By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010; B01
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.
In his campaign, however, Gray has favored characterizations when discussing public safety. His campaign site states that "there's still too much crime ravaging our communities," and in a recent opinion piece for The Post, he said: "We also need to help families feel safer in their communities." The piece broadly said robberies, sexual assaults and auto thefts "are up in some parts of the city," without saying where.
There are pockets that can be identified using the police department's annual reports, however. In the police district that serves most of Ward 4, thefts from autos were at 715 for 2009, better than the 749 of 2008 but still much higher than the 555 of 2007. Thefts from autos also rose during those same years in the police district that serves Ward 3 in Northwest Washington from Dupont Circle to Chevy Chase.
About 12,000 people have signed up for the police department's community listservs, said Lanier, one indication that some residents closely track crime near them.
Accountant and lawyer Charles Wilson, 34, has lived in Congress Heights in Ward 8 for four years. A Gray supporter, Wilson said he hasn't looked at crime statistics, but "I have this sense from what I read on community blogs and hear from neighbors that break-ins are up. It's what I hear and get in e-mail alerts that shaped my views on crime."
Burglaries in the 7th Police District near Wilson have increased, with 796 incidents in 2009 compared with 691 in 2008 and 602 in 2007, annual department reports show.
For Trinidad resident Tony Golden, 34, the scene outside his door is his gauge of improvements.
"I love the police presence in my community," he said, adding that he welcomed the roadblocks used in 2008 in Trinidad to quell an outburst of fatal shootings.
"That ended the drug occupation of my corner," said Golden, who said he will "likely" vote for Fenty.
Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the local Fraternal Order of Police, is skeptical about aggregated numbers that show declines. The FOP endorsed Gray early, and Baumann has been a vocal critic of Lanier and Fenty.
He says he believes the various sites the department uses to report crime statistics are "deliberately mushy for political reasons."
Lanier said she considered whether putting both the FBI and District tallies on the department Web site would add to confusion, not diminish it. But "I put them both up so there is never a question that I'm hiding something."
Regardless of where they come from, however, numbers might not be how residents measure safety, according to Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
"Crime rates really have very little to do with how people feel," Blumstein said. "How people feel about their safety honestly can come from a headline or the nightly news, especially when there is a startling event in a middle-class neighborhood. The politics of safety move quickly on the upside, and it's very hard to move them on the downside."