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Police department sees trend in violent crime uptick

Tuesday, December 8, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Breaking from typical practice, the Austin Police Department presented the Public Safety Commission with a monthly crime report for the month of October as part of its routine quarterly update on Monday afternoon. While department representatives said the crime report was not meant to serve as a commentary on the ongoing effort called “reimagining public safety,” commissioners expressed concern that the inclusion of the report could be misconstrued as such, especially considering that incidences of violent crimes like aggravated assault and murder have risen since last year.

From the 45 categories of crimes included in the monthly report, Jonathan Kringen, the department’s chief data officer, singled out the “very important increase” in aggravated assault cases, which are up 19 percent over 2019. More specifically, aggravated assault crimes that are not related to family violence are up 32 percent, and the increase is even higher for aggravated assault incidents involving firearms. Overall, Kringen said crimes involving firearms are up 43 percent in the third quarter of 2020.

In total, there were 2,620 recorded incidents of aggravated assault in 2020, compared to 2,200 in 2019. Kringen explained: “In trend analysis, it’s always difficult with limited time periods. And given that we are in a pandemic, it makes it much more challenging to ascertain whether things are trending or whether it’s short-term volatility. But I would say the initial indication is that in that particular category aggravated assault, non-family violence with a weapon it looks to be a trend.”

Incidents of murder in October were up 400 percent over October 2019 with five cases this year compared to one last year – and are up by 54 percent this year overall. With cases of murder being relatively low, however, Kringen cautioned against drawing conclusions based on these percentage increases. Instead, Kringen said it makes more sense to consider aggravated assault, murder and robbery cases in combination, since robberies and assaults are sometimes “events that could very well be murders had they happened slightly differently.”

In light of City Council’s decision to cut $150 million from the Austin Police Department’s budget, commissioners expressed concern that advocates for more police spending would interpret statistics like October’s 400 percent increase in murder as evidence of a need for a stronger police presence.

Given the lower numbers of incidents resulting in murder, Kringen said there is not enough evidence to determine any causal relationship between police enforcement and that increase and that it’s “very difficult to draw a conclusion that there is a relationship between those two things.” Kringen added that there are legitimate concerns about the effects of police presence on crime and said the department plans to dedicate more resources in the future to better understand how crime patterns shift in relation to changes in police personnel and budget.

“My sense is, you know it’s nonscientific … that over time … with less policing, you will likely see more crime,” Kringen told the commissioners. Despite a body of scientific evidence to the contrary, Kringen said that prediction is based on more recent scientific studies that have shown well-funded, organized police patrol systems to be effective in reducing crime.

“To run a large-scale, strongly evidence-supported directed patrol program, you need a substantial amount of analysis, you need a substantial information dissemination system and you need the patrol resources to be able to do that, in addition to what we do primarily as an agency, which is respond to calls for service,” Kringen said.

In a typical year, the commission receives an annual crime report in February or March covering trends from the previous year. Assistant Chief Troy Gay said the supplemental monthly report was included as an overview to help commissioners understand the department’s adoption of a new crime reporting system, the National Incident-Based Reporting Systems, rather than as an opportunity to argue for more police resources. Unlike with Uniform Crime Reporting, the previous reporting system, NIBRS allows the department to track all crimes committed in a single incident, whereas UCR used a hierarchy system recognizing only the most serious offense.

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