COLUMBIA — What does a 27 percent increase in violent crimes per capita from 2008 to 2009 mean?
Not much, First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz and Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said. They argue that one must examine crime data over a much longer period of time to discern any meaningful trends.
Nauser noted that statistics show a crime spike in 2007, when there were 617 incidents of violent crime in Columbia, according to Uniform Crime Reporting statistics from the FBI. That number dipped in 2008, when there were 387.
That number jumped back up to 501 in 2009. Factor in a population increase of nearly 3,400 between 2007 and 2009, and that's a 21 percent decline in violent crimes per capita from two years before.
That illustrates why focusing on a one-year statistical spike in crime can be deceptive, Nauser said. She said she believes the notion that violent crime is on the rise in Columbia contributed to voter approval last spring of a proposal to install surveillance cameras downtown.
The City Council in late September heard a proposal from the Columbia Police Department on the type of cameras that might work best and where they ought to be placed.
But Nauser said annual crime reports can skew public perception.
“I think it is a disservice to the community. They end up thinking crime is out of control, when that is not the case … I think personally that people voted for the downtown cameras because the focus was done on a one year,” Nauser said.
Sturtz said the low violent crime rate of 2008 was an anomaly. The public can get a more accurate view of crime trends by examining data from the past 10 years and considering population growth, he said.
Combined statistics from the FBI and the U.S. Census Bureau show that violent crime in Columbia between 2000 and 2009 rose 10.67 percent per capita, a bit higher than the increase per capita across Missouri, which is 8.2 percent, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Columbia's population in 2000 was 84,531. That number rose to 102,324 in 2009.
Nationally, violent crime fell by 6.14 percent per capita from 2008 to 2009. Over the past 10 years, it dropped 15.22 percent per capita.
Determining what causes violent crime rates to rise or fall would require detailed analysis, said Columbia Police Department spokeswoman Jessie Haden. Violent crime is related to human behavior and emotions, she said, and there is no way to know whether trouble is "brewing."
Violent crime statewide and citywide shows similar results. The increase or decrease in crime is more pronounced when looking at the difference between two years as opposed to over 10 years.
Property crime in Columbia actually decreased by 3 percent in 2009 from 2008 and decreased by 0.55 percent over the past 10 years.
Haden said property crime is easier to deter than violent crime. Police can patrol neighborhoods and educate the public on simple things such as how to be more aware of suspicious activity and to lock up cars and homes.
Haden agreed that it's important to look at statistical trends rather than annual spikes or declines. For example, there were a lot of burglaries in Columbia in November 2009, and thieves broke into 21 apartments on Christmas Eve of that year, Haden said. People really thought crime was on the rise, but there were actually more burglaries in 2008 than in 2009.
The first six months of 2008 had high rates of burglaries and then flattened out, Haden said. There weren’t actually high rates of burglary until the last three months of 2009, she said, but the overall crime rates lead the public to believe crime has risen significantly in 2009 from 2008.