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Trusting the numbers: Stats show drop in WNC crime, but can the figures be trusted?

Haywood County saw a massive drop in crime of over 38% between 2021 and 2022.  File photo Haywood County saw a massive drop in crime of over 38% between 2021 and 2022. File photo

There’s an old mantra in law enforcement: don’t take credit for the good times unless you’re willing to take equal responsibility for the bad. 

With the recent release of 2022 crime statistics by the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation, it might look like law enforcement leaders across Western North Carolina should let loose and sing their own praises. While crime was down 1.4% statewide, it was down by a much greater percentage across this region, as much as 38.4%, the highwater mark set by Haywood County.

However, most law enforcement leaders and experts caution people to pump the brakes before celebrating. Andy Hanson is a criminal justice professor at Western Carolina University, a role he’s been in for nine years now. He said the numbers are more complicated and less reliable than they may seem on the surface.

“It’s one of those things where the more I dig into it the less I feel I know,” Hanson said.

But that hasn’t stopped some from making broad claims.

Take the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, for example. Overall crime was down about 15% between 2021 and 2022 for BCSO. Earlier this month, Sheriff Quentin Miller put out a press release touting the numbers and praising his staff for their dedication and hard work while also claiming certain new policy initiatives have had an impact.  

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“Under Sheriff Miller, there has been a focus on arresting individuals who are doing the most harm to the community and are responsible for organizing criminal theft rings. This new enforcement strategy by the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office has led to a reduction in crime,” the release reads.

Meanwhile in Haywood County, some including several candidates for town office in Waynesville, have made claims about crime based on stats from various websites, stats that paint a grim yet unclear picture. But those websites use the same relatively unreliable numbers released by the NCSBI amalgamated with others that have more to do with quality of life to come up with their data. And yet those numbers — along with unproven anecdotes about busloads of houseless people being brought in from bigger cities and embellished accounts of violent crimes and public drug use — have caught the attention of voters.

But while some groups try to instill fear in others based on a perceived rise in violent crimes, it’s important to note that violent crime has consistently dropped nationwide since the 1990s.

The recently released NCSBI stats were provided by each agency, mostly through the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBERS), and in rare occasions, the older method known as the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR); NIBERS allows for more nuanced reporting, which ideally leads to a greater level of accuracy. The first step in the data compilation process for both systems requires law enforcement entities to log each incident and then send it along to the NCSBI through standardized data software. That information is then forwarded to the FBI, which uses it to determine national trends.

There’s one other crime index that’s considered somewhat reliable from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This method of determining trends in crime is called the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). While UCR numbers are somewhat reliable, their serious flaw comes from the fact that a large majority of crimes committed aren’t even reported to police. NCVS is a household survey that simply asks a slice of the population in each state whether they’ve been a victim of various types of crimes. In contrast to small national decline in overall incidents shown in violent crime data between 2021 and 2022 based on NIBERS and UCR, the NCVS shows a large increase in violent victimization over the same period. 

“Both of these programs grossly undercount the number of crimes,” Hanson said. “For example, NCVS doesn’t talk to children 12 and under.”

An article published Oct. 18 on the Council on Criminal Justice  by Richard Rosenfeld and Janet Lauritsen — renowned experts in the field — focused on violent crime. Its name: “Did Violent Crime Go Up or Down Last Year? Yes, It Did.”

The article explores the differences between NIBERS and NCVS numbers. It notes that while it’s hard to draw a definitive conclusion from either system, or from the divergence between the 2022 numbers, those numbers rarely differ as much as they did last year. The article outlines a couple of possible explanations.

Police response times have increased  in many cities as officer staffing levels have fallen,” it reads. “Aware of such delays, residents may have responded by reporting fewer assaults.  Declining trust in, or increasing fear of, the police  may have played a role as well, especially for Black victims, although according to the NCVS Black victims were no less likely than White victims to report criminal victimizations to the police in 2022.”

“The conflicting signals from our major statistical systems for measuring crime mean we cannot conclude with confidence whether violent crimes, other than homicide, went up or down in 2022,” the article later notes.

Like Rosenfeld and Lauritsen, Hanson noted that whatever the numbers are, they ought to be taken with a grain of salt. While homicide numbers are relatively reliable since there aren’t many dead bodies that aren’t discovered and reported one way or another, some things — like property crimes or especially sexual assaults — frequently go unreported.

This explains why NCVS may show an increase in certain areas while UCR won’t since these surveys don’t rely on people to report crimes to the police.

“UCR and NCVS in the US are not telling the same story,” Hanson said, adding that that still likely wouldn’t explain the massive drop in Haywood County’s numbers.  

Hanson discussed how he reads the latest numbers in comparison with recent years. During COVID, there was a spike in certain violent crimes, but those numbers have since leveled out.

“They seem to be getting back to earlier pre-Covid times, and they still seem to generally reflect this downward trend we’ve seen since the 1990s,” he said. “If you look at the 10-year trend, it seems to be getting back on track.”

While the statewide index is down slightly and the numbers are down by more overall in the west, the statistics from county to county are basically all over the place. From 2021 to 2022, for example, the index for Macon County was down 6.2%, but in neighboring Clay County, it was down 26.8%. Considering criminals don’t often consider what county they’re in before they commit a crime, this phenomenon has led to a good deal of head scratching.

While Miller touted the lowered index as well and said they were indicative of his office’s success, Haywood County Sheriff Bill Wilke was more cautious and said he expects numbers will rise next year in the wake of the massive drop between 2021 and 2022.

Wilke was only sworn in as sheriff in December 2022, so the recently released numbers don’t reflect much of his time in office. He said he thinks the numbers, with rare exceptions where deputies can be more proactive like with drug investigations, are likely more of a reflection of socioeconomic circumstances at all levels than the immediate result of any law enforcement success or failure.

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Haywood County Sheriff Bill Wilke. File photo

“A lot of the change probably has to do with recovering from COVID,” he said.

Wilke did lament that there are some crimes that may be grossly underestimated by those numbers, crimes that are often hidden in plain sight.

“The perfect example is human trafficking,” he said. “We may have one or two cases, but I guarantee there’s more of that going on, and that’s a hard nut to crack. In my time as private investigator [just prior to his election] we were doing surveillance at a truck stop, and I saw these women who were there who didn’t look like they were from here going from truck to truck. If we have even only one or two truck stops, I don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of the real number.”  

Wilke also noted that since there aren’t many staffing shortages in his and Haywood County’s municipal law enforcement agencies, the result of that will still be higher numbers since that will mean more people are being charged with crimes.

“Staffing is making a difference,” he said. “We have seven in training, then we’ll be fully staffed.” 

Waynesville Police Chief David Adams had a similar take. His department has three officers in training, and then it will be fully staffed for the first time in about five years.

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Waynesville Police Chief David Adams. WPD photo

“It’s good that we’ll have more officers,” he said. “That means we’ll have more people to get more drugs off the street.

Adams’ department’s numbers are close to trending with the county’s, and like Wilke, he said those numbers will likely go up as patrol officers have emphasized charging more quality-of-life crimes like trespassing. He also expects that more officers and an emphasis on DWI stops may lead to a hike in those numbers.

With everyone acknowledging that the crime stats, except for obvious trends and homicides, aren’t necessarily reliable, the question is, what do agencies do with these numbers? Some use the stats to ask for funding from municipal, county or state governments, and some may use them for grants. But beyond that, there isn’t much else that can be done with them.

“A mayor or a chief of police may want to look at local trends and make geographical comparisons with other agencies,” Hanson said. “Maybe I want to look at the numbers to determine if one crime went up while another went down. But if you use them to take credit when they go down, you’ll have to answer for them when they go up.”

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