Shifting City Values: Year-End Crime Statistics Are the Inkblot Tests of the Culture

Police Chief Greg Suhr's agenda for last month's “All Hands On” meeting with his department's upper echelon states the SFPD's goals for 2014 are to reduce both violent and property crime by 5 percent. It's hard to argue with that, even if the combination of law enforcement and statistical analysis seems like a guaranteed source of conflict.

And, surely enough, a synopsis of the December meeting apparently penned by one of its high-level attendees posits an intriguing statistics-driven rationale for enforcement strategy:

There are double the number of bicycles on the street than years before. There are many pedestrians also. If we match percentage wise [sic] of what we have done in prior years, the PD will not be blamed when collisions occur. If we write less, our detractors will say that collisions occur because the police are not doing their job.

Suhr claims he's not responsible for this synopsis, which is currently circulating the department. “Never let it be said we're not doing all we can to make the city safe.”

And yet, the chief didn't think the stated strategy should be interpreted as image-conscious policing, crafted with an eye toward appeasing “detractors” as much as solving problems. “If you're a person who's often critical of the police department, you might read it that way,” he says. “If you're a person who does all they can do to make the city straight, you'll understand the way I'm explaining it.”

The synopsis, unlike Suhr's official agenda, touches on 2013 homicide numbers:

Homicides are the 2nd lowest it's been [sic] in 30 years. Shootings are about the same as 2012.

This is true. Shootings in 2012 and 2013 were on par, even though 69 murders were recorded in San Francisco in the prior year and 48 in the latter. If you're a person who's often critical of the police department, you could claim the cops simply got lucky. Same number of shootings, yet fewer murders? San Francisco must have blessed with inept gunmen or chintzy firearms.

That's not the way Suhr is explaining it. He sees progress.

He notes both shootings and homicides were roughly twice as high in 2007 as 2013. As for the jarring number of deaths in 2012, Suhr pegged 19 murders in that year as “anomalies” — a quintuple slaying in which a houseful of victims was killed with an “edged weapon,” and 14 gang-related killings in two summer bursts. If you disregard these 19 outlier murders, he continues, San Francisco remains on a downward slope of both shootings and gun-related killings.

From a statistical standpoint, it's hard to argue with Suhr's analysis of a trend at the expense of outliers. How to qualify a homicide, whether it's “anamalous” or not, remains unquantifiable.

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