*The background behind Newark trends and news
The FBI recently released its annual Uniform Crime Report for 2013. In it, Newark was ranked the city with the third-highest murder rate in the United States, behind only New Orleans and Detroit.
It is a damning and alarming statistic, and the rate of murders here in Newark should spur urgent action. Nothing we tell you about how to read crime statistics can change that. Nor should it.
But statistics like this should also make us ask more questions, and think critically about what the numbers actually tells us. People tend to give statistics a lot of authority because they assume stats tell an objective truth. But stats can cover up some significant details. Because of that, we should “interrogate” numbers until they give us the information we need.
Read on to learn six things you should keep in mind when you encounter crime statistics about Newark, or any other place.
#1: Statistics and trends don’t matter when it’s you or your loved one
When it comes to murder and other violent crime, by far the most significant thing statistics cover up is the total loss experienced by the affected person and their loved ones.
Mayor Ras Baraka recently spoke about the murder rate in Newark for 2014, which is expected to be lower than the murder rate reported in the just-released Uniform Crime Report for 2013. He was quoted on NJ.com as saying, “If you were one of the 84 victims of the violence [in 2014, as of December 1] that took place…the reduction in homicides doesn’t matter to you.” For them, the loss feels total.
#2: Understand what’s being counted
Let’s define “murder rate” as murders per 1,000 people. We know the FBI reported that Newark had the third-highest murder rate in the United States in 2013.
But when BrickCityLive.com downloaded the Uniform Crime Report statistics just for New Jersey, we found four municipalities that technically have a higher rate of murders than Newark just in the state: Chesilhurst, then Salem, then Essex Fells, then Trenton, then Newark. How is it possible for us to have the third-highest murder rate in the entire country…but the fifth-highest just in New Jersey? Isn’t that a contradiction?
Not really. The reason none of those four was reported is because the Uniform Crime Report only counted cities with a population of 100,000 people or more. Chesilhurst and Essex Fells each experienced one murder; the population of those towns is so small that this put their murders per 1,000 people above Newark’s.
But what about Trenton, our state capital? Their population of about 85,000 people isn’t huge — but it’s not so small either. Still, they don’t make the 100,000 population cut to be included in the ranking.
Let’s say that instead of counting cities with populations of 100,000 people or more, we counted cities with populations of 50,000 and up. If the FBI did that, Newark’s ranking would drop overnight.
But this wouldn’t change a single thing about 2013. At the end of the day, the reported ranking just doesn’t say much about the public safety environment in Newark that is actually useful.
#3: Statistics cover up complexity
Imagine a conversation between two Newarkers. One thinks Newark is experiencing an exciting comeback. The other is despairing because he thinks Newark is dangerous for himself and his family. One can’t fully relate to her acquaintance’s gloom. The other can’t believe his companion’s hopefulness. How can their perceptions of what’s happening in Newark be so different if they both live here?
You’re looking at a map of crime rates in Newark by “neighborhood”: the dark blue areas report less violent crime; the lighter blue areas report more — grey the most. Newark’s ranking in the FBI crime report describes the public safety situation in the city as a whole, but what people actually experience day-to-day is their block and their neighborhood. And in Newark, the neighborhood or block where you live can make a drastic difference to the reality of public safety for you.
There are neighborhoods in Newark that are about as safe as you’ll find in any city.
But because the rate of violent crime and murder is so high in Newark overall, statistically speaking, we “pay” for the safety some neighborhoods enjoy with unbearable violence in others. In those neighborhoods, violent crime is so concentrated that the crime statistics for Newark overall actually downplay the rate of violence there. Consider what this means for how discussions around police deployment, the availability of safe and effective neighborhood schools, and real estate and housing differ from neighborhood to neighborhood. Consider the sometimes immense difference in day-to-day experiences within geographically short distances.
#4: Statistics describe ideas
If you look at the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, you’ll find two columns for rape. Why? Because in early 2012, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new definition of “rape” that would be more comprehensive than the original definition, which was set in 1927. As a result of this change, rapes spiked from 2012 to 2013, when the change took effect. Ideas about what rape is changed what was counted. That then changed the rape statistics.
If you read about the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, you’ll see them described as “shooting deaths” and “killings,” but not as “murders.” A lot of people passionately disagree with this characterization, but the deaths of those two young men will not be among those counted in FBI crime statistics. Trial and grand juries’ ideas about what murder is also matter when we look at statistics.
This directly affected the 2013 FBI murder statistics for Newark. The FBI counted one more murder than the Newark Police Department did. Why? Because “FBI standards for homicides often differ from those applied by local authorities,” according to Dan Ivers of NJ.com.
#5: Causes of crime aren’t always local
For the sake of this example, let’s briefly move off of violent crime to consider arrests for illegal drug sales. Statistics about arrests for illegal drug sales will give us information about the extent of the “underground economy” in Newark. But they mask information about the other side of the sale: the customer. Not all illegal drugs sold in Newark by Newarkers are sold to Newarkers. The “demand side” – the people who do the buying – are an essential part of the equation. That means people who live in towns nearby contribute to the statistic without ever being cited in it.
Violence is an effect of many causes: some specific to the situations and people immediately involved, but many others that are further away from violent incidents in location and in time. Location-based crime statistics tell us something about the location of effects, but not much at all about the varied locations of the causes.
#6: Not all crimes are reported
This one is pretty self-explanatory. In fact, the name of the FBI report containing violent crime data is, “Offenses Known to Law Enforcement.” Agencies like the FBI can only rank cities and otherwise report crime data based on crimes they know about.
The next time you encounter any statistic, and especially a crime statistic, sit that statistic down for an interview, and ask it some tough questions. Our understanding (and misunderstanding) of what these numbers mean can affect our relationship to our neighbors and our neighborhoods. They can also affect the ways we try to solve some of our most urgent problems.