Police Chief James Barber addressed City Council members last week to tout a 9.3 percent drop in the Port City’s crime rate, but he told Lagniappe that positive indicator doesn’t mean Mobile is “anywhere near where it needs to be” in terms of crime reduction.
“I don’t focus a lot on stats, but it’s always great to see them go down,” Barber said. “We’re going to have to track crime over time to see if the trend is going down, then we’ll know.”
Barber said it was remarkable 2014 didn’t see an increase in crime, especially in terms of property crimes, because the MPD doesn’t have a good measuring point historically.
In 2013, the MPD conducted an internal investigation after it was revealed at least 108 property crimes were reported in the first three months of 2013 — that numbers that were collected from the department’s first precinct. After the investigation, it was concluded a single officer, who is no longer employed with the MPD, had misreported the majority of at least the property crimes.
Those reporting errors caused what appeared to be a 10 percent statistical jump in 2013’s crime numbers, but Barber said that was a reflection of adjusting from the intentionally deflated numbers.
“I always urge caution when looking at year-to-year data,” Barber said. “Of course, you want to track it, but it doesn’t give you a true picture of crime. That’s how you see how effective your programs are, and how effective the department is being.”
In last year’s numbers, violent crime (robbery, murder, assault and rape) saw a 1.9 percent drop from a year before. However, the rates of murder and rape both increased in Mobile by 14.8 and 55.2 percent respectively.
There were 31 reported homicides in Mobile in 2014, and reported rapes more than doubled from the previous year — up to 135 where only 87 cases were documented in 2013. While those figures are alarming at first, Barber said the increase in reported rapes is due, at least in part, to a change in how the department defines rape.
“Before that category only included the forcible vaginal rape of a female,” Barber said. “Now, that definition has been expanded to include male victims that have been molested and other types of sexual assault.”
As for nonviolent crime, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft all saw reductions of at least 9 percent, though there were still more than 2,500 burglaries reported in Mobile’s four precincts last year.
The statistics, which are collected internally by the department, are used as a part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report — a report used to get a snapshot of crime across the country. Nationally, violent crime fell 4.6 percent and property crime is down 7.5 percent.
Barber said working with other departments to create the UCR helps to give a more accurate picture of crime stats across the country because individual states use different factors to categorize certain crimes.
In Mobile, Barber said the department conducted an internal audit and review, and worked with the FBI’s Criminal Information Center and the FBI to make sure they reported information effectively and accurately. Barber said extra steps were taken because of the MPD’s history of misreporting crime numbers.
“We’ve set up some more internal checks and balances. Now, if any report is changed, it has to be cleared by the precinct captain and the related commander of field operations, and it has to go through a records supervisor who’s an independent auditor,” he said. “However, as far as lying on an actual police report, that is very difficult to detect, unless you’re calling the victims of crime back after the fact.”
However, Barber said the MPD has been doing just that since the 2013 incident , and will continue the practice over the summer of 2015 as another way to audit and verify the findings of its crime statistics and “make sure (the department) is delivering on its promise to the citizens.”
As for the numbers released in February, Barber said he doesn’t attribute the 9.4 percent drop in crime to any single change in tactic, but rather to more efficient uses of the department’s manpower and limited resources.
According to Barber, about 10 percent of Mobile’s geographic area reports 80 percent of the city’s criminal activity. Though he didn’t specific exactly what area he was referring to, Mobile’s first predict — which encompasses part of downtown area and extends southward to the end of Rangeline road — saw the most crimes per capita in 2014 report.
Barber said selective focusing on these problem areas has helped keep crime down, as well as a focus on repeat offender or career criminals, which Barber said are behind roughly 60 to 80 percent of the crime in Mobile.
“The state keeps releasing career criminals because they’re non-violent, so we’ve began trying to find ways to prosecute them under federal crimes,” Barber said. “We’re trying to actively go after certain offenders that are committing the most crime in our community.”
Barber said part of that relies on communication with Alabama’s Parole Board, who Barber regularly reaches out to give input on repeat offenders who could be released back into community and to keep tabs on which criminals could be arriving back on the streets.
Another slight variable in this year’s crime stats was caused by the elimination of the MPD’s 5th predict, which was effectively closed in June of 2014. Barber said that change was made in hopes of making the department more efficient and to cut back on operating expenses.
According to the stats recorded before June, the 5th precinct had recorded three homicides, eight rapes, 10 robberies and 14 assaults before it was absorbed into both the 2nd and 4th precincts.
Overall, Barber said he was pleased with the dip in crime rates, but said the city still has a lot of work to do — a sentiment Mayor Sandy Stimpson seems to share. In a prepared statement, Stimpson said the MPD was seeing a complete transformation “under Barber’s leadership.”
“This is a giant step on the path to becoming the safest city in America by 2020, but there is still more work to be done,” Stimpson said. “I will continue to provide the department with the tools and resources to protect our citizens from harm.”
Stimpson — who promised during his 2013 campaign to make Mobile the “safest, most business- and family-friendly city in America by 2020” — said regardless of how his administration measures that progress, the public is going to looking at crime statistics.
“As we go forward, the hope is that these statistic we’re looking at will start going down, and that’s what’s got to happen,” he said. “If we effectively continue to implement the programs we have in place now, they will go down.”