Numbers don’t lie (but they don’t always tell the truth)

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It’s often said that numbers don’t lie. While that may be true, they don’t always tell the truth.

Case in point: the state’s new Florida Incident-Based Reporting System and the National Incident-Based Reporting Systems have become incredible tools for the transparent reporting of crimes.

At the same time, all of the additional information creates the appearance of more crime – even if the actual numbers are declining.

Clay County now belongs to both reporting organizations. Explaining how crimes now are reported and categorized can be challenging.

“The FBI is changing the way we count crime,” Clay County Sheriff Michelle Cook said. “It will dramatically affect numbers.”

Here’s how.

In the past, if somebody broke into a house, took a set of keys and stole a car, and then rammed that car into somebody’s house, the old accounting system, Uniform Crimes Report, would fall under the “Hierarchy Rule” and be considered a single incident. FIBRS and NIBRS, however, now break it down into three separate crimes.

The benefit of the new reporting system is everyone, from residents to law enforcement, now has a clearer picture of what’s happening in our communities. That transparency, however, may create some sticker shock.

Overall crime in Clay County, and in most jurisdictions, is down.

Despite an increase of 4,329 residents from 2019 to 2020, the number of arrests dropped by 1,006, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The county’s number of arrests – 4,866 – was a combination between the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, Green Cove Springs, Orange Park and Clay County School Board police departments, the Clay County Inspector General, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco and the Florida Highway Patrol.

FIBRS and NIBRIS go into much greater detail than older reporting systems. For example, under UCR and Summary Reporting Systems, there were only eight major crime categories. Now there are 24. And one of the biggest changes is in how sex crimes are categorized. There now are nine different offenses for sex offenses.

NIBRS collects data for 52 offenses, plus 10 additional offenses for which only arrests are reported. SRS counts limited data for 10 offenses and 20 additional crimes.

According to the FBI, the nationwide implementation of NIBRS became a top priority “because NIBRS can provide more useful statistics to promote constructive discussion, measured planning and informed policing. To increase participation, the UCR Program is partnering with the Bureau of Justice Statistics on the National Crime Statistics Exchange, working with advocacy groups to emphasize the importance of NIBRS data, and transitioned the UCR Program to a NIBRS-only data collection, as of Jan. 1. In addition, the UCR Program has made resources available to help agencies address the cost of transitioning, as well as the potential perception that an agency has higher crime levels when NIBRS establishes a new baseline that more precisely captures reported crime in a community.”

NIBRS now identifies when and where crime takes place, what form it takes, and the characteristics of its victims and perpetrators. That allows law enforcement better define the resources it needs to fight crime.

But for now, the more precise numbers can appear to be misleading.

“It’s going to look like crime in Clay County and across America is skyrocketing, and it’s really not,” Cook said. “It’s really how we count it now. It’s a much more transparent and thorough accounting.”

Of course, how those numbers are twisted and reported is another way may not be a lie, but it’s not necessarily telling the truth, either. Just like Mark Twain said, “There’s lies, damned lies and statistics.”

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