Reality Check: “Is crime really down” in Memphis?

Thomas R Machnitzki via Wikipedia
For the past several years we’ve been hearing that “crime is down in Memphis”…and don’t we all feel safer?

This assertion has been told by all kinds of folks in public life…elected officials, law enforcement, etc. and is more often than not…unchallenged, even though few people can tell that “crime is down” based on reporting or their life experience here in Memphis.

What’s interesting is when they put a number on it. Back in October, Tennessee was ranked most dangerous state in the nation. Memphis bore the brunt of this rating.

In response to this ranking several reports came out including this one that cited officials including DA Amy Weirich as saying “crime is down 22% since 2006”.

But how can crime be down when no one sees any appreciable difference in the crime rate? Is it that we’re conditioned to overreact to crime? Is it that there’s too much reporting on crime? What is it?

Is crime really down in Memphis?

As with most things, it depends on when you start looking at the data. If, like Operation Safe Community Report, you only go back to 2006…indeed, crime, and more importantly violent crime is down 23%.

But crime, and our perceptions about crime have a longer view that the 5 years between 2006 and 2011. So I decided to take a look back 10 years…from 2003 to 2012 using the FBI Uniform Crime Report stats from those years.

It should be noted that I wanted to take a longer view, but the absence of data from 2002 for the area cut that effort short.

So, with all that in mind here’s a graph that shows violent crime rates in Memphis over this time period.

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 7.53.06 PMNote: Data is from table 6, City of Memphis numbers of each year’s report.

In the above graph, the blue line is reported annual violent crime. The red line is the 10 year average.

If you look at the numbers, from 2010 and 2011 are 23% down from 2006. 2012 is 15% down from 2006. But 2006 is a high water mark…not the average.

Looking at the average, 2010 and 11 are down about 11%. 2012 is only down 1.5%.

If crime were really on the decline, the blue line would be moving steadily in a downward direction and the red line would be in the middle of that line. That’s not what we see in the chart. The blue line is snaking around the red line over that 10 year period, which tells me that our instinct that crime isn’t going down is not unfounded.

And this goes to the way people use and cite statistics. A one or two year decline does not a decline trend make. If, over the course of the entire 10 year period there was a visible downward trend, then it would be fair to say crime was decreasing. But that’s not what’s happening.

So while its not inaccurate to say there’s a 23% decrease since 2006, its also not an entirely accurate accounting of what’s going on. Its a sin of omission. Its a political statement. Its not wrong…but its not right either.

So no, the crime rate isn’t really “down”, and your perceptions are not unfounded. The rate of crime is about what it has been for the past 10 years. It is virtually unchanged.

Reality Check – No, crime isn’t really “down” enough for you to notice.

Of course, this is just violent crime. Next time we’ll look at property crime and break down some numbers for individual classes of crime.

Ed. NoteIt should be noted that taking a longer view (as I originally intended) might net data that shows crime is indeed down (from say 1995 or 1980, etc.), but the 10 year view does illustrate the problem. Also, the population changes between different decades would need to be accounted for in any analysis that deep. Since there’s little population change in Memphis between 2003 and 2012, I feel it is a good “apples for apples” comparison.

6 Replies to “Reality Check: “Is crime really down” in Memphis?”

  1. Crime isn’t down. In 1970, there were 93 murders. In 1993, almost 200. In 2000, about 105. In 2008, nearly 170. 2011, 147, 2012, 139. 2013, 129. Violent crime is closed tied to areas of poverty. Memphis has dispersed it’s poverty. Overall, poverty has increased. People just aren’t as spatially close to each other so any “reductions” in crime may be tied to the simple fact people aren’t in arms length or pistol range as much as they used to be. It is why Blue Crush is so fixated on apartment complexes. The crime is concentrated and lights up on a map. Per capita there is still plenty of crime spread over one hundred square miles of the city.

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