The Summer of Confusing Crime Statistics
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The Summer of Confusing Crime Statistics

Recorded shootings are on the rise, but homicides are down. We examine how crime statistics are presented, and why they shouldn’t always be taken at face value.

Toronto’s summer was filled with gunfire. Or at least, you’d think that by reading the news. “Welcome to Toronto’s Summer of the Gun,” wrote The Toronto Sun’s Joe Warmington. “There is no question statistics can be made to look a lot of different ways, but some statistics are just plain ugly,” he wrote. “Scary, actually.” Not to be outdone, following the August shootings at Muzik nightclub, CP24 ran the headline, “Recent Shootings Part of Wider Increase in Gun Violence Across Toronto,” and CityNews followed with, “Gun Violence on the Rise in Toronto.”

The basis for these claims comes from crime statistics provided by the Toronto Police Service. According to these numbers, shootings are up 29.6 per cent over last year, with a worrying 59.4 per cent increase in shooting victims. Shootings with injury are up 80 per cent. Despite this spike, deaths by shooting are down 20 per cent from last year. And the largest spike in occurrences, 35 to 139, or 297.1 per cent, is for shootings without injury.

Understanding how shootings can increase so dramatically while shooting deaths decrease, and how to make sense of such seemingly contradictory numbers shows that police statistics are not nearly as straightforward as one might expect.

To access these numbers on the TPS website, you need to agree to a list of “qualifiers.” This disclaimer includes the caveat:

“The statistics, graphs and maps are based upon preliminary information that was supplied to the Toronto Police Service by the reporting parties and may not have been verified. The preliminary crime classifications may be changed at a later date based upon additional investigation and there is always the possibility of mechanical or human error.”

The notice goes on to say that the TPS makes no guarantee as to the “content, sequence, accuracy, timeliness or completeness of any of the data provided,” and that the statistics should not be used for “comparison purposes over time.”

While the increase in shootings without injury this year currently stands at 297.1 per cent, in August, Toronto Star reported an “astonishing” increase in the same category of 700 per cent. At the time of publication, the publicly available statistics indicated that there had been 15 shootings without injury in 2014, and that in 2015 there had been 121.

Screenshot from the TPS Crime Statistics page

Screenshot from the TPS Crime Statistics page.

Christian Leuprecht, a professor of political science at Royal Military College who specializes in security and crime, says there’s a widespread problem in policing data collection.

“We don’t have a methodical, systematic way of collecting this data,” he told Torontoist in an interview.

He speculates that the spike in the statistics could be due to a shift in data categorization, where what might previously have been classified in one category has been labeled as something else. But, according to Leuprecht, that’s only part of the issue.

“The real problem is that people report these things differently,” he says. “The reports that are filed, some police officers might not report them at all, some might report them under some circumstances but not under other circumstances … generally, for these types of data we don’t have a particularly good way of reporting.”

Leuprecht says that, at best, crime statistics can be used to indicate a trend of an issue being on the wane or on the rise, but he’d “be cautious from even inferring that.”

This creates a significant problem, as the lack of consistent data makes it difficult to come up with effective policies to improve policing outcomes. “How would we possibly craft a strategic policy with such imperfect data, and how would we actually craft an operational enforcement policy?” he says, adding, “That’s really the ultimate challenge when we have data that a layperson can look at and say, ‘This doesn’t add up particularly well.’ ”

The media are not alone in their use of crime statistics; some police officials use the stats to further arguments on controversial practices like carding. The province has recently proposed new carding regulations; officers will be required to explain to people they stop that they are under no obligation to speak with them, and that no information can be recorded from the stops themselves. Yet, notably, the practice will continue. News coverage of shooting statistics this summer contained references to carding from senior officials in the police service.

In July, president of the Toronto Police Association (the police union) Mike McCormack went a step further, and in an op-ed in the Toronto Star cited the statistics to specifically defend carding.

“These unsubstantiated allegations of racial discrimination are an attempt to stir public emotion and to justify knee-jerk policy changes to police practices. … Despite declining overall crime rates, shooting incidents in Toronto have increased by 48 per cent compared to last year, and the number of victims killed or injured is up by 66 per cent.”

McCormack maintains this position. “I think that the numbers speak for themselves, when we’re looking at these types of increases from shootings … generally, when taken in the broader context, they paint an accurate picture of what’s going on,” McCormack said in a phone interview with Torontoist.

Using crime statistics to justify carding is particularly troubling when examining the lack of statistics surrounding the practice itself.

Neil Price is the executive director of LogicalOutcomes, a not-for-profit consulting firm that aims to improve the effectiveness of human services work and social policy. Over the summer, Price worked with the Community Assessment of Police Practices (CAPP), a research initiative that examined community satisfaction with police interactions. CAPP attempted to gather police crime data form “high-risk” neighbourhoods, and hoped to compare it with personal accounts from residents to see where the stats might fall short.

In the end, the police didn’t provide the data Price was hoping for. “We never had that opportunity [to examine the police data],” Price said in an interview with Torontoist. “They produced an incredibly low number of instances of carding.” Price was disappointed, as he expected significantly more data given the widespread accounts of personal experience with carding, which he hoped to more thoroughly examine.

Price’s experience is just one example that points to the lack of carding data. A 2012 Toronto Star investigation found that only one in six, or 15.6 per cent of the 788,050 individuals carded between 2008 and 2011 had been arrested between 2002 and 2011.

It’s instances like these that make Price wary of the accuracy of crime statistics, and how they are used. “This is not just Toronto … when you speak with police in different jurisdictions it becomes clear that getting an accurate picture of crime is a very, very complex endeavour,” he explains. “Whether it’s a media outlet or it’s the police chief that publicly shares a stat that seems to not reflect that complexity you should be wary of it.”

Speaking to stats such as the 297.1 per cent increase in shootings without injuries, Price says drawing conclusions becomes even more complicated. “With homicide, you know, there’s a body,” he says. “But when you get into things like reported crime, it gets very, very complicated.”

While crime statistics can be used to justify practices such as carding, there’s also the possibility that they could be used to defend proposed TPS budget increases. In the upcoming city operating budget, TPS is set to see a significant increase compared to other city divisions. All city divisions have been asked to find a two per cent budget reduction, with an exception carved out for police (staffing costs account for 90 per cent of the police budget, making cuts difficult). TPS has requested a 3.69 per cent increase in their proposed $1.015-billion 2016 operating budget, which was rejected by the Toronto civilian oversight board last Monday. In the past, showdowns over the police budget have come down to demonstrating a need to protect community safety.

Mark Pugash, director of Corporate Communications for the TPS, is quick to say that statistics should be examined over long stretches of time. “The statistics show that our homicides are down over the last year, and our shooting homicides are down more than 20 per cent over last year. I think every survey that I’ve ever seen … shows that people think crime is worse than it is. … But I think before you reach conclusions you can’t look at one number over a short period of time,” he said in an interview with Torotoist. “Statistics Canada figures show that by a wide margin Toronto is by far the safest city in Canada, and I would be prepared to go further and say it’s the safest big city in North America. So you can’t look at one number over a short period of time and come to a conclusion. Toronto is an incredibly safe city, but low crime doesn’t mean no crime.”

Despite such criticisms, McCormack stands firm on his use of statistics. “I think that the statistics are painting an increase in crime, and I don’t know how you could manipulate them otherwise,” he says. “The numbers speak for themselves.”