Lesson in statistics

Raw numbers don’t tell the whole story of crime in Chico

Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien.

Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

When Police Chief Mike O’Brien presented the latest crime stats to the Chico City Council in March, the overall message was that violent crime was a growing problem. In viewing the PowerPoint slides accompanying O’Brien’s talk, however, Mayor Randall Stone and Vice Mayor Alex Brown saw something they felt needed further explanation: the prevalence of domestic violence.

“Alex and I looked at each other at the meeting. We were curious, so we inquired further,” Stone told the CN&R.

Violent crime, one graph showed, had gone up significantly in 2018. Specifically, it had increased 48 percent over the previous year, while property crimes had dipped 34 percent. (These numbers differ slightly from the ones presented because the Chico PD discovered an error in its original data.)

The statistics fit a narrative often repeated by a segment of Chicoans, who latched on to the fact that violence is increasing and started clamoring on social media and in meetings for the council to prioritize public safety and add officers to the police force. That’s not, however, the blanket approach O’Brien and others are hoping to take to tackle the problem.

“Statistics tell a story,” O’Brien told the CN&R, “but not the whole story.”

They also can be confusing. A case in point: First, violent crimes were broken down into three categories—homicide, rape and robbery—but the only numbers provided were the percentage of change over 2017. So, homicides decreased by 33 percent, but there was no reference to how many that represented. Numbers supplied to the CN&R by request show that in 2018 there were two homicides, 86 rapes (+1 percent) and 106 robberies (+68 percent).

In his PowerPoint presentation, O’Brien further subdivided violent crimes committed last year—but not compared with 2017—into a pie chart. The largest piece—at 32.6 percent—was domestic violence. Following O’Brien’s presentation, Stone requested a further breakdown of the crime stats, which revealed that domestic violence went up 111 percent in 2018—from 97 incidents to 205.

Those numbers, however, aren’t necessarily indicative of a trend, O’Brien told the CN&R. Part of the increase may be due to a new cataloging system—a change in computer software—which may have inflated those numbers. Overall domestic violence, including nonphysical incidents, increased about 35 percent, he said, which is probably a better representation of the trend.

That’s not to say that domestic violence isn’t an issue. The prevalence of it is concerning to many people, including Councilwoman Kasey Reynolds, who suggested declaring a public safety emergency in the wake of O’Brien’s March presentation.

“Domestic violence is a public safety issue,” she told the CN&R. “People are being abused in the home, and many times there are children there, who are witnessing these things. Obviously we can’t [just] send police officers into people’s homes—we need to tackle all angles of it.”

“The way we typically deal with domestic violence instances is we work closely with community partners,” Stone told the CN&R. “We used to have a domestic violence response team that was funded in large part through the city—by partnering with Catalyst [Domestic Violence Services]. I was part of that—we’d go in and work with the victim. And that would free up our officers from having to address domestic violence cases when there’s a perpetrator out there.”

O’Brien said his department already works with counselors to respond to domestic violence calls and that he is committed to looking into expanding those efforts.

One of Reynolds’ biggest concerns is what she sees as repeat criminals who face no consequences because simply fining them does not deter their actions.

“Public safety is supposed to be our No. 1 priority, but we’ve been doing a lot of other things as a council that don’t deal with public safety,” she said.

She hinted at a plan she hopes to propose that would work with the court system “to change sentencing from being fine-based to requiring community service.

“I realize we can’t just prosecute people who don’t have a job,” she said. “But we can still have a rule of law in our community that raises the level of accountability and gives people a chance to do their time.”

O’Brien pointed to a major problem with drug addiction as contributing to local crime. Adding police officers won’t solve that issue, either—but a more robust drug court and good local programs for rehabilitation would certainly help, he added.

“The last thing we want to do is add 10 or 20 more police officers and have to pay those pensions,” Reynolds said.