by Kevin Schofield
This weekend’s reading is the “Crime in Washington Annual Report 2021‘, published annually by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. The report collects and aggregates data from 206 law enforcement agencies in Washington state, covering violations of the law, arrests, and the number of commissioned and civilian employees in each agency. The state is required to collect this data each year and submit it to the FBI for its own annual statewide crime and law enforcement statistics report.
Government agencies are good at producing these kinds of reports: hundreds of pages of data in tables, with some nice graphs to highlight specific stats. The release of the data is an important public service in the name of transparency, especially when merging data from multiple disparate sources: it would take an enormous amount of time and energy for you or me to recover it by contacting more than 200 law enforcement agencies and requiring the law data – and then try to “clean” it so it’s consistent across all the jurisdictions they cover. But mostly, the charts and graphs are less than useful and more akin to “data visualization porn”; they give you a visceral sense that you’re seeing something interesting, but they rarely offer anything other than a cursory look (if any) at the patterns in the data. This particular report is packed with information about porn: pie charts, bar graphs, and percentage breakdown tables that look useful but tell us little. Many miss the mark because they don’t answer the most important question in working with statistics: compared to what? For example, on page 56 we are told that 16.7% of arrests were for DUI, but the report gives us no context to interpret it; Is that a high number or a low number? Has it risen or fallen in 2021?
The entirety of page 11 is devoted to a “crime watch” (complete with a pocket watch as the background image) that takes 30 different crimes and calculates how often they occur, again without providing a frame of reference for whether we should think the numbers are high or low . But there is a special place in Hell reserved for the person who created this bar chart (below on page 15); visually it appears that violent crime has more than doubled when in reality it has only increased by 12%.
For the most part, the report sends out a pretty strong message that we should look at the data but not think too much about it. In fact, we are specifically told in the opening remarks that we should not compare the data in this report to the FBI’s annual crime report, and should not compare and contrast each agency listed or create “rankings” since each jurisdiction has its own context with different demographics, economic base, infrastructure and proximity to other facilities. In a word, that is nonsense. The whole purpose of ordering the collection and publication of the data is to be able to compare jurisdictions’ approaches to crime and law enforcement. The context for any agency is indeed important and we must be prepared to delve in to understand why things may be different in a given place; At the same time, however, data from other agencies forms a large part of the context in which we interpret what an individual law enforcement agency is doing.
The one exception in this report, where the authors have done well to provide some context, is each agency’s NCO and civilian employment statistics. For one, it separates the sheriff’s offices from the city and town police departments; Interestingly, we note that while King County has the largest population of any county in the state, both Pierce County and Snohomish County actually have more people living in unincorporated areas — and both have more commissioned officers than the King County Sheriff. They also contextualize the number of employees in an agency by relating it to the total population served by that agency. The “law of large numbers” applies here: you need a certain minimum number of officers to cover shifts, and in smaller departments an extra officer or two can make the ratio go haywire. For example, the Winthrop Police Department has the highest rate of any department in the state: 5.71 commissioned officers per 1,000 people — it has only three officers and serves a city of 525 people. Overall, we see greater variation between the state’s small towns and high consistency between the largest cities (with the exception of Bellevue) and between sheriff’s offices. The report also gives us a longer historical look at employment levels and notes a multi-year decline in police departments (although it again manipulates the chart to mislead us into believing that the change is larger).
While most of the report’s “just the facts, ma’am” approach robs us of any clear understanding of trends or patterns, there’s a lot we can learn if we dig a little deeper. Some of the tidbits I found while looking through the data:
- While the report breaks down the number of arrests for 42 specific offenses (plus a catch-all “all other offenses” category), half of all arrests resulted from just four: simple assault, violating a contact or protection order, theft or theft, and DUI.
- However, there are major differences between departments in terms of the offenses committed in each jurisdiction. This is even true for small towns next to each other like Burien and Tukwila. But also for larger cities: For example, Seattle and Bellevue see some significant differences in the types of crime that take place within their borders.
- Only 5.4% of offenses involved the use of drugs or alcohol during the commission of the offense – and many of these were drug-related offenses such as possession of illegal drugs or paraphernalia.
- Although opiates dominate the headlines, they account for a relatively small percentage of drug offenses in King County. Stimulants (such as methamphetamines and cocaine) and heroin account for the vast majority of drug-related offenses in most jurisdictions.
- Auto theft is commonplace throughout King County, but especially so on the Eastside.
- The nationwide aggregated arrest data shows clear, persistent racial disparities. Less for Whites: Nationally, about 78% of the population is white, and in most categories of arrests, the percentage of whites is close to that number (with the exception of racketeering, bribery, and liquor law violations). But for blacks, only 4.3% of the state’s population, the disparity remains wide: 33% of robbery arrests; 22.5% of prostitution arrests; 21% of serious assaults; 20.9% of arrests for intimidation; and 15.9% of gun violations.
- Fraud crimes fell dramatically in 2021. This is discussed in the report: Apparently the unemployment scam skyrocketed in 2020 as the pandemic and relief programs were rolled out. These numbers have now returned to earth again.
Reports like this one — strong on data, weak on analytics — make a good case for learning the basics of a spreadsheet app: being able to scrape a table of data out of a report, paste it into a spreadsheet throw and do the numbers themselves. Although we are often required by our government to collect and publish basic data, we cannot let it tell us how to think about that data or dictate the questions we ask be able. Personally, I hope that the government officials who compile reports like this will separately conduct their own analysis, well beyond the inch-deep pamphlet they serve us — although if that’s true, I have to wonder why they don’t choose to do so to share it with us.
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and founder of Inside the Seattle City Council, a website providing independent news and analysis from Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the Seattle News, Views and Brews podcast with Brian Callanan and appears on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review from time to time.
📸 Featured Image: Graphic by the Emerald team.
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