Crime statistics a useful tool when used right

The crime severity index tells us a lot, but not which community is the most dangerous in Canada

Thursday saw the release of the 2019 crime statistics and crime severity index data for each jurisdiction across Canada.

The numbers come from Statistics Canada and the Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics and are based on police-reported crime data from each detachment, whether rural, municipal or RCMP — across Canada.

The release of the data comes with two key indicators — crime rate per 100,000 population and crime severity index, or CSI.

That data is broken down further into violent CSI and non-violent CSI.

CSI is an interesting calculation. It’s an attempt to better reflect the seriousness of crime in a given jurisdiction. This is done by taking all the charges and assigning them a value. That value is based on the average length of a prison sentence imposed by Canadian courts for convictions of those crimes over the past five years.

Since murder, for example, is met with a minimum of a life sentence, it’s given a quite high ranking. Theft, on the other hand, is given a low ranking.

Therein lies one of the things to keep in mind with these statistics.

The severity of crime is ultimately subjective. We can all agree taking a life is worse than stealing a bike, but HOW much worse is up for interpretation. I’m no criminologist or expert in policing and public safety.

But it appears to me that using court sentences as the measure for how severe something is may not line up with everyone’s interpretation of severity.

It’s an imperfect attempt to quantify an unquantifiable question — what crimes are worse than others?

It’s also based on police-reported statistics. So these are cases “cleared” — or where charges have been laid.

It’s not based on convictions, for example, or, in other words, “cases courts have determined did happen and are bad/less bad”.

It’s also based on reported crime. Much crime goes unreported.

I personally think CSI is a good measure if used properly. But what about if it doesn’t?

Every year a list is released of “the most dangerous cities in Canada.”

It’s based on CSI alone.

That’s problematic. To illustrate why, take a look at overall CSI data for all communities.

If you take all communities with municipal police forces, Prince Albert is in the top 20 or top 16 for crime and violent crime severity. If you ONLY take communities with 10,000 population or higher, it jumps to sixth and third-highest, respectively.

If you were to include rural communities on that list, it would fall even further.

Second, there’s that “by population” metric.

That’s not based on the number of people who frequent a city — to shop, to work, to go to appointments. Rather, it’s based on census population data. For Prince Albert, that’s in the mid 30,000s. The city serves upwards of 190,000 people.

It’s a note Statistics Canada makes themselves:

“A high crime rate or Crime Severity Index (CSI) may indicate that a municipality is a geographical area that provides commercial business, human or public services, or entertainment for many people who reside outside, as well as inside, the municipality. As a result, these municipalities may have large part-time or temporary populations which are excluded from both their population bases and their crime rate and CSI calculations.”

Indeed.

CSI also tells you nothing about a community’s makeup. Of drug, gang or weapons violence. It says nothing about poverty, about homelessness, about trauma.

It tells you nothing about interpersonal violence, or about gang violence.

It also includes crimes like fraud — that have a higher ranking because they tend to result in longer prison sentences, but do nothing to make a city more inherently “dangerous”

Six homicides related to organized crime, or a single homicide incident with multiple victims, versus a city with multiple unconnected incidents — which would scare you more?

That’s not what CSI is particularly useful for.

Too often, though, that’s how it’s used.

CSI is great to compare an individual jursidiction’s history against itself — or, to take communities of similar demographic makeup and show them against each other.

But to just rank all cities by CSI, devoid of context, is of little use to anyone. It scares. It doesn’t inform.

Prince Albert’s CSI is up this year. But so is Saskatchewan’s. In fact, so is every province’s — except for Quebec.

What does that mean? I don’t think I’m qualified to say. But looking at the factors that lead to an individual community’s CSI data seems much more useful than just printing “they have a higher CSI, therefore they’re the most dangerous.”

So look deeper. Don’t buy into it when someone tells you that Thompson’s CSI makes it the most dangerous city in the country, or that Prince Albert’s makes it the third.

there are concerns when it comes to crime and factors that drive crime in this city.

But we don’t need CSI to tell us that. We also don’t need outlets who have never had a reporter step foot in this city telling us we’re the third-most dangerous place in Canada.

CSI is a useful tool. But so is a screwdriver. It doesn’t mean I’m going to use one to drive a nail.

There are solutions. Let’s work forward to find them. Let’s not put stock in rankings lists that take data out of context and fail to try to understand what makes our community our home.

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