The question of whether Jackson is "safe" has become about as polarizing as "Ford vs. Chevy" or "fats vs. carbohydrates." It depends on whom you ask. Crime is up 15 percent. Crime is down this month. Crime skyrocketed in February. Crime is way down over the last decade. We're drowning in crime. We're safer than ever. Just look at the numbers. It seems this spring has been open season on crime statistics. Everyone says the numbers don't say enough, even as they try to use the statistics to their advantage, whether to push an ideology, build a political campaign, raise ratings, sell newspapers, bash the city—and sometimes even to try to prevent crime. Which brings us to the central questions. One, is crime completely under control or out of control? Two, do the statistics matter?
Answers: Neither and somewhat.
An examination of crime statistics over the last month, three months, six months, year, five years or decade can be somewhat helpful. But such an analysis also shows the futility of trying to simply use numbers to characterize how safe a certain community is. It indicates the complexity—and ambiguity—of statistics, particularly short-term numbers.
"Crime fluctuates," said Dr. Jimmy Bell, the chairman of the Criminal Justice Department at Jackson State, where he has taught since 1970. "It goes up and down; it's cyclical." Thus, he said, it's difficult to ascertain much meaning from one sensationalist statistic lifted out of context. Like, recent breathless reporting that "crime is up 15 percent."
Hell and back in three months?
At his weekly press conference on April 9, Chief Robert Moore gave out the city's crime statistics for the first three months of the year. (He previously had released them every six months; the media would like them weekly, or at least monthly.) From the outset, he said they contained some bad news: The numbers indicated that crime overall rose 15 percent in the first quarter of 2003 vs. the first quarter of 2002. According to the police numbers, property crimes like larceny-theft helped drive the "spike," up 19 percent; burglary and auto theft were up 15 percent each. Criminal homicide rose 50 percent, from eight murders during the same period last year to 12 so far this year.
Media quickly jumped on the bad news. A strip across the top of The Clarion-Ledger the next day read: "Felonies Jumped 15% in 3 Months," which inaccurately suggests a sequential jump. Columnist Eric Stringfellow: "Crime woes in Jackson really are that bad." An inside headline: "Homicide up 50% compared with same period in 2002."
In that same C-L story, there was no mention that arrests had been made in 10 of the 12 homicides. Barely mentioned in any local press is that rape dropped 37 percent and arson was down 48 percent when comparing 2002's and 2003's first quarters. Assaults dropped 13 percent when comparing those two periods.
Indeed, these urgent stories and headlines reported very little context for the numbers. A closer look at the stats for the first three months of 2003 showed that the 15-percent increase was driven completely by high numbers in February, when crime jumped 29 percent over February 2002, driven by property crime.
"In February we were off the page," Moore told the press conference, adding a bit later: "It was a disastrous month." He repeated the sentiment he had been expressing for weeks: After a court order about overcrowding forced Hinds County jails to stop accepting new prisoners in January, property crime had spiked. "We were telling criminals we weren't going to put people in jail, that we had nowhere to put them," he said.
This seemingly important news of the day was buried deep by the media when reported at all. "[A] crime spree in February had lost wind by March," The Clarion-Ledger reported. That seems an understatement. After being 29 percent up in February, crime in March 2003 returned to the exact same level as March 2002—literally showing a zero percent increase. That meant crime is way down since the bad month of February 2003. Right?
Well, the plot thickens. A further examination of the statistics shows that the numbers are extremely deceiving, regardless of who's touting them. By all appearances, the real variable was crime in February 2002, which was considerably lower (at 996 total crimes) than January 2002 or March 2002. Note these comparisons:
• In January 2002, there were 1,104 total crimes; in January 2003 there were 1,111. That's seven more.
• In March 2002 there were 1,301 crimes reported; in March 2003, there were 1,299. That's two less.
• In February 2002 there were 996 crimes reported; in February 2003, there were 1,284 crimes reported. That's 288 more crimes in that one short month.
If you average the five other months, then there were, on average, 1,220 crimes committed each month in Jackson. The fact that February 2002 numbers are 220 crimes lower than that average, in effect, shows why, at the very least, you have to look at larger samples to make any sense of crime trends. To illustrate, note these comparisons: the increase in crimes in March 2002 over January 2002 was 18 percent. The increase in crimes in March 2003 over January 2003 was … 17 percent. Nearly identical.
On the other hand, the statistics also do not bear out the relief that the chief expressed at the press conference. "We're very pleased to announce that we're back down to earth," Moore said, reiterating his contention that February was a "bubble." Truth is, if February was a "crime spree," it didn't really recede much by March. Overall crime actually increased—by three reported crimes—from 1,284 crimes in February 2003 to 1,287 crimes in March 2003 (note that these figures do not include arson for either, which the police did not provide for January or February; there were 12 arsons in March). Property crimes remained fairly steady with 22 more burglaries and 30 fewer auto thefts. Robberies rose from 54 in February to 72 in March. Murders went from three to five.
In effect, at least overall, the three-month crime statistics seem to show a wash in the competition between the police and their naysayers. Blame February.
Are We Safer or Not?
The lesson is that it's extremely easy to manipulate statistics for one reason or another, especially if you want to reach a certain conclusion. "Politicians use them for their personal platforms," Bell said. "Entities and individuals always interpret crime data in a favorable light to themselves."
Bell is the chairman of a 19-member Citizen Transition Team that submitted "Building Bonds of Trust: A Preliminary Report" to Moore in early April. The group found a "trust gap" between the department and citizens. At the press conference, Bell explained that the gap must be closed from both sides: that "citizens are oftentimes abused" by "police mentality." At the same time, he said, "the same lack of respect the police sometimes show citizens, citizens sometime show police."
In an interview at JSU two days later, Bell said sensationalist media coverage is feeding the notion that crime "is rampant in Jackson." He warned that statistics are often calculated in a cursory fashion instead of using raw data (which the police department isn't great at providing). "Listening to the questions asked during the press conference, certainly [reporters] are confused by the numbers," Bell said. "Those were sensational questions that were asked."
He added that the "media are creating a 'cultural beat.' If they can create as much excitement and interest in selling their product, they will do it." Instead, they should avoid what he calls "sensationalist ebbs and flows" of crime, instead focusing more on the bigger picture, as well as the trends we can do something about—where certain crimes are occurring, to whom and by whom.
To be fair to the media, this police department is not providing precinct-by-precinct data to help with intelligent analysis, although the police do examine that data themselves in weekly COMSTAT meetings. If the public knew more specifics, maybe it could make more accurate assumptions. Bell said: "You don't hear a lot about the absence of crime in certain neighborhoods. From a police perspective, that would speak volumes. Those officers are not rewarded (by the public) for low crime rates in beats they
One contextual puzzle piece that is seldom mentioned, for instance, is that the Deep South in general is showing some of the highest per-capita crime rates in the country. In 2001, Pine Bluff, Ark., was astonished to learn that it topped the FBI's listing of crime-ridden cities, as did Tucscaloosa, Ala., and Jackson, Tenn. People in the South don't like to concede that the South is more violent than other parts of the country.
"The statistics will bear it out," Bell said. He added that gun ownership, and access to guns, is relatively high with few restrictions on gun ownership. Access to guns—statistically—contributes to higher rates of gun violence.
At his April 2 press conference, Moore handed out an overview of the city crime stats from 1981 to 2002, which indeed shows that Jackson matched national trends for that period. Like the rest of the country, crime peaked here in the early 1990s, thanks largely to the proliferation of crack cocaine. The year 1995 was the worst crime year here and nationally in recent history. Ninety-plus homicides occurred in Jackson in both 1994 and 1995, as opposed to 49 in 2002. (So far this year, we're on track for about 55 at the present rate.) Likewise, robbery hit its high in 1995, and 1991 burglaries were nearly twice the current level. After topping 12,000 a year in the early '90s, larceny has dropped nearly a third.
Rape appears to have gone up precipitously, although it may be affected by a greater willingness to report rapes. The incidence of reported rapes in Jackson has nearly doubled since 1981. So far this year, rape is down 37 percent over the first quarter of 2002 (and rape numbers weren't particularly odd in either February).
Moore also regularly points to numbers that show that major crime fell 5 percent in 2002 over 2001. Crime was up in only one category—3 percent higher in robbery. But many critics see this attitude as an abrogation of the chief's responsibility to stand up and take it on the chin on the city's behalf.
Bell, who advocates community-policing policies, urges city residents to take a breath and put crime data in perspective, particularly if their goal is to think more clearly about how to prevent crime. As for statistics, "I suggest that the public look at long-term patterns because crime patterns are going to fluctuate," Bell said.
"One sensational case in a neighborhood can give that area a bad name. If citizens become aware through their own efforts," he said, "they won't buy into this 'cultural beat.'"
Additional reporting by J. Bingo Holman.
This is the second story in a series about the city's crime realities, myths and solutions. Also see last issue's "Blame Game: Who's At Fault for the City's Crime", which also includes includes many reader comments at the end.
Copyright Jackson Free Press Inc. 2003. Note: All JFP stories and the entire JFP Web site, including comments by readers, are copyrighted. Do not reprint any part without permission and complete attribution, and certainly not twisted out of context to convey a different meaning. That's unethical and dishonest.
To be fair to the Clarion-Ledger after their sensationalist crime coverage of late, this story today seems fair and reflects what was said at the press conference yesterday, rather than re-ordering quotes to make the chief look bad as has been done in the last couple weeks by local media. I also like it because it gets into specifics about what police can do in neighborhoods hard hit by crime, and are trying to do. If we know that, then we can criticize (or compliment) them intelligently, instead of just hurling insults. Perhaps this is a good sign that the C-L is rethinking its sensationalism.
I wasn't going to mention Eric Stringfellow's latest effort to scare people out of Jackson, but I couldn't resist doing some homework today (especially after a JFP reader wrote me about the column and pointed out that the survey might not be all he cracked it up to be).
The survey of 2001 crime ratings was done by Morgan Quitno, a Kansas publishing company that seems to do pretty well putting out annual rankings that newspapers then pick up and give lots of publicity to, which in turn helps the company sell the books every year, and so on. It's the same company, it seems, that does those Money magazine "most liveable" rankings every year.
Anyhow, a bit of research showed that the company's methodology is questioned regularly, which it admits on its Web site is a bit "complicated." Perhaps most interesting to me, I found a number of columnists around the country who actually defended their city when they received poor rankings. Imagine. Imagine that there are columnists out there who (a) like their cities and (b) are willing to do some critical thinking and research before firing off damning dispatches about their cities.
For instance, back in December (when these results were released), Richmond (Va.) Times Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams wrote (after his city came in 11th most dangerous; southern cities don't fare well on M-Q's "dangerous" scales, or "liveable," for that matter):
"This is not the sort of publicity the city wants.
Morgan Quitno Press specializes in comparing cities and states on a variety of topics.
Its awards -- some of them dubious -- include the "Smartest State" (Connecticut in 2002), "Most Livable State" (Minnesota), "Most Dangerous State" (Louisiana), "Safest State" (North Dakota) and "Healthiest State" (Vermont). I'd have to contest that last one. Vermont? How could a state that pushes Ben & Jerry's on a defenseless nation rate the healthiest? Kidding aside, such reports could stoke existing fears among area residents and scare away potential newcomers."
Like many, Williams challenged the practice of pitting cities against each other: "But reports like this, couched in simplistic yet sensational language, are too clever for context."
Morgan-Quitno "Safest Cities" press release:
Info on methodology:
Meantime, I reiterate that I know we have a crime problem in Jackson, and it is getting worse as the economy worsens. We must work hard as a community to decrease crime. What I take issue with is crime sensationalism -- and "cancer" metaphors" -- that blows our problems out of proportion and makes people feel helpless to do anything about it.
OK, I'm not going to re-post it all here, but if you're interested in seeing the 10 questions that the Ben Allen-Eric Stringfellow crime show raises for me this morning, click here:
Ah, reading today's paper, it seems that the Clarion-Ledger may be backing down a bit from its police-pounding of late. Maybe they've decided to allow a little context to start slipping through. Today's editorial is a good example of problematic reasoning and backpedaling, though. Witness this passage from the editorial in which the C-L compliments the chief's new patrol strategy announced Wednesday, and then seems to back away from some of its earlier criticism of Moore's words (which were taken out of context the first few times around; I was there when he said this stuff, and the comments that weren't included).
The editorial: "That's a better response Chief Robert Moore has been giving that there's only a 'perception' of too much crime, and that: 'It's just not true that we are drowning in crime.'" [sic]
Then the next sentence: "We may not be drowning in crime in Jackson, but we aren't high and dry either. Homicide, robbery, burglary, larceny and auto theft are up. The level of crime ó perception or not ó is surely deemed unacceptable, especially by crime victims."
OK, C-L, which is it? Are we "drowning" in crime or not? Y'all criticized the chief for saying that we're not "drowning" last week, and now it sounds like you might be starting to agree? Maybe had you skipped the sensationalism in the first place, you wouldn't have to be tiptoeing now through your own words in such an illogical way. And, by the way, no one is saying we're "high and dry" when it comes to crime. Of course crime is unacceptable, especially to victims. Please stop hyperbolizing this very serious issue that needs intelligent discussion to solve. We have brains out here. Help us use them.
Does anyone know what this sentence means: "As long as the Jackson Police Department is working to dispel wrong 'perceptions' of crime, it certainly has a reputation to avoid regarding a perception of public trust." This is the first sentence of today's Clarion-Ledger editorial about crime, and it makes no sense to me as it's written. I think it's an admission that the city needs to work to reduce the "perception" of a city "drowning in crime" in order to increase "public trust" -- a perception that paradoxically has been largely created and promulgated by the media. My question continues to be: When do local media start becoming responsible partners in creating the "public trust"?
Not quite yet, it seems. After the mayor and police chief presented a detailed five-point plan to City Council about fighting crime in the city, today's editorial is the extent of the immediate response. Apparently, the chief met with the C-L editorial board afterward, and then a C-L reporter (and I) met with the mayor for an hour in the afternoon to talk about the plan. Is this the best critical analysis the paper could come up with after all that discussion?
Perhaps the muddled and low-key response is because the Clarion-Ledger has been beating the drum for weeks that the city isn't doing anything, and then this plan that's been in the works since February is released. Or, the paper's opiners have been so caught up over the "P-word" (accusing the chief of downplaying crime by calling it a "perception") that it can't find its way out of the jungle it helped create. Don't forget that it's been the Clarion-Ledger leading the criticism of the chief for (in the Clarion-Ledger's interpretation) declaring that "perception" of crime is worse than the reality (although the paper now seems to be agreeing).
This past weekend, David Hampton -- a man I like and a columnist I respect over there -- seemed to be trying to mitigate his paper's recent attacks on JPD Chief Moore. Alas, though, a little Clarion-Ledger logic found its way into the column. With all due respect to Hampton, there is a fundamental omission in his column: He doesn't say that when the chief has been publicly cautioning over "perception," it has been to tell the media to stop feeding into the hysteria by being sensationalist about crime and only looking for negative pieces. That's a big hole in Hampton's argument.
Then on Monday, cartoonist Marshall Ramsey -- one of the shining talents over there -- did a cartoon that, to my mind, illustrated perfectly the hyperbolic fashion in which mainstream media overblow crime to sell papers. The chief is holding a steering wheel, with the car missing, in an apparent attempt to illustrate that crime is so bad and not just "a perception created by the media." Of course, that captures exactly how media cover big episodes of crime without regard to the real picture. But it also, thankfully, acknowledges that at least one person at the C-L is paying attention to the accusation that the "drowning" crime perception might be "created by the media," as Ramsey illustrates. That, coupled with the muddled lead to today's editorial, indicates that the C-L might not be as confident about its "perception" accusations as it was a week or so ago. Good. Maybe we can feel our way to some solutions sometime soon.
I'd rather take my chances with the criminals in Jackson than the police in Brandon, Flowood, Madison etc...