A recent Buffalo News analysis of crime statistics in the City of Buffalo confirmed official reports that this is a safer place. But it was slightly unsettling to learn that the city has been miscalculating the rate at which it clears crimes.
The News analysis found that Buffalo has the fourth-highest violent crime rate among cities of similar size throughout the country. That’s a startling revelation only eased by the fact that the Police Department appears to do a better job than most in solving crimes.
To the credit of police officials, they have not dodged the fact that for at least the last eight to nine years, the department has underreported its clearance rates to the FBI because of a misunderstanding over how to calculate when a crime is cleared, especially for homicides.
Commissioner Daniel Derenda admitted: “We were doing it wrong. We are going to get the data corrected.” Admitting a mistake is important, although it raises questions about who got it wrong and whether any other calculations are being done incorrectly.
Crime has dropped steadily in Buffalo over the past decade. The number of serious violent crimes is down 17.5 percent between 2005 and 2013, and the number of serious property crimes is down 25.3 percent. Those percentages are better than the declines in national crime rates, which are also dropping steadily.
However, looking at the numbers in another way shows that crime is dropping, but not as fast as the national figures. As The News analysis showed, Buffalo’s decline occurred while the city’s population dropped by 8 percent and the nation’s population increased by 6 percent.
That means that on a per capita basis, Buffalo’s decline in crime is behind the national rate, and although the city is safer than it was a decade ago, it remains one of the most violent midsize cities with populations between 200,000 and 325,000, according to The News analysis.
Police officials objected to a per capita comparison of Buffalo with other cities, saying that Buffalo’s population swells well beyond its census number during the work day and when events are held on the waterfront, downtown and in the business districts. But this ignores the fact that similar factors affect cities around the country.
Derenda’s realization that something was wrong – after reviewing The News analysis – indicates the department needs to conduct a routine review of its numbers. The near decade these numbers were incorrect indicates no one was paying close enough attention.
The police commissioner doesn’t like the per capita comparison of crime in Buffalo, which reduces the improvement in crime rates. Fair enough – then the department should consider as many variables as possible and analyze where the city falls compared to other cities.
Categories that differ greatly from norms will be an indicator that something needs to be examined. Information is powerful, but getting the information right is crucial.