Reader's View, public safety: Making sense of crime and statistics

September 21, 2013 

Someone once said, “Statistics are numbers looking for an argument.” Crime statistics are no exception.

Over the nine years I have served as Boise’s police chief, I have regularly shared important statistics — reported crimes and calls for police assistance — so that you, the citizens we serve, can understand the true picture of safety in our community. For the past six years, the numbers of reported crimes in Boise have decreased in nearly every category.

Many people are puzzled as to how that can happen in the worst economic times since the Great Depression. I don’t have a definitive answer, and neither do the many sociologists who debate the causes of crime.

I am certain of this: Our perception of crime is largely influenced by our own autobiographies. How we view our own safety and that of our community varies for each of us, depending on where we’ve lived, what we have experienced, and how crime has personally affected us and our loved ones.

Those who have lived here in Boise for decades have seen some crime numbers creep up with time and population growth. But residential burglaries last year were at all-time lows over the 25 years we’ve kept statistics. Those who came to Boise from larger cities might not be troubled by our levels of burglaries or even homicides; compared to where you previously lived, Boise’s crime numbers are small.

But if you’ve been the victim of crime — say, a home burglary — the feeling that your most private space has been violated is devastating. Every crime is a number, but we realize every crime has a victim who suffers real consequences.

Our perception of crime can also be shaped by the information our police agency shares with us about specific cases. Suppose the morning headline is “Businessman shot downtown.” For some who work downtown, the initial reaction might be concern this could happen to them. But what if the story behind the headline is the “businessman” was actually part of a drug deal? With that additional information, most of us can distance ourselves from worry about becoming a victim of a similar crime.

At the Boise Police Department, we strive to release information you need to be informed. But we must balance that with the rules of our criminal justice system, which can mean not disclosing some details that might jeopardize a suspect’s rights to a fair trial.

Many crimes are opportunistic, so we also try to share information to help you make good decisions and reduce the likelihood that you’ll become a crime victim. Please visit us at boisepolice.org for information and important crime prevention suggestions meant to keep you safe. We could see a noticeable decrease in crime if we locked our car and house doors, keep our garage doors closed, etc.

Crime is a social problem, and we must keep it in perspective.

A University of Texas sociology professor, Dr. Mark Warr, said it well: “When people take precautions based on fear that restrict their life and their children’s lives, we restrict our freedom and we do so unnecessarily. Fear also undermines the civility and trust in our communities that make civic life possible, and that’s a terrible consequence for a democratic society.”

Mike Masterson is Boise Chief of Police.

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