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November 3, 2006 > News > Crime stats misleading

Crime stats misleading

Wall Street Journal pegged Rice with wrong data

In an article published Oct. 23, The Wall Street Journal listed inaccurate Rice 2004 crime statistics that were reported to the Department of Education in compliance with federal law. According to the article, Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics suggest that many American colleges and universities understate campus crime in annual reports read by current and prospective students, faculty and staff.

Zachary M. Seward, author of The Wall Street Journal article, cited Rice as one of many universities with a lopsided ratio of burglaries to larcenies in its 2004 report. According to Seward’s article, 2004 Rice crime statistics reported 1 burglary and 149 larcenies. In some cases, such ratios can suggest the underreporting of crime, Seward wrote.

The Jeanne Clery Act, created in 1990 in memory of a Lehigh University freshman sexually assaulted and murdered in her dorm room, requires all postsecondary institutions that participate in federal financial aid programs to disclose certain crime data to campus communities. These statistics must be published by Oct. 1 of each year in a report distributed to all students and university employees and made available to prospective students and employees. They must also be submitted to the Department of Education by mid-October.

Schools may be fined or suspended from federal student financial aid programs for violations of the Clery Act. According to The Wall Street Journal article, Salem International University in West Virginia was fined $200,000 last year for underreporting campus crime.

The Clery Act requires colleges and universities to report burglaries — but not larceny- thefts — along with other crimes.

Rice University Police chief Bill Taylor said Rice reported 64 burglaries to the DOE in 2004, and the same number was published in the 2005/2006 issue of SAFETY, Rice’s annual crime report.

Taylor said Rice voluntarily reports annual campus crime figures to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program in addition to reporting to the DOE. The UCRP uses its own federal definitions to classify many crimes. In 2005, Taylor realized the staff member responsible for compiling Rice crime statistics had been misrepresenting many burglaries as larcenies because he based the classifications on Texas statutes instead of on federal reporting guidelines.

Taylor said RUPD charges criminal offenders under Texas law, but federal reporting guidelines use a different classification system.

“The penal code we use for charging people for offenses is based on the Texas penal code,” Taylor said. “UCR is just a method that the federal government uses for collecting data and use their own definitions, which are not necessarily — and in this case particularly, not at all — consistent with the statutes that the individual states have.”

Texas penal code classifies burglaries based on evidence of unlawful entry, so thefts without proof of unlawful entry are classified as larceny-thefts, Taylor said. Federal guidelines classify thefts as burglaries in instances for which there is no proof that unlawful entry did not occur.

“In the case of one of the colleges, [let’s say] you have a suite,” Taylor said. “If, unfortunately, something was taken from one suitemate by another suitemate and you couldn’t show that somebody forcibly came in and [took] that, it would be a larceny by state statue. However, if you don’t know who took it, it’s a burglary under the UCR because you have to presume that it was somebody who didn’t have lawful reason to be in there. So it’s a different burden of proof.”

UCR statistics are reported on a monthly basis, so incorrect 2004 figures had already been submitted to the FBI in January 2005. However, crime figures are not reported to the DOE until fall of the following year. Taylor said Rice changed its reporting policies to follow federal guidelines in time to correctly report its 2004 statistics in the 2005-2006 issue of SAFETY and its report to the DOE in fall 2005.

“Between January 2005 and August 2005, we realized that we were using the state penal code for reporting burglaries and went back and reviewed the statistics for years 2002, 2003 and 2004,” he said. “We corrected the statistics using the UCR definitions for the offenses for those years before publishing the 2005-2006 SAFETY document, which was distributed to the campus in September 2005, and [also before] submitting the 2004 statistics to DOE also in September 2005.”

Rice has adjusted its past crime statistics with the DOE and in SAFETY. According to the revised statistics, Rice had 57 burglaries in 2003, 64 in 2004 and 56 in 2005.

“With that submission to DOE, we also corrected the 2002 and 2003 statistics submitted previously to DOE, along with an explanation of our mistake of using the wrong definitions for the statistics in the previous submissions,” Taylor said.

He said Rice did not pay a fine because the reporting errors were unintentional.

“It wasn’t maliciously [done] or by intent; it was simply a logistical error made by a clerk,” Taylor said. “As soon as we realized it, we fixed it. I personally — and I don’t think anybody in this department — ever would have that intent [to underreport campus crime] because our idea is [that] the more information that gets out there, the more people pay attention, become aware or realize they need to be concerned about things.”

FBI statistics show that 51 burglaries and 143 larceny-thefts were committed at Rice in 2005. The burglary figure was revised to 56 in the DOE report and in the 2006-2007 issue of SAFETY, giving a ratio of about 2.5 larceny-thefts committed for every burglary. The city of Houston has a similar ratio, with 27,541 burglaries and 72,476 larceny-thefts committed in 2005.

The Wall Street Journal article also reported that Rice declined to comment on university crime-reporting policies.

Taylor said Seward left a voicemail received by a technical sergeant unfamiliar with the Clery Act or crime-reporting at Rice.

The Wall Street Journal declined to comment on its article.

Taylor said many institutions, especially those without law enforcement agencies, have experienced confusion about reporting crimes in compliance with the Clery Act. In 2005, the DOE published The Handbook for Campus Crime Reporting to clarify reporting guidelines.

End of article

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