Friday, November 28, 2008
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Local police question FBI's "dangerous cities" crime data

Roanoke has ranked high on a list of raw FBI data that is used in comparing cities' crime rates.

Twice in the past four years, a publishing firm ranked Roanoke as Virginia's second-most dangerous city, stirring concerns among politicians and drawing skeptical dismissals from police.

This year, the city crime rankings released by CQ Press assign Roanoke the fifth-highest crime rate among Virginia cities, which on the surface appears to be a movement in the right direction.

But it's difficult to tell what any of the rankings really mean.

Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University, sees some merit in the numbers. "Roanoke looks like it's making some improvements in its community efforts to minimize crime," though the city still has work to do, he said.

Roanoke police Capt. Chris Perkins put it bluntly: "I don't put any stock into it. There's way too many cautionary issues."

To determine the nation's safest and most dangerous cities, CQ Press calculates each city's crime rate per 100,000 population for six categories using statistics that the localities report to the FBI. The six categories are murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and motor vehicle theft.

The totals in each category are based on crimes reported to police, not on charges filed or on convictions.

To arrive at the rankings, which previously were published by Morgan Quitno Press, cities were compared based on their crime rates and how they stack up to the national average for a particular crime category.

Based on the 2007 data, Roanoke's overall rank this year is 128 among 385 cities nationwide. According to the FBI data, the crime rates in Roanoke for murder, rape, aggravated assault and motor vehicle theft all decreased from 2006 to 2007, while the rates of robberies and burglaries increased.

Perkins pointed out that neither the rankings nor the FBI numbers they're based on take into account a number of factors, including the geographic areas the crimes occur in or the results of subsequent police investigations into the incidents.

Perkins' concerns about the ranking system echo those expressed by city governments and law enforcement, including the FBI.

A warning on the FBI Web site reads: "Each year ... some entities use reported figures to compile rankings of cities and counties. These rough rankings provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular town, city, county, state, or region."

CQ Press acknowledges the limits inherent in the FBI data, company spokesman Ben Krasney said. "To the best of our knowledge, this is the national data set for crime statistics. We don't know of anything better to use," he said.

Critics have not come up with a better suggestion for producing crime rate comparisons among cities, he added.

"Some people find this useful information; others say it's hogwash. Our intention in publishing this book is to make this information available to the public," Krasney said.

Because many of the cities have crime rate scores that are just a few points apart, a slight change in the number of crimes reported can make a city appear to move dramatically up or down in ranking, he said.

According to the study, Roanoke's reported murder rate is below the national average, but the city's rate for reported rapes is about twice the national rate, Krasney said.

Burke has pointed out that such a statistic could mean more rapes are being properly reported.

A common criticism of the FBI's data stems from the fact that different cities classify crimes differently, and not all crimes fit easily into one of the designated categories.

"How do you label a home invasion?" Burke asked.

Still, he suggested that the numbers could be useful for a police department in determining what problems they might choose to focus on.

These rankings stirred considerable discussion in early 2005 and during the 2006 municipal elections. At that time, Roanoke was listed as the city with the second-highest crime rate in Virginia, behind Richmond.

During that same time, a Radford University professor conducted a study that found that the violent crime rate in Roanoke grew more from 1985 through 2003 than did the rates of Richmond, Alexandria, Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

In late 2006, although Roanoke dropped in the state rankings from second to fourth place, Roanoke Police Chief Joe Gaskins issued a four-page statement questioning the company's ranking system and elaborating on several of the department's crime-fighting and education initiatives.

In 2007, Roanoke again ranked second in the state. This year it has moved to fifth place.

"You really can't determine whether a city is safe or unsafe based on raw reported numbers," Perkins said. "We feel that we're a safe community, and this department is doing everything we can to maintain that."

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