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Even Online, Crime Stats Are Limited

February 18, 2001|JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some cities in Minnesota classify snowmobiles as motor vehicles. So when someone takes a snowmobile for a joy ride across the state's frozen landscape, the burglary is listed in the police report as a motor-vehicle theft.

Police jurisdictions in warmer climes don't consider snowmobiles in the same category as Land Cruisers and Volkswagen Beetles, throwing crime statistics for these Minnesota cities out of sync with other areas in the country.

This is just one example of why it's tough for home buyers to make apples-to-apples comparisons of crime statistics. That's if they can even get them. It's difficult for consumers to obtain up-to-date crime statistics for individual neighborhoods.

Many police agencies refuse to release these figures. Realtors are uneasy discussing crime in their territories because of decades-old "steering laws," which prohibit real estate agents from showing potential buyers properties based on their race.

Realtors are concerned that clients may misunderstand why they're discussing crime, said June Barlow, vice president and general counsel for the California Assn. of Realtors.

"People may think that the intent in giving them crime stats is subterfuge to keep them away from an area," Barlow said, adding that to avoid miscommunication, agents often refer clients to a local police department for more information.

Even crime statistics online are limited, but with some research and resourcefulness, consumers can ferret out stats for certain areas.

Most police departments report crime statistics to state and federal criminal justice agencies. California's 58 sheriffs' departments and 380 police departments report their numbers on a monthly basis to the state's Justice Department. Figures for the state's 58 counties are available at http://www.caag.state.ca.us/cjsc/datatabs.htm.

The state, in turn, reports its numbers to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which releases crime information in its Uniform Crime Reports or UCRs. Much of this information is now available online at http://www.fbi.gov/ucr.htm.

The annual UCR report, "Crime in the U.S.," is released in October with statistics for the previous year and includes figures for cities with 10,000 and more residents.

Numbers Too Broad to Be Useful

But both state and national numbers are too broad for a consumer to determine how safe an individual neighborhood is. And it's important for consumers to research the demographics of a particular area to interpret crime statistics for that region properly.

"The city of Vernon has 100 residences and 1,000 warehouses," said Michael Van Winkle, an information officer for the California Department of Justice. "The warehouses report crime all the time, so per capita, Vernon looks really bad on the crime scene."

Another example is Culver City, which has "high crime" because of the Fox Hills Mall, which draws thousands of outsiders to the area each day, Van Winkle said.

Some California police agencies post crime statistics online. The Los Angeles Police Department offers numbers for its 18 divisions in its "1999 Statistical Digest," at http://www.lapdonline.org. Again, these numbers are quite broad and cover numerous neighborhoods.

The LAPD says it was receiving so many requests from consumers, both by phone and mail, for crime statistics on local neighborhoods that it quit taking these requests and now refers residents to the Los Angeles Public Library and its branches.

Home buyers can obtain statistics for "reporting districts"--smaller areas that are typically a few blocks wide--by asking for the LAPD's "Quarterly Report of Selected Crimes and Attempts by Reporting District" at their local library, said Officer Eduardo Funes, an LAPD spokesman.

Several police departments in California post color-coded crime maps on the Web. The Riverside Police Department posts maps for its five divisions on its Web site at http://www.ci.riverside.ca.us/rpd/mainpage.htm. These are not current, however, with the last numbers posted for September 1999.

San Diego's police department lists up-to-date, monthly crime stats by neighborhood--a rare find--on its Web site at http://www.sannet.gov/police/crime-facts/crimanal.shtml. It also offers crime maps for these neighborhoods.

But criminologists caution that color-coded crime maps can be deceiving.

"These maps don't show specifically where crimes took place," said Michael D. Maltz, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Maltz, who studies how state and federal lawmakers collect and crunch crime statistics and the gaps that often exist in these numbers, suggests consumers consider the following caveats when viewing crime maps online:

* If one area is larger than another, it may have more crimes but be just as safe.

* If one area has a higher housing density, it may have more crimes but be just as safe.

* If one area has more commercial establishments, it may have more crimes but be just as safe.

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