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Tim Myers: Crime statistics: Can I come out from under the bed yet?

Myers’ Musings

Posted: June 13, 2009 6:57 p.m.
Updated: June 14, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Several years ago I attended the visitation for the deceased father-in-law of a co-worker. While the family seemed fairly desolate concerning the death, my Midwestern stoicism and logic found little to connote tragedy.

The 83-year-old gentleman, a man of faith, had a long marriage to the same woman, many children and grandchildren, and had contended with only one serious health problem; the stroke two weeks earlier eventually resulting in his death.

Since we all must die, this seemed like the least tragic circumstance, and since death is not rare for the human race, particularly those at an advanced age, one can rationally view this event and others like it without fear or panic.

Unfortunately, the same rationality does not apply to crime statistics or the politics of crime.

Last week the FBI released its 2008 statistics on violent and property crime for cities in the United States with populations above 100,000.

In the mid-1990s, Santa Clarita, then a very new city with a population of more than 100,000, ranked very high nationally with low absolute numbers of violent and property crime.

Real estate agents took great pleasure in this "fact" and I know many people who felt "safer" living within this community.

It also led some people to believe that NO crime ever happened in Santa Clarita. So when the odd event found its way into the local news, local conspiracy theorists believed that Newhall Land and the city suppressed the actual rampant numbers.

Well, in 2008 Santa Clarita no longer stood in the category of "safest" city, even in the made-up category of cities with more than 150,000 population invented by city PR wonks some years ago.

Irvine, Calif. now holds that distinction, beating out the perennial favorites of Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley.
How much safer does Irvine stand than Santa Clarita?

Well, based on rates of crime and not absolute numbers, residents of Santa Clarita are nearly four times more likely than residents of Irvine to be victim of violent crime.

For people worried about their stuff, Santa Claritans are only 20 percent more likely to be victims of property crime.

Now, before we all jump under the bed, let us examine the violent crime rate more closely. In Irvine .6 persons per thousand of the 209,000 population can expect to be the victim of a violent crime in any given year.

Based on totally random occurrences (this is not generally the case since certain demographics tend to "attract" violent crime to themselves - read: juvenile and young men), one would need to live in Irvine for 1,622 years to assure the violent criminals could get around to them.

In Santa Clarita we are doomed because it would take the bad guys only 411 years to get around to everyone.

In the realm of property crime it would take the criminals 56 years to steal something out of everyone's garage.

One cannot argue with the numerical facts. Crime, particularly violent crime, is extremely rare, but, like air travel, the victims of the rare crash seem quite tragic, just like the crime victim seems a very tragic figure, precisely because of the rarity.

Why do we get so excited and/or upset about crime statistics?

Everyone knows that when one is working on a low absolute number, the way to generate excitement revolves around comparisons of the small numbers to other small numbers, telescoping and exaggerating the differences.

Another example: Oakland leads the way in California for violent crime for large cities, with residents eight times more likely to endure a violent crime than residents of Santa Clarita.

However, even in the war zone of Oakland someone would need to live there for 50 years to absolutely assure their victim status.

But let's talk about the headline crime of homicide. This becomes the most tragic crime because of its extreme rarity.

For 2007 and 2008, all the cities in the entire state with populations exceeding 100,000 endured an average of 1,318 homicides against a population in excess of 17.6 million.

In other words, it would take the really bad, bad guys more than 13,000 years to decimate the state at this rate.
The bad guys would need 85,000 years at the 2008 rate of two homicides to clear out Santa Clarita, but ultra-safe Irvine would take 209,000 years to take care of everyone.

And what about Oakland? Accounting for 10 percent of the homicides in the state, it would still take 3,500 years to empty out the city.

So I guess I will probably come out from under the bed.

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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