The Blog with the Search Engine for Statistics

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Buffalo's Bash the Grass Cuts Grass and Leads to Quicksand

Statistics are often muddled by city officials hoping to promote their faltering city - or themselves. (Take a look at this New York Times article on Rudolph Guiliani, Hillary and Obama for starters.) Journalists and corporate interest groups get in on the act, and before you know it, the muddled statistics are worshipped with biblical reverence. Buffalo's recent publicising on their "Quality of Life" efforts - increasing tickets on overgrown lawns, indoor furniture on outdoor porches, and unregistered vehicles in a yard - is a prime example. (Junk car removal services surely have financial interest!)

The article starts out with:

Crime in the neighborhood “took a nose dive,” said Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson. Assaults, robberies, burglaries and rapes dropped by double-digit percentages last month compared with a year earlier. Motor vehicle thefts dropped 39 percent. Even larceny dropped slightly.

Mentioning only briefly
"While a special robbery detail likely contributed to the drop in crime, city officials give much of the credit to the quality-of-life squad,"
before going on and on about the benefits of ticketing people for overgrown grass. (Buffalo limits grass growth to ten inches). The "special robbery detail" isn't expounded on at all. But - giving Buffalo the benefit of the doubt (not really) - it is possible they didn't have all the statistics since apparently the mayor had to ORDER the police to give crime access data to the media.

Since I live in a safe rural area, amongst fields and unregistered cars and haven't locked my door in five years and people park in "town" with their keys in their car - I found this methodology absurd. (Long grass raising crime?) Since I am disabled and raised my kids as a single parent working full time most of their lives - I found it even more absurd. (Hmmm leave the kids alone in the house, feed the baby, or cut the lawn? Buy diapers, pay the babysitter to work, pay bills, take the kids out for ice-cream, or pay someone to cut the lawn? Ice-cream wins every time.) Looking out the window and realizing we haven't gone even a week without rain turned the absurdity turned to infuriation.

"Don't sweat the small stuff" is a mantra I've lived by long before the book came out. In fact, when I read it I thought "I already know all this." (Raising six kids you learn REAL quick not to sweat the small stuff! And sorry about the overused cliche but it's repeatedly used in the Buffalo News related articles.) I've also learned "nip it in the bud" is an equally important cliche. Are my kids going to stay away from crime if my lawn is cut? Will the kids in school stop offering them drugs if my lawn is cut?

I've seen more than a few coke-induced and alcoholic mothers with impeccable homes and yards over the years. (Outside appearances are important to police - and many of them know that.) Health, education, economy and loving relationships impact crime a hundred fold over long grass. If you want to start small - start with health, education and economy - then move to drugs. Violent crimes and murders would likely be reduced from there. Invest in free health care. Invest in education. Invest in small businesses and lower taxes. Don't add stress to struggling residents. Everybody's working for gas to get to work now. Who can afford a ticket?

Is $60 and $150 fines for grass growing more than ten inches the key to stopping crime? Crime across the nation has decreased steadily - even without intense "bash the grass" police parties. (Decrease in crime humorously correlated with an increase of wine consumption on

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics property crime rates have nationally been on a steady decrease since 1993. "Property Crime" can have many definitions. But if we look at the FBI data from 2007 we see that property crime in Buffalo increased. Property crime in these sets include burglary, larceny, motor-vehicle theft and arson - exactly the crimes that the Bash the Grass (my name) Quality of Life program is meant to deter. Statistical relationships? In 2007, the same year, they bragged about "record number of tickets for Quality of Life being issued."

"Causation" and "Statistical Correlation" are two different things. brings up an interesting point when considering handgun ownership to violent crimes. Statistical correlations don't take into consideration WHY a person buys a gun. A comparison of gun ownership in a rural area to crime would vary significantly from the same comparison to urban areas. Has anyone compared those who purchased a gun for hunting purposes against those who purchase guns for protection and the correlation to violent crime? (Personally, I have the Bambi syndrome and don't like guns - but they are a significant part of our constitutional rights - and you never know when you may need to exercise that right. God forbid WWIII is in the works.)

If Buffalo thinks cut lawns are going to increase newcomers to Buffalo - they have another thing coming. I would bet that people look at crime rates and educational standards before taking a ruler to the grass in the neighborhood. Buffalo wouldn't get past the crime and educational evaluations.

Looking for Outliers had a great post on Journalism and Auditors and makes a valid point that an audit can "increase public confidence." Having run my own business and being the sort of owner that keeping receipts in a shoebox would be a step up - auditors make me nervous. But "AuditorPOV" make an auditor seem - well - almost human.

Most people are smart enough not to believe everything they read. Fact-checking is a time consuming process. Journalists and auditors frequently serve the public to protect us from political and corporate influences. Unfortunately, many journalists and auditors also have political and corporate motives to manipulate information and statistics. (Hmmm, maybe I should add bloggers to that list...)

While searching for statistics, I found (surprisingly) that short search terms fared better than "long tail" search terms for statistics.

Having vented enough - and spending too much time looking at statistics I have no use for - I'll leave some links for crime statistics:

FBI Uniform Crime Reports for Nation, State and Region

Bureau of Justice Statistics State and Local and lots of other links!

US Census Bureau 2008 Abstract

Lots of Law and Crime Links including statutes, statistics and journals.

Listing of Encyclopedias and Links on Crime

Buffalo Fights Crime Report 2008

Mayors' Action Forum on Crime
• Buffalo, NY: Gangs are in almost every neighborhood. This has led to more violence in
schools. Youth are committing more street crimes, such as robberies and shootings.

White House Social Statistics Briefing Room

I'm not doing this list "justice" (no pun intended until after I wrote that) - but I'll keep adding to the list in the future. If you need more stats - try the search engine in this blog - it's set up to search only websites with statistics. (The database increases regularly so if you can't find the information you need now - it may be there at another date.)

Guess I'll go watch the grass grow now...

Book to for Serious Sleuths:
The Technology of Policing: Crime Mapping, Information Technology, and the Rationality of Crime Control

Or try these:

Crime in the City: A Political and Economic Analysis of Urban Crime Neighborhood Structure, Crime, and Fear of Crime Crime Analysis and Crime Mapping


Anonymous August 21, 2008 at 8:12 PM  

Random thought - is someone more likely to rob a home with an overgrown lawn or a well-kept lawn? If the robbery is a motivation for money - wouldn't a well-kept lawn be an artificial indicator of a wealthier home and therefore increase the chances of being robbed if in the neighborhood of constrasting lawns?

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Mom of six kids (30, 27, 25, 22, 21, 13) in a far-from-average-statistics family. Freelance SEO Content Writer on the side. If I can help you in any way, shoot me a virtual letter at writerightforyou at gmail dot com.

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