ROSS: Setting crime rates straight

There has been a lot of anger about crime in New Haven lately. Well, not about the crime itself so much as the way it is counted. This anger threatens to dilute accountability for city officials and distract from the city’s actual problems.

Here’s the source of the dispute. Per capita crime rates, determined by calculating crimes per 100,000 residents, allow citizens, government, the media, anyone really, to compare crime across cities, counties, regions and countries. It’s a fairly simple metric and thus a potent one for holding leaders responsible. For city officials, there is no escaping the data. But some would like to provide an escape hatch.

Yale and New Haven officials are both fighting ferociously to prevent media outlets and others from using the per capita crime rate. They argue that because New Haven‘s boundaries do not include the surrounding suburbs and neighborhoods, where crime is far lower, the measure is an invalid one. And the population of New Haven, a regional hub, is greatly increased during the day by workers and visitors. Some even put forward the dubious claim that New Haven’s population for the purposes of evaluating crime rates should be as high as 400,000, over three times the actual number. Our own Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins went so far as to send out an email over the summer in an odd attempt to personally refute the per capita rankings.

Here are the facts. 130,000 people live in New Haven. Those are the citizens who elect city leaders to office and whom those leaders have a sworn duty to protect. If a city’s jurisdiction doesn’t include the suburbs, tough. However narrow the city boundaries were drawn, that hardly matters now. The New Haven Police Department patrols within the city limits only — it had no role in creating the low crime rates of the surrounding areas and so cannot complain that it does not receive credit for them. Lamenting past boundary-drawing mistakes is not an anti-crime strategy.

To be fair, New Haven and Yale are not alone in their condemnation of the per capita numbers. Without indicting the data itself, the FBI has cautioned against ranking cities using that type of data. The real criticism has come from organizations such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors. For the stated goal of nuance, they want cities to be evaluated on a vague, methodologically standardized definition of what and how big a city is. Essentially, they want to erode an easily understandable conception of the city and substitute an academic one. This would not change the number of people which mayors and police chiefs have an actual responsibility to protect nor blunt the effects of crime on city residents. It would only muddy the waters and add another layer between officials and accountability.

At the heart of the issue is also how we judge the problem of crime. Do we look at a crime rate to get an individualized personal safety report? To determine what is our percentage chance of getting mugged or shot in this area? I suspect that many see the rankings this way, and city officials are right when they say crime rates don’t give the full picture when it comes to individual risk. The most serious crime is concentrated among certain neighborhoods and at-risk populations — notably, young black males with criminal records. Yale students and other city residents who live in safe neighborhoods are much safer. But crime rates should be about more than just individual risk — they should signify how safe and secure we are as a community. If any segment of the population has to walk the streets in fear, that should matter to all of us. And the crime rate should hold our leaders to the highest standard and be a way for citizens to demand action.

After a rash of shootings last year, Yale’s former liaison to New Haven, Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, told the News that city residents were more upset about the perceived unfair crime rating than about the violence itself. Maybe that is true for residents who live in safe, suburb-like neighborhoods such as Westville or East Rock and who care more about the city’s reputation than about actual crime. But those in the neighborhoods afflicted by crime want a public debate and response to actual, not manufactured, problems. At a community meeting held at Hillhouse High School last month, I saw hundreds of victims’ families, friends and community members as they gathered, galvanized to demand action by the knowledge that 34 murders in a population of 130,000 is an unacceptably high toll. Should they have been told that, actually, given the tourist and worker trade and taking nuanced demographic shifts into account, it isn’t as bad as it sounds? Just as in the question of whether criticisms of using the simple, basic crime rate are justified, the answer is no.

Colin Ross is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Wednesdays. Contact him at colin.ross@yale.edu.

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