Halsey Frank: Cherry-picking crime statistics

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In its December 1st editorial, “Some serious crimes still go unreported,” the Press Herald writes that recently released crime statistics make Maine look pretty good. They show that crime in Maine fell for the ninth straight year and confirm that Maine is one of the safest places in the country.

The paper goes on to observe that law enforcement curtailed its operations during 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as evidenced by the 16% decline in the number of arrests made and summonses issued. In this, it finds confirmation of its belief that punishment is ineffective, and asserts that limiting the number of people who are incarcerated did not make Maine any less safe.

When it comes to rape, domestic violence, and hate crimes, the Press Herald doubts the numbers. Those numbers show that rape declined by 4.9% and DV by 6%. The paper characterizes those numbers as inaccuracies it attributes to underreporting.

Granted, statistics in general, and crime statistics in particular, need to be viewed critically and with common sense. It’s not so much that the principles at work are complicated as that the systems are large, complex, and subject to many countervailing forces, even in Maine. In the case of crime statistics in general, 2020 needs to be viewed with an added measure of perspective to account for the effects of the pandemic and mitigation measures.

There is no question that law enforcement curtailed its operations in an effort to decrease the risk of infection. In addition to the decline in arrests, the 3.6% decline in the clearance rate provides further confirmation. The question is whether criminals curtailed their activities. In general, criminals are not responsible. They don’t respect rules, and they aren’t considerate of other people’s health and well-being.

Statistics regarding rape, domestic violence, and hate crime need to be viewed in light of the general understanding that such crimes were historically underreported. But the recent “me too,” “mass incarceration,” and “BLM” movements may have had an impact and increased willingness to report.

Historically, the homicide rate was considered a control with regard to the tendency to underreport crimes because homicides are relatively difficult to conceal. While the number of homicides in Maine remained constant at 22, the number of domestic homicides declined 22% from nine in 2019 to seven in 2020.

On the other hand, rapes had increased by 15% in 2019 before they decreased by 4.9% in 2020. That 20% swing seems anomalous. Support groups may have a better sense of the true incidence of domestic violence, and they say they experienced an increase in the number of victims reaching out for help. That makes sense. The pandemic resulted in people spending more time cooped up together which increases the chances, and intensity, of tensions.

Hate crimes increased 436.8% from 19 in 2019 to 83 in 2020. Yet the paper suggests that is also an undercount. The FBI reports that, nationwide, hate crimes increased 13.36% from 7,103 in 2019 to 8,052 in 2020. While there is general agreement that hate crimes have increased in recent years, it seems unlikely that Maine grew 33 times more hateful than the country as a whole last year.

One perspective to keep in mind with regard to all the 2020 crime statistics, and conclusions drawn therefrom, is that the crime rates of eleven Maine counties increased while the rates of five decreased. In particular, the decrease in Cumberland County, as indicated by the total number of index crimes, swamped the changes in the other counties. Index crimes in Cumberland County declined by 1,077, or over 24%, from 4,455 to 3,378.

That decline accounts for most of the state’s net decrease from 18,464 to 17,347 crimes, and begs the question of what was happening there. One thing that does seem to have been happening more often is shots being fired. According to the media, in Portland between October of 2020 and 2021, shots were fired twelve times. That’s more frequent than I can remember in the past 20 years. Perhaps that’s because Portland has been the epicenter of the state’s anti-law enforcement movement.

The bottom line is that 2020 is a difficult year of which to make sense.

Even so, the paper doesn’t hesitate to extend its opposition to traditional law enforcement from drug crime to all crime. That appears to be based more upon its biases than the evidence. In that regard, I note that New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, not to mention the other Portland, appear to be experiencing more violent crime since instituting progressive reforms of law enforcement practices.

I agree that Mainers should not live in fear. They should feel comfortable in public places no matter what their race, religion, national origin, gender, or sexual identity. They should not hesitate to report when they have been the victim of a crime.

Where I depart company with the paper is in my belief that traditional law enforcement is a part of making life in Maine the way it should be.

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Halsey Frank was born and raised in and around New York City and nearby Englewood, NJ. He graduated from the Dwight Englewood School, Wesleyan University and the Boston University School of Law. After law school, Halsey worked for the Department of Justice for 34 years, first as a civil litigator and later as a criminal prosecutor and civil attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. In 1999, Halsey moved to Maine where he worked as a civil attorney and criminal prosecutor in the U.S Attorney’s Office until 2017, when he was nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate to be Maine’s U.S. Attorney, the chief federal law enforcement officer for the District of Maine. Halsey retired from the Department of Justice in February 2021. Prior to becoming a U.S. Attorney, Halsey was active in local affairs, including the Portland Republican City Committee, the Friends of Portland Parks, the Friends of the Portland Public Library and the Maine Leadership Institute. He previously authored a column entitled “Short Relief” that appeared in The Forecaster regional newspaper. His views are his own.

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