead, the size of Ogden’s police force has grown at the same average rate as the total population, rising from 120 in 1999 to 131 in 2010, with a peak of 135 in 2008.

Finally, a technical note on population: Different agencies have used different estimates of Ogden’s population in non-Census years, and some of these estimates have shown unrealistic year-to-year fluctuations. Instead of using these contemporaneous estimates, I have retroactively estimated the annual population changes by making linear interpolations between Census years. As a result, I have eliminated a few spurious fluctuations in apparent crime rate statistics that were caused by fluctuating population estimates. The following graph compares the population estimates used here to the more erratic population estimates that are found on the FBI UCR web site:

For those who would like to see all the numbers that went into the graphs in this article, you can download the full spreadsheet here. Meanwhile, comments are invited from one and all.


Ray said...

Speaking of crime check-out Trentlemans article in todays Standard-Examiner:

An officer dies fighting drugs, a judge consoles a drug dealer.

I'd have to agree with his thoughts in the article as prescription drug use is Utah's number 1 drug crime...

blackrulon said...

It appears the crime rates does not include criminal activity by the Godfrey administration to the taxpayers of ogdeen city.

Dan S. said...

As I reread this article and continue to ponder the first graph, it occurs to me that Ogden's elected officials and other boosters should be bragging that the city's crime rate has decreased by 45% since 1985.

Be nobody ever says that, because it doesn't fit into their narrative which is that Ogden was going downhill in all respects before Godfrey (or perhaps Greiner) took office. So they settle for a less impressive statistic, intended to focus credit on themselves rather than on what the community as a whole has accomplished.

D_Dalton said...

 These statistics probably don't include the time that I tried to report an auto break-in and received a busy signal for four hours running. When I finally did end up getting through to the dispatcher (the next day), she took my information and told me that an officer would call. That never happened.

It's not a crime if it's not entered into the books, apparently.

DDalton said...

I read that article, too, and something didn't sit right with me. I thought about it and wondered: 

How does invoking officer Francom's death add to the argument? Is mj
always bad but oxy sometimes bad (depending on who prescribes it and in
what quantities)? Was the judge was swayed by influence or inherently
soft on drugs? That surely would influence the disposition of the
Stewart case were it to appear on his docket.  Is the addict responsible
for the behavior or is the doctor? If the doctor, why shouldn't we try
the person who introduced Stewart to pot for his crimes?

The point I'm making here is the piece, while emotionally evocative, is
rhetorically and logically poor. Irrespective of your view on what seems
to be the main point (and a point to which I'd be quick to agree if
it's a two-tiered or corruptible justice system is bad) the construction
of the argumentation is sloppy. 

Keisha said...

Definitely not Trentleman's best work.  He must have been pushed up against a deadline.

D_Dalton said...

I should have mentioned somewhere in my earlier comments that I really enjoyed this article and its analysis.

Monotreme said...

Nice job, Dan. It's hard to get good data for crime statistics, and the analysis is even more difficult.

Bottom line is this. On the FBI's UCR website (, there is a caveat:

"Since crime is a sociological phenomenon influenced by a variety of factors, the FBI discourages ranking the agencies and using the data as a measurement of law enforcement effectiveness." Which is, of course, exactly what the Mayor and Chief and newspaper ignored when it came time to get re-elected, or in the latest "Lives of the Saints" pieces.

Dan S. said...

"...It's hard to get good data for crime statistics..."

It's a lot easier now, thanks to the FBI UCR Data Tool.

Besides, how would you know when you haven't even been going to crime conferences???

Bob Becker said...

Since we all live now in what might be called "the digital age," and since so much of the increasing blizzard of information coming at us [requested or not] is in statistical form, I'd think every daily paper would as a matter of course have on staff someone trained in statistical analysis, capable of vetting statistics-based claims by politicians or others, reported in the paper's news columns.   Or at least someone on call. 

Dan S. said...

Politicians have been lying with statistics for a long, long time. The Internet makes it easier for others (reporters, editors, and readers) to look up the actual data and its context. But our educational system, and society at large, produces journalists and citizens who believe that they're incapable of working with numbers.

D_Dalton said...

Really good point. To that, good, meaningful data are pretty hard to come by. They are often intentionally obscured, must be teased out of a mess, or pulled together  from different sources.

Wouldn't it be nice if a daily paper could not only crunch and then interpret the numbers in a meaningful way, but could also could gather them, ask  the right questions of them, and interpret the answers.

That's maybe not as clear as I'd liked to have made it and has little to do with the matter at hand. I guess what I'm saying is that while reactive investigative journalism (vetting as described by Mr. Becker) would be fantastic, some active or proactive work would be great, too.  While rebuttal has its place, I'm more impressed with discovery, generally. There's so much more power in framing the conversation from the outset.  (That's not a knock on Mr. Schroeder's excellent work and analysis here--nor is it on Mr. Becker's insightful suggestion.)

Kayfeeny said...

RebelWith a Cause2: I agree that Dan Schroeder's study on Ogden's crime statistics was excellent. In fact, it was fantastic and required a great deal of time, research, and remarkable ability to provide all those wonderful charts and graphs which made everything  he was informing us cleaar and  .

Post a Comment

© 2005 - 2014 Weber County Forum™ -- All Rights Reserved