Crime claims draw police response

The Roanoke Times | Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Is there crime in Roanoke? Sure. Is it the most dangerous place in Virginia? That’s a matter of perspective.

Ask the city’s law enforcement leaders, and they’ll tell you that reports of violent crime were down 41 percent in 2012 compared with seven years earlier, while reports of property crime were down 22 percent.

Ask the Republicans running for city council, and they’ll cite a real estate blog that says Roanoke saw the highest crime rate that year among 37 cities in Virginia with populations of more than 10,000 people.

So who’s right?

Crime is trending down in Roanoke. That’s a fact supported by federal, state and local data. But saying the city is dangerous — going so far as to say that one in 18 Roanokers will experience violent crime, as the real estate blog does — may be a stretch. For one thing, a resident in one Roanoke neighborhood doesn’t have the same chance of being a victim of a crime as another.

“Dangerousness has to be measured on a whole variety of different levels,” said Gary LaFree, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland.

Deputy Police Chief Tim Jones said the public’s perception of crime is often fueled in part by the media’s portrayal of it — breaking news flashing on TV and front page stories featuring murders — rather than the actual statistics.

Chief Chris Perkins even took the rare initiative Monday to make a public statement on Facebook addressing the topic, taking issue with several local reporters who asked questions that seemingly misunderstood the city’s crime trends.

“In late February of 2014, a reporter asked me to explain the recent increase in robbery offenses in the city,” Perkins’ statement said in part. “We reported that robbery offenses were down as compared to last year. Neither story was released.”

Over the past few years, Roanoke has had a high rate of reported incidents per capita compared with other cities, according to Virginia State Police figures. But it’s in line with other metro hubs like Portsmouth, Norfolk and Richmond, and has fluctuated with them for the No. 1 spot. And mirroring national trends, crime in Roanoke is falling.

You wouldn’t know that from talk at recent city council forums, though. Republicans running for that office have cited a recent online analysis listing the 10 most dangerous places in Virginia, which ranks Roanoke at the top.

The blog is run by Movoto, an online real estate firm that creates the listings, in part, as a way to market its website.

The information Movoto used comes from FBI data compiled annually from law enforcement agencies across the country in what is known as the Uniform Crime Report. Violent crimes are classified as murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault, while property crimes include burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson.

The FBI explicitly cautions against using the data to compile rankings of localities, saying such lists “provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular town, city, county, state or region.”

“Consequently, they lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents,” the FBI says on its website.

The American Society of Criminology calls crime rankings based on the UCR “invalid, damaging, and irresponsible.”

Movoto’s analysis hinged on weighting violent crimes more heavily than property crimes. Roanoke’s violent crime rate per capita in 2012 was actually lower than Richmond’s, and its property crime rate was lower than those of Portsmouth and Colonial Heights.

Nick Johnson, a spokesman for the company, said the weighting was admittedly arbitrary. Violent crime made up 50 percent of the ranking, property 30 percent, and the blog’s determination of a resident’s chances of being the victim of a crime accounted for 20 percent.

“That’s us making that up,” he said. “We could have made it 40 [percent], we could have made it 60. We just decided that violent crimes are a bigger deal than nonviolent crimes.”

He said the company has received criticism for the rankings, but has also heard feedback from cities who thank them.

“It’s not scientific. It’s a way to kind of create conversations,” he said.

City council candidate Roger Malouf said he hadn’t seen the blog posting but cited it in recent forums because it was based on FBI data. Whether the ranking itself was perfectly accurate was beside the point, he said.

“We didn’t go from being a great city to being dead last in one year,” Malouf said.

LaFree, a former president of the American Society of Criminology, said the numbers behind the crime rankings are valuable when viewed in context.

It’s not that the FBI data is necessarily problematic, he said. But using only one year’s worth of data to rank cities is “misleading.”

“It’s better for long-term trends,” LaFree said.

He said knowing what city a person lives in reveals little about their crime risk, especially compared with risk factors criminologists actually do study, such as age, gender and socioeconomic status.

LaFree said cities can’t be viewed as homogeneous areas, especially when crimes tend to happen in focused hot spots. Two studies — one in Minneapolis, and another in Seattle — suggest the majority of crime in urban areas is concentrated in just a fraction of the city.

Roanoke, for example, is divided by the police department into four zones and sees dramatically different crime rates in each.

“This is like the basic lesson of the last 30 years of policing,” LaFree said. “We’ve learned that all neighborhoods are not created equal.”

Jones said the city does have pockets of crime but encouraged every person to actively work to decrease his or her likelihood of becoming a target. Don’t walk alone at night, for example. Lock your house. Hide your valuables in your car.

LaFree said crime statistics is an issue often debated by criminologists, let alone candidates for city council.

“This argument isn’t going anywhere,” he said.

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