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During CPP interview, NCDOJ says SBI trainers will ‘reach out to both’

When the N.C. Department of Justice released its latest batch of crime statistics, 94 of the state’s 100 counties were represented. Two in WNC, Graham and Mitchell, weren’t.

The statistics, covering all of 2012, were collected under a program administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the State Bureau of Investigation. The numbers document what’s known as the Crime Index — a tally of the major crimes in a given jurisdiction, including aggravated assault, arson, burglary, larceny, motor-vehicle theft, murder, non-negligent manslaughter, rape and robbery.

The crime reporting by local law agencies is voluntary, but a vast majority do it, according to the FBI’s website on the program, which says that agencies serving 94.6 percent of the U.S. population report their data.

It’s information that can reveal a lot.

“While the program’s primary objective is to generate a reliable set of criminal statistics for use in law enforcement administration, operation, and management, its data have over the years become one the country’s leading social indicators,” notes a N.C. Department of Justice website.

Without the annual stats, tracking local fluctuations in crime, which is always a tricky endeavor, is more difficult, said Al Kopak, an assistant professor with Western Carolina University’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. The data are often beset by flaws, he said, but can still provide a useful measuring stick, especially when compared year-to-year.

“If I were a community member, I’d want to know that information,” Kopak said. “And law-enforcement officers should listen to community members who’d like to see that. Withholding this information from them, I think, is a disservice.”

Why some agencies opt out of reporting

The data have been collected in North Carolina since 1973, but only from law agencies that choose to provide it. Those that don’t, like the sheriffs’ offices in Graham and Mitchell counties, are often relatively smaller ones.

These two counties aren’t quite alone in opting out: In the most recent release of statistics, the sheriffs’ offices in four other N.C. counties — Alleghany, Gates, Hyde and Jones — also didn’t provide Crime Index numbers.

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Law agencies that don’t report these stats, Kopak said, are often ones that use mostly paper record systems, as opposed to mostly digital ones, and are short-staffed. “It’s a product of the lack of technology and lack of manpower,” he said.

Graham County Sheriff Mickey Anderson didn’t return Carolina Public Press’s calls seeking comment about his department’s lack of reporting. Mitchell County Sheriff Donald Street did.

Street said he’d like his department to start reporting the crime stats, and that it tries, with limited success, to track them internally. “It’s hard to get a great number and be exact, like we’d love for it to be,” he said.

“I would be willing to do it, but I’ve not had anybody come up to offer the training for that,” he said of the prospect of reporting to the Crime Index. “We’ve not had the training for it, so I don’t know how to do it.”

Such training will be offered, said N.C. Department of Justice spokesperson Noelle Talley in an email to Carolina Public Press, after we alerted her to Street’s comments.

“The SBI provides training on crime stats reporting for local agencies upon request and would be glad to help either of these counties participate,” she wrote. “We’ll have one of our trainers reach out to both.”

A small WNC county that opts in

Clay County Sheriff Vic Davis, who works in one of WNC’s smallest counties, said that he’s amped up his department’s Crime Index reporting since he took office three years ago.

“Those stats come directly from our incident reports,” he said. “Every time a deputy goes out on a call, if there’s a crime that has occurred … those crimes are recorded. When I came in, it was more or less left up to the deputies to decide if they were going to make a report or not, so we were very under-reported. And so I started requiring the reports.”

Davis said he requires reporting for two reasons.

“Number one, it lets the public know what’s going on in the county,” he said. “And number two, it helps us to realize what needs to be done, as far as law enforcement is concerned. I think it’s very important that we keep an accurate track of what’s actually going on.”

Numbers that don’t tell all

Kopak, the WCU criminology professor, said all crime stats should be understood in their context, which is “offense-specific.”

“As researchers, we view [these numbers] with great caution, because the biggest weakness in them is that they only capture officially reported crime,” he said. “Certain crimes have very small error-reporting, like murder. Murders are likely to be reported. But larceny, burglary, drug-related crimes, prostitution, rape — those are highly under-reported.”

What’s the use of the Crime Index, then?

“It’s the only thing we have, so the value in it is that it’s better than absolutely nothing,” Kopak said. “And you can compare it to itself over time, because it’s got consistent flaws in it.”

Sheriff Street, of Mitchell County, said that even without hard numbers, he’s sure that some major crimes are rising fast as his force of deputies remains small.

“I have worked here for 31 years,” he said. “I have been the sheriff for the past three years. And it’s like a light switch has been turned on. We are absolutely slammed anymore; there’s stuff going on all the time.”

The surge he’s witnessed in recent crime, Street said, is mostly in the form of drug-related theft and violence.

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“Meth is starting to come back,” he said. “We’ve still got the prescription drugs out there hot and heavy — they’re first while meth is second — but meth is definitely making a comeback.”

In Clay County, Sheriff Davis’s new reporting requirements are helpful but can skew interpretations of the data, he noted.

“If you look at the crime stats since I’ve been in office, it can look like our crimes have increased,” he said, “but it’s just that our reporting has increased, because I require the reports to be done when they weren’t done in the past.”

The state’s crime-stats report for 2012 is below, with info from WNC counties highlighted in yellow.

Crime in North Carolina 2012 (PDF)
Crime in North Carolina 2012 (Text)

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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