Statistics Canada figures released Thursday suggest the crime rate in Canada fell again last year, dropping three per cent between 2011 and 2012. But experts are warning Canadians not to read too much into the numbers.
Governments and police like to take credit when crime statistics improve, but more often than not, such numbers point to broad long-term trends rather than the effect of specific policies, says Anthony Doob, a professor of criminology at the University of Toronto.
The rates of most kinds of police-reported crime have been dropping steadily since about 1991, long before the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper began introducing its "tough-on-crime" polices, such as increased mandatory minimum sentences and restrictions on credit for time served.
The overall crime rate has dropped 26 per cent since 2002, and violent crime is down 17 per cent in that period.
The latest year-to-year drop is "more of the same," says Doob, and is perfectly in line with the decrease in crime that Canada and other countries have been experiencing in the past two decades.
"The one thing that's clear is this is a long-term trend and has nothing to do with any of the so-called crime policies of the government," Doob said.
'Peaks and valleys' in crime stats
To truly assess the impact of specific measures would require a more nuanced breakdown of crime statistics than the latest report provides, Doob said. To evaluate whether the increase in mandatory minimum sentences for certain firearm offences that the government introduced in 2008 as part of its omnibus crime bill decreased the crime rate, one would need to know, for example, whether there has been a change in the number of robberies committed with a firearm.
"This level of things doesn't tell you that, because they don't break down robberies by firearms or not, and you'd [also] want to look at exactly when the changes occur," he said.
"Most of the more notable things that the government has done are kind of broad and across-the-board things like the [restricting of] credit for pre-sentence custody, and those things, you wouldn't expect to have any effect [on the crime rate]."
Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, agrees that the country's crime rate, while reflecting some of what police on the ground experience, doesn't capture the whole picture.
Homicide rates and the incidence of gun-related crimes in urban areas, for example, can be closely linked to shifts in gang activity or particular police operations, he said.
"There are peaks and valleys, and it really depends on what the organized crime groups are doing, who they're feuding with, what their activities are," he said.
"In B.C, where we've had some significant decreases in homicide rates (a 19 per cent drop in 2012), you can really correlate that to the gang activity and some pretty large-scale investigations."
Still, Stamatakis insists that changes in police methods and the investments made in policing (about $20.3 billion in 2011-12 on criminal justice in general, which includes jails, court costs and policing) deserve some of the credit for the falling crime rates .
"We do a much better job of targeting specific problem areas or problem crimes, and we definitely do a lot more analytical work, which then informs us as we target certain activities or certain people," Stamatakis said.
But he also admitted that the crime rate is affected by a lot more than public policies and policing tactics. Everything from the falling birth rate to the aging population to the greater time youth spend playing with electronics inside rather than running around outside potentially getting into trouble has played a role in driving down the crime rate, he said.
Technology has also played a part in reducing certain kinds of crime, says University of Ottawa criminologist Irvin Waller.
The Statistics Canada numbers show that property crime has dropped 33 per cent since 2002, motor vehicle theft is down 57 per cent and break-and-enter crimes were down 43 per cent since 2002, improvements that are largely the result of advances in anti-theft technologies, Waller said.
"It's basically quite hard for an amateur to steal a car today whereas Dodge Caravans in the 90s were very easy to steal," he said. "The same, up to a point, is true for break-ins, because people increasingly have alarms."
Rates depend on reporting
Looking at crime trends in terms of what's going on with specific types of offences is a lot more instructive than looking at the overall crime rate or the Statistics Canada's Crime Severity Index, which weights each type of offence based on the sentence it carries and has also been on the decline in recent years.
"The separation of property crime from violent crime from 'other' [offences] is extraordinarily important," Waller said. "The vast majority of violent crimes are assaults, and these are very much subject to decisions as to whether the victim calls the police and also whether the police record it, so you can get quite large changes in assault that have nothing to do with the reality changing."
The number of drug offences reported, which falls under the "other" category in the Statistics Canada numbers, can depend largely on whether police are choosing to more actively enforce cannabis laws, for example, rather than any actual rise in the number of offences being committed.
The role that the reporting of crime plays in crime statistics is a contentious issue. The government itself has cited the failure of police-reported crime statistics to capture the true extent of criminal activity when justifying its tougher crime legislation.
According to the 2009 General Social Survey, only 31 per cent of crime is reported, although this varies greatly depending on the type of crime. Sexual assaults, for example, are grossly underreported, with only 12 per cent of assaults reported to police while break-ins are the most likely household crime to be reported, with 54 per cent of incidents reported to police.
There are also regional variations. Quebec has a higher reporting rate than Ontario, Waller said, largely as a result of greater availability of government services for victims and greater compensation for victims of violent crime.
"There are a lot of serious crimes that go underreported," said Stamatakis. "We see a lot of reluctance from victims. Often, they're afraid of reprisal [or] they find the criminal justice system quite frustrating."
Stamatakis also takes issue with some aspects of Statistics Canada's methodology, such as the fact that when an incident involves multiple offences, only the most serious offence is counted as the reported crime. The agency says that this is so that crimes can be tracked more consistently over time, but Stamatakis says the overall effect is an underreporting of crime.
"The other area of crime that's completely underreported and that we're just not paying enough attention to is internet-based crime, technological crime," he adds.
This burgeoning area of criminal activity includes everything from child pornography to commercial crime to various uses of technology to defraud individuals of large amounts of money, Stamatakis said.
But other experts disagree and say underreporting is not significant enough to truly skew crime statistics.
Doob says underreporting is largely the result of people's failure to report the many minor crimes they encounter in their daily lives but that they feel don't warrant police attention or won't be pursued by police.
"Most of us within the last week — probably within the last couple of days — have been victims of crimes," he said. "The most common crime that occurs to anybody with a computer is some attempt at fraudulent behaviour.
"We all receive the Nigerian request emails ... but nobody I know has ever even thought about referring those to the police, but surely, they're all crimes."