Cops confess crime stats are meaningless

It’s not often that police will confide they have no idea how much crime is going on in their communities. But that’s exactly what the cops who patrol tiny Napanee, Ontario (population about 15,000) did today, when they put out a news release (reproduced in full after the jump). Of course, police didn’t issue the info to make a political statement about the relative meaninglessness of official crime stats, but that’s the byproduct conclusion of what they revealed.

Here’s the release:

(NAPANEE, ON) – Minor mischief and theft spree in Napanee

While a Napanee OPP Officer was on bicycle patrol on July 06, 2010, a Napanee resident informed the Officer of some on-going petty thefts and mischief offences being committed in the neighbourhood of Heritage Park Drive. The complainant reported stolen solar lights, ornaments, turned over flower pots and other mischief to several properties in the area. The Officer canvassed the neighbourhood seeking more information. While doing so, other residents came forward reporting similar activity that had been on-going for the past few weeks. When questioned as to why they hadn’t reported the problem to police earlier, they said “We didn’t want to bother the police, because it’s just minor “. Police encourage the community to report all criminal activity regardless of how minor the activity is.

Napanee OPP Detachment Commander Pat Finnegan says, “Despite the fact that minor mischief activity is often difficult to investigate, the police take property damage seriously and when there is sufficient evidence criminal charges can be laid. All lot of young people do not realize that they are committing a criminal offence when they engage in prank style behaviour. They also tend to forget that there is a victim behind the mischief. A criminal conviction for mischief could make it difficult to get a job and may make it difficult to even cross the boarder (sic).”

Napanee OPP will be increasing patrols in the affected area.

In other words, official police stats about mischief, vandalism and other minor crime, may significantly underrepresent the true level of criminal activity. That’s not a revelation, but it’s not something that police typically acknowledge so clearly.

Criminologists warn about this police-reported crime stat unreliability when politicians, police leaders and civic officials seize on stats as a barometer of crime-prevention efforts, or societal malaise (in the case of rising crime figures), or some other social consequence tied to crime. The numbers don’t tell you the whole story. Victimization surveys tell us that nearly seven out of every 10 acts of vandalism and nearly seven out of every 10 thefts of property are NEVER reported to police. Put another way, what police know about is a small minority of the crime that is happening.

Related: The safety fallacy