Correction to This Article
This article about District crime as an issue in the Democratic mayoral campaign said the number of homicides in the city decreased by 21 percent from 2008 to 2009. The comparison was between figures for 2007 and 2009.

D.C. mayoral candidates bolster their causes with cherry-picked crime statistics

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his leading opponent, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, discussed unemployment, public safety and schools during a debate at the Newseum.
By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010

How safe residents feel in the District might depend on which mayoral candidate -- Mayor Adrian M. Fenty or D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray -- they listen to as the contest slips into its final days.

With crime ranked just behind schools as a big issue in the Democratic primary in a recent Washington Post poll, the candidates have essentially been cherry-picking crime statistics that bolster their political message. And although they both agree that homicides are down -- 143 last year, a 21 percent drop from 2008 -- the fact that the two campaigns have cited different figures from two sets of data may confuse voters.

Fenty touts numbers that highlight the drop in crime overall since he took office in 2007, and violent crime in particular. His figures rely heavily on crime reports that the D.C. police provide to the FBI in select categories developed by the federal program.

Gray, on the other hand, focuses on property crimes -- of which there were more in 2009 citywide than in 2007 -- and on thefts from cars, burglaries and sexual assaults in middle-class neighborhoods where many voters have said they are disaffected with Fenty. Gray draws his figures from crime reports broken down at the police district level.

The data come from two sources. One set includes reports of crimes sent voluntarily to the FBI by the District and other departments nationwide. They are published annually by the federal agency, and offer a narrow view of crime in a specific community. The second set are reports of crimes as defined in the District's laws and tallied by D.C. police. Those are among the numbers that help inform operational and deployment decisions, Chief of Police Cathy L. Lanier said.

So the numbers cited by Fenty and Gray -- who will continue to campaign this weekend as they head into Tuesday's Democratic primary -- do not align because the FBI and D.C. statistics define crimes differently.

Reducing crime had been an issue that broke Fenty's way even as he was losing support on other fronts, and his campaign did not expect to have to sell his public safety record, especially this late in the race, said Fenty campaign chairman Bill Lightfoot. "We've been surprised during the campaign that while crime statistics show a general improvement, there is still a public perception that crime is very high," Lightfoot said

To make its case, the Fenty campaign has cited a statistic captured by the FBI, noting that while violent crime nationwide was down 5.5 percent last year, the city has "outpaced the nation with a 7.2 percent reduction in violent crime from 2008 to 2009."

That statement tracks to the figures in the preliminary FBI data for 2009. But for 2009, there were 7,586 violent crimes reported by the District to the FBI, compared with 8,135 in 2008 -- a 6.7 percent drop.

Asked about the apparent math error, Fenty campaign spokesman Sean Madigan said the staff had picked up the 7.2 percent figure from a May news story in The Washington Post on national crime trends. That story included a mention of the D.C. numbers that were then also referenced in a Post blog item about the election. (See correction on Page A2.)

Madigan said "it's embarrassing that we didn't do the math ourselves, but at 6.7 percent we still are ahead of the national trend, and we are proud of that."

Gray declined repeated requests for interviews on crime issues, but he recently released a delayed public safety plan that calls for reducing juvenile crime and cracking down on violent offenders.

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