SANDAG arrest reports compile data, yield little in useable information for authorities

COAST CITIES — Paid for with an unknown amount of funds, SANDAG produced a report on arrests in 2011 throughout San Diego County. 

The report, which was released in November of last year, contains a wealth of statistics — statistics that law enforcement officials remain unsure of what they can actually use the information for.

“I don’t typically put a lot of stock in arrest data because it is difficult to draw larger conclusions about crime trends from arrest totals,” said Steve Walter, a senior crime analyst for the Oceanside Police.

Several law enforcement agency officials explained that arrest data is greatly affected by type of crime as well as a city’s location, demographics and law enforcement performance. As a result, law enforcement officials have to consider an infinite range of supplementary factors and data to draw just basic conclusions from the report.

SANDAG sends the reports to all law enforcement agencies via a distribution list.

The reports, which are put together by SANDAG’s Criminal Justice Research Division, aren’t requested for, but rather serve as a compilation of arrest data gathered from all of the county’s law enforcement divisions each year.

The cost of producing each arrest data report is unknown, said Cynthia Burke, the Division’s director.

The Division produces numerous reports and bulletins each year with funding from SANDAG member agencies. It does not calculate how much was spent to produce each individual report, according to Burke.

The report says the arrest statistics are an additional resource for, “understanding the nature of crime and an additional measure that can be used in justice system planning.”

Yet local law enforcement officials are unclear on what exactly the report reveals about crime or how to use it to improve enforcement techniques.

The 2011 report organizes arrest statistics by the locations of the arrests, the types of crimes leading to the arrests, and the ages of those arrested. The publication also identifies trends in these categories.

But the report offers a limited account of the causes behind the arrest trends, explaining only some of the patterns with changes in legislation or how the data is reported.

“Does a level of arrests indicate and increase in crime? Or, is it a measure of more effective policing? You can’t always answer that question (with arrest data),” said Walter.

“Overall, we take this arrest report at face value,” said Fiona Everett, a management analyst for the Carlsbad Police Department. “There are endless variables to why our arrest numbers may be up or down, so we hesitate to point to any one reason.”

While the SANDAG report classifies arrests by location and the type of crime, officials say that the information has no correlation to crime rates in a specific location in the county, or at a specific time.

“An arrest can happen in one year for a crime that happened in another year, so it’s not really comparing apples to apples,” said Burke.

This recent report shows that there were nine homicide arrests made in Carlsbad last year. However, there were only four homicides in Carlsbad in 2011, according to Everett.

“Some of the homicide arrests in Carlsbad were of suspects who committed the crime in another jurisdiction and were apprehended by Carlsbad officers,” Everett said.

Walter said that instead of using annual SANDAG data and analysis, the Oceanside Police Department uses its own information to identify crime trends within the city.

“Every week we (Oceanside’s Crime Analysis Unit) measure levels of crime against a monthly average for the previous year. If we start to see a spike emerging for a specific crime type, we immediately explore citywide crime patterns to understand what is causing the increase. This enables us to use statistics to identify problems as they emerge and look for solutions before it’s too late,” said Walter.

Despite the discrepancies between arrest data and crime rates, arrest data should not be totally discredited as a tool to evaluate crime and law enforcement, crime analysts say.

“The best way to think of (arrest data) is not necessarily that it is inaccurate, rather it is one piece of the larger puzzle (the current amount of crime taking place),” said Matthew Atherton, an assistant sociology professor at California State University San Marcos.

“I think the issue people sometimes have with arrest data is that it is often presented as the singular measure of crime, which could either exaggerate or underestimate certain types of crime,” Atherton said.

While the Carlsbad Police Department primarily focuses on its own data sources, including crime rates, calls for police service, response time, and clearance rate to measure crime and police performance, Everett said the SANDAG arrest report is still important.

Having multiple perspectives on law enforcement is helpful because there is no definitive way to evaluate crime, she said.

As such, it is useful for Carlsbad to have the SANDAG arrest report for the publication’s regional perspective on arrests from year to year, Everett said.

Additionally, identifying the arrest trends, even without knowing the trends’ cause, does offer some reflection on law enforcement resources and techniques.

“This data is tracked so we can see emerging trends and that helps us make decisions about application of resources and different tactics,” said John Bolduc, the vice president of Public Safety and Chief of the San Diego Harbor Police.

This year’s report showed that the most common reason for arrest for adults in 2011 was driving under the influence. On average, 1,295 adults were arrested each month for DUIs that year.

But even with this information, Bolduc said that there is only so much that San Diego law enforcement can do with the arrest data because of limited budgets after the recession.

“In the end with limited budgets, there is very little shuffling of the deck that we can do. But we have to look at the data to make informed decisions,” he said.

Furthermore, Bolduc said that the report is not of much value for civilians, and recommends that they seek out other resources to learn about crime.

He said that for the average person looking at this arrest report, “it doesn’t really tell you anything.”

According to Burke, the report is still a resource for citizens to view arrest data for the entire county all in one place.

“It paints a broader picture of what these people, who come in to contact with law enforcement…what they are being arrested for,” Burke said.

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