How City Officials Are Spinning Crime Stats In Their Favor
Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad faces mounting pressure as the city's homicide count outpaces last year's record high.
Earlier this week, he told the Metro Council's public safety committee that crime, overall, is falling in Louisville.
But a review of police data shows that the drop in overall crime is fueled by fewer property crime reports, which are more prevalent than violent crime, such as homicide and aggravated assaults. Police data shows violent crime is on the rise.
Some experts say touting a public safety strategy as successful based on fewer property crime reports as deadly incidents become more common can bring a false sense of security and a cause people who feel threatened or unsafe to lose faith.
Soon after Conrad presented the most recent data from the police department to council members, Mayor Greg Fischer reiterated the statistics in a series of social media posts:
LMPD Chief Conrad reports that overall crime in city down 2.92% so far in 2017, compared to same time last year.— Mayor Greg Fischer (@louisvillemayor) May 8, 2017
Council members from districts plagued most by violence, however, offered little enthusiasm.
Police in Louisville reported 41 murders through the end of April, a nearly 14 percent jump from the first four months of 2016 — a year that ended with the city’s highest murder count in history, according to police data.
Downplaying deadly events like homicides and shootings can cut at the bond between police and the community, said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University.
“It's disingenuous to say crime is down when violent crime is up," she said. "I think that is sending a very explicit message to the communities that are affected that they don't matter."
'They feel it's getting worse'
Killings have become more common in Louisville since 2013, the year after Chief Conrad was hired by Fischer.
Conrad has faced scrutiny from Metro Council members amid the surging homicide tally and as allegations of sexual abuse unfold in court and news reports.
During a nearly two-hour hearing before the council’s public safety committee earlier this week, Conrad told members his call last year to shake up officer assignments — a move that drew criticism from council members and residents in areas where violence is most prevalent — is yielding results.
As evidence, he pointed to the 3 percent drop in overall crime.
His pitch didn’t quite convince some council members.
"Bodies continue to be on the ground," said Jessica Green, a Democrat from District 1, which is home to areas plagued by gun violence.
Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton is a Democrat from District 5, home to Shawnee and Russell, where violent crime is more prevalent than many other areas of the city. Hamilton said her constituents don't feel like Louisville is getting any safer.
"In fact, they feel it's getting worse," she said.
Police reported more than 500 shootings last year, data show. This year's tally of shootings isn't far off that pace.
More than a third of the 98 shootings reported through the end of March took place in Hamilton's district, data show.
Conrad acknowledged that murders and shootings are a burden, and wants to find ways to bring the numbers down. But he stressed preventing violent crime is not the sole responsibility of police, and combating other crimes is also part of their job.
"I'm looking for a safer community," he said. "What we need to do, as a community, is work on crime in general, and the root causes of crime."
But keeping traumatic issues such as murders away from the forefront of public conversations on crime can often lead to negative — if unintentional — consequences in communities most affected by violence, said Jayme Simoes, president of Louis Karno and Company and an expert in media relations and crisis communication.
"It's always important to look at the whole truth," he said. "Be openhanded and talk to people about what's really going on."
Still, parsing data — especially crime data — to fit a certain narrative is not uncommon in politics. Greer, from Fordham University, said to highlight a rise in violent crime would be like confessing a deficit in leadership.
"It's politically advantageous for elected officials to say crime is down," she said. "Realities can be hidden within a narrative."
In an interview Wednesday, Fischer said he hopes violent crime isn't being overlooked. He said news outlets are "fascinated" with gun violence, but crime "is very complicated."
"The question is, what kind of plans do you have in place, are you working the plan, are you improving the plan," he said.
Data Drives Policy
Crime statistics can sometimes sanitize the bloodshed that comes with violence.
"We have to realize these are actual human beings who are being murdered," Greer said.
She said data can overshadow the lives lost and the community-wide trauma that comes when killings occur.
But data is also a driving force in police work, said Justin Nix, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisville.
Nix said police lean heavily on data to measure success in reducing crime. Year-to-date comparisons, however, aren't the best method to gauge those efforts. Such stats are publicly available on the Louisville Metro Police Department's website. This week, Conrad cited the statistics when addressing the council.
Year-to-date data are easy to compile, Nix said, but can be misleading and arbitrary. Year-to-date totals are quick to fluctuate and can hinge on outside elements like the temperature or special events, and they don't always provide a comparable look at crime trends.
For that, Nix suggests presenting crime data in a more linear way, such as looking at reports over a continuous timespan.
Still, data don't show the whole picture of police impact, he said. Data often lack insight into community satisfaction: Are people happy? What do they need?
For that, he said, police need to keep talking with people.