A bogus burglary crime wave, perpetrated by the Washington Post
Burglaries Have Surged 21 Percent cries the Washington Post (April 20, 2008), spreading fear of crime throughout the city. No doubt the truth -- "burglaries continue at an average rate" -- would sell no newspapers, and win the writers of this report no headlines.

The truth of the matter is that this "surge" is a bogus artifact of really poor evaluation of crime statistics. Here is a plot showing burglary data in the District, quarter by quarter, since the formation of the current Police Service Areas and Districts in 2004:

bar chart of burglaries
This chart shows clearly that the burglary count in the first quarter of 2007 hit a record low for the past four years. Why? Who knows, maybe cold weather kept the burglars at home. But plainly any comparison to that quarter is going to show an increase. Specifically, the first quarter of 2008, showing an average count of burglaries for the period, is higher -- the Post's 21 percent "surge".

But is that really a significant change? In fact, the burglary rate in the first quarter of 2008 is 6% below the average for these four years. How is it that a below-average quarter is a shocking crime wave? Simply, the Post looked at only the count for the year-earlier quarter, and ignored everything else.

Are burglaries on the rise in the District? That's certainly not evident from the data here. Burglaries continue, at a more or less average rate. But that doesn't make headlines or sell newspapers.

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Page created May 4, 2008