FBI reports major fall in crime, but not for everyone

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

 PLATTSBURG, Mo.—A preliminary report released by the FBI last week indicates a significant drop in crime in the first half of 2009, despite perceptions that a poor economy has contributed to growth in overall crime.

Using data from the 11,728 law enforcement agencies who contributed to the report, the FBI found there has been a 4.4 percent reduction in the number of violent crimes as well as a decrease of 6.1 percent in property crimes for the first six months of 2009.

However, not all cities are experiencing a reduction in crime. Cities with populations between 10,000 to 24,999 have actually experienced a 1.7 percent increase in violent crime and 3.8 increase in aggravated assault.

This jibes with the experiences of Chief Zeffrey Bingham of the Plattsburg Police Department in Missouri. He said that while his department’s end-of-year numbers have not yet been released, he expects his crime figures for 2009 to be higher than 2008.

“We had roughly 300 cases last year and this year it looks like we’re doing around 350,” he said. “We had a significant increase in violent crimes, specifically aggravated assault crimes that required medical attention or involved a weapon.”

Bingham said there are several factors contributing to this increase in crime. Stress caused by economic factors has been a big reason, he cited. “Our unemployment rate is up, like everyone else, and we’ve lost major manufacturers in the area so the job rate is plummeting.”

He has also seen a migration of criminals from major metropolitan areas such as Kansas City to smaller cities like Plattsburg. “County agencies have seen rural burglaries increase because of the convenience—there is no one out there,” he said. In addition, a reduction in law enforcement manpower means there are fewer officers to cover large geographic jurisdictions.  

While smaller cities may not be experiencing a reduction in crime like those of its larger counterparts, Bingham speculates that those rosy numbers may actually be the result of underreporting of crimes. “Resources are down and I know that cities are understaffed and some agencies are not responding to property crimes due to shorthandedness,” he said. “If you don’t report it, it doesn’t happen.”

Some of the most striking numbers from the report include a nearly 20 percent reduction in auto theft across the country. While Bingham said he saw an increase in auto theft in 2009 (from anywhere from 2 to 6 in 2008 to 12 this year), he attributes the overall decrease in stolen vehicles to vast improvements in technology to protect cars. “Manufacturers have gotten better at making it harder to get into cars and installed interlocking devices and tamper-resistant components that kill the car engine, so it’s not easy to steal—that’s been a big contributor,” he said. 

And while overall property theft has fallen across the country, those in the retail industry have not had the same experience. “We celebrate the FBI’s picture that they’re winning the war on property crime, but in the retail community we’ve experienced that retail losses are up,” said Joe LaRocca, senior asset protection advisor with the National Retail Federation. The 2008 National Retail Security Survey found that shrink rose by 1.51 percent in 2008 to $36.3 billion in losses and LaRocca said he doesn’t expect the numbers for 2009 to be much different.

The difference in findings could be attributed to several factors including a drastic reduction in other sources of property theft such as home and corporate thefts. “It’s hard to get a clear picture” of where the reduction of property theft is coming from since contributing sources are not just from retailers, he said. “The losses we’re experiencing in the industry have not reflected the same trend that the FBI is showing,” he said. 

And despite a difference in findings, LaRocca said the FBI’s report is certainly good news. “We look at those numbers as an encouraging sign in overall property theft coming down and hope to see it in retail as well,” he said.