Lies, damn lies and cherry-picking statistics

Poor old Jeff Collins. The neophyte Labor MLA for the inner Darwin seat of Fong Lim has just discovered that you never get between a tabloid newspaper and a circulation-boosting law and order scare story. Mr Collins had the temerity to suggest in the Legislative Assembly the other day that tabloid stories about an out-of-control crime wave in Darwin might be just a trifle simplistic and exaggerated. Outrageous! the News thundered: “Perhaps he should look at the latest shocking statistics – Darwin commercial break-ins up 90%; Darwin house break-ins up 20%.” (They are referring to the latest NT PFES crime statistics summaries for the year to end January 2017).

Well, the figures are right as far as they go, but what if you don’t only look at Darwin city council area and at the last year or so? And what if we look at violent crime as well?  Then we discover that violent crime was down by 3.7 % in 2016. Moreover, an accurate story on property crime rates would say: “2016 property crime a bit higher than 2015 but lower than 5 years ago and a lot lower than 10 years ago”.

Not quite as dramatic, eh? In fact the figures show pretty much exactly what Jeff Collins was saying.  I’ve been watching NT crime statistics closely for over 20 years, ever since I founded Victims of Crime NT in 1996 after my wife’s mother was murdered.  The truth is that the figures go up and down, often by seemingly significant percentages, from year to year. They always have and probably always will. Analysing the figures, finding the reasons for changes and taking remedial action where necessary is why PFES collect the statistics. Taking particular short periods, small areas and particular offences in isolation may be a good way to get a circulation-boosting headline but it doesn’t achieve much else. In fact, as Mr Collins observed, it can needlessly create a “climate of fear and loathing in the community”.

As I observed in a Letter to the Editor a few weeks ago (before the school holiday figures were released):

There’s a good reason to be careful about scary crime wave stories, because our system is based on the presumption of innocence and not everyone the police accuse is actually guilty. Moreover, imprisonment tends to make offenders more angry and more dangerous when released, so locking up offenders really should be a last resort unless you intend never to release them (which isn’t practically possible).  The NT system doesn’t give convicted offenders a “slap on the wrist”, the figures show we imprison more offenders for longer than any other state or territory.

But it DOES seem that there has been some sort of property crime “spree” over the school holidays.

The latest figures do indeed show a significant spike in property crime over the Christmas school holidays. That is certainly a matter of legitimate concern, but it doesn’t tell us anything very useful by itself.  We need to ask some more thoughtful questions: What is the pattern over time? Why have commercial break-ins been up consistently for quite a few months? What has been and can be done to reduce them? Why have house break-ins risen over the school holidays? Did they drop again in February, or is this also an ongoing trend? If so, what is causing it and what can be done?
Anyway, feel free to judge for yourself. Below is an extract from the Northern Territory Annual Crime Statistics 2011-12 with the most recent statistics (2015 and 2016) shown in red immediately below each category.

Rate of Property Offences (2011-2012)

  • The property offence rate in 2011‑12 was 9,163 offences per 100,000 population, or just over 9 offences per 100 persons.  As several property offences may occur in a single incident and apply to one or more persons, this rate should not be interpreted as 9 percent of people experiencing property crime.  The property offence rate was 2% greater than in 2010‑11, but 7% less than in 2006‑07.  Figure 22 shows the property offence rate for major offence groups in the Northern Territory over the last six years.
    • 2015 – 7763 offences per 100,000 (15% less than in 2011-2012)
    • 2016 – 8589 offences per 100,000 (6% less than in 2011-2012; 10.6% higher than last year)

Figure 22.  Property offences per 100,000 population

  • The house break‑in offence rate was 918 per 100,000 population in 2011‑12, 9% greater than in 2010‑11 but 1% less than in 2006‑07.  The rate of actual house break‑ins was 788 per 100,000 population, 9% greater than in 2010‑11 and 2% greater than in 2006‑07.  The rate of house break‑in attempts was 129 per 100,000 population in 2011‑12, 10% greater than in 2010‑11, but 16% less than in 2006‑07.
    •  2015 – 691 per 100,000 population (25% less than in 2011-2012)
    • 2016 – 795 per 100,000 population (13% less than in 2011-2012; 15% higher than last year)
  • The commercial break‑in offence rate was 820 per 100,000 population in 2011‑12, 3% less than in 2010‑11 and 2% less than in 2006‑07.  The rate of actual commercial break‑ins was 711 per 100,000 population in 2011‑12, 1% less than in 2010‑11 but 1% greater than in 2006‑07.  The rate of commercial break‑in attempts was 109 per 100,000 population, 13% less than in 2010‑11 and 17% less than in 2006‑07.
  • 2015 – 651 per 100,000 population (21% less than in 2011-2012)
  • 2016 – 868 per 100,000 population (6% more than in 2011-2012; 33% higher than last year)(but still 10% less than 10 years ago)
  • The motor vehicle theft and related offences rate was 1,036 per 100,000 population in 2011‑12, 2% greater than in 2010‑11 and 52% greater than in 2006‑07.  The rate of illegal use of a motor vehicle was 402 per 100,000 population, 2% less than in 2010‑11 but 19% greater than in 2006‑07.  The rate for theft of motor vehicle parts or contents was 633 per 100,000 population in 2011‑12, 5% more than in 2010‑11 and 84% more than in 2006‑07.
    • 2015 –  867 per 100,000 population (16% less than in 2011-2012)
    • 2016 – 862 per 100,000 population (16.8% less than in 2011-2012; 0.5% less than last year)
  • The rate of other theft offences (excluding motor vehicle theft) was 3,114 per 100,000 population in 2011‑12, 1% greater than in 2010‑11 but 18% less than in 2006‑07.  The rate of theft from retail premises in 2011‑12 was 437 per 100,000 population, 7% less than in 2010‑11 but 74% greater than in 2006‑07.
    • Figures not given separately in latest PFES stats summary
  • The rate of property damage offences was 3,275 per 100,000 population in 2011‑12, 2% greater than in 2010‑11 but 10% less than in 2006‑07.  Property damage includes offences such as graffiti, arson and vandalism.
    • 2015 –  2630 per 100,000 population (20% less than in 2011-2012)
    • 2016 – 2952 per 100,000 population (10% less than in 2011-2012; 12% higher than last year)

Now if you can get a “crime wave” out of all that you’re a better person than I am Gunga Din.

After reading those figures above, it might not surprise you to learn that the NT News published a pretty similar crime scare story titled huge jump in property crime blamed on ice in May 2015:

HOUSE break-ins across Darwin and Palmerston have skyrocketed almost 70 per cent in the past year, as property crime worsens in the Territory’s capital.

Official crime statistics released online by NT Police show house break-ins in Darwin and Palmerston jumped 67.2 per cent — from 636 to 1064 — in the year to March 31, 2015.

The article goes on to quote a NT police officer commenting on the seemingly frightening figures and putting them in a more meaningful perspective:

Det Snr-Sgt Stringer said the latest statistics appeared worse than they were.

The Strikeforce Trident operation was introduced in September 2012 to reduce property crime.

Det Snr-Sgt Stringer said rates dropped to “all-time record lows” in 2013, which were the figures the most recent statistics were compared to.

“We got it so low you probably couldn’t go lower without a radical overhaul of the justice system,’’ he said.

“It’s no worse than it was two or three years ago.”

In fact Detective Stringer may well have been speaking in the wake of a Christmas school holidays property crime spike rather like the one we’ve just gone through this year, because not only were they “no worse” than two or three years ago but the figures for house break-ins for the full calendar year 2015 were actually twenty five percent lower than those for 2011-2012 which were in turn 16% lower than 5 years before that.

I wouldn’t begrudge our local newspaper drumming up fake controversy about crime if it didn’t do any harm. But this is actually an important question of public governance. Frequent references to the press as the “fourth estate” are made for good reason. In a liberal democratic society we rely on the news media to keep us accurately informed, and when they choose to present a very partial picture of reality they seriously distort public debate.  Governments can end up being stampeded into adopting harsh, pointless and even counter-productive “law and order” policies to appease public fears of a massive crime emergency that is at the very least exaggerated.

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6 years ago

we are poorly served by the only daily paper.


[…] posted just such an article again on the weekend, but put it on The Summit blog published by Charles Darwin University School […]