Lies, damn lies and the mayor’s blog

“Numbers can be made to say almost anything,” warns Mayor Kevin Johnson, opening a recent entry on his always informative and entertaining blog ( And then he proves it.

“But here’s a number we should celebrate. By one measure, Sacramento is becoming a safer city. We moved seven positions—in the right direction—in a national safety survey that looks at hundreds of U.S. cities.”

That survey is the annual City Crime Rankings put out by CQ Press. This year, Sacramento moved from the 51st most dangerous city in America to being the 57th most dangerous city in America.

Now, when Johnson says, “Numbers can be made to say almost anything,” he knows what he’s talking about. He owes much of his political success to just that fact. After all, during his election campaign, he used some carefully picked statistics to paint a picture of a Sacramento in the grips of a crime wave.

Now that he’s been elected, he says, that crime wave is subsiding, and it’s time to celebrate.

Numbers can be made to say almost anything. Even if what they are saying sounds just a little bit funny.

For example, the mayor doesn’t mention that the CQ Press’ latest ranking is based on numbers compiled by the FBI in 2008, Heather Fargo’s last year in office.

Since numbers can be made to say almost anything, Johnson chose to make them say that public safety is improving on his watch. The same numbers could just as easily (and more accurately) say that Fargo made the city safer. But really, who would listen?

Johnson does qualify his enthusiasm for the CQ Press report a little bit, noting that “the methodology behind the stats has been questioned by some experts.”

“The purpose of this blog isn’t to argue the merits or debate the methodology,” he writes.

No, indeed, who wants to waste time arguing the merits or debating the methodology? That would be hard.

Of course, “some experts” does include the FBI, who generally warns against paying any attention at all to these kinds of rankings. In fact, they include a little disclaimer with their annual crime stats:

“These rough rankings provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular town, city, county, state, or region. Consequently, they lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents. Valid assessments are possible only with careful study and analysis of the range of unique conditions affecting each local law enforcement jurisdiction.”

Bites supposes there’s not much room for “careful study and analysis” in a few hundred words on a politician’s blog. Not much time to mention that the CQ Press crime rankings completely leave out larceny and theft, which make up more than half of all the crime reported by the FBI. They leave out arson, too, weirdly enough. Start bringing those facts in and then one thing leads to another, and pretty soon you’re left wondering if these numbers say anything at all. Better to stick to the talking points.

“The bottom line here is all about trends. And any trend that shows the positive impact of our efforts to improve public safety is a trend I’m happy to cheer,” the mayor concludes.

And there you have it. The numbers have spoken.