APD’s data officer has concerns with recent crime but urges caution with the numbers

Austin
CARPENTER AVENUE HOMICIDE_frame_22232

Austin police investigate homicide on Carpenter Avenue Oct. 30 (KXAN/Tim Holcomb)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Police Department Chief Data Officer said Monday he has concerns about certain crimes in Austin that have occurred more frequently in 2020 than in 2019. However, he hesitated to draw scientific conclusions from that year-to-year comparison, noting percentage-based increases of crimes when viewed by themselves don’t tell the full story.

Dr. Jonathan Kringen, whose formal title is Police Data Initiatives and Analytics Strategy Officer in the APD Research & Planning Unit, gave a presentation for Austin Public Safety Commission Monday as part of a quarterly update to the commission.

Kringen, as well as Austin Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay, explained to the commission that the department has been moving over from its previous crime data reporting structure, UCR (Uniform Crime Reporting) to NIBRS (National Incident Based Reporting System), as the FBI is encouraging all departments to do.

2019 was the first year APD reported its crime under the NIBRS structure, and now with most of the data in for 2020, they have additional data points to compare the first year to. The categories of crimes are different under NIBRS, for example robbery, which was treated as a violent crime under the old system is viewed as a property crime under NIBRS.

In fact, the most similar category to “violent crimes” under this new system is referred to as “crimes against persons.” Unlike the old system, NIBR counts all reported offenses in an incident, not just the most severe one. Totals for crimes against persons under the NIBRS system doesn’t represent the total number of incidents but rather the total number of victims.

Crime Against Persons

A screenshot of the slide presented by the Austin Police Department at an Austin Public Safety Commission meeting showing a comparison of “Crimes Against Persons” under the NIBRS system that were reported in Austin in 2019 and 2020. APD’s Chief Data Officer noted while the percentage increase is high in this chart for murder, those numbers should be viewed with caution, because the lower rate of murders altogether means that small changes can result in a significant percentage increase. Screenshot Dec. 7, 2020.

At first glance of the chart Gay selected and Kringen presented, of Crimes Against Persons in Austin in 2019 and 2020, your eyes might be drawn to the most dramatic percent change on the chart, which shows the number of murders in October 2020 as 400% larger than the number of murders in 2019. But Kringen notes that number doesn’t reflect the whole picture, because the total number of murders during both those months was very low compared to other crimes: one murder in October 2019 and five murders in October 2020.

“I always want to advise caution when thinking about percentages,” he said, noting the percent increase in murder shown between those two years would be more meaningful if APD had thousands of events to compare to.

Commissioner Bill Kelly, who also is the Director of the Center for Criminology and Criminal Justice Research at the University of Texas at Austin, expressed dismay about APD representing the 400% increase on a chart given the low total number of murders.

“I would rather that be a blank than a 400%” Kelly said of APD’s chart.

When you look at annual totals for murder on the chart, there were 26 murders in all of 2019 in Austin and to date, there have been 40 murders in Austin in 2020, which reflects an increase of 56%. Still, Krignen said, the actual number of murders is “quite low” compared to other crimes.

The statistic that has Kringen and others at APD most concerned is a number that might not jump out to you at first glance: the aggravated assault category. Aggravated assault is reported in much larger numbers than murder and still reflected a percent increase between the two years.

In October 2020, Austin has so far reported 257 aggravated assaults compared to 228 in 2019, an increase of 13%. In 2020 so far, Austin has reported 2,620 aggravated assaults compared to 2,200 in 2019, an increase of 19%.

“I would say initial indication is that in that particular category: family aggravated assault, family violence with a weapon, it looks to be a trend,” Kringen said of the percent increase.

However, Kringen said at this time APD is not drawing any conclusions about the percent change in murder between 2019 and 2020, because the actual number of murders is so low that, “we don’t have any statistical evidence to support that.”

Though he notes, “it is something we’re concerned about given the gravity, this number is higher than it was last year.”

A screenshot from an Austin Police Department presentation at the Austin Public Safety Commission regarding Crimes Against Property in Austin during 2019 and 2020. Screenshot taken Dec. 7, 2020.

When it comes to the numbers in property crimes, Kringen noted, “we don’t see anything here that is jumping out to us as substantial increase.”

Gay noted, when you look at the year totals for Crimes Against Persons and Crimes Against Property in 2019 and 2020 in Austin, both are showing a percent decrease of 1%.

2018 was the last year APD reported on the UCR standard 2019 was reported under the NIBRS standard.

But these numbers come in a year where Austin has undergone a dramatic, ongoing process of “reimagining public safety” which includes a yearlong period of transitioning $150 million dollars out of APD and into other areas of public safety. This budget change eliminated 150 vacant officer positions with the department, and while it did not result in any “boots on the ground” positions being moved, the department expects to reassign 95 officers to patrol this January to make things work under the new budget.

Austin’s police budget has been through intense scrutiny this year, first by the hundreds of individuals who spoke at Austin City Council meetings earlier this summer calling for police reform, and later on by state Republicans including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott who discussed Austin crime statistics in August while announcing a plan to freeze property tax revenue for municipalities that cut law enforcement budgets.

Commissioner Rebecca Webber, who was filling in as chair for this particular meeting, acknowledged possible public perceptions of the numbers APD shared.

“A lot of people want to take that 400% murder uptick for instance that you have put on this slide, and relate that to city council’s decision to reprioritize our public safety,” Webber said to the APD representatives.

“Are you drawing any conclusions between the city council’s change in priorities and these crime statistics?” she asked them.

“I would say scientifically—whether there is a relationship to me is a scientific question—at this point we actually don’t have enough data to determine whether it is or is not the case, so I would be hesitant to render some kind of conclusion, it would largely just be some kind of an opinion,” Kringen told Webber.

He said while there are concerns “related to what happens, particularly with police patrol in the city,” it is very difficult to draw a conclusion about whether there is a relationship between the increase in rate of murders seen on the chart and the council’s actions.

Kringen added the department hopes to gather more data and better understand what the relationship is between the changes council made and crime trends.

You can view more of this data by looking at APD’s Chief’s Monthly Reports.

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