#crimeisdown

I saw that hashtag in the headline of a DNAinfo story and got excited. Maybe truth in crime reporting was going viral! But no.

You won’t hear Lakeview’s top cop talk statistics at community meetings anymore — even if numbers suggest that crime is down from the year before in the neighborhood…. At a heated August policing meeting, residents both decried the statistics showing crime was too high — a beat in Lakeview led the city in robberies — and questioned whether the official data could be believed…. The [Lakeview] blog [Crime in Wrigleyville and Boystown] has taken on a popular hashtag, #crimeisdown, to express frustration.

So some group of Lakeview residents have taken a factual statement and turned it into a slogan for a bizarre form of trutherism, and then whipped up enough fear around that (again, factual, even though it is meant to be ironic) slogan to bully their local police contacts into tiptoeing around the fact that this supposedly ironic slogan is, in fact, non-ironically accurate, because to do otherwise would be too upsetting for those residents. This is hyperlocal news by Orwell.

There is the mandatory caveat that, of course, it is very possible to use statistics to callously dismiss the victims of crime. Individual experiences matter, obviously, even in the context of an overall crime decline. It’s even possible that some police officers at earlier Lakeview meetings were callous in exactly that way; I don’t know, because I didn’t attend them. If that’s the case, then shame on them.

But sometimes I think there is the opposite problem, which is people thinking that statistics have nothing to do with individual experiences. In fact, the “statistics” at issue are simply the result of counting how many people have been victimized by crime. There is no fancy manipulation. If the statistics go down, that means fewer people have been made victims. That means that you, personally, might be one of the people who weren’t robbed, or broken into, or shot. It’s impossible to prove that a given individual is the one who escaped that fate, of course; but it is a fact that had Chicago’s murder rate held steady over the past 20 years, for example, many thousands of people who are still alive would have suffered violent and tragic deaths. That is an amazing and wonderful thing.

The Lakeview residents quoted seem to think that the official statistics greatly undercount the real number of victims; it’s almost certainly true that the police numbers are at least somewhat low, since not every victim reports their crime to the police. But there’s absolutely no evidence that I’ve heard of that would suggest this problem has been getting bigger, and certainly not so much bigger that it would offset the truly enormous declines in assaults and robberies the city has seen over the last two decades. There’s also no reason to believe, as far as I can tell, that this problem would be especially severe in Lakeview as opposed to elsewhere in the city. In fact, I would tend to think that the residents of Lakeview would be much more likely to report a crime than in one of Chicago’s many non-white neighborhoods, where relations with the police are considerably more fraught. That means that the official statistics, if anything, probably understate how safe places like Lakeview are compared to the rest of the city.

As for the fact that, in the second quarter of 2013, the beat that encompasses the Southport and Halsted bar scenes in Lakeview had the highest number of robberies in the city – well, yes, that’s true. And maybe that suggests there ought to be some extra police presence there. But it also seems likely that the number of robberies in that precinct has something to do with it being one of the premier night-life areas in the entire city. That means that 1) there are a huge number of people there, several nights a week, which raises the total population and therefore should raise the total number of crimes, and 2) there are a huge number of people stumbling around drunk late at night, probably with cash, which is checking pretty much every box you need to increase your chance of being robbed. Not, of course, that you shouldn’t be able to feel safe at any time, anywhere, but the reality of pretty much every big city in the U.S. is that lots of drunk people with money late at night = some increased number of muggings. My guess is that if you are a non-drunk person, not spending a lot of time walking around by  yourself very late at night, Lakeview is an incredibly safe place to be.

In fact, I don’t have to guess: Looking at the incident log at the Chicago Data Portal, I can confirm that, for example, of the 22 robberies committed in this beat during the second quarter of 2013, exactly three happened between 5 am and midnight. Three. That means 19, the overwhelming majority, happened at some time between midnight and five in the morning.

The other thing I’d like to say about all this is it indicates one problem with conventional approaches to “democratic” community interaction with local government. If the police hold a community meeting, by definition the people who show up are going to be the people who are most alarmed about crime. In some parts of the city, that’s fine, because they actually have serious crime problems by almost any metric, and I think most residents – even those who appreciate the many other positive things about their community – would agree. In Lakeview, though, this dynamic can lead to some pretty skewed demands. An unscientific survey of friends who live in/frequent Lakeview suggests that very few of them consider that neighborhood particularly dangerous. In fact, most of them say they appreciate how safe it is. But these meetings are full of angry people shouting about how terrible crime is. If you’re a public official or community leader at that meeting, how do you respond to that?

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5 thoughts on “#crimeisdown

  1. I think part of the problem is that the police department is using “crime is down” to basically argue crime is a minor problem. Every single lock on my building in Lakeview had signs of attempted forced entry. We had several breakins into garages and had to spend a lot of money to install high security doors and locks everywhere. I’m sure our experience was typical of every building in the neighborhood. So when you know thieves frequently try (and multiple times succeed) at breaking into your building, then you hear “crime is down”, it’s obviously not a message that’s going to go over well.

  2. Yeah; I’m not defending (or attacking) the behavior of the cops at these meetings, because, as I said, I haven’t been to them. It may be that they’re trying to paper over the real problems people are having. But the extremity of the backlash, at least among this group of residents, is just crazy. I mean, to begin with, I don’t think they’re at all representative of people in the neighborhood–I don’t think most people there, based on my own experiences, are trembling about crime.

    It’s also a problem because it leads people to say things like: “”I think people know there are a bunch of chumps here, so it’s easy picking. It’s not fair that we pay high taxes and all the police go to the South and the West sides,” said one man, who was applauded by the room.” When in fact neighborhoods like Lakeview are waaaaaay safer, compared to the South and West sides, than they’ve been for a long time. AND way safer in absolute terms! The people quoted in this article may have legitimate concerns, but they’ve lost all sense of perspective about how those concerns fit into the city as a whole.

  3. By the way, I spent some time perusing Crime and Wrigleyville & Boystown. They actually make heavy use of statistics and include a “dashboard” of crime stats. Their charts show that robberies have set record highs the last two years and that 2013 is on track for another record (slightly). They also document the declines in the number of officers, beats without cops assigned, etc. These do not appear to be people who try to refute data. They are reporting data, while also explaining why they believe crime is also under-reported.

    I seem to recall that Greg Hinz at Crain’s – who lives in the area and is hardly a scaremonger – wrote a blog post on his site saying that there have been legitimate problems in the nightlife districts that need to be addressed.

  4. I’m not super familiar with individual blogs, so I’m not trying to put any of them down. There has been an steady rise in robberies in the nightlife areas of Lakeview over the last few years. I don’t at all object to residents organizing to pressure the police, or any other city agency, about a problem in their neighborhood. I *do* object to fearmongering, and promoting the idea that Lakeview is having a crisis of public safety worthy of being compared to other parts of the city. It just isn’t, for the reasons I explained above. When that perspective is lost, and people start believing that the problem is too many police in high-violence parts of the South and West sides, something has gone seriously awry.

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