Friday, October 17, 2008

Chief DeMoura's Scary Mixed-up Math

There's a particularly badly-written article in today's S&E about Gov. Patrick's visit to Fitchburg and the coming budget cuts.

I'll leave analysis of budget stuff to Jason though. It puts me to sleep.

What I'm interested in is this:
Police Chief Robert DeMoura said the city doesn't receive enough money to begin with for Community Policing. He said the state [sic] last year had the third highest violent crime rate for cities of comparable size, but it didn't receive proportional funding.
Yeah, horrible writing. I assume that should have said "the city last year...", not "the state last year..." That's the assumption I'm going to work under, anyway.

It's an odd statement anyway. Third highest sounds bad, right? But third out of how many? What's a "comparable size," anyway?

Fitchburg's population in 2007 was 40,180, so are we looking at 39,000-41,000 maybe?
Oh, there are only five cities in that range (Beverly, Holyoke, Fitchburg, Westfield, Arlington). Third out of five doesn't sound all that bad, actually.

We could add in Salem, Leominster, and Billerica if we go up to 42,000. So third out of eight? That doesn't sound too terrible either.

Let's be extra generous and give a range of 35,000-45,000. Then we have 14 whole cities to choose from! In addition to the previously-mentioned cities we also get Everett, Woburn, Marlborough, Pittsfield, Attleboro, and Methuen (from smallest to biggest). What a happy bunch of towns!

Now we encounter another problem. DeMoura was talking about the violent crime rate for last year. The 2007 figures aren't available on the FPD website, though I don't doubt they exist (the FPD can be a bit slow about updating their site). No matter, that wouldn't help us with the thirteen other towns anyway!

Instead, we'll go to the FBI, and specifically this report.

Notably, the FBI has a huge caution against ranking on its site. Among other things, it says:
These rankings, however, are merely a quick choice made by the data user; they provide no insight into the many variables that mold the crime in a particular town, city, county, state, region, or other jurisdiction. Consequently, these rankings lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting cities and counties, along with their residents.
Hear that, Chief? Don't rank things! It's a dumb idea!

But since he already did it, I suppose I might as well check his figures.

Except that I can't! When I try to get the violent crime number for Fitchburg, I'm instead directed to this footnote:
The data collection methodology for the offense of aggravated assault used by this agency does not comply with national UCR Program guidelines. Consequently, the figures for aggravated assault and violent crime (of which aggravated assault is a part) are not included in this table.
So I can't even really compare! Leominster and Westfield have the same problem, so that's 3 out of our 14 cities that are now junk.

To make matters worse, aggravated assault is the biggest of the four subcategories that go into the "violent crime" category. What the hell sort of data is DeMoura even using to make his claim that Fitchburg is the third worst? This seems increasingly like a made-up claim.

Well, I could compute a new number of violent crimes without aggravated assault, figure out the crime rate (which is number of crimes per 100,000 people), and compare that!

So I did. Here were the top 5:
  1. Holyoke: 254
  2. Everett: 187
  3. Pittsfield: 185
  4. Fitchburg: 149
  5. Leominster: 94
Damn, so close!

This isn't a really valid way to do things though, because those aggravated assault figures make a big difference. (Perhaps this is why they warn against rankings!) With the aggravated assault figures back in (and Fitchburg, Leominster, and Westfield automatically excluded) we get:
  1. Holyoke: 1,250
  2. Pittsfield: 683
  3. Everett: 511
  4. Salem: 323
  5. Attleboro: 320
The order on the lower end of the list is all screwed up too, so aside from Holyoke being the worst in both cases, the first list is useless for ranking.

Perhaps you're thinking that Chief DeMoura has access to Fitchburg's aggravated assault figures and could therefore have calculated stuff out to get our mysterious third place ranking? Maybe so, but Fitchburg's figures are calculated differently than all the other ones here, so they're not usable for that purpose.

I'm also betting he doesn't have Leominster or Westfield's figures. It wouldn't matter if he did, though, because they're unusable for the same reason Fitchburg's numbers are unusable.

What's the point of all this?

Simple, the claim that Fitchburg has the third worst violent crime rate among towns our size in Massachusetts is meaningless scaremongering. It's not supported by the facts, and even if he had some sort of calculation that he could make come out that way, it wouldn't mean anything.

I know DeMoura is pushing for more pay for his officers, but doing it through fear is just plain wrong.

By the way, when it comes to property crime, Fitchburg ranks 6th out of these 14. Leominster is fourth. Chief DeMoura didn't choose to highlight this number though. After all, it's not scary.