Crime statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a 2015 study suggest that the large police station being advanced by the City of Salem is based on flawed projections.
On June 27, Salem City Council voted to submit a bond measure to voters in the November 8, 2016 General Election. The measure would ask residents to pay to build a new 148,000 SF facility that would house Salem’s police, crime lab and 9-1-1 center for three or four decades.
Currently, these combined services occupy about a third of the proposed space, 48,000 SF.
The estimated cost for the City’s project, says DLR group, the City’s Chicago-based consultant firm who recommended it, is an estimated $82.1 million. If the bond the city creates is approved in November, this amount would be paid by Salem property taxes ($9.16/month for the average area home owner, according to the City.)
Mayor Anna Peterson and other advocates for the substantial increase in police square footage argue that Salem’s “rising crime rate” means more police will continue to be urgently acquired.
At a January 21, 2016 City Council meeting, Peterson said, “Our job is to see to the facilities and the programs that this community needs, and when we have the kind of rising crime rate in certain areas and we have the certain areas of law enforcement that are needed I shudder to think when someone says, ‘Well maybe we could really just plan on smaller growth [of the police department] so we’ll hire fewer police officers.’ Boy, I think that’s a road to creating a quality of life in this community that would not make me want to live here.”
Peterson’s remarks echo numerous statements including those by high-ranking law enforcement professionals who say the country is experiencing a “nationwide crime wave” that mandates an increased police presence.
In Salem, an important assumption for Peterson and other advocates for the 148,000 SF facility was that the Salem Police Department (SPD) would add an average of 2.4 new officers every year for the next 30 years.
However, the data the SPD has reported to the FBI has shown that since 1995, the average annual increase since 1995 has been only 1.05 officers per year.
Moreover, with one exception, crime in Salem is down, not up – and dramatically down. See Figure A.
These local figures follow a national trend of over 20 years. One influential report, What Caused the Crime Decline? Published by the Brennan Center of Justice at New York University in 2015 sums up crime statistics by saying, “Crime across the United States has steadily declined over the last two decades. Today, the crime rate is about half of what it was at its height in 1991. Violent crime has fallen by 51 percent since 1991, and property crime by 43 percent… Rarely has there been such a rapid change in mass behavior.”
Salem reflects the same drop in crime. According to Salem Weekly’s analysis of data reported by SPD to the FBI and published in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, violent crime rate in Salem fell by 12% over the past two decades (1994-2014) and property crime rate fell by 54%. Data for the entire period shows that the violent crime rate has been mostly flat, and the property crime rate has fallen dramatically, though it has plateau in recent years.
The combined numbers for violent crime and property crime can be broken down into their components with FBI data, but the overall picture of a declining crime rate is mostly the same. Three of the four components of violent crime* over the 20 year period look like figure B.
The difference between burglary and larceny-theft is that burglaries involve a break-in and larceny-theft does not. As Figure C shows, larceny-theft is much more common, and it has increased in the past few years after a big drop since the late 90s and early 2000s. So assumptions of advocates of a large Salem station to address a “raising crime rate” are correct only in the case of larceny-theft, the most minor of all the crimes reported.
FBI data can also be used to compare the growth in Salem’s population with the growth in officers. See Figure D.
Over the past two decades the number of officers has grown by 12%, while Salem’s population has grown much more sharply, by 38%. Crimes have dropped dramatically in spite of this significant population growth.
The 2015 Brennan Center suggests that police presence may not be responsible for the decrease. Their research involved a team of economic and criminal justice researchers who spent 20 months testing fourteen popular theories for crime decline. They studied 30 years of data from all 50 states and the 50 largest cities in the U.S.
Brennan Center analysts found that in the 1990s, when crime was at its last peak, as much as 10% of the reduction in crime could be attributed to increasing police. However, in more recent years, 2000 to 2013, there was no evidence that increased police numbers effect on the crime rate.
What did influence the crime rate? Instead of a single, dominant cause, “our research points to a vast web of factors, often complex, often interacting, and some unexpected,” said an Atlantic Monthly article that summarized the research. “Of the theories we examined, we found the following factors had some effect on bringing down crime: a growth in income (5 to 10 percent), changes in alcohol consumption (5 to 10 percent), the aging population (0 to 5 percent), and decreased unemployment (0 to 3 percent).”**
These statistics show that neither concerns about a “national crime wave” or a “raising crime rate” in Salem are supported by statistics.
*Salem Weekly chose not to make a 20-year analysis of aggravated assault, one of the four components of violent crime, because in 2004 reporting methods changed, such that comparing to statistics reported before that time is not valid. Between 2004 and 2014 the number of aggravate assaults in Salem dropped by 8%.