by Kevin Schofield

This weekend’s read is the “Crime in Washington 2021 Annual Report,” published annually by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. The report collects and aggregates data from 206 law enforcement jurisdictions in Washington State, covering law violations, arrests, and the number of commissioned and civilian employees at each agency. The state is required to collect this data annually and submit it to the FBI for its own annual National Crime and Law Enforcement Statistics Report.

Government agencies are good at generating this type of report: hundreds of pages of data in tables, with nice graphs to highlight particular statistics. Publishing data is an important public service in the name of transparency, especially when bringing together data from multiple disparate sources: it would take an enormous amount of time and energy for you or me to try to recreate it by contacting more of 200 law enforcement agencies and request the data – then try to “clean” it so that it is consistent across all the jurisdictions it covers. But more often than not, charts and graphs are less than helpful and more like “data visualization porn”; they give you a visceral feeling that you’re seeing something interesting, but they rarely provide anything more than a cursory view of patterns in the data (if any). This particular report is packed with information about pornography: pie charts, bar charts, and percentage breakdown charts that seem helpful but tell us little. Many of them miss the mark because they don’t answer the most important question when working with statistics: compared to what? For example, on page 56, we are told that 16.7% of arrests were for impaired driving, but the report gives us no context to interpret this; is it a high number or a low number? Has it increased in 2021, or decreased?

The entirety of page 11 is devoted to a “crime clock” (with a pocket watch as the background image) that takes 30 different crimes and calculates how often they occur, again without providing a frame of reference. benchmark for whether we should think the numbers are high or low. But there is a special place in hell reserved for the person who created this bar chart (bottom of page 15); visually, it appears that violent crime has more than doubled, when in reality it has only increased by 12%.

“Two-year trend in violent crimes” table from the “2021 Annual Report on Crime in Washington”.
A comparison chart from the Emerald team shows a graph that more accurately conveys the increase in crime
Chart created by Emerald using numbers from the “Violent Crime Two-Year Trend” chart above.

For the most part, the report sends a pretty strong message that it wants us to look at the data, but not overthink it. In fact, in the introductory remarks, he explicitly tells us that we should not compare the data in this report to the FBI’s annual crime report, or compare and contrast the individual agencies listed or create “rankings,” since each jurisdiction has its own unique context with demographics, economic base, infrastructure and proximity to other different facilities. It is, in a word, nonsense. The point of mandating data collection and publication is to allow for comparison of jurisdictions’ approaches to crime and law enforcement. The context of each agency is indeed important, and we must be prepared to dig to understand why things might be different in a particular place; but at the same time, data about other agencies provides much of the context in which we interpret what a single law enforcement agency is doing.

The one exception in this report where the authors have done well to provide some context are statistics on the employment of officers and civilians by each agency. On the one hand, it separates the sheriff’s offices from the town and city police departments; Interestingly, we find that while King County has the largest population of any county in the state, Pierce County and Snohomish County actually have more people living in unincorporated areas – and both have more officers than the King County Sheriff. They also contextualize the number of employees in an agency by presenting it as a ratio to the total population served by that agency. This is a case where the “law of large numbers” applies: you need a certain minimum number of officers to cover shifts, and in smaller departments an extra officer or two can significantly change the ratio. For example, the Winthrop Police Department has the highest ratio of any department in the state: 5.71 commissioned officers per 1,000 residents – it has just three officers, serving a town of 525 residents. Overall, we’re seeing more variation between smaller cities and towns across the state, and more consistency between larger cities (with the exception of Bellevue) and between sheriff’s offices. The report also gives us a longer historical view of employment levels, noting a multi-year decline among police departments (while again manipulating the chart to mislead us into thinking the change is more significant).

A graph shows the average police service commission rate per 1,000 population
Police Departments Average Commissioned Rate per 1,000 Population graph from Crime in Washington 2021 Annual Report.

Although much of the report’s “just the facts, ma’am” approach deprives us of any clear understanding of trends or patterns, we can learn a lot with a little digging. Some of the information I found while browsing through the data:

  • While the report breaks down the number of arrests for 42 specific offenses (plus a catch-all “all other offences” category), half of all arrests result from just four: common assault, breach of court order of non-contact or protection, larceny or theft and impaired driving. .
  • That said, there are wide variations between departments when it comes to the offenses committed in each jurisdiction. This is true even for nearby small towns, such as Burien and Tukwila. But also for large cities: for example, Seattle and Bellevue see significant differences in the types of crimes that occur within their borders.
  • Only 5.4% of offenses involved the use of drugs or alcohol in the commission of the crime – and most of these were drug-related offences, such as possession of illegal drugs or paraphernalia.
  • While opiates make headlines, they make up a relatively small percentage of drug offenses in King County. Stimulants (such as methamphetamines and cocaine) and heroin make up the vast majority of drug offenses in most jurisdictions.
  • Motor vehicle theft is on the rise throughout King County, but especially in the Eastside.
  • Aggregate statewide arrest data shows clear and continuing racial disparities. Less for whites: Statewide, approximately 78% of the population is white, and in most arrest categories the percentage of whites is close to that number (with the exception of extortion, corruption and violations of the liquor law). But for blacks, just 4.3% of the state’s population, the disparity remains wide: 33% robbery arrests; 22.5% of arrests for prostitution; 21% serious assault; 20.9% of arrests for intimidation; and 15.9% of weapons law violations.
  • Fraud offenses dropped dramatically in 2021. This is discussed in the report: Apparently unemployment fraud skyrocketed in 2020 as the pandemic hit and relief programs rolled out. Those numbers have now come down to earth.

Reports like this – data strong, analytics weak – make a good case for learning the basics of a spreadsheet application: being able to pull a table of data out of a report, throw it into a sheet math and run the numbers yourself. While we are often beholden to our government for collecting and publishing basic data, we cannot let it tell us how to think about that data or dictate what questions we can ask. Personally, I hope government employees generating reports like this separately do their own analysis that goes well beyond the deep pablum they serve us – though if that’s true, I’m bound to ask why they choose not to share it with us.

2021 Washington Crime Annual Report

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle City Council Overview, a website providing independent information and analysis about the Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast with Brian Callanan, and appears occasionally on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.

📸 Featured Image: Emerald Team graphic.

Before you move on to the next story …
Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!