Chief Henson talks Trumann crime stats

Monday, June 20, 2016

(Editor's Note: This is part one of a two-part series on crime statistics and crime prevention.)

So why does Trumann rank so high on those online lists of the state's most dangerous cities? According to Trumann Police Chief Chad Henson, it has a lot to do with the way FBI crime statistics are reported, the way certain crimes are classified, and inaccurate population counts which give an inaccurate picture of how dangerous a community like Trumann really is.

Chief Henson spoke during the Trumann Police Department's Business Owners Forum last week, where he educated those in attendance on crime statistics and crime prevention. He said the formula the FBI uses for a city's crime index can be figured with the following equation: (violent crime plus property crime) divided by population. "Sixty-three is the average (crime index number) in the U.S., 100 is hell on earth, we're at 83," Henson said. But he said there are several factors in the way the FBI currently classifies violent crime and property crime which are biased toward rural communities.

For example, in 2011 the law was changed to reclassify aggravated assault. Choking in a domestic assault is counted as a misdemeanor at the local level, but the FBI now classifies it aggravated assault, which is a felony. "We deem it as non-violent, but we have to report it as aggravated assault," Henson said. For rural areas, which often have higher incidences of domestic assaults, those domestic assault numbers can end up padding the aggravated assault numbers the FBI counts.

While violent crime has been decreasing in Trumann--for example, Chief Henson pointed out there hasn't been a murder since 2012, but prior to that year there was a murder every other year going back to 1917--property crime is increasing. A big area Henson cited as biased toward rural America is the way the FBI counts motor vehicle theft. One would think motor vehicle theft would include only cars and trucks, but Henson said that's not the case. "The FBI counts anything with a motor that can travel. That includes four-wheelers and wheelchairs," Henson said. "In 2015, we had 16 motor vehicle thefts. Twelve of those were four-wheelers." However, motor boats are not classified as motor vehicle theft. Henson pointed out that during that same year, Greers Ferry had 47 motor boats stolen, but those were just classified as theft. They didn't count as motor vehicle theft like four-wheelers are and were not included in the FBI's property crime statistics.

Henson also spoke about larceny, which has seen a huge increase from over 500 reports in 2007 to just over 700 reports in 2015. "When you're the largest city in the community and have more retail stores, you're going to have more (shoplifting)," Henson said. But he was quick to point out the numbers were reported crime, not "reported and found guilty." He said a large problem with shoplifting is that much of it is caused by repeat offenders who commit the majority of the crime but aren't followed through on in the justice system after arrest. Henson said shoplifters need to be criminally banned from the stores they shoplift from, charges need to be pressed, and they need to face consequences through the justice system. "We need to follow through," Henson said. "We have to put them in jail. If we don't solve this, it affects business. What I want retailers to know is: let discretion be on the police and prosecutor's end. Business owners need to prosecute everyone (who shoplifts)."

Henson said one of the major factors influencing Trumann's position on rankings is the population part of the crime index formula. He showed numbers from the Census and population estimates in the years between Census years. "Trumann's population is going up," Henson said. "Every ten years for the last 40 years, the population has gone up. But every year after the Census, it goes down." The estimated population goes down a little bit every year after the Census until the next Census, where it shoots back up again higher than the last Census. Henson summed up the reason for this as: "Everyone dies in Trumann, but no one is born here." Deaths get counted toward Trumann's population estimates between Census years, but Trumann doesn't have a hospital. Anyone born in the ten year span after a Census is most likely born in Jonesboro, so Jonesboro gets the tick counted toward their population estimate, even though those people will be living in Trumann. Factors like this mean the population isn't constantly fluctuating. It's steadily increasing, but because of the way the numbers get counted, that only shows during a Census year. So cities with larger populations are likely having their numbers padded with out-of-town births while smaller cities populations' are underestimated. Those population estimates make a big difference in crime statistics, however. Henson showed two crime index graphs, one with a 7,100 population and one with an 8,000 population which he feels is more accurate. The result was a dramatic decrease in the crime index number. "Nine hundred people is the difference between third place and 24th place. Our crime is not as bad as Blytheville or Jonesboro," Henson said.

And there's even more that is inaccurately padding Trumann's crime index number. Henson said all crime in the 72472 zip code gets counted to Trumann, even though that zip code includes a wide area outside the city as far as Tulot and Payneway.

Henson said he is working to do what he can to get things changed so that crime reporting figures are more accurate. Among these, he's contacted Congressman Rick Crawford regarding how population is counted and not counting four-wheelers as motor vehicle theft. In the meantime, it would be wise to be wary of online rankings of cities based on crime statistics. Even the FBI's own website cautions against such rankings: "Figures used in this report were submitted voluntarily by law enforcement agencies throughout the country. Individuals using these tabulations are cautioned against drawing conclusions by making direct comparisons between cities. Comparisons lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents. Valid assessments are possible only with careful study and analysis of the range of unique conditions affecting each local law enforcement jurisdiction."

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