Another bogus crime wave, courtesy of the Washington Post

About once a year, the Washington Post comes up with a Chicken Little article claiming that crime in the District is "surging", and we should all be fearful of being robbed, or burglarized, or whatever the favorite crime of the period is. This month -- March, 2011 -- it's "property crime", which, shouts the headline, is showing an "alarming rise in the District".

Well, let's take a closer look. Is this something real, or an invention of Post reporters with a dreadful misinterpretation of crime statistics?

Washington Post headling

"Burglaries in the Dupont Circle area have more than tripled this year," claims the Post. It goes on to report 53 burglaries this year, versus 15 in 2010. Scary, right? Crime wave, right? Well, maybe not. Let's look at the January-February-March burglary totals for recent years, for Police Service Area (PSA) 208, Dupont Circle (formerly PSA 305):

2006: 54
2007: 34
2008: 31
2009: 45
2010: 19
2011: 54 (through March 27)

Well, what leaps out from this set of numbers is how low the burglary count was in 2010. The average since 2006, omitting 2010, is 44. The 2011 count of 54 is higher than average, but not spectacularly. It's up by one-quarter versus the average, which is far short of being "more than tripled".

Why the difference? Well, February of 2010 featured two enormous snowstorms, and a snow total matching the all-time record for the District. The total snowfall in February 2010 was 32 inches, enough to paralyze the city for much of the month, keeping residents, and burglars, indoors. (Imagine a would-be burglar tramping through the deep snow of residential back yards, looking for a place to break in.) This February the snowfall total was a mere half an inch. So it's no wonder that the burglary count in 2011 returned to its "normal" levels, whereas in 2010, the burglary count was less than half normal.

This isn't a crime wave. It's a spurious comparison of normal crime counts to a month of record-low crime counts, due to extraordinarily awful weather in February of 2010.

Ditto burglaries across the District.

2005: 826
2006: 882
2007: 731
2008: 909
2009: 758
2010: 767
2011: 862 (through March 27)

The average, excepting 2010, is 828 burglaries during the three-month period. Again, 2010 is well below average, though not as dramatically as in Dupont Circle (why is the Post so focused on Dupont Circle?). The 2011 number is above the average, but only about 4%, an insignificant difference. Clearly 2011 is an average month for burglaries, not the "surging" that the Post claims.

And one more: the Post asserts that property crime in Ward 2 (downtown and Georgetown) "has increased 46 percent this year over the same period in 2010". Oh, fear and loathing again, and clutch your iPhone close to you when you're out in public! But let's look at property crimes in the First MPD District, which covers most of Ward 2, for these three-month periods:

2005: 994
2006: 1173
2007: 1008
2008: 1011
2009: 860
2010: 771
2011: 783 (through March 27)

As before, 2010 -- that terrible winter -- shows a record low in property crimes. Thieves and burglars don't like bad weather any more than the rest of us. Maybe they like it even less, given that robbery and burglary are outdoor jobs. Then, remarkably, 2011 does not show a sharp increase versus last year. Where is the Post getting its numbers? But more to the point, property crimes in 2011 are no higher than in prior years, but for the dreadful winter of 2010. In fact, the property-crime count for the First MPD District is 20% lower than the average since 2005, excepting the record-low year of 2010.

Is there an "alarming rise" in property crime in the District, as the Post so earnestly proclaims? No, there is not.
property crimes, quarter by quarter

The claim that "property crime is surging across the District in 2011" is utter nonsense, a myth created by a dreadfully simplistic interpretation of crime statistics. The reference point for that absurd claim is the winter of 2010, when crime hit record low levels, as the snow hit record highs -- no coincidence, that. Any comparison of normal crime levels to that extraordinary low will show an increase. But that increase is not a "surge" in crime; it's merely a return of crime rates to normal, average levels.

The Post ought to know better. This is the sort of simplistic thinking that one finds in run-of-the-mill Internet bloggers, or in minor-league news publications like the City Paper. The Post? Shame on that distinguished journal, for perpetrating such amateurish "news", and calling it journalism.

Return to home

Page created March 28, 2011; rev March 29 2011