COLUMN: Stats may not be perfect, but are a starting point

Thom discusses the 2018 30 per cent jump in the Smithers crime severity index

The release of the 2018 police-reported crime statistics last week marks 15 years for me of covering annual crime statistics.

In fact, the first time I was in Smithers, starting in August 2005, I wasn’t here for more than a couple of weeks when the editor at the time asked me to look into a rash of vehicle thefts in the area. As it turned out, there wasn’t a lot to that story, but in the course of investigating it, I stumbled on the 2004 national crime statistics.

I crunched the numbers over and over again and couldn’t believe what I found. Smithers had the highest crime rate per capita in the entire province. And not just for 2004, for three years running.

That turned into a five-part series which we titled “Smithers: Crime Capital of British Columbia.” We won all kinds of awards for that series, but we weren’t very popular in the town.

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I can still see Mayor Jim Davidson’s face when he marched into the Interior News office to confront the publisher.

Of course, all the excuses came out: people in Smithers report everything; our police are better at reporting to Statistics Canada than other jurisdictions; the town is a hub for the surrounding area so effectively our population is 15,000 not 5,000; in a small town one extremely prolific offender can skew the data; all of our crime is petty stuff; it doesn’t reflect the actual relative safety of the community; etc. etc.

These are all legitimate points, which we were able to address with an in-depth investigative series.

The fact remained, however, that there were, from 2002 to 2004, more police-reported crimes per capita in Smithers than any other jurisdiction in the province.

It was an opportunity to start a dialogue, particularly about what was being done about crime and what more could be done.

On my return to Smithers in 2019, I see quite a bit of evidence the discussion at that time has borne some fruit.

Statistics are much maligned. And rightfully so. They are used opportunistically to further all kinds of agendas. And crime rate really was a poor measure of the relative safety of communities.

The following year, 2006, was a watershed year. It marked the transition from the crime rate to the crime severity index (CSI).

The CSI truly is a very much better way to measure crime. Each offence is given a weight from murder and rape on down to petty theft and mischief. The index is calculated against a standardized score of 100 based on the numbers for 2006.

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The Canadian average over the past five years is around 70. B.C. is approximately 90. The overall major trend is downward. Western Canada tends to be higher than the east and rural higher than urban.

I suspect that if we were using the CSI in 2005, the Crime Capital series would not have existed. Nevertheless, the Smithers CSI remains considerably higher than both the national and provincial with a five-year average of about 131.

The 30 per cent jump in the local 2018 index (138) over 2017 (105) may well be an outlier. We have been trending downward, but only time will tell.

The local RCMP has cautioned town council not to read too much into the numbers. That is fair enough.

The mayor has said he doesn’t think there is cause for alarm. That is also fair enough.

That does not mean we should not be concerned, however.

Yes, Quesnel, Williams Lake, Terrace and 20 to 40 other towns in B.C. may have it worse than us, but the fact remains, even on the averages, even if the numbers are not 100 per cent accurate, even if 2018 is an outlier, that Smithers falls into the top quarter of police jurisdictions for crime severity in the province.

We have a crime problem.

Enforcement and punishment for crimes already committed are critical elements of the system, but the only way to truly address a crime problem is to make sure the programs to support vulnerable people are available.

That is the dialogue that needs to come from the crime stats.



editor@interior-news.com

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