Arizona eclipses U.S. in 10-year crime dip, analysis says
by Bob Ortega - Oct. 12, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
Despite recent increases in the rates of murder and rape, over the past 10 years, Arizona's reported crime rate has dropped by nearly a third, according to a new analysis of FBI crime data released Tuesday by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission.
The 32.4 percent decrease in reported crime easily outpaced the 18.9 percent nationwide drop over the same time period. The biggest single driver of Arizona's decline was a 60 percent drop in the rate of motor-vehicle thefts from 2000 to 2010.
Although the rates of most reported crimes fell more sharply than the national average over the decade, Arizona's rate for each of the seven types of crime in the FBI index remains above the national median.
The crimes tracked include four categories of violent crime (murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) and three property crimes (burglary, larceny theft and motor-vehicle theft).
The justice-commission report does not attribute the rise to any particular cause. But that jump in reported rapes doesn't necessarily mean there has actually been an increase in rapes, said Dean Kilpatrick, director of the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, in Charleston, S.C.
Because rape is so underreported - fewer than one in five victims contacts the police, he said - a successful program to encourage victims to step forward may increase the percentage of rapes that are reported, whether the actual number of rapes is rising, falling or flat.
"If you have good rape-crisis centers, if the police are seen as giving victims a fair shake, better counseling and advocacy, you may get an increase in reporting because victims feel they'll be treated well," he said.
The Phoenix Police Department can't say why the rate is up, said Sgt. Trent Crump, a spokesman. But, he said, in recent years, the department has worked hard to improve cooperation among police, prosecutors, rape counselors and victims advocates.
"We have a forensic-nursing program now to make the examinations less stressful for victims, and we're doing everything we can do to create an environment in which victims feel comfortable coming forward," he said.
Myra Ferell-Womochil, director of community-based services for the Northland Family Help Center in Flagstaff, said the Flagstaff police also have worked hard to educate officers on how to handle sexual-assault cases.
She said education programs run across the state by Arizona's Department of Health Services that teach about consent, healthy relationships and rape prevention may be helping. And, because alcohol use is often a factor, her center has worked with bar owners to educate staff on making bars safer.
The sex-assault statutes in Arizona and most other states don't track precisely with the FBI's definition of rape as "the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will," said Phil Stevenson, the director of the commission's Statistical Analysis Center.
The FBI includes attempted rape using force or the threat of force but doesn't include sex assaults on males, statutory rape or other sex offenses. The FBI is reviewing its definition of rape and will consider changes to it this fall, according to the bureau's Criminal Justice Information Service.
Crump said that in up to 75 percent of the sexual-assault cases in Phoenix, the victim and assailant know each other. "We don't want people to automatically assume these are stranger attacks," he said. "We don't currently have a serial rapist hitting an area."
Arizona's murder rate over the 10 years fell 12.7 percent. But from 2009 to 2010, the rate increased 18.5 percent. At 6.4 murders per 100,000 people last year, Arizona's rate remained one-third higher than the national rate of 4.8 per 100,000.
Crump noted that the 2009 murder rate of five per 100,000 residents was the lowest in more than 20 years. Even the 2010 rate is lower than any year from 2000 to 2007.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said that, in his jurisdiction, murders and rapes are both down so far this year compared with this point last year, with eight murders in 2011 compared with 26 up to this point in 2010.
"We had a lot of our murders in the desert. One reason in our area we're not getting so many murders is the drop in illegal immigration," he said.
The rates of aggravated assaults and robberies both fell by roughly a quarter over the decade, giving Arizona an overall drop in the rate of violent crime of more than 23 percent.
From 2009 to 2010, the rate of aggravated assaults rose 4.5 percent. Property crimes fell more sharply - 33.3 percent - led by a 30.2 percent drop in larceny theft, which includes shoplifting, pickpocketing and the theft of bicycles, and the dramatic plunge in motor-vehicle theft.
The drop in vehicle crime can be credited to a decade-old change in how the state tackled that crime, said Brian Salata, executive director of the Arizona Automobile Theft Authority. Previously, few thieves were aggressively prosecuted.
"All we were doing was knocking off low-level players and not really solving the problem," Salata said.
In 2002, Arizona's vehicle-theft rate was nearly 2 1/2 times the national average. Counties agreed to assign specially trained prosecutors to deal with vehicle-theft cases, and they began pushing harder for thieves to roll over against others in their organizations to get plea bargains, Salata said.
That made it easier to cripple theft rings and criminal cartels, he said. By requiring anyone reporting a vehicle theft to sign a sworn affidavit, cities and counties slashed cases of insurance fraud. Improvements in vehicle security also helped.
While Arizona's vehicle-theft rate was still 40.9 percent higher than the national median last year, Salata said the rate is continuing to drop this year.