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Sorting out the truth in politics

St. Petersburg's crime ranking has changed, but so has its rate

ST. PETERSBURG — While critics might emphasize how divisive Kathleen Ford was while on the City Council, Ford herself is stressing how good the city had it during her four years in office.

As a candidate for mayor, Ford rarely has missed an opportunity to note that city property tax collections have almost doubled since she left the council in 2001.

More recently, she has started stressing another alleged failure.

"When I left City Hall, our city was safer than Tampa and Miami," Ford said at a candidate forum this week. "Today the uniform crime rate in the city of St. Petersburg is greater than that in both Tampa and Miami."

We found it plausible that St. Petersburg could have a higher crime rate than Tampa. But Miami? The same place Gov. Lawton Chiles once was photographed in a bulletproof vest?

To remove any doubt, we crunched the numbers.

Ford references the Uniform Crime Report, a collection of nationwide crime statistics managed by the FBI. The crime report, among other things, monitors seven major crimes (called Part 1 crimes) — murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft.

It then creates a per capita crime rate for each municipality. It's that number that is most often used to compare law enforcement agencies, said St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Proffitt. He said it's "considered fair" to compare departments based on Part 1 crime statistics.

So that's the number we used for our analysis. We tracked the crime rate per 100,000 people in 2001 — Ford's last year on the council — for St. Petersburg, Tampa and Miami. We then compared it to the most recent annual figures, which are from 2008.

The numbers support Ford's claim. In 2001, St. Petersburg had a crime rate of 8,223.4 per 100,000 residents.

That's lower than both Tampa (11,314.1 per 100,000) and Miami (9,695.3 per 100,000).

In 2008, however, St. Petersburg had the highest crime rate among the three cities. St. Petersburg's crime rate was 7,465.2 per 100,000 compared to 6,896.6 for Miami and 5,443.4 for Tampa.

There is some question, however, about comparing cities based on their crime rates.

The FBI cautions against making comparisons with crime statistics. Before viewing the data on its Web site, the following message appears:

"These rough rankings provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular town, city, county, state, or region," the disclaimer reads in part. "Consequently, they lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents."

It's also worth noting that in raw numbers, there was more crime in Miami in 2008 than St. Petersburg. Miami reported 9,135 more violent and serious crimes than St. Petersburg in 2008, including 43 more murders and 1,320 more robberies. But when you adjust for the population difference (St. Petersburg has 251,000 residents compared to 406,000 in Miami), St. Petersburg has a higher crime rate, according to the FBI.

And while there might be an inference that St. Petersburg is less safe today than when Ford was in office, that's not true, the statistics show. The city's crime rate has decreased since 2001 and last year was at its lowest rate in 30 years, police chief Chuck Harmon said.

In the end, Ford correctly cites FBI statistics in making her claim that Tampa and Miami had higher crime rates than St. Petersburg in 2001, but that the other two cities have lower crime rates today. The broader context, however, is missing from Ford's quote: Though St. Petersburg's position among the three cities has changed since 2001, there is less crime today than eight years ago. We rate Ford's claim Mostly True.

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com.

Truth-O-Meter findings

The statement

"When I left City Hall, our city was safer than Tampa and Miami. Today the uniform crime rate in the city of St. Petersburg is greater than that in both Tampa and Miami." — Kathleen Ford, Monday at a mayoral forum

The ruling

Ford has her statistics right. According to widely recognized figures collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, St. Petersburg had a lower crime rate in 2001 than Tampa and Miami, but has a higher crime rate today. Left unsaid, however, is that St. Petersburg's crime rate is less now than it was in 2001. We rate this Mostly True.

St. Petersburg's crime ranking has changed, but so has its rate 10/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 8, 2009 10:12am]

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