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Crime Stats: Reliable? Or Not?

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IT DEPENDS …

We recently ran an item calling into question official crime stats released by the city of Myrtle Beach, S.C. – a.k.a. the “Redneck Riviera.”

Since that post ran, we’ve had several inquiries from other parts of the Palmetto State questioning the credibility of crime statistics from other municipalities and county governments.  For example, we were recently forwarded information related to robbery statistics from Richland County, S.C. – data which showed dramatic reductions in theft from motor vehicles and larceny.

Take a look …

richland county

Here’s the question, though …

What percentage of larcenies resulted in $2,000 or less being stolen?  And what percentage of motor vehicle thefts resulted in $1,000 or less being stolen?  We posed that question to the Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD), but didn’t get an immediate response.

Of course the real question is probably whether certain crimes are being reported accurately at all … never mind the numbers.

According to a law enforcement officer who spoke with us on condition of anonymity, manipulation of reports is a common practice – one that’s “especially easy to do with property crime.”

“Theft from motor vehicle becomes vandalism. Stolen motor vehicle becomes breach of trust,” the officer told us.

For years, the Columbia, S.C. police department was accused of suppressing its true numbers by “mis-categorizing” certain crimes – including allegations involving criminal sexual conduct that were mis-categorized as simple assault.

One of the problems?  Supervisory law enforcement officers – regional captains and other mid-level managers – are under intense pressure to produce results from higher-ups who are looking to win points with voters.

“Suppose there is a trend of increasing theft from motor vehicles in mall parking lots,” our officer explained.  “You must explain to the Sheriff and command staff what you will do to fix it.  If there is no change – or if it gets worse – vitriol will be hurled at you for failure.  If you are successful, you get rewarded with praise, a transfer, prestige et cetera.  You can see where the temptation would be to change the thefts to vandalism.”

Indeed …

According to uniform FBI crime data, South Carolina ranks No. 1 in the nation in terms of its total crime rate.  More recent studies using similar data have led one website to declare South Carolina the most dangerous state in the nation.

Obviously drilling down from there is problematic, though … and becomes even more difficult when cops aren’t honest about which types of crimes are being committed.

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