The Outstater

August 26, 2021

Using Statistics to Stop (or Start) a Crime Epidemic

CITING STATISTICS showing that blacks make up 14 percent of her state’s population but 53 percent of prisoners. and that blacks make up 80 percent of those incarcerated on a felony firearm charge, a Michigan prosecutor says she will no longer act on felony firearms charges.

That is fair warning that you should be on guard when statistics are used to justify public policy. As is the case with automobiles, sledgehammers and, yes, firearms, it depends on how they are being used.

It will do little good, for instance, to ask the typical police chief for crime numbers. What you will get is a year-over-year FBI-manipulated percentage of crimes grouped into random categories.

This may be useful for petitioning the council for increased public-safety funding or, conversely, taking political credit for any incidental drop in one category or another, but it doesn’t have anything to do with solving or preventing crimes. 

Nonetheless, a study out of George Mason University of crime in New York City points offers hope. The researchers, using a data base begun during the Giuliani years, focused on high-crime “hot spots.” Looking at NYPD crime reports for 2010, 2015 and 2020, the researchers estimated that 1 percent of streets experienced 25 percent of crime and 5 percent of streets experienced 50 percent of crime.

Most important, because the crime statistics were broken down to one-block units, the researchers were able to see where one street had high instances of crime while the adjacent street had none. Here is their summary:

“It is misleading to classify whole neighborhoods as crime hot spots, since the majority of streets — even in higher-crime areas — are not. This is an important lesson for police and ordinary citizens who mistakenly see large areas as crime-ridden. We also found a good deal of stability in the locations of crime hot spots. Nearly all the streets that were hot spots as we have defined them in 2010 were also hot spots in 2020.”

That suggests a definite crime-fighting strategy: A data map can be constructed to set a police car on top of every crime hot spot in your city. That is what New York City did with phenomenal success during the administration of Police Chief Bernard Kerik.

It is said that such a map was proposed in Indianapolis during the Ballard administration but was abandoned when Black Lives Matter introduced its era of “racial reckoning.” It was vigorously argued that police should not in any way target economically or socially distressed neighborhoods where crime is the result of root causes dating back to slavery.

That may or may not turn out to be an accurate assessment of the psychopathy. If there is mayhem in the streets, however, a city does not have to wait for a scholastic explication or a socio-political resolution. Law-abiding residents of the inner city deserve protection from the criminals in the next block as much as suburban residents deserve protection six miles away. Our personal and property rights are not geographically proscribed.

And strange as it may sound, the history of a cholera epidemic contributes to this discussion. Cholera in 19th-century England was checked not by medical discovery but by statistical analysis similar to that used by Chief Kerik.

In 1854, a London anesthesiologist mapped all the known cholera deaths, including those clustered around 13 public wells in the central city. Although it would be decades before London health authorities identified a link to the water-borne bacterium Vibrio cholerae, they simply closed the pinpointed wells

The lives of many persons, rich and poor, were saved. — tcl


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