Lies, damn lies and crime statistics: You can only trust the homicide stats!

A recent report about the latest crime statistics made me dust off an old article I was working on about just how dramatically crime is under-reported in the hardest hit neighborhoods. While many cities including Santa Ana have made dramatic progress since the early 90’s – understand there can be a huge gulf between reported crime and actual crime statistics.

“You’d hear the gunfire,” said Santa Ana police officer John Hibbison. “Then you’d wait for the report over the radio and nothing. The only time people would call was when someone needed medical attention.”

Crime had gotten so bad on parts of Third Street that residents had lost all confidence in the police. Rapes, robberies, carjackings and shootings would go unreported. And if reported, would usually go unprosecuted because victims and witnesses would clam up for fear of being killed.

Hibbison, who helped organize Operation Roundup, an undercover sting operation which netted 117 arrests, freely admits crime raged unchecked and unreported in the neighborhood for many years before the September, 1994, operation.

During his first night of surveillance, he and his fellow officer witnessed two major gunfights in a period of 30 minutes. Not a single person called the police.

When police arrested a juvenile for murder and robbery, they had no idea just how active he had been. He confessed to 50 robberies and 100 auto thefts. The officers found only eight of the crimes in the police reports.

Despite the daily gunfire, silence reigned on Third Street, gangmembers made sure of that. They would regularly hang cats from the telephone wires with knives stuck through them. Shoot out bulletproof light covers with high-powered rifles. Kill people’s pets who barked to loudly. All warnings – keep your mouths shut if you want to live.

There are many “Third Street”s in Santa Ana, Orange County and across the country where residents deadbolt themselves in at night, close their ears to the sounds of semi-automatics spraying lead across the landscape and almost never call the police.

It’s not a new phenomenom. Residents of high-crime neighborhoods have learned to turn the other way or the other cheek to crime since at least the turn of the century when the mob ruled the immigrant ghettoes of the East.

Regardless, crime is dramatically underreported in high-crime neighborhoods from Santa Ana to South Central Los Angeles. No statistics exist to show exactly how few serious crimes are reported to the police in the hardest hit neighborhoods, but many Santa Ana residents can tell stories of robberies, shootings and burglaries that were never reported.

National crime victimization surveys show only about 30 percent of all crimes are reported nationwide but experts say even less are reported in poor, high-crime inner-city areas.

It’s not surprising then that despite downturns in recorded-crime rates that many Americans feel no safer today than when recorded-crime rates were much higher.

The lack of reporting has many reasons and serious consequences. Every individual has a different reason for not calling the police, but fear is the number one reason cited by most residents and police. Still each decision not to pick up the phone and dial 911 or make a police report usually has a whole host of reasons behind it: from distrust of the police to a sense that the crime isn’t important enough to bother the police.

For property crimes, insurance is often the divide between reporting a crime and not. After all, if you don’t have insurance and have no expectation that the police will ever find and return your property to you,why report it? If you have  insurance the only way you can get reimbursed is by filing a police report. The end result, lower-crime neighborhoods often times appear to actually have higher property crime statistics. When in reality the real difference is that they have more insured people – not more crime.

At the same time not calling often leaves police blind to the extent of the problem, demoralizes officers because they can’t get community cooperation, leads to an uneven distribution of resources because the true extent of crime doesn’t show up in the statistics and often adds to the neighborhoods crime problem.

Ironically successful community policing may actually lead to a higher reported-crime rate, even though crime is going down or staying the same, because residents will typically call more as they gain more confidence in the police.

As a resident of Santa Ana from 94 to 97 I experienced this first hand.

I remember shortly after I moved into the ‘hood, the sound of gunfire erupted a block or two away. Having grown up in a quiet middle-class neighborhood, I called the police – assuming that when you called the police, the gunfire would stop.

Instead, the sound of shotgun blasts and semi-autos continued ripping through the night air. So I called again. More gunfire. Another call. More gunfire. Another call. After the fourth call, I stopped calling – and the gunfire went on off and on for another 2 or 3 hours.

After that I stopped calling altogether – after all what was the use, as my calls didn’t make the gunfire go away. In fact, even though I soon could begin to differentiate the sound of fire crackers from fire arms, I discovered that my calls of gunfire were never even logged as a “crime,” instead they were incidents as there was no victim to report the crime.

Ironically, after Operation Roundup and a series of other gang crackdowns and my neighborhood quieted down to the point where instead of gunfire being a nightly occurrence, it became a rare event. I actually began calling again –as it was no longer just background noise, and I had confidence that the police would actually do something.

My own personal experience from living in the hood, scouring the police blotters, conversations with gangsters and friends, was that murders are the only accurate statistic – everything else is undercounted. My rule of thumb became:

For every 1 homicide, 3 people were shot and 30 people were shot at. And it’s rare that any of the people being shot at ever call the police.

So is crime going up or down? Don’t know. But I do know is don’t accept reported crime statistics at face value, as Mark Twain said, “There are lies, damn lies and reported crime statistics.”

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