By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher
Alabamians are faced with competing narratives regarding crime and punishment. On one hand, Alabama’s prison system is brutal, broken, and fails to rehabilitate. On the other hand, some believe crime is on the rise and long prison sentences are the only answer.
Because Appleseed believes that policy decisions must be based on evidence and data, that government must be transparent and accountable, we examined actual crime data from various Alabama cities in order to begin to separate truth from myth.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation earlier this month released its annual crime stats, but changes in how that data are reported, and the large number of law enforcement agencies that failed to report data, make it difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from the numbers.
Just 52 percent of law enforcement agencies reported their full data to the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System for 2021, which the bureau had used alongside the older Uniform Crime Reporting Program until changing fully over to the new system last year.
While the FBI has always used the data to make estimates about crime trends, the lack of complete data in this latest report makes those estimates much less useful this year, experts warn.
Even so, the FBI estimates that the overall violent crime volume for the nation decreased 1 percent from 2020 to 2021, while murders increased by 4.3 percent, but that’s within the margin of error, so according to the bureau’s estimation murders could be down by seven percent or up by as high as 17 percent.
Looking elsewhere, the crime data analysis firm AH Datalytics tracked homicides in 200 major U.S. and found a 5.2 percent decline in homicides from 2021 to 2022, year to date.
The robbery rate nationwide decreased 8.9 percent, according to the FBI’s estimate in the report, which “heavily contributed to the decrease in overall violent crime despite increases in murder and rape rates at the national level.” The national property crime rate decreased by 4.5 percent as well, according to those estimates.
Trying to glean anything about crime in Alabama by looking at the FBI’s report is difficult. Across the state’s 436 law enforcement agencies, only 44 percent reported a full year’s worth of crime data to the FBI for 2021, and 81 percent of agencies reported partial data to the FBI.
Even among some large agencies, reporting was scant. The Huntsville Police Department, the Montgomery Police Department and the Madison County Sheriff’s Office didn’t report data to the FBI last year, while the Birmingham Police Department reported 11 months worth of crime data, as did the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.
Because of such low reporting from Alabama, the FBI declined to make comparisons between the state’s 2020 and 2021 crime data. However, a look at longer term trends across multiple years tells an encouraging story. The state’s rate of violent crime offenses by population fell by 14.8 percent in 2020 from a spike in 2016, according to the FBI’s data.
Additionally, some law enforcement agencies statewide have published 2021 crime data and those numbers show a decline across many types of crimes.
In Anniston, violent crime – homicides, sexual assaults, robberies, and aggravated assaults – decreased by 12.10 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to the Anniston Police Department’s 2021 annual report.
Violent crime in the city reached an historic low in 2019, when 334 violent offenses were reported, the department noted in the report, citing the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer, which stores crime statistics back to 1985. There were 414 violent offenses reported in Anniston 2021, which was the second lowest number recorded since 1985.
Property crimes, which include burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft, remained relatively flat in Anniston between 2020 and 2021, increasing by 2 percent.
In Mobile, total crime in 2021 was down 6.6 percent from 2020, but the department’s annual report notes that violent crime increased by 18.7 percent. There were 51 homicides citywide last year, up by five from 2020.
Again, looking at longer term trends is encouraging. Mobile’s total crime between 2011 and 2021 declined by 35.7 percent, according to the department’s report.
The Tuscaloosa Police Department’s annual reports show that across the five crimes the department tracks and publishes data on – vehicle break-ins, burglaries, vehicle theft, robbery and homicides, those crimes in total declined by 32.4 percent between 2019 and 2021. Robberies alone fell by 46.5 percent and burglaries by 43 percent.
Birmingham has also experienced declines in crime. Total violent crimes, which also include rape, robbery and aggravated assaults, were down 19 percent. Property crimes were down by just less than one percent, according to the Birmingham Police Department’s statistics as of Oct. 13.
The anomaly is homicides. The often-sensational nature of homicides means they dominate local, breaking news coverage, creating fear and outrage. That onslaught of news reports generally lacks context or any meaningful explanation of contributing factors or trends.
By mid-October, there had been 113 homicides in the city this year, up 37 percent.
Speaking about the tragic rise in homicides this year, Birmingham Police Chief Scott Thurmond told AL.com, that even considering several cases of innocent victims caught in the crossfire, the reality of crime in the city is better than the perception.
“You don’t have a parent going to get gallon of milk or a pack of diapers at 9 p.m. getting murdered,’’ Thurmond told the news outlet. “You do have people, places and behaviors. If you engage with people doing illegal things in places where you shouldn’t be with people who are known for violence or other issues, the likelihood of something happening to you is very high.”
One of the most comprehensive resources to track Alabama crime trends can be found at crime.alabama.gov. This collaboration between the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) and the Culverhouse College of Business Institute of Data and Analytics, provides county-by-county as well as state-level data dating back to 2005. Tools such as these – not sensational headlines or political ads – are critical to making informed decisions about criminal justice policy.