James Mennie always does a good job on these pieces

I used to view the release of StatsCan crime data as a reckoning point for pressing-the-finger at some perceived social problem. Now I just see it as excessive media fear-mongering:

Statistics no comfort. Police want to heighten public’s sense of security
JAMES MENNIE, The Gazette

“Every three years we conduct surveys on topics we feel are important,” says Denis Desroches, assistant chief of strategic management for the Montreal police department. “We ask if people think they’re seeing enough police in their neighbourhoods and whether they feel safe in their city.

“And what we see is that even though crime has dropped by 42 per cent in Montreal over the past 15 years, the public’s feeling of security has not evolved.

“Simply put, there’s less and less crime, but people are just as scared as they ever were. It means we have to work on people’s perceptions as much as we do on the reality. It’s good that we’re doing a good job. But if people don’t know it … we have to do more to make ourselves visible.

As Desroches speaks, crime statistics compiled by Statistics Canada are being broadcast, blogged and written about from coast to coast.

Just as it did in 2006, the nation’s crime rate dropped in 2007, the rate of some categories of crime hitting lows not known for 30 years and Quebec and Montreal appearing – statistically, at least – as among the safest places you’ll find in Canada.

The StatsCan findings echo those compiled by Desroches’s force, which found that crime on the island of Montreal dropped last year by 8.3 per cent.

But Montreal’s statistics are based on a comparison between real numbers from one year to the next – 42 homicides committed in 2007 measured against 43 in 2006 equals a drop of 2.3 per cent.

However, the ebb and flow of national crime statistics isn’t based on a variation in the real number of offences committed but on changes to the crime rate – the ratio of crimes committed per 100,000 residents.

Thus, the greater Toronto area, population 5.1 million, recorded a total of 111 homicides last year and was the nation’s murder capital. However, even those 12 bloody months raised the area’s murder rate to only two per 100,000 residents. Saskatoon, meanwhile, with a population of about 234,000 and nine homicides committed in 2007, was found to have a murder rate of about 3.6.

Things also become complicated when a decrease in a crime rate could be mistaken for an actual drop in crime. For example, last year, the auto theft rate in Quebec was established at 470 per 100,000 residents, a drop of 6.8 per cent compared with the rate for 2006. However, that decrease doesn’t change the fact that last year there were 36,216 cars stolen in this province, ensuring Quebec maintained its place as a national leader when it came to the theft of motor vehicles.

Desroches appreciates the use of crime rates when it comes to assessing a police force’s efficiency. “It’s good to be able to use that comparison internally to measure how other police departments are doing,” he says.

But he adds that there is a certain amount of comparison between apples and oranges when murder rates logged in big cities are compared on the same page with those of smaller – much smaller – towns.

“I think a city like Saskatoon should be compared with Laval, Sherbrooke or Gatineau,” he said.

But no matter how the numbers are compiled, it seems the biggest challenge facing Montreal police is proving to residents that they’re safer than they think.

But is part of that problem of perception based on how the news media report crime?

The media is simply feeding a need on the part of the public,” he says. “But media can make an event and create the impression it’s bigger than it is.

“A murder in the métro can be talked about for weeks, even though (hundreds of thousands) people a day use the system and an event like that is rare.

“Look at home invasions – their rate of occurrence has nothing to do with their rate of being reported in the media.”

Then there’s the apparent contradiction discovered by police surveys over where people feel they’re safe.

“They always feel safer in their own neighbourhood,” Desroches says. “Even if it’s a neighbourhood where there’s crime, they feel safer there than ‘in the city.’ But there’s a joke we like to tell when people say they’re worried about going downtown. It’s a fact that most homicide victims are murdered by friends or relations – people they know.

“So when someone says they’re worried about being in a crowd, we tell them to go out and meet strangers – they’re a lot safer.”

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