Putting Decatur’s crime in context

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt August 10, 2013

There’s an old saying in politics. Perception is reality. Local media has carried several stories about a “crime wave” in the city of Decatur, but most of the stories I’ve read don’t provide comparative data.

People living in Decatur think crime is on the rise, if comments on local websites are any indication. That perception has put city officials on the defensive. Whether the fear is legitimate is irrelevant to city leaders, as it should be. If they want to get reelected, perception takes precedence.

Based on data I’ve received, there’s an increase in one category of crime – burglaries – but that’s only one piece of the total picture. When that picture starts to come into view, you see a city that has some issues, but you also see one that’s in better shape than you might assume.

Reality check 

I did a six month comparison of burglaries reported in 2012 and 2013. Burglaries involve breaking into an unoccupied home or business, stealing stuff, and then leaving. It is not a violent crime, though it does really suck when it happens to you.

Data show that in the first six months of 2013, burglaries rose 85 percent compared with the first six months of 2012.

Burglaries reported first six months of 2012: 40

Burglaries reported first six months of 2013: 74

The busiest month for burglaries in the first six months of 2013 was June, with 20 burglaries reported. That’s about the time when the proverbial crap hit the fan for residents and media coverage increased. By comparison, only 9 burglaries were reported in June of 2012.

That’s a big jump.

However, other crime rates in Decatur went down over that same time period. Aggravated assaults dropped by 66.7 percent.

Aggravated assaults reported in first six months of 2012: 9

Aggravated assaults reported in first six months of 2013: 3

Robberies also dropped by 36 percent during the first six months of 2013, with 9 reported as of June 30.

Here’s the full list of crimes reported for the first six months of the last two years:

Decatur 2012-2013

(UPDATE) Decatur Police haven’t finished compiling reports for July yet, but I was able to get the amount of robberies for July.

Robberies reported in July 2012: 3

Robberies reported in July 2013: 6

That’s 100 percent increase from July 2012 to July 2013, if we’re just comparing the two months without adding all the other robberies reported in the seven months of 2012 and 2013. In the first seven months of 2013 Decatur saw a 12 percent decrease in robberies compared with the first seven months of 2012.

A lot of it depends on how you look at it. The public is right to be concerned about the number of robberies that occurred in July, because it could be a sign of a rising crime rate. But, given historical trends, it could be a statistical anomaly.

Either way, you want to take any increase seriously. But you should also take some comfort. It’s not all bad news in Decatur.

Decatur had no murders in 2011 and 2012. So far so good in 2013, knock on wood.

Violent crime, offenses that result in physical harm to others, are on the decline and have been for years.

No one can fault you for making faulty assumptions about local crime. Crime is a one-note, fear-driven topic. Property crime in an affluent community like Decatur will make the evening news.

It’s easy to report fear. Fear is simple and exists at the surface level. Fear shows up at community meetings and yells at public officials and police officers.

Facts are complicated and you have to dig for them. Facts don’t always make for good video. Facts can be a nuisance for someone who wants to feel justified in their assumptions.

But without them, this whole discussion about crime is nothing more than group therapy being played out on internet forums.

It’s time to take a step back and see if we can find a more objective perspective on this topic.

Gathering data

Police departments keep detailed information about crime. They’re called Uniform Crime Reports and they’re turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation each year. These reports track Part 1 crimes: Murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft. Part 1 crimes are those most likely to be reported to police soon after they happen.

If I have one criticism of Decatur Police in their handling of the so-called “crime wave” it’s that the UCR stats have been hard to find. Access has recently improved.

Sgt. Jennifer Ross, the spokeswoman for DPD, came on board at the end of June and she’s been busy. To her credit, she has been incredibly helpful and forthcoming. She’s responded to nearly all of my numerous, highly-specific questions and has provided information in a timely manner. She lives in Decatur and has a stake in all this, too.

Sgt. Ross provided me with UCR data for 2012 as well as the first six months of 2013. Every department tracks this information a bit differently. Decatur Police track “simple assault” which is an assault that doesn’t result in significant bodily harm. To simplify things, I’m only comparing data for “aggravated assault,” which is an assault with a weapon that can result in serious harm.

I’ve compiled the historical UCR reports for Decatur starting in 1985 and going through 2012.

Here’s what violent crime in Decatur has looked like over the last two decades:


As you can see, things are looking way better than they did in 1985 through the early 90s.

Property crime data show a similar trend over the years:


Editor’s note: For the record, I’m not sure exactly what happened but for whatever reason the FBI does not have all 12 months of data from the city of Decatur for 1991 and 1994-1996. I’m pretty sure the stats for those years aren’t properly accounted for, at least on the FBI website. If anyone has that data or knows why it isn’t there, please let me know. 

Again, we see a great deal of improvement from 1985 to now, though there are obviously some years that were worse than others for certain crimes.

I keep focusing on the violent crime rate. To me, that is the most meaningful statistic of the two. I say that because I’ve been a victim of a violent crime. I was robbed at gunpoint while working at a convenience store in college. I take all crime, and the factors behind it, very seriously.

I’ve been a victim of property crime on more occasions than I’d like to recount, including the notable batshit craziness at the condo I rented in West Midtown.

At least with property crime, you live to see another day. If you have insurance, you might be able to get through it without eating through your life’s savings.

In an upcoming post I’m going to explore the topic of how Decatur compares with another city that has similar demographics. I think I’ve found a good match and one that will give all of us a better perspective about what we’re dealing with and, more importantly, what we aren’t.

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of Decaturish.com. https://www.linkedin.com/in/danwhisenhunt

View all posts by Dan Whisenhunt

  • Judd

    Great work! Any idea what happened between 1993 and 1994? Looking at those last two graphs, that’s quite a sudden drop.

    • Thanks, Judd. As best I can tell, the data the FBI has for that period is incomplete. (See the editor’s note beneath the charts). I’d like to get the additional data but don’t know where I’d find it or if it even exists because it was so long ago. I appreciate your interest and I plan to keep digging.

  • Craig

    Very interesting. The density of events up to June 2013 (379 crimes vs 318 in 2012) is dramatically higher than in 2012, so it’s not hard to see why people have the perception of a crime wave … there does seem to be one! But, it’s certainly comforting to see the long term decline in crime (with some interesting cyclical features). Thanks for the data and analysis.

    • No problem, Craig. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I think everything is A-Ok. Clearly, there are some issues. I just think the best way to deal with those issues is to use data to inform our discussions about how we tackle the problems and to put the problems in their proper perspective. We don’t need to make a fear-based decision in the short term that could have long-term unintended consequences. Look at what’s happening with our prison system right now as the result of “get tough on crime” rhetoric. I’m all about strategic deployment of our city’s precious resources. I plan to keep writing more about this issue. Thank you for reading.

  • Chris

    Hasn’t the city’s population grown quite a bit, and doesn’t that make a difference looking at the number of crimes? Not because the city’s citizens are necessarily the criminals, but more people means more opportunities for the criminals. Not to mention the fact that people didn’t have tempting fancy cell phones until recently.

  • h

    Im equally interested in what happened between 1993 and 1994. Some type of demolition in preparation for the olympics? Or too early for that? Judd, what are your thoughts or anyone else?

    • Check out my latest post. I think there’s some answers in there. 🙂

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