Loose definition of assault skews statistics

Loose definition of assault skews statistics

CHAMPAIGN — It was widely reported last week that a roving gang was randomly attacking University of Illinois students on campus — among 45 assaults reported in the area between Oct. 1 and Oct. 13.

In one Chicago television news report, a screenshot of a website called CrimeReports.com was used to display the breadth of the crimes. But the problem with crime statistics is that they rarely tell the whole story.

"I don't think there's a question that there's been a rash of these incidents happening on campus," said Urbana Lt. Bryant Seraphin — but, he says, it does not make Champaign-Urbana the assault capital of Illinois.

Of the "assaults" tabulated by CrimeReports.com in the early part of this month, 13 were in the campus area. Since Oct. 13, there have been no assaults on campus as reported by the web service.

Of those 13 listed, six were of the random, vicious nature that caused alarm.

Champaign, Urbana and University of Illinois police all feed their reports into the CrimeReports.com system — the service displays those so everyone can see when and where certain crimes have occurred.

Here's another number that might be alarming at first blush: If you look at CrimeReports.com, you'd find that there have been 90 assaults in Champaign-Urbana since Oct. 1 (including the 13 on campus).

But delve deeper into that number, and you'll find a few problems. First of all, assault is a very nebulous term — "the simplest definition of an assault is to place someone in reasonable apprehension of receiving a battery," Seraphin said.

And CrimeReports.com only allows police to report incidents in a few broad categories — not the "several hundred" incident codes, for example, that Urbana police use internally. So when they feed the reports to the web service, they are including a lot of different kinds of incidents under the "assault" umbrella.

On CrimeReports.com, it encompasses the violent, random attacks that provoked UI crime alert messages this month. It includes battery incidents, domestic or otherwise. It includes some incidents where weapons were used, and some where they weren't. It also includes things like drunken disagreements that end with a shove or verbal arguments between two neighbors.

Here's a sampling of a few of the less-alarming reports included among the area's 45 assaults:

— 200 block South Country Fair Drive, at 11:30 a.m. Oct. 7: A suspect was issued a notice to appear in court for assault after threatening the victim following an argument over a trash bag.

— 100 block of Trade Center Drive, at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 11: Two people engaged in a physical altercation outside of a hotel. The two gave officers conflicting stories, and no one was arrested or cited.

— 300 block of East John Street, at 1:30 a.m. Oct. 12: A student threw a beer bottle at another student. The bottle broke a window. The incident was reported as assault with a deadly weapon.

— First block of East Green Street, at 12:15 p.m. Oct. 6: The report simply reads "suspect threatened the victims."

But isn't 90 incidents still a lot, even if they aren't all technically assaults? Not really, if you put it in context with the prior six months' worth of data. The numbers fluctuate, but similar quantities of incidents that would fall under the CrimeReports.com assault umbrella were reported in May (148), June (157), July (138), August (119) and September (147).

If October continues like it has, around 140 "assault" incidents will have been reported by the end of the month.

FBI data for violent crimes alone shows similar results. According to the FBI's uniform crime report, the Champaign and Urbana police departments reported a total of 927 violent crimes in 2010; 929 in 2011; and 889 in 2012, the most recently available data. "Violent crime" for FBI reporting purposes is a term that includes murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

But even the FBI's uniform crime report has problems.

"What this particular crime is called in Illinois isn't necessarily the same thing in Louisiana, but everyone's trying to wedge their thing into the (FBI) definition," Seraphin said.

"Aggravated assault," as defined by the FBI, is an "attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury. ... This type of assault is usually accompanied by the use of a weapon or by other means likely to produce death or great bodily harm."

UI Police reported 23 aggravated assaults in 2013; 26 in 2012; and 14 in 2011, according to its annual security report. Of the 23 last year, 10 were on UI property, six were on property owned by organizations directly related to the university and seven were on public property.

Seraphin said crime data reporting is not an exact science. A lot of variables differ between departments, each agency's policies are different, and it can even depend on which officer is dispatched to a crime scene.

Seraphin offers the example of a residence where there's evidence that someone tried to force their way through a door or window: One officer might call that a criminal trespassing incident, while another might report it as attempted burglary.

"You do your best," he said.

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